More on Character

BY Cindy Maguire

In a previous post, “Writing the Back Story”, I talked about the benefit of writing a mini bio for a character. I was struggling with making characters come alive on the page. Here is part two. I am revisiting this subject because it is one of the most challenging for me ( and maybe for some of you too?) and writing about the challenge helps.

For the last week, as a deadline approached, I found myself trying too hard to push my story forward. My writing seemed forced. I remembered something I had read by Jack Hodgins:

“…to avoid contrived, unlifelike plots, focus on characters; on understanding and exploring them.”

I realized that I was facing the “character issue” again. I needed to step back and review what I know about writing characters. What tricks and tips have worked for me before? What am I missing here?

First, being a hard taskmaster and focusing on discipline and perseverance is not the answer when you are stuck. Your creative, sensitive soul, that artist child that Julia Cameron speaks about, does not respond to cajoling, wheedling or threats. She freezes. You need to soften the approach. I set my story aside and went back to my notes; to advice I have read from other authors.

One of the best books I have read was recommended by Lauren Kirshner. It is, Characters and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card. He suggests that if your character is not coming alive perhaps a little strangeness would help. His contention- that we are interested in people not exactly like us; we are both repelled and attracted to unusual characters. Employing a little exaggeration can turn an ordinary, believable, dull person, into a compelling one. Card suggests taking an assumption about a character and giving it a twist. One way to do this is to write a character into an unfamiliar environment. How will they react when out of their comfort zone? I can see that I have the opportunity to practice this in the story I am working on. My main character is travelling to a place she has never been and it is triggering old memories. So it makes sense that her reaction to someone she meets in this place will be “out of character.” She is going to feel out of control.

I see in my notes that I also noted down Card’s three questions that readers ask:

“So what? Oh yeah? Huh?”

In other words, you have to write the truth. When I was pushing and forcing my writing last week, I was not writing from a true place. If your character is alive in your mind and she will be alive if you have written her back story (as we talked about in that previous post), then you will know when you are putting her into situations or having her react in ways that don’t ring true. I found myself overexplaining at some points in my story and that made me say “huh?”

Author, Sarah Braunstein talks about characters needing”an air of rightness.” There is room for strangeness and twists and unusual reactions but overall you want to strive for believability. I know that when I read a novel I love to be surprised, but I also want to identify with a character. If she is too wacky and “out there”, she seems like a cartoon character and that turns me off.

Taking some time to read authors you admire, might seem like goofing off if you have a looming deadline, but it’s a trick that works. Read with an eye to how they make their characters come alive.

One of the authors I admire is Mark Helprin. I think his collection, The Pacific and Other Stories is masterful. Every story is exquisite. I went back to one of them, “Monday” and reread it last week. Here is an example of 2 sentences written about the main character, Fitch:

“It was his nature to read rather than to write, to listen rather than to speak. Erudite and learned, he had been overcome at an early age, upon the death of his father, with a reticence that would never leave him.”

So much is revealed about Fitch in those 2 lines. This is Helprin’s gift; the ability to make each sentence count. I read him and I am inspired. This brings up a good point about the process of writing.

It is hard work to write well and often. Sometimes it seems effortless but more often it requires lots of time and focus and the ability to shut out the distractions. The thing is, if you are not feeling any joy as you write, then you need to stop. You need to take a deep breath, make a cup of tea, go for a walk, read a little and go back when you are refreshed. Because nothing good comes from frustration. I don’t mean that you never have to push through; sometimes you need to do that if you know you are close and a little bit of effort will get you to the finish line. But writing, like life, is often simpler than we imagine. When the pressure builds, think about what you can do to change the situation. Writing this blog post, has been just what I needed to get myself on track to finish my story. It took me back to my notes, to some things I knew, but had forgotten. I may not write my characters perfectly, but I can go back now with renewed energy and ideas. For me, the joy really is in the process.

Til next time, keep writing.