Getting into character

A few weeks ago, I was writing at a coffee shop with a group of other writers, and one of the baristas came over to ask about our work. I explained that I was struggling with my novel, primarily because of the age of my protagonist, and she suggested I go to the mall, sit at the food court, and listen to girls around me talk. I thanked her politely but also said that dialogue isn’t my Achilles heel. I love writing dialogue. If anything, I can’t get it down on paper fast enough. I hear conversations in my brain and just jot down words as they come out. And if they sound true in my head, I figure they sound true on paper, too.

No, getting into character is so much more than just knowing how my protagonist will speak. It’s all about how my protagonist will feel.

I will say this in hindsight about my high school experience (that was oh-so-many years ago): I’m really glad I was involved in the extra-curricular activities I chose. I’m also glad I went to a fairly small school, where I had the opportunity to get to know almost everyone, at least on a surface level.

For my first few years at school, my big extra-curricular was Drama. It was something that came easily to me, mainly because my elementary school offered drama classes, too, and the teacher provided a solid theatrical foundation. Nevertheless, I liked immersing myself in scripts and figuring out how to become each character. I didn’t take it to the Method extreme, though. I just liked the idea of portraying different people, taking on different roles, doing things not as I, Eileen, would do them, but as the character would.

Of course, my therapist would also say this is the primary reason I tend to keep people at arms’ length emotionally and have difficulty letting people into my world on a deeper level, but that’s neither here nor there.

The point is, as I write these novels in the first person, I have to remember what it’s like to be fifteen or sixteen again. I have to dig deep, recall feelings, and channel them so that I can get those raw emotions down on paper. It sounds so much easier than it is. As I finished up Prince Charming over the Thanksgiving weekend, I found myself crying at my laptop while I typed. I was listening to Taylor Swift’s “Teardrops on My Guitar” and just feeling really sad.

Never mind that my story has a happy ending. (Spoiler.) But you can’t get the happy ending without some heartache first. The pain makes the joy that much sweeter.

I’ve been thinking of this, of course, as I listen to Paramore’s “The Only Exception” on repeat while I plot my next story.

I have nothing but the deepest sympathy for girls who are still at the height of their adolescence – or worse, have only entered that phase of life. I’m just tapping into it for a few hours every week to tell a story as realistically as I can. How I managed to survive it the first time around – how any of us managed, really – is entirely beyond me.

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