If you’re an author, your characters are all different parts of you, right? Wellllll not exactly… Yes, they all emerged from the depths of your subconscious, but they are not you. If they were, all your characters would be so alike there’d be no tension in your stories. And not much in the way of interest either.
There’s a technique used in Jungian dream analysis where the dreamer writes down the major elements of the dream, free associates to each and then engages his/her psyche in something called active imagination—something like a spirited discussion with one’s soul. Jung used to have out-loud dialogues with a projection he’d named Philemon. They even wrote letters back and forth to one another. Yes, yes, I know. Today he would have been labeled certifiably insane. But, in his day, he was seen as a visionary. And, he still is by those of us who embraced his philosophies which were not only years ahead of his time, but also timeless.
Jung tapped into the imaginal world when he and Philemon had conversations. Writers also tap into the imaginal world to bring stories to life. Sometimes, when I’m hot and heavy into the midst of a novel—or even a short story—my head is so full it’s hard to re-focus on the “real” world. But, who’s to say my imaginal world is any less “real” than the one where I see clients, push paper about on my desk and am both wife and mother?
It’s odd, but those two worlds co-exist nicely—at least for the most part. I do think you need to have a life outside of writing to be a writer. Otherwise, where would your ideas come from? Oh, there would be a few, but they wouldn’t carry you very far. The very best writers write from a richness of experience. At least in my opinion, you need to keep refreshing that experiential base to have grist for the authorial mill.
Back to characters. I’ve been thinking a lot about George RR Martin lately, probably because the long-promised fifth (or is it the sixth?) book in his Fire and Ice series is once again supposed to come out very soon. And, along with George, I’ve been thinking about his character Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion is an antagonist, or is he? He certainly has a host of, ahem, unsavory character traits. But, along with them, he has empathy and compassion. Because he is a dwarf, he has been the butt of other’s jokes ever since he was born. He manages the bitterness this ongoing derision has engendered with a quick wit and a self-deprecating sense of humor. The bitterness is why (and how) he murders his jerk of a father. The compassion is why he doesn’t force his child-bride, Sansa Stark, to consummate their marriage and one of the reasons he doesn’t try harder to find her after she flees. Of course, the other is because he is imprisoned, accused of the murder of Joffrey Baratheon.
Joffrey is one of Martin’s rare characters who is truly one dimensional. He is a bastard in more ways than one. Product of an incestuous liaison between Cersei and Jaime Lannister while Cersei is married to the King, Robert Baratheon, Joffrey doesn’t have even one saving grace. I figure Martin killed him off because Joffrey had become an embarrassment and an inconvenience and Martin didn’t know what else to do with him. As a reader, all I felt was relief when Joffrey was finally out of the picture. Of course, he was out of the picture too late to save Sansa Stark…
Regardless of the glitch with Joffrey, the magic in Martin’s writing is he’s able to build characters his readers care about. He does that by making them each unique and by giving them impossible responsibilities that tax their personalities to the max. It is struggle and resolution that make for fine story-telling. And, Martin is a master at recognizing each of his character’s abilities and shortcomings. So, for example, Catelyn Stark’s efforts, after her husband Ned is murdered, are limited by her own particular set of weaknesses. And, it is those weaknesses that are her eventual undoing, binding her to a half-life as revenge annihilates her.