Pushing Your Characters Deeper

Characters are tricky. You’d think they’d do whatever you want. You’d think they’d be as easy to write up as a list. Strong but vulnerable, damaged but tries to hide it, wants something (of course), and has to fight for it. Okay, go. That’s the kind of start that leaves us staring at the screen. Characters are made up of specifics. They look and act a certain way. Their voice reflects their history, as well as their attitude. They have dreams and carry pain. To be authentic, their actions and decisions need to be true to who they are. Writers often begin with some insights about their characters, but may have trouble fleshing them out more fully. A few key techniques can help you to crack them open.

1. Asking Questions

In his lectures at Off Campus Writers’ Workshop, Fred Shafer – literary editor, writer, and writing teacher par excellence – suggests that writers should try to move in and out of their characters: outside to assess and ask questions, and then inside to find answers. He is talking about probing questions, the same as you might ask a loved one in trouble. For example, I like to ask my characters: What are you thinking about? What worries you? Why do you seem to be in pain? What are you hoping for? Why does it matter to you? And perhaps most important in my experience: What haven’t you told me yet? You also want to ask them things more particular to your piece. The answers to all these questions will push your characters deeper and open up new territory for your story. And even if some of the answers don’t end up on the page – they may form part of your Hemingway iceberg – they will increase your understanding of the characters and lead you to places that otherwise you might never discover.

2. Taking on the Part

Conveying character requires empathy, and even personal identification. I write about how to engage your sympathetic imagination in Writing as a Full Body Experience. Some writers may find it helpful to approach this as a type of acting. You take on the part of the character in your mind, holding their attitudes and feelings inside yourself, as well as an awareness of what’s recently happened to them in the story and whatever is relevant from what’s happened to them in the past. I know of writers who even like to throw on a hat or scarf as if wearing a costume. Sanford Meisner, a pioneer of method acting, describes acting as “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances.” I would apply the same concept to writing fiction.

3. Watching for Clues

I believe the subconscious is deeply engaged in the crafting of fiction. The truths that pull at us, the characters that attract us, the problems that engage us – they resonate with us for reasons. We may not always know, or even need to know, what they are. Intuition comes out of this relationship between writers and the work that calls to us. Sometimes things we’ve written without conscious thought are just sitting there, waiting for us to dig in. I mention in Watchman: Cynicism or Hope that Harper Lee left herself a clue in the earlier novel – about perpetually making secret trips to the past – that should have caught her attention, even if her editor hadn’t made her rewrite her book to do that very thing. As you review your work, keep asking yourself: What did I mean when I wrote that? Is there something else there? Try free-writing a new paragraph and see what else comes to mind.

Pushing your characters deeper can be scary for writers. The questions you ask may be ones you’re not prepared to answer in your own life. The part you take on may take you someplace you’re not wanting to go. The clues you leave behind may be unconscious for good reason. In fiction, we can reshape the hurtful and repurpose the ugly, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to keep our perspective. But I think if you’ve begun to put it on the page, your own mind believes you’re ready. You may also find truth, and beauty you didn’t realize was there.



Belief in Your Artistic Vision

I have never in my life been as all-in and sure of myself as the crazy dancing man at the Crosby, Stills & Nash concert in Chicago last week. I realize his experience may have been, let’s just say, chemically enhanced, or possibly enlivened by the manic phase of a mental illness. But he didn’t seem drunk or high or ill: he simply seemed passionate and unself-conscious in a way that astonished a more restrained person like me. I found myself thinking about that in the context of writing. In her blog, Carly Watters talks about the importance of risk taking for writers. Why don’t we more often hear of literary agents urging writers to take risks? Well, we do if they work out, but that’s the thing about risks: you don’t know that when you take them. What risks to take are up to each artist, as part of her or his artistic vision. Sometimes I worry that the way we writers critique each other may hamper that.

We’ve all heard of how J.K. Rowling was riding in a train when she was struck by the idea of a boy who didn’t know he was a wizard. Talk about being all-in: she structured a seven-book series out of that idea before she had the contract for a single book. Veronica Roth was so obsessed with her concept of a dystopian society divided by virtues that she wrote her first book when most of us would have had our hands full with college. Genre writers aren’t alone in this: literary writers can get obsessed too. Jonathan Franzen wrote The Corrections in a blindfold and earplugs – I’d call that pretty crazy. But when an idea lights up your brain, I think you should go for it, even if it seems foolish or risky to others.

Technique can be a place to take risks as well as story concept. Magic realism came out of literary risk taking. So did story cycles with their roving points of view. The genre-blending mentioned in Watters’ blog is another example. Why can some writers get away with this, but not others? The old adage about learning to walk before you run is worth keeping in mind. Choosing to depart from the norm isn’t the same as being lazy. If you’ve found a great voice that doesn’t follow the rules of grammar, that’s different from not taking the trouble to check. You want to understand and be capable of following the rules you’re rejecting. You want to have reasons for your departures, even if they’re only in your own head.

Of course, no one can tell you in advance whether your risks will pan out in the marketplace. That’s what makes them risks. Sometimes when traditional publishing fails, writers believe so strongly in their work that they decide to self-publish. Other times they decide to move on to new work – to take on new risks and visions.

My wariness about critiques has to do with the possible chilling effect of peer judgment on risk taking and artistic vision. I still believe in the critique process at the heart of MFA programs and writer’s workshops across the country, often called the Iowa model. This is when fellow writers read each other’s work and provide detailed comments as they sit around a table, first about what’s working and then about what’s not, often with an instructor who weighs in at the end, only after which the author may respond. But you need to find a balance between being open enough to learn and self-protective enough to keep your voice and vision intact.

An excellent writer and good friend of mine, J. Scott Smith, writes dialogue without quotation marks, similar to Cormac McCarthy. One of her short stories, “Lynlee Floats,” is posted at Solace in a Book. As part of a recent critique of one of Smith’s novel chapters, the instructor asked a room full of writers for a show of hands about whether the lack of quotation marks made the piece harder to read. Most hands went up – that’s information for the writer – but Smith has her own good reasons for this stylistic choice. I applaud her commitment to her vision.

Sometimes you need to ignore the rest of the room and dance.



A Still Center

You’re fretting in traffic, stuck at a light, late for something that matters. Then the sun glints off the car next to you, catching you hard in the eye, and you think of another woman, not necessarily you, but someone you once saw in traffic – or could imagine seeing – her face pinched in worry until the sun hits her eyes. At that moment, her muscles contract, revealing an unexpected, exhausted beauty. You begin to search for the words to capture that, the way it makes you feel sad and hopeful at once. The light changes and you drive on, but you’re not trapped in the car anymore. The traffic doesn’t matter – nothing does, not for now. You’ve sunk deep inside. To the still center where you go to write.

Writers have a still center, a place that can only be accessed internally, where words link with insight, where stillness gives way to transcendence, where we dare to touch on something divine. All artists do. Writing and other arts involve a translation of experience, whether actual or imagined. To accomplish that – for writers, as soon as we attempt to put words to it – we create artistic distance. For example, let’s say you’re awake in the night because you’re hurting, and you feel as if no one cares. Then you think of putting that in a story or poem. Suddenly the hurt is there in your hands like a rough jewel that you want to lift up to the light to see how it reflects. You’ve shifted from yourself as a victim to yourself as a creator of something new.

William Wordsworth spoke of poetry as originating from “emotion recollected in tranquility.” When I first read that, I pictured him sitting on a bench in a peaceful garden (one that someone else must have supplied). Now I think of that as I race through my life, multitasking all over the place: scanning the news as I choke down my breakfast, catching up on emails as I rush down the street, scrolling through Twitter as I pretend to have conversations. Does tranquility even exist anymore?

My answer is that the place to look for it is inside. The world may be going insane, and what we now ask of ourselves in terms of staying current and connected may be a daily threat to our creative lives, but you carry the possibility of reflection inside you at all times. Try to remember that as you speed through your day. Maybe spend half of that rushed breakfast on the news, but the other half on processing it. Maybe walk sometimes without a device and simply think. Maybe set aside a little time every evening to try to capture a few moments that struck you.

As soon as you begin to connect words with experience, I believe a kind of tranquility will find you.