Tuesday, September 9, 2008

As a writer, do your characters invade your “real life”?


“Careful, dear. You’re acting like your character.”

That was my husband’s warning to me last week, after I survived a risky (and slightly smelly) stand-off with a mentally challenged dude on board a tram in Portland. For the roily details, see last week’s post,
Too close for comfort.

I escaped from that little adventure with nary a scrape. In fact, I ended the episode with a thumbs-up sign and a jaunty little wave; but seriously, my part in the encounter was stupid. I could have gotten my ass seriously kicked by that guy, or worse.

All of which got me to thinking: To what extent (if any) does our writing affect our choices and actions in “real life”? Is there a bright red line that is never crossed between fantasy on the page and reality? Or do you find that there is ever any psychological “page-bleed,” as they say in the publishing world?

In my case, last week’s tram episode was completely out of character for the “real me,” Kathryn Lilley. Ever since I was an adolescent, I’ve always been a shy, retiring soul. I’ve traditionally avoided eye contact with strange men, much less interaction. In the past, I would never have tried to remove a mentally disturbed person on public transportation. (And let’s be honest—what I did was supremely stupid. I’ve been told by a number of Herman Munster-sized, macho-macho guys that the only reason I’m alive today is that I’m a woman, and that I stayed utterly calm throughout the encounter. Seriously, my heart rate didn’t even increase. I have no idea why.).

But ever since I started writing the Fat City Mysteries, I’ve found that I’ve been getting deeper and deeper into the emotions of my main character, Kate Gallagher. And now, I’m like one of those actors who stays “in character” between shooting scenes of a film. In many aspects of my life, I find myself coming up with quicker ripostes, more assertive actions—bottom line is, I’m acting more like Kate.

So my question is, is this experience a unique and unhealthy response to getting too deeply involved in the writing or characterization process? Have the rest of you experienced anything remotely similar?

But just as a reassurance to myself, I have made a solemn vow—no matter how much Kate Gallagher inhabits my thoughts and feelings, going forward, I will never, ever again attempt to toss someone off a tram.
It can be way too hazardous to your health.

9 comments:

  1. My Spousal Equivalent has made this comment several times during the current WIP: "You were writing Junior again, weren't you?" I don't act out much, but I sometimes talk like whatever character I was just working on.

    I have also noticed a distinct tendency to tolerate less BS from the world around me. Part of this is learning with age that the amount of BS we have to put up with is usually directly proportional to the amount of BS we're willing to put up with. On the other hand, I also sometimes ask myself, "What would [insert character name here] do in this situation?"

    It probably helps that I'm 6'1", 245.

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  2. You're not the only one who picks up character traits. I do it as well. My husband tends to laugh at me and gently remind me to calm down.

    I think to some degree the immersion is healthy, but we have to be careful with it and stay in control. Both for Real life safety and also because it can affect the writing negatively when you're soo attached and soo in character you want certain things for the character even when it doesn't work against the book background. I've seen a lot of authors who kinda 'jump the shark' in such a fashion, so try to keep a look out for it. No matter how much I love my characters they aren't me, but I can borrow some of their better traits to make a better me. :)

    ~J

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  3. I have a particular character, a CIA deep cover operative who rathers enjoys his hyper-active personality and high stress violent job. Kharzai Ghiassi has a tendency to slip into my own reality from time to time when I am feeling particularly giddy.

    As an outlet for that character, and for the strong quiet type main character, Marcus "Mojo" Johnson, of my books I actually ended up giving them their own facebooks and accounts on my forum at basilsands.com.

    The funny thing is that Mojo has nearly twice as many Facebook friends as the real me, and Kharzai frequently gets into much better conversations than I.

    The real me is somewhere in between those two, and I have thus far not broken into one of their personalities unbidden.

    Does this make me borderline schizophrenic? Hmmm, I'll have ask Kharzai and Mojo what they think.

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  4. What a mavelous solution, Basil! I came close to doing that on my Amazon blog when it occurred to me that readers would probably rather chat with one of my characters, Mimi, who has a snarky, take-no-prisoners and profane style. Dana, I'm with you on the less tolerance for BS--my tolerance level has gone way down since I started writing. And good advice, jsb, but I would also love to see what "jumping a shark" looks like! Is that a bit like "Man Bites Dog" (grin)?

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  5. My husband of course is convinced I am my character, Ursula Marlow, so if I do anything Ursula-ish it just confirms he was right all the along!

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  6. Clare, I can here it now: "Now honey, don't go all Ursala on me." (grin)!

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  7. What a great post! I totally relate.

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  8. Dear Kathryn,

    It just so happens that I was the aforementioned "mentally challenged" dude on that bus that day and I must make the following confession - I am writing a book on schizophrenic tram passengers and perhaps it was I who became too immersed in my character.

    Now, with regard to getting your ass seriously kicked, I believe that I was in far greater danger than you ever were. Shy, retiring soul, hmmmm, I'll bet.

    Insofar as I believe that your description of the events in question were fairly accurate, I must take exception to the "slightly smelly" characterization. In fact, I recall smelling rather pleasant that day. :-)

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  9. Dear Anonymous,
    Could it possibly have been you? I really thought there was tinge of odeur corporelle about the dude I encountered, although possibly it was someone else. Anyway, please watch out for those authors-gone-Defcon-2 that you run into while doing your acting studio exercises...

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