This is the post where I ask you to hide your screen from your co-workers’ view. The post where we talk about those voices you hear in your head, the conversations you try not to carry on in the hearing of the other people on your commuter train. It’s time to get serious about character development in your writing. Make that, specifically, in your fiction. Because Aunt Betty is also serious about cutting you out of her will if you report any more about her kitten hoardings in your memoirs.
With Aunt Betty’s threat in mind, and because I like the slight degree of objectivity I get from writing fiction instead of purported real life, I went to this past week’s class, “Getting Your Characters from Thought to Action,” taught by author-editor-lecturer Joe Milazzo at the Dallas Writer’s Garret.
What makes a memorable character -- one that readers, we hope, will remember long after they finished our story, our book? Do we base them on other people or on versions of ourselves? Milazzo leant toward considering them versions of our own existence -- “as though you’re in touch with parts of your mind you don’t use in your everyday life.“
“One of the novelists I studied with when I was an MFA,” Milazzo said, “thought that a certain character was for that novel, and when the novel was over, that character would go away.” The writer ended, instead, by writing another novel for that relatively minor character, “because he didn’t believe she had told everything she had to tell.”
But how do we introduce yourself to the people who’ve been living, rent free, for who knows how many years, inside our heads? How do we give them permission to tell their stories?
One of my first assignments in the first creative writing class I ever took, asked for a character sketch. Listing my character’s height, weight, age, gender, and hair color seemed pointless, so I gave the instructor a scene of her in action. Still not sure that’s what he wanted. But he seemed grateful somebody at least turned in an assignment.
By the time I start writing a character, I’ve already talked to her enough to know her name and how bad a reputation she has back wherever she came from. Or why he’s hiding out, ready to do anything in the world except go back to the people who knew him before. Doodling through a few scenes where the characters can kick butt or get their kicked helps.
You can write your character’s back story -- and yes, I’ve don’t pages and pages of those. Or you can be, just the facts, ma’am, with your character and corner her into giving you an interview, like the one outlined on the character questionnaire Milazzo handed us.
First the name, of course, as much an indicator as “Honey Boo Boo” of where your character comes from. Milazzo’s questionnaire added such tidbits as “what would you like to be remembered for after your death?” and “if your features were to be destroyed beyond recognition, is there any other way of identifying your body?” (Hope that means something less obvious than DNA and dental work!)
Less morbidly (or not), how about this item from the questionnaire -- “on what occasions do you lie?” and “what kind of threat do you present to the public?” And my favorite -- “you are awake at 3 a.m. How? Why?” (I’m thinking about characters -- what did you expect!)
One of the questions on the list was “What do you save or collect?” For myself, I could have answered, I collect ways to build a character -- I’ve probably got dozens from writing classes and favorite books. Google “character questionnaires” and find some to suit your needs. Or try the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, www.writingclasses.com/InformationPages/index.php/PageID/106/.
Next Monday -- How does your character speak? And where?