This post looks at the creative process of writing, whether a blog, article, book or script. In particular, it examines how characters can be made realistic. When you ‘know’ the type of personality of a character from real life, the better you will be able to describe their actions and give them dialogue.
To understand the processes, you need to try and understand the different ways that the mind works, both for the writer and the reader (and your character’s mind for that matter).
Some processes can be learned, but a lot depends on natural abilities or more specifically your individual collections of life experiences, that drives how your individual mind works. For new and younger writers, I hope this post helps you come to a better understanding of how your creative mind works and how you can foster your inherent traits, and to develop those traits into skills.
In the modern world of computers, it is all too common to think of the human brain as being ‘just’ a biological computer. Logical deductive thinking is preeminent and intuitive, inductive discussion is put down.
But the human brain in fact works by association. The computer world is just coming to terms with this in Artificial Intelligence, facial recognition and the technology behind self-driving cars, and of course targeted advertising and selective presentation of ‘news’ in Facebook et al.
Now associations have to be learned. As various combinations of triggers are seen/heard/experienced repetitively, they become embedded in our memory. The more often the same combination of triggers is encountered, the stronger the remembered association.
Associative Memory Triggers
The wonderful thing about associative memory, is retrieval of a memory – just a partial trigger might retrieve memories of a number of events related to that one small trigger. But the number one advantage is to enable the mind to filter out the millions of stimuli that bombard the brain every second, to recognise familiar things in the morass. This is how we can hear and understand a friend talking to us in a noisy environment, or to see a friend coming toward us in a crowd. A loved one calls you on the phone and simply says “Hi! It’s me” and you immediately know who it is and all the memories of events, and emotions associated with that person are immediately at your brain’s ‘finger tips’.
These types of associative memories are primarily visual and aural. Memories of scent are more typically associated with emotions. A perfume might remind us of a particular woman and your interactions. Coming home to a particular cooking smell can trigger memories of warm family relationships, as well as triggering senses of taste and salivary response.
As a result of the associated triggers remembered by different people, people remember the same event differently. My wife remembers events with the color of clothes someone was wearing, whereas I have no recollection at all of what that person was wearing. I can remember movie story lines almost photographically, but the title less so and the names of the actors rarely.
Because of the way associated memories are retrieved, our minds are easily tricked, which is the basis of optical illusions, and different people can or can’t ‘see’ an illusion.
This is where logical/computational thinking comes to play. If a remembered situation is found to have a sound logical basis, then the associative memory gets a strong trust factor which adds weight to the memory. The classic situation is the multiplication tables that we learned by rote. Once we know the computational basis of multiplication, we have total trust in using multiplication results from memory without actually calculating the result every time.
Creative people are much more aware of their surroundings. They notice things, they are observers of life. I highly recommend spending time ‘people watching’, perhaps at a railway station, on a train or bus or even at a sporting match. Take notice of people’s appearance, their facial expressions, their stance, their movement, their demeanor, what and how they speak. Speculate on what they might be feeling internally.
Use the same observational skills with all the people around you, family, friends. In conversation, be ‘present’ in your conversations. This is the key part of ‘Mindfulness.’
All these ‘observations’ build up your memory banks that you draw on when you come to creating a character in your writing.
Many creative people use journalling to record all sorts of ideas and experiences that cross their life’s path. For writers, these might be new, unusual and uncommon words or phrases. One popular blogger is a Scrabble aficionado and has built up an enormous memory bank of obscure words. Note references to interesting books, films, articles, blogs etc. Musicians will record new musical phrases. Record descriptions of interesting personal interactions or things you’ve seen someone else do.
Poets and musicians will record interesting word combinations, phrases, rhymes, synonyms, antonyms, etc. Sometimes a recorded photograph might be sufficient to invoke a long lost memory.
In Edward de Bono’s “Six Thinking Hats“, he uses the images of different coloured hats to illustrate the various roles in thinking, analysis, planning and decision making, within groups, organizations and individually. It is also a useful prompt for switching ‘hats’ between characters.
These all apply to the creative writing, editing, production and promotion processes. But there is one role that De Bono missed – that is the recorder, scribe or note-taker, for background journalling, preparatory outlining and deferred ideas mid-stream.
Sensory Journalling – ‘Hearing’ and ‘Seeing’ With Your ‘Mind’s Eye’
There are a range of types of interaction and degree. These can range from those related to psychologically diagnosed ‘mental illness’ like multiple personality disorder. But creative people can also ‘see’ with their ‘minds eye’, and ‘hear’ situations. ‘Normal’ people might have such experiences just occasionally, or never.
The Musical Mind
There are many people like myself, that have music and songs going through the head all day long, often repeating a song we heard early in the morning. Sometimes such a person might have ‘perfect pitch’ and on hearing a chord can name the notes of the chord. People with advanced ability often sing in harmony without music or thinking about it. Such people have an innate ability for musical arrangement.
With this condition, people can have stimuli of one sense that triggers a response as if another sense. Some people see numbers as colors, or ‘hear’ colors. Seeing particular patterns might induce a taste sensations. There are quite a wide range of variations and degrees of experience.
I’ve had one situation personally, where whilst walking through a modern architectural building with extreme textural embellishments, the particular flooring pattern induced a metallic taste, which felt a bit weird.
‘Hearing’ a Talking Style – Being ‘In Character’
By this, I don’t mean literally hearing a voice speaking to you, like in schizophrenia. Rather when you have a particular type of character in mind for your writing, from your vast memory bank of listening to people, you ‘know’ how someone of that type will talk. The skill as a creative writer, is to be able to hold the knowledge of the type of each character of your story, in your head at the same time, and to be able to switch back and forth between them to write realistic dialogue, like switching ‘hats’.
Some writers describe it as ‘being a character’. By ‘being’ each character in turn they hold a conversation with each other in their head.
If writing biographically about a person you know, or ghost writing for them, this is the ability to make your writing read just as if the target person them-self was speaking. As an exercise, try ghost writing as if you are your partner and ‘listen’ for ‘their’ words or phrases in your writing.
Writing can be more interesting if you use characters of different generations, eg. a parent talking to a teen, or a baby-boomer talking with a generation-x person.
In acting, this is the core of ‘method acting‘ where an actor seeks to identify with, understand and experience a character’s inner motivation and emotions. Some actors describe ‘putting on’ their character as they put on their costume and make-up at the start of a day. Then they ‘become’ their character for the rest of the day, not just whilst in front of the camera.
When a reader asks if you based a particular character on them (even though you didn’t), you know you have managed to make your characters life-like. In my meditational writing, I’ve had people come to me and say “How did you know I needed to hear that?” Well I didn’t, but by understanding the common ills and thrills of all human life and portraying them realistically, you connect with your readers.
Characters’ Experiences, Emotions, Memories and Actions
Your characters should have associative memories just like you. Their actions won’t necessarily be logical but intuitive. Use a trigger to illicit an unexpected response, perhaps with an aside explaining the remembered association.
What we say doesn’t just speak about the practical things of a situation, but also portrays underlying emotions. Your written characters must be the same. What emotions does a character have at that point of your story and how can you colour their dialogue to include that emotion? De Bono uses the ‘red hat‘ for the role of putting ‘heart’ and feelings into your work.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
In writing, often it is the dialogue that differentiates characters most. But don’t forget that a character’s personality also drives the way they act and react. Does your experience/memory of that sort of character align with the story line? It’s often better to let the characters’ personalities drive the story line.
Have a character’s ‘normal’ activity intersect with your planned story direction and ask yourself, “How would this character react in this situation?”. This style of writing introduces unexpected, though realistic twists, to your story line.
These are best seen in good movies and to a lesser extent in stage plays. But the same effect can be achieved in your written work.
Have a look at the classic movie “An affair to remember“. The lead characters meet on a trans-Atlantic cruise, one a well known international playboy Nickie, played by Cary Grant, falls in love with singer Terrie, played by Deborah Kerr. But they both have fiances waiting for them in New York. The scene when they arrive in New York is perfect non-verbal. They are standing at either end of the railing with other passengers between them. Looking down, they see their fiances waiting on the dock and wave to them. They glance to each other with quizzical looks, nodding toward the dock. They give a little nod of acknowledgement to each other. The other passengers who have witnessed the love affair develop, understand the situation, first look left to him, then right to her, grinning at the impending situations.
Literary Styles for Realism
One of the key tasks of editing is to ensure the use of tense and voice is consistent throughout the whole composition.
But tense and voice should be chosen to match the style and purpose of a piece of writing. Documentary writing will be past tense passive voice. For intimate emotional writing, present tense active voice brings the writing to life, drawing the reader in to feel present in the written situation. This should make a character’s realistic dialogue ‘pop’ and the reader might feel that they in the room with the character and can ‘hear’ what they are saying.
I know for myself, having come from a technical writing profession, it is all too easy to mix styles. This is where I have to be scrupulously careful in my editing, putting on my ‘black hat‘, to ensure consistency.
Situational irony is sometimes used where the characters are unaware of the ironic situation, often for comedic effect.
But I want to focus on verbal irony, where a character, perhaps expressing their anger, uses verbal irony to make a point to their protagonist.
Again referring to “An affair to remember“, in the final scene, Nickie attacks Terry for not meeting him at the Empire State Building where he planned to propose to her. His dialogue drips with irony, speaking as if he was the one that didn’t keep the appointment and she was left waiting, waiting, waiting. Whereas in fact she couldn’t make the appointment due to an accident that crippled her.
The Unspoken Word
There are times when a character’s dialogue can be cut short, leaving off, implying a key word. Again, referring to “An affair to remember”, crippled Terry is using a wheelchair, by implication only. We only see the chair once when an attendant at the theatre brings it out. We never actually see Terry in the chair, and the word ‘wheelchair’ is never uttered once through the movie.
Then in the last scene when Nickie is telling Terry how his painting of her was sold to a women in a ……….; seeing Terry lying on the couch under a rug, the reality of her situation suddenly hits him. Never has an unspoken word brought a more emotional ending to a movie.
Learn From the Masters
A very interesting book I stumbled across in a bookshop sale, was “Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks“. Feed your mind with the best. On my bookshelf, I have Shakespeare, Dickens, Bronte, Twain, Churchill et al. Good poetry better illustrates word selection, rhythm, colour and passion. The best classic movies illustrate good story structure and dialogue, and the director integrates the story, the background, the scenes, the action and the dialogue into a cohesive whole.
That’s A Wrap
Well I think that’s enough for now. There are plenty of on-line resources to learn about creative writing, as well as formal study courses.
I just hope in this post I have stimulated your thinking about better ways of building characters in your writing.
In some ways, creative writing is a solo effort, but the best writing comes from your wealth of experiences of life. Also writing communities like BLOGABLE and collaborative projects help with stimulation from other creative people where you can bounce ideas off each other. Some recent related posts appeared on BLOGABLE:-
So write, write, write – practice, practice, practice. Stretch your thinking. Never be afraid of failing. The most successful people are just people that have not been afraid to make more mistakes/failures. I’ve been blogging for over 10 years and I’ve only just recently had a number of very nice compliments that elicited another comment “I think Thomas has a fan club!” – wow, thank you ‘fans’. ‘Overnight successes’ are many years in the making.