Monday, July 28, 2008

Getting to Know You

In my last post, I talked about an assignment to observe and describe interesting things about the other people I was with at Grand Lake. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person who was reticent about describing my fellow work shop attendees. I can’t recall a single exercise before this one where at least two or three people weren’t willing to share something they’d written, but with the exception of an amusing snippet of dialogue or two, everyone clammed up when asked if he would like to share.

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 Shari asked us to think about were:

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…


Charles Gramlich said...

It depends on the genre for me. In horror, I often have characters go against their beliefs and thoughts because it is a great way to get to conflict. For a heroic character I don't typically have them do so because it makes them weaker.

Julie Layne said...

Huh, the first thought that came to my mind after your first question but before I continued reading was that the characteristic my MC loathes in other people is the one she loathes in herself as well--when she recognizes it (and she doesn't always)! Then I read your next question. Waddya know.

Good stuff to chew on.

Riss said...

hey there. Cool post. It makes my brain hurt to read some of these because I don't know. And, I can see me flailing around freaking out when someone asks me because my brain would flood and I wouldn't have an answer. hehe. I guess I should study before going to a writer's workshop. I'm going to go try to answer some of these questions now and chew on some of the others for a few days...I have a good idea about some of them though and I think I can push them all further. And, not just with MC's.

Larramie said...

What a fun exercise and seemingly more probing than personally "interviewing" your characters.

Shauna Roberts said...

Interesting post. I look forward to future reports on the workshop.

How do you feel about the advice often given (and given in part by this teacher) to have shopping habits and consumer goods like cars, CDs, and magazines define a character? On the one hand, someone with a 2008 BMW 500 series car probably has a different value system than someone with the same income who owns a fuel-efficient hybrid or a 2000 Toyota Corolla. On the other hand, isn't this a rather shallow way to characterize people versus important traits such as how they treat their family, their dog, their social inferiors, and their social betters? The advice is irrelevant for many science fiction, fantasy, and historical works, and I think a good set of characterization questions should work for characters in any time period or setting. Did you have any thoughts on this, Lisa?

Lana Gramlich said...

Very interesting. Some very good mental exercises here!

Lisa said...

Charles, That's interesting. So, are characters in some genres sort of archetypal (I'm completely ignorant about fantasy) and therefore, somewhat constrained in terms of their characteristics?

Jule, I think they're actually interesting questions to ask ourselves!

Riss, No need to freak out! I don't think they're typical questions and I'd be willing to wager that very few people have considered every single thing there is to know about their characters. Don't think you have to know anything to go to a writer's workshop either. You don't. That's why we have sessions like this one! And I agree that these kinds of questions can be useful for all characters.

Larramie, I really, really enjoyed the workshops I took with Shari. I did another one with her on structure that was excellent too. Some people seem to feel that if you've taken a class or work shop on an element of craft that it's covered. I could continue to take different work shops on the same topics and I always come away with something new -- because I'm different every time.

Shauna, The list was my least favorite example in the session because I tend not to have characters who care about those kinds of things -- although it may be useful (to me) for peripheral characters. I think the list was intended to be a starting point for observable choices that would define someone. I agree with you and prefer to identify universal traits. I definitely think about the kinds of things you listed and I like to imagine the way characters act when nobody's looking. Are they more likely to hold the door open for someone, or have the door held open for them? How do they treat the little kid who comes to the door selling boyscout popcorn? How do they speak to telemarketers? Would they offer to let someone go ahead of them in the express line? Would they object if someone else cut in line? Have they ever hung up on someone on the phone? Have they ever held a grudge against anyone? How do they treat old people? Do they have close friends? Who or what are they most likely to gravitate to at a house party where they don't know many people? Would they rather be happy or right? What are they likely to eat for dinner when they're alone? How do they treat waiters and waitresses? Do they notice them? Make conversation? Yes, my thoughts are that I definitely agree with you for my reading and writing purposes -- although lots of books do address the more superficial elements.

Lana, Some of these questions really helped me to gain insights that spread over into plotting too.

Shauna Roberts said...

Lisa, I liked your set of questions better. They get to the heart of who a person is and are easier to adapt to other cultures and times.

Tim said...

Lisa, I think all questions a writer asks herself about her characters are peachy, as long as she remains open to whatever answers come rather than imposing answers that support her predetermined image of the character. And this kind of exercise, while always informative, is most useful (to me, at least) when I'm stuck. As I have been, intermittently for the past 3 months. Sometimes a question about a character (often about the antagonist) will break things wide open.

Another good question is to ask yourself about characters who haven't been on the page lately, "What's he/she doing right now?". Sometimes that'll bring an infusion of energy into the imaginative flow, at least for me.

And about fiction being easier -- a publisher just asked me whether I'd be interested in writing an actual guidebook similar to the rough travel guides that my character Poke writes. It took me all of three seconds to realize that the answer was no because it would just be too hard to get things right. In fiction, I can just make stuff up.

Usman said...

Interesting post. I tried to do a character check list some time back. While, it made me sit and take notice of my characters, I never used any info generated. It didn't gel in with the plot.
I think characters and plot are immersed in one another. Superimposing traits on characters sometimes changes your story.
In my WIP one of my characters was bland. Worse, I couldn't see why he was doing what he was doing. There was no rationale for it. Then I had a, a-ha moment. I gave him a personality trait and background that ended up making sense. I then had to go back and revise the MS.

Sustenance Scout said...

Hmmm, two great angles to consider. Funny thing is, what we loathe in others is often what we loathe in ourselves, too. It's never easy to look in a mirror and see our worst features magnified. K.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Cool things to think about. Thanks for sharing your exercise.

Steve Malley said...

I almost never know any of this stuff when I start, but always know plenty by the time I finish.

How about you?

PS- you were right; I was a bit hard on the old lit-fic the other day. Sorry.

Patti said...

lots of interesting things to think about here...i'll be back.

Lisa said...

Shauna, I think maybe the key is to ask the right questions at the right time, and as Tim notes, not to have preconceived notions about what the answers might be. Thanks!

Tim, Your point about being open to what the answers to each question might be is a really good one. And you are so right about going back to other characters -- that's exactly what happened to me when I ran through some of these exercises. I was focused on my main character, but the things I was finding out led me to start looking more closely at another character who still needed much development. I've been finding all kinds of cool things out about my people lately.

I always wondered about those Poke Rafferty guides -- they are a great idea. I guess I won't hold my breath for you to write one though :)

Usman, I am finding that there are endless checklists and writing prompts and the key seems to be finding the right questions to ask at the right time. It's funny that when we first imagine characters, we think we have a pretty good idea who they are. For me, it wasn't until I was a long way into it (like six months) that I learned how flat the characters really are on the page. Now if I could learn from Tim to pluck those shining, defining descriptions that exactly tell you who a character is in ten words or less -- ah, I can dream ;)

Karen, The longer I work at this, the more meaning comes from some of the cliches. Like: "writing takes courage". Early on, you think it's all about just trying something new, but as time goes by, the reason for the courage evolves. I think you are really on to something. To get close enough to a character that we can understand something real and meaningful and make them genuine might mean putting ourselves under a microscope and for me, that's never pretty. I've been injuring my brain the last couple of nights reading HOW FICTION WORKS, by James Woods (yes, the critic guy). He has a section on narration that gets into point of view and the merging and gaps between close third and authorial voice that is blowing my mind.

Patti, I'm glad you found them useful.

Steve, I didn't know anything at the start and I know marginally more now! I hope I know a whole lot more by the time I finish :)

Aw -- no worries. It's a free country and I think it's an interesting discussion.

Patti, Don't you have a house full of relatives right now?

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't consciously use archetpyes, but I've probably inculcated them through years of reading.

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

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