The little quivering voice of my four-year-old son drifted from his car seat in the van.
“Dad, how…do I…get an oyster cracker…out of my nose?”
The wide, teary eyes that met my glance in the rearview mirror twisted my heart. He was trying to be so brave, but his chin trembled ever so slightly. Help me was written on his delicate face.
He needed me.
As I pushed back against my urge to wax eloquent about the poor choice that led to the cracker’s ending up lodged in his nostril, I opened his door and told him, “How did you…? I mean…we’ll get it out little buddy.” So I peered up the nose hole in question, but saw nothing. I wanted to ask him if he was sure there was an oyster cracker up there, but I realized that this was no training exercise. This was the real thing. So I pinched the free-flowing side of his nose shut and said, “blow.”
Out came the cracker.
Then he looked at me, relief pulling the corners of his perfect little mouth into a smile. “Thanks, Dad.”
“You’re welcome, son,” I said. “Let’s not put anymore crackers in your nose. Okay?”
What does this cranium cramming cracker caper have to do with writing? Something very important: I put myself in my four-year-old son’s shoes. I felt the worry–fear, even–from his perspective. I got into his head (though not through his unblocked nostril) and imagined what the experience was like through his eyes. The fear. The discomfort. The guilt (he knew he’d done something wrong). The the relief.
I try to live inside the heads of my characters when they appear on stage in the current chapter I’m writing. Many times this vicarious journey is a joy, and other times it is uncomfortable. I’ve tried to imagine the mindset of killers and cops, men and women driven by love, hate, loyalty, revenge, and dozens of other passions. It’s draining and exhilarating at the same time. I may not be able to agree with their motives or actions, but I want to know them. Well. There are great tools avaliable to help writers prepare a character interview of each major character. These aid a writer in getting in the skin of their characters.
I want to paint my characters so vividly that my readers can feel the villain’s stare on the back of their neck, or hear the beat of the endangered heroine heart in their own chest. I want a reader to think, I’ll help you…or…I’ll stop him. In other words, I want my characters to live in the imaginations of my readers. I want the characters to be so believable that my readers feel as if they know them. Or would really want to. Or, perhaps–in the case of an evil character–fear they might meet him.
Have you ever encountered a character in a book that you just couldn’t get out of your mind?