Breaking Yourself Up Into Your Characters

By Bob Yehling

I faced a serious time crunch, even for a life in which time always seems to fold on top of itself. I sent a list of potential “next books” to my agent—five or six ideas, and told him I was not beholden to any particular order. “Recommend whichever book or books you think will be our best next shot,” I said.

Within two days, his recommendation came back. He chose The Voice, an idea for a novel with which I’d been playing—entirely in my head, never on paper—for two years. What’s more, he marked his choice with exclamation points. In this tough-as-nails publishing climate, when a successful agent puts exclamation points next to something, you push everything else aside and write it. I shook my head. That figures: He wants the one title that has never been outlined, mapped out or even played with beyond a journal entry or two. Never mind character sketches, settings, narrative arcs, conflict/resolution treatments or the other preparatory work I normally do when preparing to write a novel or long short story.

I took a deep breath—then held it when I read the next sentence in his e-mail. “Because of the political theme, if you can get it done by October 1, we may be able to sell it in time for the 2004 (presidential political) season,” he wrote. “Hurry.”

It was May 20. I had less than four and a half months, with a one-month period looming in June and July in which my other commitments would render it impossible for me to write a word

To put it kindly, the challenge was daunting. I would need to employ all imaginable speed, creativity, focus and ability to use dialogue to propel the story forward. I would also need to develop characters in a hurry, and breathe life and realism into them so that they didn’t resemble the stick figures that lurch in and out of so many hurried novels like tin men in a snowstorm. My only “advantage,” if you can call it that, is that I’d spent time mentally grooming my protagonist, a 1960s-era rock music legend with keen political savvy and the ability to grasp and bring out the higher qualities of the human condition. He was a fun character, a creative character, one that appealed well to my lifelong fantasy of being a rock star and my tendency to dart in and out of political activism whenever the times and issues felt crucial to me. This was one of those times.

I worked out the protagonist by peppering his world with grains of my own life in order to develop a sense of the familiar. During this process, I tripped and fell into the secret of how to write this book: I would season all of the characters with slices of my own life. Everything would become fair game— travels, conversations, readings, music, dreams, intuitions, observations, likes, dislikes, realizations, journal musings, memories, relationships, adolescence, triumphs and failures. “Stand naked before your audience,” Robert Bly admonishes; I had to go all the way. The characters would “choose” what they wanted from this pool of my life, and “integrate” it into their own existences, their own experiences.

I got to work. The plot line of The Voice is straightforward: The rock music legend, Tom Timoreaux, is “drafted” to run for president by a pair of top-flight strategists—one Republican, one Democrat—who are disgusted with the disintegration of the political and governing processes. They defect and turn to Timoreaux, whose political acumen has helped numerous members of Congress and the Senate over a 30-year period. However, Timoreaux and his old band are planning a major 40-stop tour that is already sold out. In The Voice, the intensity of an 11th hour presidential campaign and a long-awaited reunion tour converge—and the protagonist’s voice and vision hold center stage.

However, one character would not make this book. The Voice is populated with subplots and side stories, to show Timoreaux’s colorful “behind-the-scenes” life. He hires his wild-child youngest daughter, Christine, to sing backup vocals in the band; as the summer progresses, she becomes a star. His wife, Megan, is the family’s core, a nod to the Native American tradition in which the wife is the true guiding force. His three other children also play roles in the book. The two strategists, Roger Wilkinson and Jason Robiski, are fully developed, as is the lead agent on the candidate’s Secret Service detail, Mike Jensen. To throw in some personal and political intrigue, I added an alluring Italian woman who may or may not be the candidate’s daughter from his formative years in San Francisco (he was a 1960s music legend, after all); and a foe who doesn’t want the status quo to change—and will stop at nothing to silence Tom Timoreaux.

I breathed pieces of my own life into each of the characters and many of the scenes. My muse brought forth a collection of 30 songs for Tom and Christine; “after all,” she sweetly whispered into my inner ear, “you can’t have an original band without original music.” These songs were the sweetest surprise of the whole process, one of the greatest occurrences of my writing career, and attested to the absolute trust I give the creative process when writing first drafts. You may receive these jewels, and you may not, but you’ll never have a chance if you question and edit and discard during the creative process. I gave Tom a number of my personal characteristics—love for San Francisco, love of 1960s rock music, a Leo’s need to be on “center stage,” teaching creativity to young people, living in the New Mexico mountains (my former home), and much more. To borrow from Alice Walker, I constructed around him the temple of my familiar—to a degree.

I gave Megan Timoreaux my love for the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire (she comes from that region), my fondness for Native American and ancient Sumerian cultures, the level of awareness consistent with a long-time meditator, an ability to shut off the noise of the world, and a talent for painting and photography (both dormant in me at present). She loves medicine wheels and the poetry of Catullus. She is a deeply loving, supportive parent. She’s a strikingly beautiful, tender woman in her 50s who takes rugged hikes and protects her family with a lioness’ ferocity. (There’s that Leo again.)

Christine Timoreaux is a partial reflection of my own daughter—stubborn,beautiful, independent, and engrossed in college. She’s also a gifted singer and art student who (unlike my daughter) loves to party. Her strained relationship with her father opened up a maelstrom of personal pain from deep in my core when I covered it. Roger Wilkinson is a political wonk, a high intellectual, a connoisseur of fine art, a bow-tied nerd—which I was until my early teen years. Jason Robiski is a fast-moving, jet-setting lover of strategy, intrigue, all things Italian and beautiful women, who sometimes gets into pickles with the latter and a figment of my very real past. Mike Jensen is a Secret Service agent with a wild streak, a rugged outdoorsman, highly protective of family and his detail, observant to the extreme, and a lover of eagles. I can relate. Damiana Scigliano, the Italian mystery woman, loves ’60s music, lives in Venice, still idealizes her romantic partners, and will not be stopped if a matter concerns principles and the salvation of her own dignity. All traits that, for better or worse, I carry.

The characters “seasoned” themselves as the writing progressed. They took on lives of their own, voices of their own. I used these personal characteristics to animate them, to develop an energetic and emotional charge between the characters and their storyteller—me. In this way, the characters’ voices rolled through loud and clear, and I could become an instrument for the story they had to tell, with all its twists, turns and surprises.

The pace was never a problem: Two of the most intense experiences I’ve ever witnessed were a rock music tour and a political campaign. In The Voice, they come together. Everything runs at warp speed, where things happen quickly and people think on their feet. So do my characters. While they began with a smattering of my qualities (and idiosyncrasies), they finished as far different personalities. That is the beauty of the entire “breaking yourself up” process. If you spread the seeds among the garden of characters, and let them sprout into distinct beings through deep characterization and effective dialogue—vital for good fiction—then your readers will never know that you utilized this technique.

By breaking myself up, I was able to grab a character and know whose hand I was holding as he or she told the story through me. From that beachhead of a trait or two, entire beings developed and blossomed in ways I never imagined when I sat down to tackle this ridiculous deadline. As the book grew, three more benefits of this technique revealed itself: I found I stayed “in character” much easier, the dialogue fully conveyed the characters’ respective voices, and I immersed in the creative, timeless pure writing flow for four or five consecutive hours a day. As Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway emphasized, that’s all a writer needs—and they produced the works to prove it.

I finished the 170,000-word first draft of “The Voice” on September 16, two weeks ahead of schedule. When I began to rewrite and revise, and trim about 40,000 words from the draft, yet another gift from this character-building process showed itself: I had only half the work of previous books. All the story needed was a comprehensive revision and a fine-tuning. I’d written as fast as I could for three months, and the entire narrative arc and personality bloom of the characters came out right the first time. It felt like an outpouring of manna from the heavens.

Following my experience, I decided to test the effectiveness of this technique for others by taking the plunge. I introduced it to a class of mostly professional writers in a September workshop I conducted, and also advised a couple of clients whose books I was editing to animate their characters by injecting more of “what you know.” The response was strong and positive; their characters sprang to life. I then asked myself, “Is this just my ego billowing to new heights by thinking my life is so interesting that it can define every character in every book I ever write?”

There were two answers to that question, besides “No”: I wrote what I knew; and my characters did not define themselves by my personal experiences or traits. They are much different than me. This just helped me to get to know them and bring them to life in the face of a near-impossible deadline. I looked back at several books of one of my favorite authors, Joyce Carol Oates, and saw where she often did the same thing. She had to. So do we: We have to make our characters real. We make them real by writing what we know. Furthermore, I learned much about myself from spending the summer with these characters—and I came out of the experience feeling more complete, relieved, exhausted, and wondering if I even wanted to write another novel again.

It’s two months later. Another set of characters are knocking on the door, looking for an animating characteristic or two that will throw open their worlds. They want to form a fictional reunion of my freshman high school English class and relive an experience in that class that changed and defined my life. I think I’ll help them out.

Bob Yehling is a writer, editor, teacher and author of two books, Make Me An Eagle and The Voice. He teaches writing workshops throughout the country, including the Writes of Life series, which includes a segment on breaking yourself up into characters. You can find Bob Yehling at his Website