Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Few More Cool Exercises on Developing Characters

Before I continue with more of the very cool things I learned at Grand Lake, I have to make a confession about writing exercises. I love doing them when I have adult supervision, but I never do them when I’m alone.

My free time is limited so I always feel like what little of it I have should be spent adding words to my story. I used to think that time spent writing anything else was just a way to procrastinate about my WIP, but I’m not so sure about that now. If I could wind back the clock to the point where I really got stuck on The Foundling Wheel, I’d use the time I wasted on obsessive circular thinking to try some exercises that might have gotten me moving sooner. I'm learning.

Here are more of the exercises I did in the workshop with Shari Caudron:

1. Draft a scene wherein the character is getting dressed. Show us the room he’s in, the clothes he’s putting on and bring us into his inner-most thoughts. What is he thinking about as he gets ready for his day? Note: When telling a story, don’t introduce these details all at once. Allow readers to get to know your character gradually.

My free write was the inspiration for the new, real first chapter of my WIP. The original free write had lots of details that told me things about this character’s marriage and her husband. I hadn’t written anything about where my character lived before, but I suddenly saw it all. When I wrote about her getting dressed, I saw her pulling clothes from a stack of folded laundry in a basket. I knew she’d been washing and wearing the same few outfits for weeks and not bothering to put them away. I saw a whole lot of things I hadn’t seen before. This simple free write was the one that opened the floodgates for me. Funny how that works.

I didn’t recognize the significance of Shari's exercise note until I started writing this post. I knew that in the free write I was loading on detail because it was just an exercise. I would never include six or seven details about setting in my WIP, but by going overboard on detail in a free write, it helped me find one or two keepers I might not otherwise have thought of.

2. Choose an important secondary character – ideally, an ally – and answer the following: Who is he? Does he have unusual tics or mannerisms or figures of speech? How is he affiliated with the main character? Describe his relationship with the protagonist.

3. Choose another secondary character – one who is opposed to the protagonist. Who is she? What is unusual, or striking or memorable about this person? Actions? Profession? Personal history? How is she opposing the protagonist? What does she want?

4. Create a scene with your protagonist and his main adversary. Show your character wanting something, and his adversary opposing him. Weave in details about your character from the exercises above, or perhaps some odd things you noticed about people here.

5. Now take that same scene and weave in some realistic dialogue. See if you can work in some overheard dialogue from the last couple of days.

6. Now that you’ve spent time getting to know your character, introduce him or her to readers. Look at the character introductions on the next page [the attachment had sample excerpts from a short story, a novel, a personal essay and narrative non-fiction]. Using them as models, draft a page wherein your character first appears on the scene.

The exercises on secondary characters netted me a lot of great new material. There is a character I knew I needed to write and I knew he'd play an important part of the last third of the story, but I hadn't written anything about him yet. Prior to working on him at Grand Lake, I had too many ideas about who he was and I hadn't focused enough yet. He came to life for me up there.

I wanted to share what I got out of this workshop for two reasons. The first is that maybe one or more of these exercises will come in handy for one of you. The second is that blogging about the exercises really helps me to clarify how and why they work for me and in fact, that’s probably the biggest benefit to blogging about the writing process. I find that trying to capture my thoughts on an aspect of craft helps me to figure out what I really think.

I’m curious. Do any of you find that blogging about a subject helps you to understand what you really think about it?

We’ve all experienced periods of working on our WIP when we’ve been in the zone. I find that free writing puts me in another type of zone. Has anyone else felt that? Do any of you back away from your WIP and use writing exercises to help you to solve specific problems?


Charles Gramlich said...

I always find that writing about something really helps me understand it and to crystalize my thinking on a topic.

As for writing exericises, I used to do them, but generally now I still consider them a waste of time when I have a manuscript that I'm working on.

Leatherdykeuk said...

An excellent post.

I find that exercise writing helps flesh out a book tremendously. Everything I learn about a character helps, whether it appears in the novel or not.

Anonymous said...

I don't do exercises, but find the characters developing within the storyworld itself. I also believe that most people inadvertently absorb a lot about others whether paying close attention or not, and that this experience comes out in the writing. Of course, the older one is, the more one may have absorbed.

Anonymous said...

It's funny you ask about whether writing helps us work through stuff, because my wife sometimes gets frustrated with me because things that come from a deeply emotional place for me usually emerge when I write something down (rather than saying it). Whenever she asks me the infamous wifely, "What are you thinking?" question, I joke and say "Um, hmmm, uh, I'll send you an e-mail."

As for exercises and such, I'm with Charles and anon. I do think there's some value in them... I'm just not sure what it is (especially when I'm in the midst of a MSS). I understand, though, your own mileage may vary. If that's what's gonna get you out of the corner you've written yourself into, then who am I to criticize. Still, I maintain --- as I've mentioned to you elsewhere --- that THE FOUNDLING WHEEL's in much better shape than you think it is.

A few months back I was talking to our friend Ted, who said, "a novel will transform a hundred times" while you're writing it. Maybe a hundred is too high, but the point was that, at this stage of the process and in your journey, it's probably more important for you to write the words "The End" than to go back and fix chapter one.

Steve Malley said...

DIdja know Elmore Leonard does something similar? Before he fires into a new book, he'll spend a little time writing quick vignettes with the players, getting a feel for how they'd react in certain situations.

Then, plotless, he writes!

Jennifer said...

Thanks for sharing this, Lisa! And great news about your progress with THE FOUNDLING WHEEL! You must be so excited.

I've never been one for writing exercises either. This is what I wrote in a recent-ish post about them:

"The word 'exercise,' when applied to writing, subconsciously sabotages my attitude before I even begin. It implies a lack of importance, of permanence. I have plenty of unfinished manuscripts for honest-to-goodness projects waiting for me, and the idea of creating more unreadable, unusable prose is discouraging."

But then, I've never really given them much of a chance. I can see how they may not be for everyone in every case, but anything that helps you out of a corner can only be a good thing, IMO. So I'm going to bookmark this and come back to the exercises as work progresses on my novel.

Writing anything (stories, journal or blog entries, e-mails, etc.) has always helped me understand my thoughts and feelings about a topic. I always come back to something I read in Forster's Aspects of the Novel (which I really should re-read one of these days). He references an anecdote that must have been familiar to his audience about an old woman whose nieces accused her of being illogical. Her response to them is, "How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?"

Sometimes I think I should print that out and tack it above my computer. :) It's a sort of motto for me.

Lisa said...

Charles, That makes sense. I think I'm finding exercises useful because I haven't gotten my story figured out yet.

Rachel, I have that feeling about these side trips too. A large chunk of what I write isn't used, but I feel like it's all a useful means to an end.

Susan, There are definitely some benefits to getting older, especially when it comes to developing and understanding characters -- The trick for me is to take what I intuitively know, recognize it and articulate it.

Rob, I find the risk in trying to verbalize emotional issues is I don't have the luxury of editing and revising before I open my mouth :)

I appreciate the encouragement with about The Foundling Wheel. It means a lot. I don't plan to fix anything I've written beyond the first chapter, but it was important for me to rewrite the start because I have to come back to it now and continue the story and knowing that I'd gotten it all wrong the first run through was going to make moving forward really difficult (Tracy has a whole different job, lives in an entirely different place and is actually a pretty different person in take 2 of chapter one -- that doesn't impact the 1980's piece of the story, so it's all I feel compelled to fix for now).

I had lunch with Karen and it sounds like the four of you have settled into a great group. I hope I'll have a chance to maybe sneak back in once I've finished my first draft.

Steve, I did not, but I think that's exactly what I've done with my story. I started with a situation and now plotless, I've had to move on. The cool thing is that I don't feel frustrated or like I'm wasting time. I feel like I'm learning my craft and doing it in about as efficient a way as I can. It's really pretty exciting. I like to delude myself into thinking that by trying to really learn as I go, I'll have a little bit better chance at a decent first effort than I might have otherwise. Wish me luck!

Jennifer, I am excited and I find that whenever someone asks me about The Foundling Wheel (someone who really is interested -- so that's a tiny group of course!) I am excited when I talk about where I think it's going and what I think is going to happen.

I remember your post and I completely understand. Right now, I'm really only into the exercises that are going to help me with The Foundling Wheel, so no interesting, but non-productive exercises for me.

I may share some of the ones I find that net me some progress later. And I LOVE that anecdote.

BTW, I will likely post about HOW FICTION WORKS in my "books I read in July" post, but it's meant to be the James Wood update to ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL. I think YOU would love it.

Seachanges said...

I sometimes do exercises, at other times I simply write away without much focus or thought. The blogging is definitely helpful and focuses some of my thoughts on how or when I should be writing. Let's not forget all the encouragement that fellow bloggers provide and the insight you gain from other blogs - like this one!

Karen Carter said...

Ha, Lisa, had to laugh at your answer to Rob. I am right there with you on that one! I'd much rather draft an e-mail than approach a touchy subject face to face with anyone. Because you're right, it is in the writing that the true essence of an issue or plot point or character trait comes out.

My goal is to start every day with a writing exercise just to get things rolling. It's kind of like eating breakfast to kickstart the metabolism. That way I can "work" on a writing project even when I'm not actually writing.

Hope you and Scott are enjoying a fun birthday weekend together! K.

Sustenance Scout said...

Shoot! I keep forgetting to change my identity when I comment on blogs. I feel like I have three alter egos these days! K.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf