Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Look to the Character

In my last post, I spoke on faith and writing, and in particular in how you have to lean on the story--believe that it's there, beneath your fears. I encouraged you to step out on it in faith, test its soundness even when the shape of the story isn't clear. Rely on it. Know it's there.

Now, let's talk about how you do this. How do you find the story, especially if it's amorphous and sort of slippery at the moment. You know it's there, you just can't quite get a handle on it.

Too often, when a story is stuck or growing too many subplots or the main plot is drying up on the page, our impulse is to prop it up a little. Add one more subplot or another character, or (my favorite) kill somebody off. Change the setting, make someone commit a felony, add a bizarre catastrophe or something. Bees. I love to add bees. Or a pregnancy to a shaky marriage. Add cancer, divorce, or a tidal wave.

I'm speaking of myself: I do this. Especially the bees.

But, there's a better answer. Listen to Charles Baxter: "Instead of making our narrative events and our characters more colorful, we might make them thicker, more undecidable, more contradictory and unrecognizable. (From his essay, "On Defamiliarization" in his book, Burning Down the House.)

I find such comfort in these words. No need to go to any odd or confusing lengths to save the story. Simply look to the character instead. Almost always, whatever the question or the fear or the confusion, it is the character that brings me back to focus.

I know we all have a million character exercises, but here are a few I really love. And, they're not so much exercises as they are points to ponder:

1. Listen, again, to Baxter: "Sometimes--if we are writers--we have to talk to our characters. We have to try to persuade them to do what they've only imagined doing. We have to nudge but not force them toward situations where they will get into interesting trouble, where they will make interesting mistakes that they may take responsibility for," (from "Dysfunctional Narratives, Or: 'Mistakes Were Made,'" again in Burning Down the House.) Work your way through this: first, ask your character what they've only imagined doing. Next, figure out what would make them do it. Then, there will be the aftermath, and suddenly, your story has shown itself.

2. Three questions to ask your character. This came from a workshop I once attended with Quinn Dalton: Have you ever been close to death? What do you know about the circumstances of your birth? Have you ever been wrongly accused of any crime or wrongdoing?

3. This one is from Elissa Schappell: If asked, what are three things your character would say he/she is proud of? (Write these down before continuing.) Now, which one is a lie?

4. And finally, here's something I wrote in an essay a few years back: "Inside every character, even the most ordinary—boring, even—there exists the exquisite, the invaluable, the suffocation of normalcy, the brilliant and the ugly—the something that longs to be expressed." I've never met a person in real life who wasn't, at some level, suffocating normalcy, or who wasn't exquisite or brilliant or ugly in some way. It should be all the more true for our fictitious characters, shouldn't it? In what ways is your character both exquisite and ugly? How is he/she suffocating normalcy?


william_claxon said...

Susan-Thanks for this inspiration on character. I've been stuck in my writing for months, unable to move anything forward. Now I think I can. A great birthday present.

Susan Woodring said...

Bill, so good to see you here! And, happy birthday!!

Good luck with your work. Keep at it, and keep me posted about your successes.

Nancy Pinard said...

I loved Elyssa's question "Your character is holding a container. What is it and what's inside? I may have modified that, but choosing the container is always helpful to me--for metaphorical purposes. It's always amazing when the character is holding a teapot but there's a diaper inside--one used for dusting. And what does all that say?

Jessie Carty said...

I love the term "suffocating normalcy"! Gonna have to remember that one the next time I'm trying to create a character :)

Susan Woodring said...

Nancy, I love the entire exercise--she must have used it with your group as well? It's one of the best characterization exercises I've ever seen.

Love your diaper in the teapot. I remember, I once had a character put a slip of ribbon in a measuring cup. Love, love that exercise.

Susan Woodring said...

Jessie, thank you so much!! Thanks for stopping by--I know how busy you are with writing and teaching and speaking and blogging and, and, and...