Don’t Muzzle Your Characters

2016 May 14 - don t muzzle your characters

(Excerpt from Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them)

Many of us are sweet people who write the most gentle of stories, poems, and prose. We speak softly and would never dream of offending anyone. It isn’t in us to do so. We are genuine. We are thoughtful. We wouldn’t dream of being politically incorrect even in our own nightmares.

We are not uninformed. We watch the news on TV. We hear stories of murder and mayhem and earthquakes and death and dismemberment and dog attacks and sex crimes and domestic violence, even what goes on in prisons. We read books, sometimes naughty books. Some of us have children, so obviously we know there’s such a thing as sex. We might even consider ourselves to be unshockable.

Can we write from the bad-guy perspective? From inside his evil head? Thinking and putting vile thoughts onto paper? Of course we can. But will we? Often we’re afraid to. This is why I prefer not to write in 1st Person. It stymies. I don’t want to have to be afraid or guilty when I’m writing. I want my writing to be free-flowing and most of all, a hundred percent true.

How can we un-muzzle our characters? How can we go into our own depths to retrieve dark, negative, violent thoughts, ideas, and emotions that might be lurking in there? All those things we were told were bad when we were kids? Because of our experiences, our programming, and even our instincts (amygdalae), we are afraid of our own minds, terrified of what’s in there — or what might be in there. Writers are further cursed with fertile imaginations.

One of the several valuable things I finally understood by Doing My Writing was that we store experiences by their emotional impact. Remember our guard-dog amygdalae? Since it’s probably easiest to picture our head being full of filing cabinets, or drawers, please bear with me when I refer to things that way.

Our brain tends to be organized, it prefers to file like with like. Losses go into the same drawer whether it’s the loss of a friend, a parent, a beloved pet, a plant, or a set of keys. The most basic fear we have is the fear of abandonment — of being without, of being alone, on our own. Anything that triggers that fear, goes into the same drawer.

The experience goes into the drawer as an emotion, the same emotion experienced at the time of filing. This is very important. If you loved, it goes into the Love Drawer; if you were angry, it goes into the Anger Drawer, if you were afraid, it goes into the Fear Drawer. Perhaps I can explain best with an example: I had reached an impasse Doing My Writing and had been unable to allow myself to write about the barn on my grandfather’s farm. I would have been very young when something happened to me, perhaps two or younger? I could not force myself to go there. I was terrified to dredge that memory out of my subconscious mind.

My fear was so overwhelming that my adult mind told me I must have been sexually assaulted in there, or I must have seen something horrendous take place in that barn — a murder, a rape. There was no dissuading me from that idea. Something terrible had happened to me in that barn.

But I trusted my Guide (Guardian Angel, Great Spirit, Higher Power, God, Allah, Inner Self, whatever you want to call it), and forged onward. Eventually, I got through the huge barn doors: so high they were, so heavy. The barn smelled of cow poop and it was warm with cow urine. Comforting they were, giving milk, their oxytocin wafting into the atmosphere. It felt good.

I watched as Grandpa and Uncle John dexterously removed milking machines from this cow’s teats to put them onto another’s teats. They were so good at it, it was almost like a dance. The cows were happy as they chewed at the small piles of grain and hay in the wooden boxes in front of them. I could hear them chew. I could hear their breathing.

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING? GET AWAY FROM THERE!” Grandpa yelled at me.

He’d never raised his voice to me. I was devastated. Uncle John rushed to grab me sobbing with terror now, out of the kicking space of the Clydesdale I was standing behind, small, invisible.

When we file it, we file it with a child’s emotion. When we bring it out, we see it with an adult’s eyes.

But whenever we open that drawer to put a new experience in it, everything that was in there flies out — Pandora’s box — and must be put back in. What a good time to reorganize our experiences in light of today. That’s why loss, for instance, can seem so debilitating sometimes. We aren’t experiencing only the current loss, we are re-experiencing all our losses simultaneously. Take them all out. Examine them. Keep the ones you want. Throw the rest away.

Ninety-nine percent of us need have no fear of going deep inside ourselves to see what’s in there that might be useful for building a character. You might be very happy discovering that it wasn’t really an invading space alien that lurked in your room every night when you tried to sleep, it was a mosquito — but your mother was terrified of malaria because of her unresolved experiences. Ninety-nine percent is not a hundred percent. I know there are indeed those who have suffered terrible things, and that the pain of reliving some of those experiences would be almost unbearable alone, without professional help. But I will say that taking something out of you that was put in there when you were a child, and looking at it now, as an adult, can be unbelievably liberating.

Here’s something to practise with:


Character 1: A store clerk, Mary, is an old school chum of Brenda. She recognizes Brenda right away. Why?

Character 2: Brenda is a kleptomaniac. Brenda does not recognize Mary, the store clerk. Why not?

Exercise 1

Pretend you are inside Mary’s head looking out at Brenda. Did she like Brenda in school? Did she look down on her? Did Brenda admire her? Was Mary one of the popular girls perhaps, and Brenda a dowdy nerd without friends? Be inside Mary’s head as she wonders what Brenda is doing now for a living, if Brenda is married, if she can believe her eyes that Brenda is actually stuffing that blouse into her large purse! Be inside Mary’s head as she wonders what to do.

Exercise 2

Pretend you are Brenda stealing things. Will Brenda be upset, perhaps thinking of how mean her mother, or father, or sister, or brother, or husband, or child was to her that morning? She stuffs the blue silk blouse with the beautiful pattern on it into her purse, then suddenly recognizes Mary from . . . where? Some where. Was it pleasant? Unpleasant? Have Brenda notice Mary watching her stuff the blouse into her purse. Be inside Brenda’s head as she reacts to being seen attempting to steal the blouse. Does she care?

Try both exercises in different ways: (1) Mary’s mean; (2) Brenda’s mean; (3) they’re both mean.


Sherrill Wark is the author of Really Stupid Writing Mistakes: How to Avoid Them:

… and Death in l’Acadie: a Kesk8a story (fiction):


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