Think of Your Character as Many People

 Kundun: a biopic with four
different actors playing the Dalai Lama.

Regular readers of Writerly Life have heard the lifelong interest I’ve had in Buddhism. Whatever your religious inclinations, Buddhism has much that is fascinating to say about the nature of the self and our interdependence in the world. And one particular tenet of Buddhist doctrine has gotten me thinking about my writing. Buddhists teach that there is no one continuous, whole self; instead, we are a kaleidoscope of different, dependent selves, each one a kind of domino falling from the previous’s touch. This metaphor is particularly sharp in movies, when different actors are used to portray one character at different ages. And if the Buddhists are right, then we are all like those actors, very different people being pulled together to create an assemblage of one person.

What does this have to do with writing?

This can be a useful metaphor to think about when constructing characters in fiction as well. Is your character really the same person that he was when he was a child? Is he the same as when he was a teenager? Events that happen along the way change us profoundly; the choices we make determine the people we become. Sometimes those people are very different than the people we began as; the gulf between ourselves then and ourselves now is the stuff of drama and fiction.

After the jump: playing with versions of your character.

Use these different versions of self to your advantage.

There’s something inherently dramatic about the transformation we all undergo as we grow up, grow old, or grow different. How can you use it in your writing? Remember that your internal vision of Suzy Jones at 36, stuck in a dead job, is not the only dead-end job. A great source of sympathy for even appalling characters can be to remember them when they were children, hopeful, innocent, unsullied by the world. Or it can be very powerful to imagine Suzy at the end of her life, and see what kind of an end she might have. All of these different people are Suzy, and they deserve to be hinted at in your rendering of her.

One comment

  1. I’ve always said I feel like there are different versions of everyone. There certainly are different versions of me! If I don’t take care of myself physically and mentally, I definitely become a very unlikable version of myself. And the people I surround myself with definitely contribute to the version of me that that I am each day. I never thought of how this applies to my writing until now though! I love this post.

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