Develop Your Characters By Exploring Yourself?

In her book, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott gives this advice about developing characters for your stories:

“You may only know your characters’ externals instead of their essences….In the meantime, can you see what your people look like? What sort of first impression do they make? What does each one care most about, want more than anything in the world? What are their secrets? How do they move, how do they smell? Everyone is walking around as an advertisement for who he or she is — so who is this person? Show us. Whatever your characters do or say will be born out of who they are, so you need to set out to get to know each one as well as possible. One way to do this is to look within your own heart, at the different facets of your personality. You may find a con man, an orphan, a nurse, a king, a hooker, a preacher, a loser, a child, a crone. Go into each of these people and try to capture how each one feels, thinks, talks, survives.(italics mine).

Wow. My initial reaction was “I could write an encyclopedia about this. About me. What a great idea! Just “know thyself” and “write what I know about me” in order to create interesting, complex characters for my stories! How easy is that?”

Well, really, how easy is it? When I sit here and really start pondering that, I find myself becoming anxious, feeling that I have little idea who I really am. Ms Lamott says our actions and words are born out of who we are. That lines up, too, with what scripture says about how my attitudes,thoughts, words, behaviour are a reflection of my heart. But what if, on examination, I begin to feel that the “outside me” isn’t really the “inside me” but a mask I have created (or have allowed others to create for me)? Is it possible that I have become so accepting of those “externals” that I have chosen (and/or others have chosen for me), that I really don’t know my essence? If so, how can I possibly use myself, my own heart and personality, to explore my story characters?

Am I actually that shallow? Or is doing this kind of exercise and exploration actually an awesome opportunity to dig beyond my external and discover my own complexity? And in doing that, can I perhaps, after all, create deep, complex characters?

Honestly, I’ve always found it difficult to create complex, interesting, real-life characters. And maybe it’s because I’ve avoided exploring, recognizing, knowing the real me. In an effort to be acceptable and approved, to be good and responsible and respectable, to accept “my place” as I was taught from a young age, to follow “the rules,” I feel as though I’ve squashed, even buried the aspects of my personality that are truly me, deep inside. No wonder I get depressed sometimes. No wonder I feel like I’m a boring person (though, surprisingly enough, I’m rarely bored). What are the true facts of my personality, really, at my core? A comedian? An adventurer? A hippy? A philosopher? An actor? (And if so, does that mean I’ve been a con, externally?)

I wonder. If I tore off my respectable mask and took a leap into the parts of me that occasionally squeeze out a bit through cracks in my heart, would I become a more complex, interesting character? And would that make it a lot easier for me to write interesting, complex characters? Is it too late, at sixty-something, to let loose and be a real character? Even if it means people around me might be shocked or dismayed or irritated or disapproving? (It would certainly make a much more interesting plot line in my life, too!)