I take the first ball. As I rear back and aim, I'm also watching my three-year-old climb the next alley. I'm listening to my seven-year-old ask permission to run off to the other side of the arcade. I'm keeping my eye on my purse. My mommy-radar is on, screening all strangers as potential kidnappers and watching out for big kids looking to push little kids around. I'm calculating roughly what time it is, planning what I'll cook for dinner, speculating whether or not my husband will get home from work on time. I'm thinking I'll call my sister on the way home. My three-year-old is pulling on my sleeve. I aim, fire, aim, fire, aim, fire. I tear off the tickets when they reel out. I never actually think about what I'm doing.
There's a similar disconnect when it comes to writing fiction: we have to relax our focus a little. Allow for the right kind of distractions; avoid over-thinking. This is especially true when it comes to constructing our characters. We must write them on the slant, giving them a chance to surprise us, which is kind of a tall order, if you think about it. After all, we created them, right? We have to find a way to make it up and not make it up at the same time.
Here are a few writing exercises I plan on unleashing on a short-story class I'm starting tonight, all designed to help you come at your character indirectly:
- I Don't Know Why I Stole It: Your character walks into a store, a family member's house/bedroom, an office, a coat closet, a supermarket and steals something of no obvious value. Maybe it's a plastic seashell bracelet. An owl figurine. A pouch of chewing tobacco. A spoon. Do a little free-writing, describing the object, where it was stolen, and a bit, in the character's point of view, explaining why he stole it--or why he doesn't know why he stole it.
- Party: Your character is at a party. Describe the party. Is it a kid's birthday party? A cocktail party? A college kegger? A little old lady's garden party? Your character either really wants to be there or is there out of obligation, or for employment purposes--maybe your character is the hired entertainment: the stripper, the magician, the caterer. In any case, there is a person at the party your character is avoiding. Describe the person and your character's thoughts about the person. Show your character in scene, ducking the other person, or maybe running right into them. Throughout the scene, try to inhabit your character's thoughts and his/her body: what does the carpet feel like under his feet? How's the food? Is the music too loud? Does your character's smile feel too stiff? Is your character getting drunk?
- Okay, Here's a Sex Scene for You: I generally don't like writing sex scenes. They just aren't terribly interesting...unless something goes wrong. Or, try this: Write a scene where a couple is having sex for the last time. Likely, they won't know it's the last time, yet, you as the writer know it and knowing it will color how you describe the scene. Or just one of them will. Or, maybe one of them comes to that realization halfway through the scene. Or at the end of it. Again, you need to fully inhabit your character's point of view here. Besides the obvious, your character will notice things: the quality of light or darkness in the room, smells and sounds drifting in from other places, odd little sexy and unsexy details like a mole on a shoulder or stubble on an unshaven face.
By the way, Madison Smartt Bell wrote a great essay on a similar concept for Tin House.