The Secret Lives of Characters

Guest Blogger: Hilary Davidson

While I while writing my first novel, I discovered that characters and their histories take up as much real estate in my brain as close family and friends. More, really, because I didn’t have to think about the long-simmering antagonism between two friends unless I’m inviting them to the same event. With fiction, every conflict is top of mind. Fiction makes demands I didn’t expect. Stories lurk in my brain no matter what I do or where I am, each one aiming to get on the page. Or I’ll be walking down a street, but my brain will be in a different zip code, trying to work out why a character behaves a particular way, prodding at bits of scar tissue in his or her heart until I feel I understand them.

Even so, it came as a surprise that there were emotional aftershocks to what I put on the page. It took me a long time to see it, and I didn’t figure it out for myself. It took some pointed questioning from my husband that went kind of like this:

Dan: “Did something bad happen in your book today?”

Me: “Yes! You must be psychic.”

Dan: “Um, no. Not at all.”

Me [getting really testy]: “You didn’t read anything on my laptop, did you?”

Dan: “No, of course not.”

Me: “Well, then, how did you know?”

Dan: “Because you’re acting like it happened to you.”

He was right. There was very little emotional space between my main character and me. It was ironic, because years ago, I lived in a New York hostel that was filled with actresses studying at the Lee Strasberg School. I often came home in the evening to find them trying to stimulate memories and re-create emotions so they could bring these feelings to a part they were playing. I found the practice baffling but intriguing, and I borrowed books from them to try to understand the theory. This was how Strasberg described the Method approach to acting:

“The human being who acts is the human being who lives. That is a terrifying circumstance. Essentially the actor acts a fiction, a dream; in life the stimuli to which we respond are always real. The actor must constantly respond to stimuli that are imaginary. And yet this must happen not only just as it happens in life, but actually more fully and more expressively. Although the actor can do things in life quite easily, when he has to do the same thing on the stage under fictitious conditions he has difficulty because he is not equipped as a human being merely to playact at imitating life. He must somehow believe. He must somehow be able to convince himself of the rightness of what he is doing in order to do things fully on the stage.”

It made a lot of sense, intuitively, but it felt like an impossible task. Being a writer seemed simple by comparison: you just made things up. Only it didn’t quite turn out that way for me. Now I’m curious: are there other writers getting caught in the emotional fallout of what happens to their characters?

Anthony Award winner Hilary Davidson’s latest novel is EVIL IN ALL ITS DISGUISES, released by Tor/Forge on March 5, 2013. She’s also the author of THE DAMAGE DONEand THE NEXT ONE TO FALL (which has just been released in paperback). Before turning to a life of crime, Hilary was a travel journalist who authored 18 nonfiction books. Her award-winning short fiction has been widely anthologized and appears in publications from ELLERY QUEEN MYSTERY MAGAZINE to THUGLIT. Visit her online here.


  1. I can relate to this! When I wrote my first novel, I slowed down writing THE END as I did not want to leave my characters. I couldn’t bear the goodbye – their death. And when they went through traumatic or uplifting times I would sneak off to play “our music” together so I could be close to them – to mourn with them or rejoice. It is a strange thing – the line between fiction and reality and I think writers cross it all the time.

  2. With Twilight Healer, I had a devil of a time saying goodbye to the characters. Leslie and Alex had made homes in my heart, and I tried thinking up a sequel so I could stay with them, but Twilight Healer was meant to be a stand-alone. Moving on to a new cast of characters was really difficult.

    Thanks for a great post.
    Barbara of the Balloons

  3. Why wouldn’t a writer be emotionally involved with their characters and story. They have lived with them for an extended period of time. First in their conceptions, that takes place long before pen hits the paper, or in today’s world, fingers hit the keyboard. Then we cook up obstacles for them to over come, and we carry them through the turmoil of the plot, writing down every thing they do, like the perfect court stenographer.
    Most authors do not create protagonist that are distasteful to them, and usually even our antagonists have our sympathy. We write their story, and watch them perform for our pleasure, and even after we finish the draft and the story is told, then we re-write. We spend another extended period of time making them just who we want them to be and all the while showing them off, rather than telling about them. Grandparents are less enthused about grandchildren, than authors are about their characters.
    Our characters become our friends over time. We probably spend more time with them than we do with anyone else other than our spouses. If they don’t become our friends, then probably your audience won’t want to spend time with them either.
    Thanks for making me think about this. I have to get back to my manuscript. My protagonist has my cellphone number and just texted me that he has this unsolvable problem.

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