Thursday, July 24, 2008

Who, Indeed?

Every workshop I attended at the Grand Lake Retreat with the Lighthouse Writers Workshop earlier this month was excellent, but the one that really helped me break through some barriers with my own work was Shari Caudron’s Who Are These People? Bringing Your Characters to Life.

Shari Caudron, MA, MFA, is the author of two books: Who Are You People? (winner of the Colorado Book Award and chosen for Entertainment Weekly’s MUST List), and a collection of personal essays, What Really Happened, (named a humor finalist in the Book of the Year Awards).

A career freelancer, Shari has published more than 500 articles and essays in magazines and literary journals. She’s been a Lighthouse faculty member for five years and also teaches in the Master’s program at the University of Denver. For more on Shari, visit

After the retreat last year, I read her award winning book, Who Are You People: A Personal Journey into the Heart of Fanatical Passion in America.

From the back cover:

“You know those people who get passionately, fanatically, obsessively into things? People like doll collectors or Star Wars fans or that lady down
the street with gnomes all over her yard? Award-winning journalist Shari Caudron noticed them too and she was, well, jealous. Not having such a passion herself, she wondered: who are you people?”

The book is the culmination of a three year journey that took the author across the country to, among other places, a pigeon race in the Bronx, storm chasing in Kansas, ice fishing in the Rockies (Grand Lake, in fact), the World Boardgaming Championships, and a convention of Furries (I confess to voyeuristically flipping to this chapter first since I’d seen the Furries in episodes of The X-Files and CSI).

Reading about the author’s experiences with these groups is fascinating in and of itself, but she digs further to analyze how these passions relate to the way we live today, to identity, belonging, God, genetics, acceptance and communities. So it’s probably not a coincidence that I’m talking about Shari and her book in an online community of writers.

The book is fascinating, insightful and it’s funny. I give it five stars and I recommend it to anybody who’s a student of human behavior and of our culture – and who isn’t?

Shari’s workshop was on Thursday and to my surprise, she gave us an assignment two days before.

“To craft believable characters, writers need to become students of human behavior. The need to notice not only what people say, but how they say it. They need to spot the kind of pinpoint detail that can reveal character. They need to pay attention to quirks – the odd tics, the stubborn mannerisms and idiosyncrasies that make people unique.

To prepare for our workshop on Thursday, I’d like you to:

1. Spend the next couple of days listening, really listening to how people talk. But don’t just listen: jot down bits of dialogue and strange turns of phrase and cool, made-up words. (Hey, you’ll be carrying around a notebook, right?)

2. Notice – and write down – particular details about people: socks that don’t match; a goldfish tattoo; sunglasses worn indoors; chipped red toenail polish; a shirt buttoned improperly.

3. Unique bits of action; the person who won’t let different foods touch on a plate; the workshopper who’s always late and apologizes profusely; the morning jogger who runs backward for several minutes at a stretch.

The idea is not to embarrass anyone (we won’t be sharing names!), but for you to begin to notice the idiosyncratic behaviors that make characters seem true to life.”

My initial reaction to the pre-class assignment was resistance. There was no way I could write those kinds of things down, and I absolutely couldn't share my observations in public. When I describe a character, I often use what I see and hear to draw conclusions or even make value judgments about them and even when those judgments are positive or benign, I'm not sure a real person would like the way I'm describing him. The retreat was the ideal environment for doing this exercise. We were rooming with people who were strangers before the first overnight, we were sharing bathrooms, eating all of our meals together, workshopping together and hanging out together. People were on vacation doing something they loved with people who got them. I'd guess that each of the people I spent time with at Grand Lake was more genuinely herself in that environment than she is in real life. It was people-watching paradise.

Observing and recording the way people acted for the purpose of this exercise was very different from anything I’d previously done. It taught me that in relying on my inclination to create characters entirely from memory and imagination, I was missing out on a lot of very cool detail. My characters are each an amalgam of complete fiction and of aspects of many people I’ve known or met or at some point in my life, but because I’m pulling description from my imagination, I’m only using what it occurs to me to use. In some cases, it’s not bad, but overall, it could be much better.

I noticed that when I studied people I didn’t know very well, everything I could see, everything they said and the way in which they said it informed my impression of what kind of person they were. That seems obvious because most of us do that all the time, but I don’t think we’re necessarily conscious we’re doing it. Conversely, I think we tend not to notice as many details about people we feel we already know and for me, that includes some of my characters. It’s especially true of my main characters. Because I feel I know them so well, I now believe I am not describing them well enough to communicate what I take for granted to my readers.

In my next post, I’ll get into the workshop and the exercises that resuscitated my work in progress.

Are you the kind of person who creates dossiers on each character? Do you document everything about them from their astrological sign to their credit score before you begin the first chapter? Or do you start with a general idea and discover who your characters are as you write them?


Lana Gramlich said...

Sounds like it was tremendously interesting!

Charles Gramlich said...

People are endlessly weird. I'll never understand the "precisions" that some folks bring to their lives, the passions that blind them to other ways of seeing the world. I know, though, that I have such things myself. And I'm not sure I even understand those.

Riss said...

I think it's really interesting that you're willing to admit that you tend to pick up on the things that people do that annoy you instead of the opposite. I would also think that it would an interesting way to change the perspective you have about some people. It's easy to be "critical" and much harder to just see things for what they are. I have a hard time with this too sometimes. A lot of times. I notice myself getting better and worse through different stages in my life. I read a theory that said something hokie like you have to love people to write them. I don't entirely agree with the whole sentiment but I do see the point. Absolutely everyone has multiple facets-some of those are more annoying than others, however, there are endless bits and pieces that make people really interesting. I find that I tend to observe things from the outside perspective a lot...I feel like I'm watching a movie.

Oh-and the conversation listening suggestion is really cool-I did an entire short story that was entirely based on a conversation I overheard between a co-worker and a customer. Both of them were really fascinating characters in real life and they were having the most bizarre conversation. It was cool.

Lisa said...

Lana, it was, indeed.

Charles, I relate to Shari's viewpoint of near-envy of those who are passionate about a particular subject. It reminds me what Susan Orleans said in THE ORCHID THIEF. Writing is the only thing I've had a lifelong passion about and I don't think you can count that. I have "dabbled" in lots of things -- hobbies and collections -- but I've never stayed with any of them, so I wonder about it when people choose an all-consuming interest, which automatically means they're excluding participation and interest in so many other things.

Riss, I'm glad you called me on that comment because it's been bothering me ever since I wrote it and I'm not exactly sure why I initially thought that of myself. If I'm someplace where someone is legitimately doing something aggravating, I will probably focus on that, but I was laying awake last night thinking that I watch everybody all the time and I think what I was grasping for, what I was really reacting to with discomfort was that when I notice something interesting about someone, the way I would initially describe a harmless quirk or physical description would be completely benign to a stranger, but I'd worry that the actual person I've described might be upset or offended by what I've said. I think when we write a description about a fictional character, we are much freer to inject words that imply character but a read person might feel weird about what we've said. For example, clothing says a lot and if I were to describe someone as wearing offbeat, earth mother summer dresses and sensible sandals, that gives you an idea of how I see them and it's neutral, or maybe even good, but the person I'm describing may not especially like the words I've chosen. Perhaps my discomfort in describing real people is that all description inherently carries a certain judgment about who they are and my perception may come as a surprise, especially if the person is not especially self-aware. In reality, I sometimes separate myself and act as an outside observer in many situations -- like a birthday party I went to last weekend where I didn't know anyone, but the host/birthday person, so I grabbed a camera and took a lot of pictures. I may have to edit this post because the way I described my discomfort isn't accurate.

Bernita said...

Mostly discovery for me.

Melissa Marsh said...

I like to create a bit of a dossier on them, but I also leave room for discovery - that's the best part, IMO.

Very interesting post - I love to people watch and notice interesting details.

CindyLV said...

I can think of several ways I create characters. The first way comes out of left field, right over the ivy-covered wall from Waveland like a rejected homerun ball -- a fully developed character, reporting for duty.

The next way is more subtle. I will be driving, reading, even washing dishes when I hear the voice of my character first, flitting at the edge of my awareness. I call these voices "dragonflies" because they remind me of when I'm sitting on my patio, daydreaming (or reading or writing), and then I become aware of something darting around at the edge of my vision/hearing. When I look up, I discover a pair of irridescent dragonflies playing in my garden. I catch a whisper of dialogue and struggle to sift it out of the background. When I stop struggling and allow it to come, the character emerges. I have to squelch my instinct to interrogate and analyze, and just allow him/her to form. Over time, I learn what their job is and just let them react to the story situation.

Some of my characters are based on memories of people I knew. Whichever way I find them, I know I have better results when I play with them for a while before I put them to work on the page. (Just like dog training sessions.)

Riss said...

Lisa-I think I have an inkling as to what you're after-I get it...there's something really weird and sort of scary about committing opinions, ideas, or things that would "make good writing" to paper because it somehow makes it more real and there's a lot of pressure to distance ourselves from the judgmental, fully committed, in your face sorts of things that real people, real characters more specifically, need. THe problem is that we know that we are "Making them up" as it were and that they are somehow a part of what does that say about us? I don't know if that's closer to on track but it's something I've thought a lot about so now you have my 2 cents again. (C: You're going to be rich. I'm afraid people will realize themselves in my writing and a lot of the time I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, which is something that I feel is somewhat necessary to consider. I know that most people aren't as self aware as I give them credit for and that every character short of being an alien will have traits that are "universal" or whatever...I tried using the different characters I find in my own personality one time but it freaked me out because I didn't want to commit to an opinion about me...ok, enough babbling. (c:

Usman said...

I was attending a dinner two years ago, and met this interesting as in weird family.
The moment I got home I wrote down everything. The dialogs, my observations on how they had reacted and acted towards each other or other people, even myself.
I read it later, and was amazed at how well I had drawn the characters. Better than I do in my fiction.
This is in line, with what you are saying Lisa.

Lisa said...

Bernita, I'm so happy to "see" you :)

Melissa, Mine pop into being, pretty fully formed, and then develop and mature. What I'm learning to do now is stop and dig deeper into who they are to better understand how they'll feel and act within my story. It's really pretty wonderful.

Cindy, I love your dragonflies and I think it's interesting that you battle the instinct to shake them down so that they can reveal themselves to you. I think there is a constant left and right brain battle going on throughout everything to do with this.

Riss, I'm finding I don't really worry about my characters too closely resembling their real-life inspirations (if they have them) because as the characters develop, they become less the inspiration and more totally fictional. This part has been very fun. The trick has been to evoke the process to get there. I was more concerned about making accurate notes on real people and possibly being asked to share them because perhaps the real people wouldn't have cared to be described as earthy or bohemian or nervous or hesitant, etc. And this is an open babble zone :)

Usman, Yes, that's a big part of what I'm saying. I think we notice small details when we actually observe and record that might not occur to us when we try to simply imagine a character and write about him. Real people remind us how fascinating human beings really are and give us odd or interesting or quirky actions or mannerisms or speech patterns that we might not think of ourselves. As soon as I put together a post on the exercises Shari had us do, I'll share some of the things that allowed the creativity to flow and the insights to help define characters even more concretely.

Shauna Roberts said...

Very interesting post and exercise.

I get to know my characters as I write them. Then in the second and later drafts, I revise them to fit the people they became in the first draft. I've tried filling out forms for my characters. It's a good jumping off point because it forces me to give them their goals, motivations, and conflicts, but as they develop, they always diverge greatly from my first conception of them.

Steve Malley said...

Neat exercise. I usually carry a sketchbook when I'm out and do much the same thing: draw people I see, jot down snatches of conversation, etc.

Come writing time, I'm allergic to dossiers and such. I like to get to know my characters as I go...

Riss said...

Steve, I agree with you too here. I tend to always have a sketchbook and whomever strikes me as interesting at the time I draw...I make notes, I write down little things that they make me think of or that they remind me of and then I go home and try and mash all those things together hehe.

Lisa-I see that more now that I reread a few parts of your initial response. Being "accurate" though is a bit more difficult because we only have the perspective that we carry around with us inside our heads. Accurate to you may not be accurate to others because of whatever sensitivities they may or may not have. I think that relates a bit to what I was saying about committing things to paper about people-because there is something more real to me at least about writing "this woman with the blah deee blah" than saying it. I don't know why that is. Regardless (to make full use of my babble zone), I wouldn't worry so much about being accurate as just listening to every facet of yourself that starts to tingle or twitch or react when someone or something comes by or happens. I dunno. (c: Not that you have problems with your characters cause you don't but it's always cool to see how far you can push things to get to the level of writing and description you want to be at. You can only go up. :D

Seachanges said...

I think characters grow as you work on them, sometimes it's long into a story when you suddenly relialise that there are quirks that you can use, and then it's a matter of hanging on to them and so, yes, I guess you need to almost draw up characters in separate 'chapters' in notebooks. I've done the kind of observations you refer to when sitting on trains and watching people, or listening to their conversations. It's a great exercise.

Carleen Brice said...

Lisa, I have this same issue. I think it's from working at home. :) Nothing like getting out into the world and seeing real people to make "our people" more real. Malls are great for this! So are free festivals.

I have a description in my current wip that I love and I got it from seeing a guy at a concert. Never would've occurred to me otherwise.

Lisa said...

Shauna, I've come to believe that most of the first run through is jumping off point. At this point, I see where I started as a gigantic piece of marble I'm hacking away at. If I'm lucky, I may end up with a precise little figurine at the end :)

Steve, I've found that the dossier information isn't all that useful because it doesn't show me what a character will think or do given a certain circumstance. I think figuring it out as I go along is really the only way to go for me.

Riss, I think the beauty of fiction is that there is always a gulf between reality and accuracy in fiction. What my character sees in another character is only as accurate as her perspective, and that's half the fun.

Seachanges, I'm sure you've been able to capture some fabulous detail because you travel so much. I've just started HOW FICTION WORKS, by James Woods and I'm having some mind-blowing ephiphanies...

Carleen, It is the downside to working from home, isn't it? I realize more and more that I need outings just to get some inspiration for character and settings. I've noticed through your posts that you are a proponent of the research trips (to cool places too!). I need to do far more of that.

Sphinx Ink said...

Very interesting and meaty post, Lisa. The exercise is challenging and thought-provoking. And the WHO ARE YOU PEOPLE book sounds fascinating. Thanks for the info.

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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