Self-care for writers: Don’t take on your characters’ emotions5 min read

by May 19, 2017Writing0 comments

We’ve written before on Plotist about self-care.  It’s something that’s important for everyone, but something writers need to be especially cautious about considering the solitary, and often sedentary, ways of working.  But there’s another element of self-care that writers also need to be concious of, and it’s one they share in common with the acting community.  Taking on the emotions of your characters.

I don’t know how you write.  Everyone’s way of writing and brain chemistry is going to be different.  Maybe when you write a really tense scene you just feel the pleasure of getting that scene down well.  That’s great, sometimes I can do that too.  But sometimes, when I write a stressful scene, I end up stressed.  When I have a violent scene to write I can feel uncomfortable,  or perhaps even more uncomfortable if I felt okay writing something that dark.  The emotions can be intense.

Spending too much time in your own head is not always healthy.  Spending time in other peoples’ heads can’t always be healthy either.

We’ve all heard of method acting, when actors inhabit their character.  I think there are times when writers have to do this too.  You spend a long time with your character(s), often much longer than an actor as books can take years.  You are living in their skin, thinking about what they’re yearning for, the stressful situations they are in, and Odin knows what else.

We know where the boundaries stand between our fiction and our lives.  (If we don’t, there are more serious medical issues at hand.)  But there is a necessity, when something terrible happens to your character, for you to get right into their head so that you can write really considerately about their emotions and reactions.  To do that, you need to spend a lot of time thinking, or researching, horrible things and legitimate responses to them.  Not fun.

If you recognise how writing these scenes impacts your own mood, then that’s a great start.  You need to then work out your best methods to clear your head afterwards.  Maybe it’s just ensuring you always end your writing sessions on a happy (or neutral) scene.  Maybe it’s making a cup of tea after a heavy scene and thinking about nice things going on in your own life.

There are a number of mindfulness practices that we can co-opt to suit our purpose.  One practice in particular is to list three things that you are grateful for that day.  Why not use it at the close of a manic writing session to give yourself distance from the story?  Close the laptop and think of dialogue you wrote well or scenes that you tackled in an innovative way.  Maybe there were some word or imagery choices that were utterly perfect.  This puts distance between you and the events.  Your characters are in the actual or proverbial sh*t, but you are doing pretty damn well with your writing and should be feeling good.

But what about if you aren’t so aware of how your mood is impacted by your writing?  If you are regularly feeling distressed or angry then it’s a good idea to take a step back.  Where is that emotion is coming from?  It may be entirely external (in which case, you still think about how to tackle it), but think about your story and writing experience too.

Often, with stress and other mentally strenuous emotions, writing can actually be cathartic.  You can pour everything out of you and onto the page.  It can make you feel lighter.  It can be very healthy.  Let’s try and keep our own writing this way!

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