Writing Notes: Separation of Author & Character

Last week in a sort of “side note” to my notes, I mentioned this:

It doesn’t work, by the way. Yelling at my characters, I mean. Some authors appear to have “fourth wall” privileges wherein they can converse with their characters – I don’t. The minute I start trying to do that, having to listen to them (ie, write them) in the first person, I cease hearing *their* personality, and my own starts to creep in. I need distance in order to keep myself separate from them, to keep my head out of theirs.

Davin suggested I expand on this a bit…so thanks for this week’s topic, Davin.

Most people know I prefer not to read first person (though when done well, I can tolerate it, or even enjoy it, depending). But all over the ‘net I see authors doing interviews with their characters, guest posting as characters…and I have to be honest – I can’t do that. I can’t write my characters in first person, and still maintain the separation I need in order to write their personality completely separate from my own. My brain just doesn’t work that way.

I’m slowly figuring this out, but I have a theory that when I’m writing, and when I talk about “getting into my character’s head”, it’s more from the point of view of a psychologist or sociologist (neither of which I actually am). I study them, their mannerisms, how they react to different situations, their speech patterns, their expressions, how they dress, everything. I learn who they are as a person through all of this, and often find myself feeling what they feel as I watch them move through scenes.

There are two things I simply cannot do though. I can’t put words in their mouths – I have to let them speak naturally and automatically. And I can’t actually “become” them – I can’t let go of my own sense of “self” enough to actually pretend to be in their heads, thinking their thoughts, and speaking for them (see last sentence).

I am very self-aware, as most people with my personality type (INTJ) are. My characters tend to be very different from me, embracing ideas and philosophies I don’t necessarily embrace personally, using language and speech patterns I’d never use, and making decisions I’d never make. I am not them, and therefore cannot “pretend” to be them with any degree of accuracy.

Now you’re scratching your head, thinking, “But you actually are your characters – they’re coming out of your mind!” (or “you’re going out of your mind…” which may well be true). And you’re right, of course, but when I create a character, I create a blank and then sit back and let my subconscious drive. That’s where all the important stuff comes from, and it plays automatically like a movie in my head. Once the characters start “acting”, I have no real control over them, as strange as that sounds. My subconscious does all the work, and if I try to interfere, it just shuts down, simple as that.

That’s what being “blocked” means for me – normally, it’s because I’m not comfortable with where the characters are headed for whatever reason, and I’m fighting it, wanting them to do something else. It’s very, very rare that I win that battle, though we sometimes can strike a compromise. I’ve set stories aside that pushed my boundaries too much, because I wasn’t willing to follow the character where they needed to go. More often than not, I have to resolve myself to the fact that my subconscious is a much better writer than my conscious mind, and just let it do what it wants.

Do I sound fragmented? I am, I guess…but in a very conscious manner, if that makes any sense. I often wonder though, how other writers can write in first person. How they can let go of “self” long enough to become someone completely different…or if that’s even possible, in the long term. Personally, I can’t remove my own filters long enough to keep a first person account true to the nature of that particular character – I have to stand back, and observe/record as an outsider in order to capture a more objective picture of my characters.

I realize we can’t ever be completely objective…and my characters do end up with some of my filters, even from a distance. But it would be far, far worse if I were actually in the driver’s seat – been there, tried that.

So tell me, those of you who write in first person – how do you do it? How do you stifle your sense of “self” long enough to actually “become” your character?

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5 comments on “Writing Notes: Separation of Author & Character

  1. Ardee-ann Eichelmann

    BTW, I am an INFP. It is probably the feeling and perceiving part of my personality that lets me write in the first person while allowing that person to be themselves. I started making up stories when I was very young to help myself go to sleep. My characters were all first person, sometimes I injected myself in the role but more often I was watching through the characters eyes. That happens a lot to me as I have very lucid dreams. I see the action through the eyes of another but it is in the first person not the third person. I have tried to write in third person and it makes me feel psychotic or something.

    Sometimes my voice does come through in my characters but it is intentional. I have a very multi-faceted personality so there are times my voice can be used and only those closest to me will know it and other times everyone knows it. LOL!

    My characters for the most part have their own voice and they can be cantankerous to say the least. They have their own ideas about who they are and where they are going. I say, more power to them.

    HTH or something,


  2. BigWords

    Having written in first a few times, I have to say that (for me, anyway) it needs to be a “done in one” otherwise I lose the character’s voice. Keeping in the headspace of a single character while the story unfolds is difficult, but there are tricks to pulling mannerisms and vocabulary together – listening to a distinctive actor’s voice helps, for instance.

    I’ve read a few 1st person novels lately, and it strikes me as an extraordinary achievement.

  3. Jamie D.

    Fascinating, Ardee-ann. Interestingly, I’ve been a “daydreamer” all my life, with my dreams being very real, and naturally I’m in them, but I’m “watching myself” in them, rather than living it, if that makes sense. So even in my own dreams I’m seeing it from the point of view of a third-person observer, never first person.

    Isn’t it just amazing how the mind works so differently from person to person?

  4. Jamie D.

    I totally agree. Though I’m not often able to actually “get into” a first-person narrative as a reader, I still find it an incredible thing for an author to be able to actually become the character like that. I certainly respect those who can pull it off (and even more so when I read one that the POV disappears in…takes a lot of skill to do that, I think).

    Interesting about the “done in one” method – that does sound as if it would be easier, though it would take a lot of planning beforehand, I’d think….

  5. Ardee-ann Eichelmann

    It is interesting how we are all “hard-wired” in different ways. I have occasionally dreamt in 3rd person but it has been a disconcerting experience. I love hearing how different people think and feel. It broadens the human experience. IMHO, of course.