Do you become your characters, or do you observe them from outside?
I posed this question to writers in a very special Facebook group back in February and promised to report on my findings.
And no, I wasn’t just being nosy. I was reacting to all the craft books overflowing my bookshelves.
You know how it goes—you read a piece of writing advice and then immediately fall into a Ho-Ho binge because you’re not doing something the right way.
Once again, turns out there is no right way.
A few writers weren’t even aware that they favored one method over another until they tried to answer the question.
Here’s my original query and some of the fantastic responses shared by writers with a wide range of experience and styles.
When writing your scenes, are you IN the body of your main character trying to feel/see/hear what she does, OR are you watching her to see what she feels/sees/hears? Curious!
“A bit of both, really. I usually first see the scene like a movie in my head, then I describe it while trying to feel like my character.” ~ Kelly M.
“Listening. Sometimes watching. And then, empathizing.” ~ Wendy G.R.
“I never realized it but yes I become my characters and write their story and feelings.” ~ Wendy T.
“In their body, usually. But it also depends on whether I’m in first person, close third, or omniscient. And what psychological distance I’m trying to convey.” ~Tamara L.
“I am the observer and write down what I see, what comes to me.” ~ Esther L.F.
“I think more in . . . ” ~ Lynne L.
“If writing in first person, I’m in, if writing in third, I’m observing and in.” ~ Dorothy R.
“Great question! Actually both . . . sometimes I feel what she feels and sometimes I try to look how she has to look, feeling it.” ~ Miranda M.
“Inside his or her head. More immediate, more fun to write.” ~ Nikki C.
“Both, but not at the same time. Usually as I write the story/scene that is there I’m in. Then I’ll do another pass from the outside.” ~ Jennifer B.
“Living it as much as I can.” ~ Julie H.
“In. Usually so in I find it difficult to use my character’s name even though it’s third person POV.” ~ Rachel V.
“I don’t even think about it. It’s whatever I wrote.” ~ Linda A.
“I just finished a piece yesterday and was in tears, absolutely as devastated as my MC, feeling what she felt. Sometimes I think they channel through us. Sometimes, though less often, it’s like I’m hanging out with the characters—this is especially true for dialogue—and kind of just transcribe what I hear when they’re talking.” ~ Cristel G.O.
“Depends on which POV I’m writing from, which I never fully realized before. Interesting question!” ~ Cathy M.
“In the room with her which makes writing sex scenes awkward, because then I feel like a voyeur.” ~ Gill R.
“All in.” ~ Sherry Anne
“Totally in. So deep I don’t realize I was in until the scene is complete.” ~ Kiarra T.
“Watching. Definitely watching.” ~ Lisa C.B.
“I try to feel what she feels! I often play music that I feel she would like. That helps.” ~ Maire F.
“My friend calls me a Method Writer. I am IN the body of ALL my characters the entire time while writing, which can get really weird, uncomfortable, and straight-up physically and emotionally exhausting since I write hybrid horror/Sci-Fi/fantasy/speculative fiction, among other things. My husband has even come home and told me I wasn’t speaking like myself, and I’d realize later I was actually speaking in the voice of a character.” ~ Sezin G.K.
“I’m sitting on their shoulder so I have POV and can hear them speaking the words I give them to say.” ~ Sally W.
Scientific Poll Results
Of course I’m a writer so the science behind this is based on pretty fonts:
Inside the character – 46.6%
Both inside and observing the character – 34.9%
Observing the character – 13.9%
Two responders could not confirm their own method (writers!).
And there is no statistical margin of error (see pretty fonts).
My goal was to figure out if I was doing it all wrong. I found myself more of the observer type, but with most everything in this novel writing process, I’m learning as I go.
I’ve spent more time trying to see my book world through my main character’s eyes and that’s made a difference. There is no one right way.
How do you get inside your characters? Are you a biography maker? A note taker? Do you have a favorite worksheet or method you care to share? Would love to hear about what works for you!