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Getting Inside Your Character's Skin

A Session with Thérèse

I write a lot about California. My love affair with the place began during a summer vacation as I walked along the coastline in Malibu. I had an overwhelming sense that this was where I belonged. I’m still not entirely sure how it happened, but within a few months I had uprooted my husband and our two teenage children from England and we were living here.

As you can imagine, our “new normal” presented a variety of challenges as we navigated our way through the culture shock of the alternative universe that is Los Angeles. For example, my first assistant believed herself a reincarnated angel and came to work wearing feather wings.

If I were asked for one tip about writing, it would be to keep a notebook with you at all times. Everything is material. Tinsel Town keeps on giving me plenty.

Back then, our daughter was doing a round of bat mitzvahs, each more extravagant than the next. I was particularly taken with the one in Hollywood, a themed star-studded “World Movie Premier” complete with sky beams, hired paparazzi, red carpet, and a couple of real “A list” celebrity guests waiting indoors. Meanwhile, our son was having sleepovers in homes the size of a small nation with helicopter pads and art collections that should have belonged to the Louvre.

I titled my collection of observations How To Stay Upwardly Moblie When You’re Spinning Out of Control. The book was rejected by Little Brown, who felt it was too similar to one they had recently published called Mommies Who Drink. I pushed the manuscript to the back of a drawer, saddened that the world was not ready for my sardonic wit and irony. I was bruised, but not for long. Developing a thicker skin is part of the job description for a writer. It took a while to realize that maybe I should be writing a novel rather than an Imaginary column in a non-existent blog. Of course a novel needs characters and a plot. Where was I going to find them? Where would I start?

At the time I was also dealing with much larger issues than my fledgling career as an author. LA is not the City of Light. It is the City of Eternal Youth. Fate was cruel. Why had I not come to live in California when I still looked halfway decent in a bikini and before my upper arms had become a project all to themselves? Why had I not been freeze-framed at forty? Then something clicked. Maybe I could dream myself into a girl who came here young, single, and beautiful. She would be the toast of the town, she would be free as a bird and…have an exotic life…and she would be called…India.


Exercise 1 Having a name for my characters is one of the most important aspects of developing their persona. I need a sound. Try saying your characters’ names out loud. Have other characters speak to them. Write their names in many forms; in type, by hand, in italics, block capitals, large writing, small script, with the second name and without. Write their signature and you’ll learn a lot about them.


Exercise 2 Write a short paragraph describing how the character came to have that name. Is it a family name? A dynasty? A nickname? A popular name? A pet name? Doing this exercise will help you build depth and get to know them intimately.


The next challenge was how to go about developing India’s character. How would I get to know her? In the past I might have made a vision board but now with social media there was a whole new opportunity. I could create a Facebook profile. I set up an account for India with a first status post –If you can’t do it in high heels I’m not interested. I posted pictures of her riding a horse bareback along the ocean. I gave her a rich sister who was a successful actress living in Malibu. I posted images of sunsets at Paradise Cove and updated her status every few hours as she left The Ivy or sipped mojitos at Chateau Marmont.

Within a few weeks, India Butler had more Facebook friends that I did. I think it shows great strength of character that I was not envious. I was basking in reflected glory and living vicariously through her. Her musical tastes were more eclectic than mine. She had read more contemporary literature and watched different kinds of movies, but she drank Sancerre – we had that in common – and, like me, she loved Rodin and Paris.


Exercise 3 If creating a Facebook page seems too elaborate a task, try creating a vision board. You will need a large sheet of paper, glue and a stack of magazines. Speed is of the essence. Rip out as many images as you can find that connect you to the character – a picture of a person who resembles her, a place, a car, a meal, a dress, a suit, a piece of jewelry. Build your composite quickly. You’re not trying to create a piece of art. The exercise is meant to free up your subconscious and give your visual imagination free rein.


Of course India could not exist in the ether. Clearly, she was an intelligent woman, so how did she earn her living? I was channeling her by now. I sensed she needed to confide. On the daily school run I wondered what she would make of the parents collecting their offspring in gleaming cars with their preternaturally flawless skin and their designer purses. I still wanted to write about them. Their lives seemed so perfect with their manicured houses, their over-privileged children, their twelve-year-olds wearing Tory Burch shoes and carrying Louis Vuitton totes. What lay beneath the veneer? I was looking for clues. I became obsessed with labels and trying to read the hidden social signals.

Somehow, India had to become an observer of this. This is when it became obvious to me that she was a teacher. She was a teacher visiting LA for the summer. What would she teach? I wondered. She’s come to Hollywood, her sister’s an actress so maybe she’s a drama teacher. Yes! She would be a drama teacher. Was she happy teaching? I wondered. Possibly, I thought, but maybe she needs a change. Maybe she sees her life slipping away. She’s single, her biological clock is ticking, her sister has a more glamorous life. She’s stuck in a rut. She needs distance and perspective.


As she sat in her MINI at a traffic light, she remembered how she had waited in vain for some sort of acknowledgment, for a reference to the wonderfully dedicated teacher who had done such an amazing job. For seventeen years she’d been working at the same school. Where on earth had the time gone? Countless Monday assemblies, seventeen Easter Parades, endless Midsummer Night’s Dreams… Sure, her natural enthusiasm and energy and the fact that she demanded a lot from the kids made her popular with them. The colleagues, however, were another story. Take last Christmas when she’d suggested hiring a martini bar for the staff party.

“Alcohol,” Miss Roberts, the vice principal, had snorted. “Whatever next?”

A good time, perhaps? India thought, but said nothing.

No. This was not her tribe, and worse, she was about to turn forty!


Making India a teacher was an easy option for me – I had taught grade school for five years in England. Write what you know is my advice here, especially if you’re a new writer learning your trade. There will be a ton of research you will do as your plot develops, but if you are on solid ground in some areas, your confidence will grow as you write. Give yourself a break and allow at least one character to be familiar to you or put your characters in a world you understand.

Reinvention is entirely possible in LA. Overnight our kids had developed American accents. Our son now spoke fluent “Dude” and was “hanging in cribs.” Our daughter was angling for a tattoo and wanting to be a model. Meanwhile, I was absorbing the California culture by a process of osmosis. My attempts to hold back the years had became a major preoccupation. Within a few months I had turned native, I was tan, with whiter teeth, smoother skin, longer hair and I was heading down Brentwood, my yoga mat rolled under one arm, water bottle in the other. This new look did not come cheap, as India too would discover.


India gulped and stared at her bank statement in horror. There’s been some dreadful mistake, she thought. Maybe I’m the victim of identity theft.

Swallowing a mouthful of coffee, she pulled the gilt bergère chair closer and scrutinized the figures. The trip to Agent Provocateur (a wise investment that had certainly given her and Adam a great return) had come out at fifteen hundred dollars (plus tax).

The highlights, lowlights, waxes, manicures, pedicures, threading, teeth whitening, dermabrasion facials, and Botox added up to another two thousand terrifying dollars. (All the more horrifying when converted to pounds on her English credit card.)

Clearly the jaunt to Fred Segal had been a grave error, but she would need the yoga pants and cutoff tops (in a variety of colors) for her workshops, and the Fendi tote to carry her papers. The La Perla bikinis and Louboutin clutch had seemed imperative at the time. And then there was the outrageous Smythson bill.


As I worked on the plot outline and other characters developed, I knew how India would behave in any situation. Her internal dialogue had become so strong in my head that I wanted to share it with the reader. (In my imagination this readership extended world wide, book sales outranked Harry Potter and India’s Summer had been optioned by Warner Brothers for a movie starring Kate Winslet and Orlando Bloom.) I found that internal dialogue is a great way of helping the reader relate to the character:


Max focused his attention on India. “You look kinda like Annie, but I thought she said you were twins.”

“We are, but we’re not identical, we’re fraternal. Annie got Mum’s blonde hair and blue eyes. I look more like our dad,” India said, glancing across the lawn to Annabelle, who was helping some kids get out of their water wings. God, she’s thin, she thought, taking in her sister’s profile.

Max looked curious for a moment and started to say something.

Please let him shut up now… India thought. Do not come out with some tired one-liner – “two for the price of one…twice the fun” – believe me, I’ve heard them all. 

He must have read her mind, because he changed the subject quickly. “So what do you do? Joss mentioned you’re some kind of teacher. That’s cool. What do you teach?”

India took a large sip of her mimosa. “I’m a sort of teacher,” she said, mysteriously. Or so she hoped. She wasn’t about to get into stories about grade-school teaching. Adam was studying her out of the corner of his eye, waiting for a more detailed answer. If only she could start the whole scene all over again. This time around she’d be ten years younger wearing a sarong, with an all-over tan and big boobs. She’d be carrying a basket with a scarf twined around the handle, and have a French accent.

“Let’s just say I’m on vacation for now,” she managed.


Here are some other tips:

  • Dialogue is a great way of dealing with the maxim of “show don’t tell.” Always read your dialogue out loud to make sure it sounds authentic. Does your character have an accent? Do they speak quickly or slowly? What speech quirks do they have? (India says “Omygod” to herself a lot.) 

  • Don’t be afraid of abbreviations. The spoken word isn’t perfectly grammatical. We tend to use shorter words when speaking. 

  • What are your characters doing while they are speaking? How are they using their hands? Are they sitting down? Are they moving?

  • Make sure each voice sounds sufficiently different from the others and is consistent. 

In the same way as actors must internalize their characters before those characters can be convincing for an audience, we writers need to “get inside the skin” of our characters. I hope you’ll find some of these tools a fun way to do this.


About the Author…

Therésè writes fiction that is at once outrageously entertaining and very wise. She has earned the praise of a diverse group of major figures in the world of letters and film, including Arianna Huffington, Ekhart Tolle, Jane Green, Goldie Hawn, and Orlando Bloom.

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