There was an interview with the actor Gillian Anderson in the Sunday papers yesterday that touched on how, as she put it, “…it’s very helpful for an actor, at least in my experience, to slightly fall in love with the character you’re playing, regardless of what your opinion might be of them…” As if to illustrate the latter part of her point, she has even become somewhat enthralled with her latest portrayal, of the former and formidable British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (whom she’s playing in TV series The Crown).
I recall a writing teacher telling our group how commonplace, even helpful, it can be to fall a little in love with the characters about whom one is writing — at least, that is, with your main characters. This is a sentiment shared by many. Editor Alan Rinzler, for instance, notes that “a story is always more successful when the writer inhabits and holds these alter egos close to the heart.” And much advice on creative writing echoes his guidance. The characters in question may be, indeed probably are, flawed, perhaps highly so. But just as in real life, we hold them dear in spite of their faults. Also as in real life, as a writer you want others to love, or at least be able to relate to, your beloveds, to root for them throughout the text. And it is this feeling of love you have for your characters, combined with objectivity about their shortcomings and misdeeds, that helps to give them depth, helps make them live on the page.
In order to have fallen in love with them, we need to have explored a character’s history, what shaped them; must have tried to understand them, their personalities, quirks, motives. It’s as if we went home with them one night, opened a bottle of wine at the kitchen table and sat talking into the small hours about their background, disappointments and victories, confessions of mistakes and vulnerabilities, expressions of their hopes and fears. This will probably be platonic love, though it may be spiced with lust in some cases. The process may have an obvious relevance to romantic fiction, but I think it’s applicable across multiple genres.
As I myself write stories that are largely character-driven, creating and developing those fictional beings is one of my favourite elements of the creating process. And given that my writing is never going to fly off the shelf and make me rich, it becomes super essential that the process is enjoyable, and I ‘spend time with’ people I appreciate.
Not everyone agrees with this approach. Mega-selling thriller writer Lee Child, for one, has counselled: “Don’t fall in love with your characters” [because] “At that point writers start to get defensive and feel a bit inhibited about putting in the bad stuff and negative characteristics.” The idea is, it seems, that a writer needs to ensure distance from their characters in order to be objective about them. Also, that it may make it hard for them to put their characters in jeopardy, not wishing them to come to harm.
Obviously, we can hardly deny that multi-millionaire and prolific author Mr. Child has a winning formula for his work — and the approach may operate differently in action-driven fiction than it does in character-driven. And yet. Whilst I see the point, and the risks, I (humbly) am not sure if I can agree with him. As noted above, we can love people — including fictional characters — warts and all. And falling for a ‘bad boy’ (or girl), is hardly unusual, is it? As for placing them in jeopardy, once we have made a character ‘real’, then real-life events tend to strike them.
Think about it from the reader perspective. On the other end of the process, enamourment with fictional characters is, as we know, a common phenomenon for readers. Personally, I often ‘fall in love with’ a character in fiction, sometimes with the relationship of a particular pairing, or even with a family, their inter-relationships and mileu. This often occurs with the books that you ‘do not want to end’, those that sometimes leave a wistful ghost behind after you have turned the last page. For a while. It’s like having a hopeless crush. Again, these characters may be flawed — think of charming but ruthlessly social-climbing Becky Sharp; the dazzling but often selfish Anna Karenina; honourable but sometimes arrogant Mr Darcy, and… Oh, thousands of others.
It’s not so much that we overlook or forgive their flaws, but more that these failings help us to identify with them. They remind us that being a complex set of psychological and behavioural characteristics is the norm. Just like ourselves. As 19th-century Scottish poet Alexander Smith put it: “Love is but the discovery of ourselves in others, and the delight in the recognition.”
It doesn’t matter what genre an author writes in, nor whether their work has particular critical acclaim, being able to write characters that can impact on the reader in this way — well, it is a remarkable accomplishment.
– Rebecca Nicholson ‘I fall in love with my characters’, interview with Gillian Anderson in The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/sep/08/gillian-anderson-i-fall-in-love-with-my-characters. 08 September 2019, retrieved 09 September 2019.
– Alan Rinzler, ‘Falling in love with your characters’ on The Book Deal – blog for writers https://alanrinzler.com/2009/03/falling-in-love-with-your-characters/. 01 March 2019, retrieved 09 September 2019.
– ‘21 Shades of Noir: Lee Child on John D. MacDonald’ BBC Programmes, articles https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/5vZMHB0bJ2hN9h2FDbc8hKg/six-writing-tips-from-lee-child retreived 09 September 2019.
Images: Josh Felise from Unsplash; Un-Perfekt from Pexels