Rules for Writers – rule number four: feed your imagination

 In Diary, News

Rules for Writers, chapter four: why you need to feed your imagination, and how to do that.
If you want to write (rather than be a writer: there are some strange fantasies out there around what a writer’s ‘lifestyle’ is like), then it’s probably a reasonable bet to say you have an interest in what makes people tick.

Whether you want to tell a nail-biting story, or peel away the layers to reveal a tender, unexpected romance, or maybe craft a crime fiction novel with a devastating twist: the one thing that every writer has to deal with is people. Their loves, their hates, their motivations.

Their secrets, their dreams, their dark side.

Writers’ imaginary friends

For me, the novel is all about character. Making people up, giving them an imaginary family, imaginary friends, is what it’s all about.

I read somewhere that writer’s block is when your ‘imaginary friends won’t talk to you’. Remember that playground pain when you were five years old and your real friends wouldn’t talk to you?

It’s that bad.

But – and here I’m referring back to something I explored when dealing with the whole concept of inspiration – you can, and you will, write your way out of writer’s block.

To do this, you need to encourage your imaginary friends to talk to you.

Sit down and spend time with them. Write to them, write about them, write around them. Even take them out to dinner in your imagination and see where the conversation leads you.

It is through the act of writing that you build your characters, layer on layer.

This whole process is really about feeding your imagination, (hence the dinner metaphor!) and the more you do it, the more robust and curious and confident your imagination becomes. So, when imagining a whole new person, where do you begin?

There are as many starting-points as authors, but here’s one to try.

The Character’s identikit

Choose a character, give him or her a name.

What’s in a name?

Quite a lot, as it happens.

The name you choose will almost certainly be a significant one, sometimes even without your knowing why. Make sure you’re comfortable with whatever name you have eventually chosen for your character: you’ll probably be spending a lot of time together.

Sketch out an entire existence for this imaginary person and see what happens. It’s best to do this on a page, or a screen, in order to make the details concrete. Simply thinking about such details won’t anchor them as securely to your imagination – you may not be able to access them as easily as you would like.

Give each of your characters a date of birth, a family, friends, passions.

Know who their parents were, their siblings; where they went to school. Imagine what they looked like at the time of the birth of your story. Were they passionate readers or lovers of music? What kind of childhood memories might they have, and how might these differ from those of their brothers and sisters?

The crisis

Then throw in a disappointment, or a tragedy or an unexpected crisis and watch how they change.

All the best writing illuminates human behaviour and deepens our understanding of what makes us do what we do.

Live with your own characters, step inside their shoes. Have empathy for their predicament.

In their shoes

Remember Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird? He said that the only way to understand what motivates another is to step inside his shoes and walk around in them for a few days. He wasn’t talking about writing – but he was talking about empathy, one of the most essential writerly qualities.

One of the greatest joys of writing is precisely the cultivation of that imaginative empathy that writers feel towards the characters they have created.

Try it – one character at a time.

What might it be like to be him or her? Feel it. Flex your writing muscles.

Most of what you create in this way will not end up in the final pages of your story or novel.

It’s not supposed to.

Writers’ underwriters

As with a painter, this is the work of the underpainter – the preparation of the canvas for the vivid, colourful picture that will gradually come to life on this primed surface.

You have to become your own ‘underwriter’, rather than ‘underpainter’.

Apologies to actuaries and the insurance industry everywhere – but really, people, that word should belong to us.


Let me know how you get on – your feedback is welcome.

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Catherine Dunne author - photo Noel Hilliswriting memories and transformation - catherine dunne