Understanding your characters

In a long and wonderfully written New Yorker profile of two time Man Booker Prize winner Hilary Mantel, writer Larissa Macfarquhar describes a breakthrough Mantel had in understanding her characters:

“When she’s starting a new book, she needs to feel her way inside the characters, to know what it’s like to be them. There is a trick she uses sometimes, which another writer taught her. Sit quietly and withdraw your attention from the room you’re in until you’re focussed inside your mind. Imagine a chair and invite your character to come and sit in it; once he is comfortable, you may ask him questions. She tried this for the first time when she was writing “The Giant, O’Brien”: the giant came in, but, before sitting down in the chair, he bent down and tested it, to see if it would take his weight. On that occasion, she never got any further, because she was so excited that she punched the air and shouted “Yes!” But from then on she could imagine herself in the giant’s body.”

This astonishing insight does not surprise me. Our minds are constantly imagining our characters and rounding them out as humans. The people I’m writing about have taken on personas that I never anticipated and it is perhaps the most interesting thing about writing a novel. And I’m definitely ready to sit down and have a one to one conversation with several of them (individually of course, I don’t want them ganging up on me!).

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