I was asked how to express characterization in writing. This is a great opportunity to show you exactly how LIFEWRITING works.
The idea is that the tools we use within a story can also be used in the PROCESS of writing a story, and in the process of living your life. Read closely here: if you understand what I’m saying, you will change your entire life in a moment.
The “Aubry Knight” novels STREETLETHAL, GORGON CHILD and FIREDANCE all dealt with a supremely skilled martial artist who lived in a state of mental confusion, unable to effectively access his intellect and control his self-loathing.
As I began working on the first novel, STREETLETHAL, (my first solo novel!) I inevitably reached a point where it felt that nothing was working. All my enthusiasm disappeared, and I was left with the realization that I was 80 thousand words into a novel, and that it felt like a total lie. I didn’t know these characters. I didn’t believe this situation. And I’d written myself into a corner.
And then suddenly, just as I was considering chucking the whole thing into the wall, I realized that that was EXACTLY how my lead character, Aubry, felt. Strange. And then asked myself the next question: was I like Aubry?
Well, he was an ultimate martial arts badass…certainly not me. But what if I looked at that as a mirror image? Well, I’m not an ultimate intellectual badass…but that is certainly my idealized self-image. Something clicked. What if this novel was some funhouse version of my own life, seen in a looking glass, my own problems with martial arts (limited by emotional wounds) reflected in Aubry’s lack of appreciation of and access to his mental skills?
I sat back and asked myself: if I was such a Bizarro world version of myself, what would I be like, in a universe that was “two and a half dimensional”–where complex personal interactions and social issues could be resolved by physical force? What had I done to my own life.
I started looking into the scrambled wiring in my head. The compulsions and behaviors, the petty cruelties and lies I told myself, my inabilities to commit, the fears that manifested as anger, or a pretense in disinterest in a path that would have forced me to confront my own weakness.
And the deeper down the rabbit hole I went, the clearer Aubry became. All I did was read through the entire book and look at every exchange, every action, every thought…until I found one, just ONE that matched what I had experienced in my life. With Aubry, it was a sense of savage satisfaction in hurting someone physically. With me, it was a similar sense of having humiliated someone in a debate.
Both connected with the same sick place in the human heart, the need to bolster a weak self image by tearing down another human being.
How did that feel? Had I described it properly? What had I thought? How had this influenced my future actions? I knew the answers to all these questions, and in being honest about these things, I knew what Aubry had to do.
All I did then was follow that single thread of truth. Backwards and forwards. What had to happen BEFORE that point for that action to be real, and inevitable? Followed those threads through the entire book, seeking to connect everything to that sense of “This is true” I had had during my epiphany.
And then…ANOTHER moment popped out. This one even realer, more honest, than the previous one. And I did the same with that moment, following the thread of feeling. And then…another. And…another.
It was amazing. It was like adding a pinch of yeast to bread dough. Given warmth and moisture and food, yeast grows. Given a commitment to genuine self-inquiry, truth grows.
This process, of seeking the truth in your characters, has ZERO to do with talent. “You can run out of clever, but you can never run out of the truth.” It doesn’t over-expose you: You don’t even have to be the lead character.
Peter O’Donnell, the creator of one of the world’s longest-running adventure comic strips MODESTY BLAISE had been tasked with creating “a female James Bond” in the 1960s. The usual approach would have been to patch together a bunch of external characteristics that would lead to a bunch of great action scenes. Peter told me his approach was the opposite. Instead, he wondered “what kind of childhood would create a woman who needed the skills to be able to do these things?” With a man, all you had to do was say: “He was an ex-Royal Marine.” But in the 1960’s? A woman? Really?
Then he remembered when he was an army journalist post WW2, traveling a refugee trail in Greece (I believe). He and some other journalists were eating dinner, and a little dark-haired girl sat just at the edge of their campfire, watching them. He realized she was hungry, but she wouldn’t come closer. Finally, he opened a tin of beef, took it half-way to her, and then went back to her seat. She watched and waited, crept forward, took the beef and wolfed it town.
Then…she washed the tin and brought it back to them, nodded with a brief smile, and disappeared. He had always wondered what happened to that child, apparently alone in a cold and cruel world…but still possessing a spark of humor, and sharp intelligence. A survivor.
And suddenly, he knew he’d found his Modesty Blaise. She was a refugee, alone, who had learned to survive by herself, who learned hard lessons and savage skills, became a criminal with a conscience, controlled a gang of hard men by being harder than any of them…but fair. Always alone, but then finally meeting another loner, a man with even greater survival skills named Willie Garvin, who she freed from jail and became her right-hand man and eventually her platonic soul-mate. Who, together, amassed a fortune and retired from crime but retained a taste for danger which would be exploited by the British secret service…
Yes. THAT’S how you do it. Go from the inside. Do this, and you will know their hopes and dreams and values and beliefs. You will FEEL when you get it right, and by working from the outside (“what kind of character do I need here?”) to the inside (“who would they have to be to do these things?’) to the personal (“what have I been, what have I seen that could be a seed for this?”) you are connecting the inner and outer worlds of the novel, the artist, in a way that can transform your work…and your life.
Write a sentence a day.
Write 1-4 stories a month
Finish and polish, seeking TRUTH, not “cleverness”
Submit, and keep submitting until they sell.
Once finished, don’t rewrite except to editorial request.
Read 10X what you write
Repeat for 100 stories.
That’s the path. And it will take you all the way home.