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Life is full of dark times. Sadness, pain, grief and fear are aspects of the human condition we can't avoid. So when we do face difficult times, can we turn those experiences into something creative and in doing so, heal ourselves?
In today's article, author Eric Praschan shares his own experiences and how they helped him write.
The greatest writing lesson I ever learned came while lying on a hospital bed, temporarily paralyzed and mute. The lesson I learned that day:
If I want to pursue my dreams, I can’t live in fear anymore.
In December 2009, I found myself experiencing bizarre, stroke-like symptoms: blurred vision, slurred speech, cognitive fuzziness, and complete loss of muscle control. During that time, I thought to myself, “I need to come up with some story ideas or else I’m going to have an internal meltdown!”
Over the course of the next few hours, I used my own terror, pain, and confusion to imagine a character experiencing the same traumatic issues. From that tiny kernel of an idea eventually sprouted the book Therapy for Ghosts (The James Women Trilogy Book 1), and my life would never be the same again.
When I rose from that hospital bed, my health issues did not disappear, but I used my own trauma and roller coaster of emotions to give my female protagonist, Cindy James, a believable, raw framework of fear against which to struggle, strain, and strive.
As an author, you live two lives; one in your body and mind, and the other in the bodies and minds of the characters you create. Sometimes the best stories involve the intersection of these two lives—the place where your real life informs and transforms the characters you are pouring onto the page.
With that in mind, here are some writing realities that I’ve found helpful when trying to flesh out believable, dynamic characters and stories.
1. Discover your character’s psychological world within your own world.
The fodder for story is all around you.
The whirlwind of emotions you can experience in a single day is the exact range of emotions a believable character can experience. Think about your favorite characters from your favorite books. What makes them resonate with you so powerfully?
Chances are, it’s their relateable, complex constitutions—their goals, shortcomings, hopes, and fears. In some way, you can identify with those characters or understand them on some level because they reflect the best and worst parts of what it means to be human.
Why do we root for Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs when she confronts the killer Hannibal Lecter? Is it because she has all the answers and an impenetrable psyche?
Not at all. We root for her because we can sense her nervousness, self-consciousness, and desire to impress the notorious madman and seem in control of the interrogation. What makes us emotionally connect with her? We can see glimpses of ourselves in her, and we cringe at the thought of our own insecurities being laid bare, just as hers are exploited by the mastermind villain.
The author, Thomas Harris, has probably never interrogated a cannibalistic serial killer before in real life (at least I hope not), but he certainly understands the power of fear. Mr. Harris has undoubtedly experienced some measure of fear in his own life, and he weaves those same tentacles of terror into Agent Starling brilliantly. In order to create complex characters, you must dig deep internally to unearth the organic, real life emotions which can be transferred into your characters in order to authenticate them.
2. Fear is your friend if you inject it into your characters.
Fear is often taboo in real life.
We don’t want to seem weak to others, and we would rather hide our anxieties behind the façade of a strong demeanor. However, when it comes to our stories, we need to embrace fear in order to propel our stories forward. Conflict is the essence of story, and conflict is fraught with fear. Whether you’re writing a chase scene, a two-person argument, or an internal monologue, what fears are at work in your characters? How can you demonstrate those fears by showing rather than telling? Does your character have a nervous tic or odd behaviorism that signifies the onset of fear?
For my James Women Trilogy, there are seven women portrayed within the context of a 100-year saga, and most of them have nervous tics, some of which are my own real life nervous tics—scratching eyebrows, twitching fingers, and scraping fingernails. When I am nervous or agitated, I exhibit these particular behaviors, so I simply injected those same nervous tics and corresponding emotions into my characters.
3. Pain gives both you and your characters multiple dimensions.
Pain can spark growth and change in our lives, and it has the same potential for your characters. A trial-tested character is someone to whom readers can relate. Who wants to read about a character who strolls through the story with little or no conflict and no battle scars to show for it? Unless you are penning a Sesame Street novel, it’s imperative to give your character a deep reservoir of pain from which to draw and develop.
Think about the pain in your own life. How has it changed you? Are there traumas of your past which are unresolved or lingering? How do they manifest themselves—in nightmares, diary entries, or sob fests over the phone with your best friend or spouse? Use that raw emotion, infuse it into your character’s psyche, and expand it to form a multi-dimensional arc for your character.
4. When tragedy occurs in your life, channel that grief into a creative spark.
Each of us has experienced tragedy in our lives. If you haven’t, you probably need to travel to your own tropical island and sell tickets to the rest of us so we can learn your secret to pain-free living. We usually don’t want to revisit painful memories associated with tragedy, but if you’re going to find creative ways to flesh out your characters, then this is an important process to engage.
Think about how you felt at a loved one’s funeral. What went through your mind when the news came about a family member being hospitalized? What emotions coursed through you when you felt the sting of failure and loss so deeply that you imagined at the time you might never recover? Traveling back to those difficult memories is challenging, but it can be a helpful way to spur recovery in your own life, as well as a beneficial method to give you a creative spark for character development.
The idea is not to exploit your real life tragedy but to give the grief a new, vibrant voice.
For you as the author and for your character, sometimes the best and only way to fully heal is to revisit a wound for the sake of cleansing and closing it completely.
Gratefully, after numerous doctors, medical tests, and medicines, I fully recovered from my health issues. The ability to function normally is something I don’t take for granted anymore. The fears and pains I experienced during my trials gave me new insight into developing richer, multi-dimensional characters.
Seeing a character struggle through a dark time, face adversity with courage, and fight for hope in the midst of pain is something that makes us stand up and cheer. Incorporating your own emotions into a character is an honest, vulnerable process, but the result will be an authentic, heart-stirring, multi-faceted character. Try using your own experiences as a springboard for your story, even if they are painful and terrifying, and watch your characters come alive in a way that challenges, moves, and inspires your readers.
Have you used your own painful experiences and emotions in your books? Please do leave a comment below.
Eric Praschan has been writing for more than 20 years, focusing on suspense and thriller fiction. His bestselling suspense family saga, The James Women Trilogy, includes Therapy for Ghosts, Sleepwalking into Darkness, and The Reckoning. Blind Evil, a psychological thriller is out now on Amazon and other bookstores.
You can find him at: