When your fictional characters are like animatronics that you designed yourself.

Sometimes when I’m in a creative drought, I’ll walk around the mall “weirdo hunting” which is doing exactly what that sounds like. You find someone who looks weird and you follow them around. Bonus points if you’re bold enough to tail them to another store. If I don’t locate a weirdo, then I know that the weirdo of the day is me and the game ends.

This way you can observe how someone strolls, their posture, their expressions, how they hold a product in their hands and examine it, how they treat the cashiers. Some people like to eavesdrop on conversations—and don’t get me wrong, I love eavesdropping on strangers because I have no friends and it’s the only way to participate in a conversation—but I haven’t personally found the method fruitful. I find I do better starting with a physical form and then letting the character take care of the rest. One strange contortion of your mouth could earn you a co-starring role in my next story.

So imagine my delight the other day at Barnes & Noble, when we were getting coffee at the half-ass Starbucks (the other half is the regular standalone version), to encounter one of my most hated fictional characters right behind the counter. Well, not that I had any animus towards the poor girl. Wasn’t her fault. Yet she behaved exactly how I envisioned, same sing-song voice, same squat stature. Flirted with my fiancé the same way she flirted with my protagonist’s boyfriend. I think she might even have had her short sleeves rolled up the same way. The main difference was that she didn’t seem to be a nasty person, although who can ever tell?

I felt proud as I watched and listened, as though the whole situation was of my own making, like I was watching an animated film I wrote myself. Really, I felt vindicated. It almost makes you believe there’s some sort of mystical world populated by these individuals, and sometimes they fill in for someone who didn’t show up for work.

I like to read writing advice, not necessarily just for the advice itself but to see what makes the advice-giver’s brain tick. Yeah, I know, “Don’t read advice, just write, F you, blah-blah-blah!” But I enjoy learning about other people’s processes as a sort of psychological study. How someone writes is how they see the world, how they see themselves. Maybe it’s all just how we see ourselves, who knows?

To create a cast of characters, some people say to write about different aspects of yourself, others say just let them show up and do their thing. I don’t really buy heavily into the former because I don’t think you get a very good variety of characters when you make the conscious decision to expand upon yourself. There’s a tendency to be too picky and careful about it, to create your perfect “dark side” character, for instance. I just look for someone I don’t like and let it take off from there. However, there’s no doubt that deep self-awareness aids us in everything.

On the other hand, characters don’t just come out of nowhere and take up residence in my head. I’ve heard of people who’ve had crackhead ballerinas show up, but my brain isn’t very creative and can’t generate these things by itself. When I go over the list of characters in my head, they generally seem to be loosely based on people I know, but with creative license they morph into someone new, preferably absurd. I sort of close my eyes and converse with them. See how they react. I just need a face and an aura.

While I prefer a protagonist that is similar to myself, I do need some distance because when I try to stick to the truth, the result is quite wooden, much like the original. Some people write so they can imagine doing things they would never do in real life, but I  have a hard time with that. For instance, if a situation calls for someone to make a choice between bravery and cowardice, it’s difficult to allow my character to be brave when I’m naturally a coward. I feel like I’m lying, and someone might find me out. They do say “write what you know,” after all. But then I run into the first problem of how boring I am. That’s why it’s best to have a decent amount of daylight between you and your beloved protagonist.

The greatest authors of old didn’t need psychology degrees or MFA’s to write their masterpieces of insight into the human psyche. They also didn’t have smart phones. I wonder if, in the future, the ability to pierce into someone’s soul will be lost entirely? Will there ever be another Dostoevsky or Hardy? Doubt it. But why not? Help me, where’re their writing advice books?

33 thoughts on “When your fictional characters are like animatronics that you designed yourself.

  1. I think the above-mentioned classical writers attempted to solve problems in their work. Perhaps they were not raised in a culture of confrontation and constant drama. And as a result of needing to discuss difficult topics in a subtle way, they may have honed their craft. In my opinion, characters should embody principles and real life issues. These should be felt and understood by the reader.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Very interesting perspective, Nicole. There were many difficult issues then (and now and always) and their characters did show the clashing of ideas, cultural mores, or spiritual forces. I have forgotten how to think about things on a higher plane than the strictly obvious. Thanks for the comment!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I have a lot of advice books, mostly on mechanics. No one can tell you how to write a story, but if you have a story mechanics help you assemble it, fashion it into something useable. I find characters the same way, only I don’t follow them, I snap a mental Polaroid. And often hybridize them, like a Mr or Ms Potato Head. This posture, that face, this attitude, that hair. I end up with better characters that way. I mean where the hell else am I going to get a Valley Girl Prima Ballerina?
    I also study the great character minimalists like MacDonald who can give you a character in three descriptives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No doubt it’s a necessity to study mechanics and techniques. No one was ever above that–even the ancient Greek studied that stuff! Nothing new under the sun I guess. I think part of gathering ideas for characters which is ostensibly for writing is a story is actually just my interest in the study of people themselves and the writing of it provides a good pretext–or maybe the whole purpose?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Firstly, Love your feature image. I love that you are posting regularly.

    Weirdo hunting, or you could say “people watching” or character research? Now, following the weirdo into another store – eek – the weirdo might think you are weird? or a stalker!

    Joking aside, people-watching is a good way to give life to your characters. I love people watching to see interactions, I find it interesting. I love learning from others – the way you say reading a person writing process, allows you to get into their head and see how they think. I find it a very useful way to improve myself.

    I have nothing to offer in terms of fictional writing – I am just a wannabe non-fiction writer. But, in the creative writing course, one of the assignments was to write an introduction scene to a play on the stage/film, with directions etc. Anyway, I managed to write a pretty decent scene. I guess when you go weirdo hunting – do you write a version of screenplay in your notes afterwards?

    As you know I have Steven King’s memoir “on Writing” on audible (if you haven’t read it or heard, or borrowed it from the library – it is quite funny! and might be just what you need).

    BTW you are not boring! I think it is hard to write a character based on ourselves as you say. But, I guess you could do a pretend memoir and brain dump of your thoughts and processes that go inside your head. And then from that, a character or characters may be fashioned in some random way.

    Like I said – a wannabe non-fiction writer here. Clueless on fiction. Clueless on writing. Anyway – in the next newsletter – I will write more on my process, and you see the weird way I think! Lol

    Always lovely to read your blog post and see you posting more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for liking my picture. The pic has nothing to do with the topic but why not? Dunno why it’s a weird shape though. Anyways. I had a feeling you wouldn’t approve of my naming the watching of people “weirdo hunting”! You’re much nicer of a person than I am. And you’re not clueless by the way, you shouldn’t put yourself down. I think you have a good range of stuff and you’ve been upping your game lately with your newsletter. I like the idea of a pretend memoir but of course my brain immediately goes towards writing some sort of silly, absurd one. But why not? Talk to you soon.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I think I recommended this once to you. How about writing something in the second or third person? It gives you a different sort of perspective. First person is generally autobiographical, but second and third give you more room to move. You can take it outside your true existence. I’ve been reading Fernando Pessoa. Although I like him, it is sort of like reading a phone book or a text on taxonomy. They are very good phone books and taxonomy texts, but still they are phone books and taxonomy texts. So since you are in the mood for advice, give the other people in your life a try. Third person is tricky, but a good release. Good luck. Duke

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for the tips, Duke. Dunno who Fernando Pessoa is. Dunno who any of the people you reference are, actually, but it’s all good because it’s something new to learn. I’ve never tried a second person perspective but it could be interesting to try. I’m not sure I could pull it out without ending up ridiculous, whether intentionally or unintentionally, though it might be worth a true. Hope all is well with you.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. You remind me of an assignment I once had in one of my English classes to eavesdrop on a conversation that strangers were having, and then write a story around that bit of dialogue and those characters. It was a pretty fun exercise.
    Also, your bit about crackhead ballerinas is pure gold. Someone desperately needs to write The Crackhead Ballet.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi JYP, thanks for your comment. I was making fun of one of the other commenters here with the ballerina thing. He knows who he is. But ballerinas probably already take crack to lose weight so it might be redundant. Who knows.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I used to eavesdrop at Starbucks with headphones and no music on, and I think we have the same idea here, even though we’re basically creeping on people, lol. But yes, I do enjoy observing people in their natural habitat. The trick is to observe people as close as you can without alerting them to it, and I feel that’s when human nature truly shows itself. Anyway, thanks for this interesting take, Hetty!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is making me worry about all the people I see in public walking around wearing headphones.
      Just wanted to say I liked the idea of getting story ideas by extrapolating snippets of overheard conversations.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Theory about describing characters — or anything. I’ll bet the “masters” have in their minds a very complete picture (or as complete as needed) of any character or scene. They might be masters because their internal landscape is maybe more complete and detailed and interesting than that of the rest of us. Add to that a mastery of “the mechanics,” as someone, above, mentioned, and Voy La you have your masterpiece.
    You know this business of writing is not unlike when all of us noisy kids wanted to be pro baseball players. I’m not sure what I mean by that . . .

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re correct and that they have far more in their heads than they tell us on the page. I think we are a little like the kids who dream of the big leagues 😛 but at least we’ve got no expiration date to keep practicing.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. https://www.character-generator.org.uk/personality/

    There are others.

    All you need is some adjectives, some bio and voila — a character. Example:

    “Dill van Dill is a 20-year-old part time kitchen assistant who enjoys jigsaw puzzles, playing video games and checking news stories against Snopes. He is kind and creative, but can also be very greedy and a bit sadistic.

    He is a Samoan Christian who defines himself as straight. He started studying food science at college but never finished the course. He is allergic to nickel.”

    I didn’t make that — that generator did.

    Now, one could easily take Dill and put him in a (spins the dial) adopt-a-pet scene where he has to pick a dog for his niece to own — she’s dying from leukemia and she needs a companion.


    Liked by 1 person

  9. Doestoevsky, Hardy and Shakespeare dealt with big ideas (metaphysics and philosophy) in their writing.

    They were also keen observers of human nature in people.

    What they did was have people they observed encounter a realm of big ideas and the confluence resulted in brilliant profound out of this world writing.

    The best writing advice from Dostoevsky, Hardy and Shakespeare is to read their works themselves.

    Have little things meet big things.

    A person with purple hair and lotus flower earrings sipping a cup of coffee and contemplating the aroma and flavour suddenly has a thought, “Could this aroma and flavour serve as an existence for the argument of God and objective reality? If I’m just living in a computer generated matrix built by some computer engineer living in a computer generated matrix of his own generated by… how do you work aroma and flavour into a computer generated matrix unless there’s an objective reality to these things?”.

    Then build from there with dialogue and other characters but also incorporate big ideas.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. All excellent points, Christopher, thanks for posting. It sounds like you’ve got a love of classic literature too. I personally think that reflection on the big ideas has suffered a terrible decline in recent years. Can’t offend anyone by suggesting there’s such a thing as objective reality, right? Just ask our mutual white-garbed friend, he’d agree 😉.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, our mutual white-garbed friend (who’s starting to resemble more and more Saruman the White in The Lord of The Rings every day but definitely without Saruman’s brains or intellect) definitely does not believe in objective reality. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

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