01-19-19 – Judith Ashley – My Sanctuaries and Safe Havens: Writing and Spiritual Practices

Thursday, November 2, 2017


There are so many things to love about being a writer.
For me, one in particular stands out. Analyzing people. I love delving into the why’s and wherefore’s. Who are they? Where have they come from? Why do they do what they do? All in the name of research, of course. Legitimate people watching.
There are even times I turn that analysis onto myself. 
Let’s take a look. I’m an introvert. Shy, insecure. Never quite sure what to say when I meet someone for the first time. I’m that person at a party who clings to the shadows, or people I know, fumbling over conversation because whatever I say just sounds plain dumb. Of course, I always think of those witty, intelligent comments after the party’s over. Too late then.
Well, I’m a writer. I don’t have to be witty on demand.
When my characters speak, it may seem as if they have all the answers, but I’ve had time to agonize over the words. Time to work out what they should or shouldn’t say, how they should act and react, what fits well within their nature.
You may ask, why is she telling me this?
Why, indeed?
There is a reason, method behind what must seem to be my March Hare madness.
As writers, it’s easy to write characters we relate to. Characters we understand, those gems whose minds and motivations we see inside. Characters like ourselves. But what if we write characters who aren’t like us? What then?
Speak to ten different writers about their characters and you'll probably get ten different techniques for getting inside their head.
There are so many ways for us to find out more about the leading men and women in our stories, and just as important, give our readers insight into their varied characters.
I thought it might be fun today, to talk about just a couple of the techniques I use. 

Yes, some writers do just this – dress up as their characters, even spend a day doing things that their characters do, whether it be working in their chosen field, engaging in activities and hobbies they love, even adopting certain likes, dislikes, cultural or ethical beliefs.
This could include taking part in particular religious ceremonies or rituals (attending church or synagogue, observing Ramadan or the Sabbath), changing daily routine or diet (getting up at the crack of dawn for an exercise class or eating only vegan or kosher foods), or mirroring their character’s appearance (changing hair color or style, visiting the local op shop to find clothes their character would wear).
I have to admit, I’ve done some but not all of these when creating Jayda Thomasz, the heroine of my debut novel, Lethal in Love.
And here's me doing just that with the women of Melbourne Romance Writers Guild at our annual retreat. Our challenge, to bring our characters to life.

If you emptied the contents of your pockets or handbag right now, what would you find? What goodies do you carry that gives insight into who you are?
Let’s do this for Jayda.
She’s a homicide detective, so more often than not, she doesn’t carry a handbag, so let’s empty her pockets and see what we can discover.
Of course, there’s the obvious – a .40 calibre Smith and Wesson M&P semi-automatic, a set of handcuffs and her detective’s badge. On top of that, she always carries tweezers, gloves and a couple of evidence bags. She is, after all, a workaholic. Just because she’s off the clock, doesn’t mean she’s done for the day.
Let’s list the rest.
🔷Mobile phone – with a home screen picture of her family taken the day she graduated from the police academy. What importance does this place on her family? On her career?
🔷Gum – for those long nights working when she forgets to eat.
🔷$5 – never know when you’ll need a coffee, which is pretty much anytime J
🔷Choc covered coffee beans – a caffeine alternative if she can’t get the real thing.
🔷Notebook and pen – she loves lists. Every decision requires a list of pros and cons before she has a hope of making up her mind.
🔷Lip balm and mirror – she may not be a girly girl, but she’s still a woman.
🔷Garter belt – still in her pocket after a short stint undercover at a swinger’s party. 
🔷Binoculars, torch, army knife and paperclips – she was a girl scout, and she’s a stickler for their motto – ‘be prepared’.
🔷Scrunchie – Jayda has shortish hair, so she has no need for this. Yet, she always has one in her pocket. Why? Because her sister consistently forgets to bring one to their weekly interval training workout, so she always has spares just in case. 

On the flipside, let’s look at what she doesn’t carry in her pockets.
No condom. Jayda doesn’t sleep around. And even more, in the beginning of my story she's not interested in a physical relationship with anyone but her soulmate – a man she is yet to find. 
Do you feel as if you're getting to know Jayda? Who she is and what she's about?
Remember, it’s not always about what’s there. Sometimes what’s missing gives us just as much insight into our character. It’s surprising how much easier it is to slip inside our character’s head, once we’ve seen inside their pockets!

This is a great way for a writer to really understand their characters, what motivates them, and how these motivations feed into everyday actions and reactions.
As part of this game, a writer will put their character into different, sometimes difficult, situations, then analyze their response.
For example, what if we send our heroine out to dinner with friends? What if the toddler at the next table throws a handful of ice cream her way?
What if that sticky dripping mess lands on her favorite silk top or wool sweater? What if we dress our hero in a suit rather than his normal surfie board shorts and t-shirt? What if we drop him into a business meeting? What if he’s trying to convince prospective investors to invest in his business and that same toddler drops chocolate milkshake all over his lap?
What if our character gets caught in the rain? Would they run for cover, pull an umbrella out of their bag, or stop a second and enjoy the moment? Would they notice the sights, sounds and smells around them, or would they be too worried about their favorite suit or newly styled hair?
What if they’re late for an appointment and they witness an accident? Will they dial 911 or 000 and just leave, or will they stop and offer assistance? If they see an animal lying injured on the sidewalk, will they stop and help or will they walk on by?
Think about each of these situations and what a character’s reaction will reveal about them. Think about how much closer we feel to a character we can understand and relate to.
What if? is a lot of fun once you get into the swing of it, and you’ll be surprised how much clearer and complex a character will become once you have deeper understanding on how they approach different situations.

And that’s it. Three ways a writer can slip inside their character’s mind and build a deeper, more relatable personality.
What do you think?
Can you imagine yourself or your favorite author doing any or all of these exercises? How far do you think they should go to really get into their character’s head? How far would you go?
Thanks so much for stopping by!
If you’re a writer, what do you do to get into your characters? And if you’re a reader, what information should the author include to help you get deep into the character’s mind?
I’d love to hear your ‘take’ on creating characters.
As always, have a fabulous month, and I look forward to seeing you all again in December. Wow, where has the year gone!
Michelle Somers is a bookworm from way back. An ex-Kiwi who now calls Australia home, she's a professional killer and matchmaker, a storyteller and a romantic. Words are her power and her passion. Her heroes and heroines always get their happy ever after, but she'll put them through one hell of a journey to get there.
Michelle lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her real life hero and three little heroes in the making. And Emmie, a furry black feline who thinks she’s a dog. Her debut novel, Lethal in Love won the Romance Writers of Australia's 2016 Romantic Book of the Year (RuBY) and the 2013 Valerie Parv Award. The second in her Melbourne Murder series, Murder Most Unusual was released in February 2017.
You can find out all about Michelle, her adventures and her books at www.michelle-somers.com
Please pop by and say 'hi' 😊


Judith Ashley said...

I will admit I've not done any of the things you mentioned, Michelle - but some of them sound like they could be fun. Decades before I was an author, I did play a people watching game with a friend of mine. We'd spot someone at a restaurant or wherever we were and figure out what kind of person they were based on their dress, mannerisms, etc. Then we'd approach the poor hapless victim and ask him/her about their profession. We didn't always agree but between us we were 90+% right. You really can learn a lot about someone from observation.

Diana McCollum said...

You listed some great ideas on getting to know our characters! I'll definitely give these a try. Thanks so much for an awesome blog post!!

Sarah Raplee said...

Hi Michelle, I have done some of the 'walking in the character's shoes' ideas, like shadowing someone on their job or interviewing someone about their work.
I read When You're the Only Cop in Town by Debra Dixon to help me get into my tiny town cop's head.

Blogs and chat rooms for people who work in different professions can be a gold mine of information, including jargon that is unique to that profession.

Great post!

Michelle Somers said...

Hi Judith
I love people watching! I have to admit, I've never approached someone to ask whether the stories I'd concocted about them were right. Sounds like fun.
As authors we get to do so much cool stuff with an excuse. Love it!
Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing.
Michelle xxx

Michelle Somers said...

Hi Diana
So glad you enjoyed the post. I'd love to know how you go if you do try any of these. They can be so much fun - and so beneficial.
Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!
Michelle xxx

Michelle Somers said...

Hi Sarah
Isn't it great that we get the chance to see people work in the field? Or to ask questions that we wouldn't normally get the chance to ask? I just love that.
Debra Dixon is a fabulous source for building characters.
I never thought of the blogs or chat rooms for research. I might just have to give that a go!
Thanks so much for stopping by and giving your insights into building characters.
Michelle xx

Savannah Blaize said...

Great post Michelle. Yes it is hard sometimes not to put your own feelings and emotions into your characters. My story and characters come to me as if I am looking at a video, so I can see them very well. I try very hard to let them talk to me as I type their story, their dialogue, but I don't always get it right. Sometimes my editor will ask questions and make me think about what my character would really do. It does help to have a backstory written down for them, to better understand why they react they way they do.

M L Tompsett - Author said...

Great piece, Michelle. People watch... Hmm. I think it started back when I used to travel to secondary college by school bus, all those years ago. I would have my best friend laughing her head off, with what would come out of my mouth regarding each person. Thankfully, the other kids on the bus, did not listen in.
When I do go out, I still have the same tendency to watch people. The two versions, one the funny one. The other what these people are really doing here and what are they.
Regarding the characters, only in parts can I play the part. For the other parts, I am not a shifter, so the ability to turn into an animal is a no. Even though I am a Leo, that is about my ability limits to being a large cat. Or becoming a vampire and consuming blood. I think I would suck... I hate the taste of blood!

M L Tompsett - Author said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Michelle Somers said...

Hi Savannah
Thanks so much for your insights. Yes, backstory is great for understanding how our characters will act and react in situations.
But I love to take this further, and try to put myself in their shoes - try to think of myself with their backstory and analyze how that would make me feel. Then I throw situations at myself, and question what I'd do in response. It's a lot of fun, and a great way of making backstory count. Especially when that backstory is closely linked to a characters' goal, motivation and conflict (GMC)
Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts.
Michelle xxx

Michelle Somers said...

Hi M L
Thanks for sharing your take on stepping in a character's shoes. I think there's something to be said about being glad you can't become a shifter or vampire :)
Isn't it the best fun making up stories about the people we observe. It'd be great to see how much of the time we get things right.
Thanks so much for stopping by!
Michelle xx

Maggie Lynch said...

I really loved the empty-the-purse or pockets idea. I'll have to try that in my next book. Well-written and informative article, Michelle!

I'm blessed with coming from a large family (oldest of 9 children) among fairly large families of aunts, uncles, cousins, and numerous foster children, and then their children and grand children. We are somewhat like a small, very diverse town when you put all of us together. Consequently, my character's tend to be formed by my experience with my extended family. With marriages and divorces and remarriages, we represent many cultures, people living in different places both in the U.S. and other countries, numerous professions and those who don't/can't work for one reason or another, different political and religious beliefs. Whenever, I have a question I have someone in the extended family who probably lives that life. :)

Of course, there are still times--particularly with onerous villains--that I have no one in the family to ask (at least I assume that is the case). Then I seek out other professionals or other writers. The writing community is also very diverse--former military, police, reporters, lawyers, teachers, secretaries, yoga instructors. Just asking in the writer community I've not yet failed to find someone with that exact experience.

Living the life of a writer is endlessly engaging.

Michelle Somers said...

Wow, Maggie, your family sounds amazing. Love big families. Great that they help you with your characterization.
I know what you mean about the writing community and how fabulous they are for helping with industry specific details. I live the fact that I can post a question on facebook and within minutes I have a trail of answers!
So glad you liked my empty the pockets strategy. I’d love to know how it goes if you try it!
Thanks so much for stopping by and your great insights into building characters 😊
Michelle xxx

Susanne Bellamy said...

As a long-time high school teacher, I've taught a broad range of 'types' of young people, and sometimes seen how they progressed into adulthood. So, I might focus on a key aspect of the character, think of someone I know who may be a little similar, and consider what that person might do or say in a given situation. I'm also fascinated by the whys and wherefores of people, and love dissecting possible reactions.

Michelle Somers said...

Hi Susanne
That’s great, when you have first hand experience with a variety of different people. People watching and dissecting is so much fun!
Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting!
Michelle xxx