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.
A career freelancer,
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
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 downthe 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
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?
“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
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?