by June Hur
I received an email from one of my readers who recently decided to dabble a bit in writing herself. She wrote to me of how lifeless her characters seemed, and thus, how discouraged she felt when hearing other writer friends talk about their characters being so alive to them, like real friends. What, she then asked, does it mean by characters being alive to you? How does it feel like? How can a character created by a bunch of words seem like a human to you? How can they take you on an adventure when they’re YOUR creation? I completely understood her. I was once in her situation myself. But after writing day in, day out, I came to a point where the two protagonists in my book became so real to me that I at times want to call them up for a cup of tea, just to chat. I’ve learned that to grow a relationship with your protagonist(s), a writer must make two investments:
TIME INVESTMENT – My current project, THE RUNAWAY COURTESAN, took me 3 years to write and revise. Before applying for university, I spent two years abroad, and ended up writing for 4+ hours a day. In total, I calculated that I had spent over 5,000 hours on this story—excluding the hours I spent thinking about the characters and plotline. Mandy Hubbard had to likewise spend hours after hours on PRADA & PREJUDICE before she could get it published. It took Sarah J. Maas 6.5 years to write all three books of QUEEN OF GLASS, where she’d spend three to four hours on the weekdays working on it. It took Savanah Foley 6 years to complete and revise WOMEN’S WORLD (Antebellum) and she would spend up to 4 hours working on it every day. It took Lynn Heitkamp 7 years to write and revise THORN OF THE KINGDOM. The other lovely contributors are still working on completing or polishing their manuscript, and also devote much of their time to writing as well. So when you end up spending thousands of hours in the mind and heart of a character, of course they come alive!
EMOTIONAL INVESTMENT – In order to write as realistically as possible, novelists must dig deep into the chambers of their heart to renew the feeling of joy, anger, jealousy, grief, fear, despair, or whatever emotion they need to write about. Think about this example: How could you write about Jane having the most heart-wrenching breakup with John if you’ve never even gone through a breakup? Nothing can come from nothing, after all. A writer needs either to have gone through such an experience, and be willing to renew the haunting emotions correlated with it—or the writer needs to have a big imagination in order to put themselves through such an ordeal. That’s why many writers listen to music while writing. They need music to stimulate their imagination to plunge them into an emotion never experienced before, or to emphasize an emotion they had only felt a dose of in the past. So we, the novelists, end up feeling what the characters feel. We cry and laugh with them. And this intimacy breathes life into the characters.
Characters don’t come to life over night. Like any other relationships with human beings, a relationship with one’s character takes patience. When I first began writing TRC my heroine and hero were like stick-people to me. They were strangers. But gradually, my protagonists began to speak and act in ways I had never planned. The subconscious part of me was telling the story now. The conscious “June” was no longer in control. And it was only then that my characters took me on an adventure. It was only then that they became flesh and blood to me. Truly, when your characters take their first breath, it is the most wonderful, amazing feeling ever.
I’d like to end this article with two questions: How long do you write for every day? How alive are your characters to you?
June Hur is the author of The Runaway Courtesan. She is currently awaiting the response of an agent who requested her full manuscript. When she is not working on her next book, she can usually be found at a book shop, searching for a Great Love Story to read and analyze. You can follow her on Twitter or through her blog.