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Getting inside your character’s mind

Recently, I read Jacki Lyden’s memoir again, Daughter of the Queen of Sheba: A Memoir. I don’t normally read memoirs more than once. But I wanted to re-experience her word riffs and stream of consciousness writing to see if I could find a way to use these tools to go deeper into the minds of my own characters.

Lyden tells the story of growing up and living with a mentally ill mother. Her parents divorced when she was young and, after her mother marries a doctor who turns out to be controlling and abusive, she begins to speak to God and believe that she is the Queen of Sheba.

The author writes the lines below in response to a letter from her mother, who says that she was really never mentally ill, and that her behavior was the result of the prescription drugs her doctor-husband gave her. Lyden writes:

“Never crazy. It never happened to you. Ant Trap Zap! It never happened to me. We’ll throw out those old pages and get some new ones at the K Mart. There is a life I’d like you to try, size six. We can always take it back if it doesn’t fit. You will be a housewife heroine, pushed into adversity by a demanding doctor-husband and prescription drugs, and I will be free forever from the taint of your insanity. Prescription drugs, I tell my friends confidently. Misdiagnosis. Miss Diagnosis. Clodhopper attendants, Nurse Ratched on the case. Dolores naked and chained in a pit. Lions and tigers and bears.”

Lyden’s response to her mother is typical of other passages in her memoir. Her purpose is two-fold: to capture the essence of what it feels like to be “crazy” like her mother, and to show how her mother’s behavior has affected her daughters—at times, they too feel as if they’re going crazy.

To achieve this, Lyden writes these segments in a stream of consciousness style with short fragments, metaphor, rhyme, and nonsensical phrases that her mother spoke in the past: “Ant Trap Zap!” The effect is a wild, lyrical, singsong ride. As her reader, we are captured for the duration of the ride.

Even if you don’t have a character in your manuscript who suffers from mental illness, you can use Lyden’s technique to go deeply into the minds of your characters.

I’m currently dreaming up characters for my next manuscript. First thing in the morning—after coffee but before internet or anything else—I set my timer for 10 or 15 minutes at the start of my writing session and pick one area that I want to know about my character, i.e. how they feel about themselves, how they feel about another character, what incident from their childhood affects them the most as an adult, what books they read (if they read), what are their hobbies, etc. Sometimes, I take just one word that has meaning for the character and let them do a word riff on it (more on that in another post).

I take on my character as if stepping into their skin. I write from the inside. I write in their thoughts. Do they think fast? Make quick connections? Or are they a slow, plodding thinker? How smart are they? I learn the most about my characters when I write from inside their minds.

Eighty percent of what I write from these exercises may never make it into the book but the benefit of doing this work first is that I don’t have to stop in the middle of a scene and try to figure out how the different characters would respond. I already know.

Exercise: Start a list of questions to ask your characters. I keep a running word document with questions and add to it as I go. Then for a few minutes each day, step inside your character’s mind and write. Do it Goldberg style—write for a set period of time without lifting your pen from the page. (And I do recommend old-fashioned pen and paper for this exercise—you will go deeper).

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