Tapping into characters is as hard as building a relationship with physical people! I can’t get into people I don’t feel passionate about and I suspect this is true for all of us. Just feel how your face lights up when you think of a dear friend you love to spend time with; then feel the blank no-change that happens when you think of someone you know but really (in your heart) don’t mind if you never see again. There are, for all of us, people we feel we should like! Oh gods! That word should! A dear friend said it gave her the “shoulders” – pronouncing it rather like “shudders” – when she thought of it. I laughed like a drain … so it does me to and I never forgot.
Characters in the novels we write are just like this for me; there are those I really never want to lose touch with; those I sort of like who are quite good to know; those who I might well cross the street to avoid talking to. Trying to write a book centred on any but the first category becomes an academic exercise for me and, as the last thing on earth that I am is an academic (Never! Please the gods!) any writing that comes of that is turgid and dull. I must feel passionate for those about whom I write.
To tap into a character I have to feel for them, and with them. I have to care.
The pre-writing writing pulls and pushes me all over the place, bumping into characters who may be useful, who show me things about the place, the events, the other characters and themselves that expand the whole landscape of the story. It’s a vital part of beginning a story and, sometimes, it can take years. Then, all of a sudden and often out of an unexpected place, the aha moment comes, I can see, I see the path-thread of the story flowing away in front of me. It’s like following an energy line between two sacred points, rather like Alfred Watkins’ ley lines except (like the energy, dragon, lines) the story-path is not straight but weaves and undulates through the landscape.
In the 10 Tao oxherding pictures #7 shows the boy kneeling outside a neat and simple hut. He’s looking across a misty valley, the first steps of his path are there before him; the mountain is across the other side of the clouds; he must find the way, step by step. Ursula Le Guin says, in Left Hand of Darkness, It’s good to have an end to journey to but it is the journey that matters in the end … she’s quite right 🙂
For me, writing is like that. The silver shining path shows itself to me, I can see where we’re going but I must travel the journey from here to there by individual steps. I can do this when I have a travelling companion (the main character) that I care passionately about. Like all relationships, I have to be both active and passive to attract this person, both waiting and searching. We meet, I learn about her needs and wants and (most of all) her burning desires, we get to know each other then, suddenly, the story-path appears. We hold our breath, both she and me, watching our end glimmer up out of the mists and then we begin.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step as Lao-tzu said. And to walk that journey we have to go step by step.