The Writing Process: the imrortance of getting into your characters’ heads

In March, I wrote a post called Write about what you know.

Last week, I was thinking about Writers, and how they must transcend what they don’t know from experience in order to tell a tale.

Oscar Wilde came to mind. He was a Writer who didn’t worry about what he knew or didn’t, but stepped into his characters’ heads and knew what they did, and felt what they felt.

The Importance of Being Earnest was first performed on February 14, 1895 and the text of the play is available from Google Books and Project Gutenburg. If you haven’t read it, I urge you to download it today. It’s a fabulous comedy, free, and not all that long. Granted, some of the dialog is composed of very long sentences, but that’s the nature of 19th century writing, and Oscar Wilde is by no means the most verbose Writer of his time.

In the second act, Gwendolen and Cecily both believe that the other has deceived her and conspired to marry the same man. Insults fly.

Cecily. Do you suggest, Miss Fairfax, that I entrapped Ernest into an engagement? How dare you? This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade I call it a spade.

Gwendolen. [Satirically.] I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.


Each insult ups the previous one, and although Cecily and Gwendolen both speak in a similar fashion, it is not unreasonable to accept that as a result of the times and also as good characterization of upper-class ladies.

As both a Reader and a Writer, it is clear to me that Oscar Wilde wrote both what he knew, and what he did not.

He knew the social graces of his time and how young women spoke to each other. He had the capacity to get himself into their heads, and he used it, and used it well. He was not a young lady in love, but his imagination and general knowledge allowed him to create a play in which all the characters acted and spoke like people of that time.

The importance of knowing your characters cannot be overstated and should not be underestimated.

While it can be helpful and entertaining to use your own life experiences in your writing, knowing what you are writing about is not the only gateway to a well-written play, novel, or short story. Imagination is the key. Stepping into your characters’ heads will unlock their worlds, and you can and should use research to guide you, but ultimately, becoming your characters is your most valuable tool as a Writer — besides your pen or keyboard.

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