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July 9, 2012 / diannegray

Character – the essence of soul

Writing can be a heartbreaker. You get your characters together and breathe life into them. Then you do the unthinkable – you throw them into situations that would be a true test of anyone’s moral fibre and spirit. You test them to breaking point and just when you think they can’t take any more you push them even further. This is a reflection of life. We all have those stories where something has happened to us and we tell someone and they say, ‘Oh my!’ ‘What did you do then?’ ‘How did you get through that?’ ‘How did you cope?’ This can take any form from a wardrobe malfunction to a plane crash.

It’s like watching a movie – there is a particular formula in most of the movies my husband watches. His usual requirements are one of the following (but if he gets them all wrapped up into one it’s like Christmas).

  1. Action – must have good car chase or people constantly dropping from helicopters into the jungle and shooting up everything in sight.
  2. Exploding heads from outer space or aliens busting out of peoples bodies
  3. Good versus evil – must contain action and great special effects.

I’ve noticed something about all these movies (if I can keep my eyes open long enough to see the ending) – the hero is always struggling near the end (shot or drugged or tied to a railway track) and you think he or she is never going to make it. How can they possibly get out of this alive! Of course they always do. And this gets back to my point about life. When something really tough happens to someone we want to know how they coped, escaped, lived through it. This is the beauty and the heartbreak of creating characters. The only difference is – you’re the cause of their catastrophe.

I’ll give you an example of character heartbreak. I hope this isn’t going to be a spoiler for anyone who plans to read The Eleventh Question when it’s published – but one of my main characters (Cayo) loses his best friend. I finished writing the scene late one evening and was called away unexpectedly. But I couldn’t get Cayo out of my mind. I’d left him in such a dark place, standing in the morgue looking at his friend. It was like a picture frozen in time. I could see his eyes and his stance and feel his heartache. Three days passed before I could get back to writing and all the while the poor guy was standing there waiting for me to ‘do something!’ I try not to let this happen but sometimes it’s unavoidable. If my characters are in a situation like this, I usually spend time getting them at least one step away before logging off for the night.

The other problem I have with characters is that they sometimes stow-away into my dreams. When I was writing Let Sleeping Gods Lie I found myself surrounded by the cast one night. I swear it was like one of those weird TV interventions. Two of the characters were not happy. One of them didn’t like her role and thought she should play a more pivotal part in the story. The other thought I was portraying him as too simple and he wanted me to make his character stronger, the entire cast agreed with them (no – I didn’t book myself into a psychiatrist). The next day I worked on the characters and tried to align them more with what they wanted to be. They never haunted my dreams again.

Putting everything you have into characters brings them to life on the page – it can be tough, but it’s the best thing any writer could ever hope for.


Leave a Comment
  1. bittercharm / Jul 9 2012 9:08 am

    Its amazing, I was just working on an article just like this. Thank you for sharing….


    • diannegray / Jul 9 2012 9:27 am

      Thank you BC – and I love the design on your page! Beautiful 🙂


  2. Heather / Jul 9 2012 9:56 am

    Great post Dianne! I’ve experienced a similar thing to your dream – except my character got into an argument with me on the page and told me he didn’t like the way he was portrayed. I rewrote his parts and ‘fixed’ it, which meant I had to change other bits too, but I think the story was better for it in the end.


    • diannegray / Jul 9 2012 10:22 am

      That’s fantastic, Heather. People give me very odd looks when I tell them I talk to, and have dreamed about, my characters. There should be more of it!


      • Dan Jen / Jul 11 2012 6:08 pm

        That is great! You’re immensely involved in your characters and that attention always pays off in the end.


  3. Tebogo Ndlovu / Jul 9 2012 5:02 pm

    Who would believe what writers go through! But well it’s an emotional thing being in charge of someone’s (a character’s) fate. Great post 🙂


    • diannegray / Jul 9 2012 9:20 pm

      Thanks Tebogo – I’m enjoying your blog! Best of luck with your writing


  4. Tebogo Ndlovu / Jul 9 2012 9:39 pm

    Thank you! All the best with yours!


    • diannegray / Jul 10 2012 8:27 am

      Thank you Tebogo – I was just reading your blog on the word ‘failure’. It’s very inspirational 🙂


      • Tebogo Ndlovu / Jul 10 2012 11:35 am

        Oh thank you, I’m pleased it made a difference 🙂


  5. Lori King Books / Jul 9 2012 11:31 pm

    It’s amazing how our characters become little pieces of our soul. They have more control over the story than we do sometimes. 🙂 Great article!


  6. David Stewart / Jul 11 2012 12:37 pm

    Wow, I’ve never been ganged up by the characters of one of my stories before. It might be a little intimidating. I guess that means they were realistic characters though. 🙂


    • diannegray / Jul 11 2012 9:09 pm

      It was a very strange experience, David. Luckily it doesn’t happen that often!


  7. Spider42 / Jul 12 2012 2:47 pm

    Could not agree more!
    A fantastic post and one that (once again) struck a familiar chord and then some.

    I’m still in the small-time author stage so not gotten to the point of having multiple books out (congrats and kudos for that!) but it’s kind of nice to know some things don’t change. It’s hard and can be painful at those moments and to see what you’re putting characters… people, you care about… through such things, but it’s good to know that one doesn’t necessarily become less involved with it because it’s hard but I like feeling with them and for them.



    • diannegray / Jul 12 2012 9:10 pm

      I’m looking forward to reading your work on the weekend. Thank you for the great comments 🙂


      • Spider42 / Jul 13 2012 8:38 am

        Great, look forward to hearing your thoughts – and feel free to be harsh if something catches your attention as being flawed/changeable/etc.


  8. 1girl4adamwest / Jul 14 2012 11:58 pm

    I can tell already you are a wonderful writer!


  9. diannegray / Jul 15 2012 12:06 am

    Thank you! I absolutely love reading and writing. When people like it, it’s like the icing on the cake 🙂

    I’m really looking forward to reading more of your thoughts


  10. audiophileparadise / Jul 15 2012 7:03 am

    Amazing article! Loved it! Keep up the good work!


    • diannegray / Jul 15 2012 7:35 am

      Thank you so much. If there’s one thing I love apart from writing, its music! I can’t write without music (I usually listen to Seal when I write). I believe Stephen King is a great fan of Crowded House (now split up) and puts their music on while he’s writing.
      I’ve discovered a new artist who I saw busking in the street one day. His name is Robert Campbell (although when I bought his first CD he was Robert Owen Campbell). He a bluesy guitar singer. He ended up going on Australia’s Got Talent but was beaten in the finals by a male stripper (go figure!)

      Please keep the music blog coming 🙂


      • audiophileparadise / Jul 16 2012 9:35 am

        Thanks! I will! I’ll surely listen to Robert Campbell and tell you what i think of him! Keep writing your blogs! They rock!


  11. Jill Thaxton / Jul 16 2012 3:44 pm

    Flannery O’Connor, an American short story writer, said that if you develop your characters first, the story will write itself. Do you agree?


    • diannegray / Jul 16 2012 9:35 pm

      She was brilliant at creating morally flawed characters (some say grotesque) and I agree to a certain extent – but it’s still up to the author to put them in a situation that brings out the ‘character’ (if you know what I mean). I think of it as looking at people as you walk down the street. You might pass the nicest person in the world, or a serial killer, but you don’t know what lies beneath that exterior until a situation arises to bring out their true colours.
      It’s really important to know your characters very well and this is why I sit down with friends when I have a character ready and they question me as if I am the character (maybe with a glass of wine as well to make it interesting!) it’s amazing what I find out about my characters then!


      • Jill Thaxton / Jul 16 2012 10:00 pm

        I love that idea of a character interview!


  12. Dorothy Stacy / Jul 19 2012 11:44 pm

    I love your blog. My characters are always telling me what they are up to. I found out so much of the background of one of the characters in my first book that I never could have figured out myself.


    • diannegray / Jul 20 2012 6:56 am

      Thank you, Dorothy! Your characters sound like they’re as determined as mine are. Best of luck with Town of Paris Twins – the title sounds very intruiging.


  13. Lucy / Jul 21 2012 1:47 am

    Hi Dianne, Thank you so much for “Liking” my post! I LOVE your blog. This post in particular rings so true for me. Our characters are so deeply woven into our lives. I know that it is natural for me to want the best for them–at the same time, as you said, an author’s job is to craft a story in which each character’s mettle is tested in some big way. It can be so painful to send one’s beloved friends out into the wilderness! Thank you again for visiting my blog, and for your beautiful writing.


    • diannegray / Jul 21 2012 8:57 am

      Thank you so much, Lucy! Sometimes I feel as if my passion for my characters makes me sound like a bit of a nut – but so many positive comments gives me faith that I’m not so different after all.
      I like what you’re doing spreading the word about plastic. I saw some horrible pictures recently about sea creatures caught up in plastic and, having been to the Great Barrier Reef so many times, it made me so mad! Keep up the good work 🙂


  14. MarleMac / Jul 25 2012 9:08 pm

    Great article, Dianne!
    I haven’t written fiction for a while, but they really do crawl into your life, don’t they?!
    Thanks for popping in to my new blog “Eye Cee U”…especially seeing that it didn’t even have a header yet! (It has now!!!)
    Looking forward to reading more from you!


  15. diannegray / Jul 29 2012 3:33 pm

    Thank you! Looking forward to reading more of your posts 🙂


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