In my last post, I talked about an assignment to observe and describe interesting things about the other people I was with at
This experience made me realize how much more freedom we have in writing fiction than in writing narrative non-fiction or memoir, and I’m not talking about simply freedom from upsetting real live people. It’s about how much more creative we can be when we allow ourselves to break away completely from the first image we had of a character, particularly if that image was inspired by reality.
In the first exercise of our work shop on building better characters, we split up into pairs and we interviewed each other, the interviewee acting as her main character. Give this a try. It’s fun and you may find out some interesting things.
I interviewed my partner first. She’d done her five minute reading two nights before, so I had a good feel for her story. She (her character) was in a second marriage and had young step-children. I asked her about her relationship with her ex-husband, how her parents felt about her divorce and remarriage, what her religious background and beliefs were, whether or not she had close friends, what the biggest source of conflict in her current marriage was, what she did for a living, what her financial situation was like, where she was raised, etc. My partner was able to quickly answer some questions and others, not so quickly.
When she interviewed me, I had to organize my thoughts quickly to provide straightforward answers without going into a lot of back story. Imagining myself as my main character talking to a new acquaintance who knew nothing about me was a great way to cut to the chase. I took it as a good sign that she quickly got sidetracked and was asking more “what happened then” questions than questions about the character herself. There were a number of things I needed to do to develop my character more. As a bonus, I learned that from a plotting perspective, there were some specific things that needed work. I was able to jot down a detailed to-do list from this interview.
In the next exercise, we talked about visual details. Most of us find literal physical description boring, but other details, like tics and mannerisms are not. Some of the questions
What is the first thing a casual observer would notice about your character?
What do your character’s choices reveal?
Whenever a character has to make a choice in life, that choice will reveal something about personality and values. Think about what choices your character has made for the following: cell phone ring tone, dog’s name, the car he drives (versus the car he really wants to drive), favorite breakfast, most listened-to iPod songs, etc.
I could think of hundreds of details that all speak to who my character is. Details related to where she lives, housekeeping habits, how she dresses, how she wears her hair, where she works, what or if she cooks, what restaurants she eats in, whether or not she goes out to movies, what movies she watches, what books or magazines she reads, what television shows (if any) she watches, where she shops, Beatles or Stones; all of these things focus in on who she is.
Here are some questions that cracked open my character and the entire story for me:
What characteristic does the character loathe in other people?
I hadn’t thought about the question for my character before, but once I did, I knew the answer and realized that informs a great deal of her actions. Now that I recognize this, I can use it to much better effect in determining her actions and reactions.
In what way do her actions go against her stated beliefs?
I knew the answer to this immediately. I also knew that this is something that all human beings struggle with from time to time and that it’s a beautiful source of conflict and tension to work with. I realized I should play this up more.
If you’re writing a story, what characteristic does your main character loathe in other people? Is this something you were aware of, or did you have to think about it? How about the next question? Do your character’s actions go against her stated beliefs, and if they do, are you using this to build up conflict?
I’ll post more on the work shop exercises during the week…