Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Take Your Character to Lunch Day

I'm going to share some quotes with you, short snippets from two of my favorite novels. When you have read them, you will want to know the characters who said these words. You will want to read their stories:

"Truth. It feels cool, like water washing over my sticky-hot body. Cooling a heat that's been burning me up all my life. Truth, I say inside my head again, just for that feeling."
— Kathryn Stockett in The Help

"...and at the table next to her was a little boy in a soccer uniform sitting with his mother who told him, The plural of elf is elves. A wave of happiness came over me. It felt giddy to be part of it all. To be drinking a cup of coffee like a normal person. I wanted to shout out: The plural of elf is elves! What a language! What a world!"
— Nicole Krauss in The History of Love

See what I mean? Don't you want to know what might have happened to somebody to make her so passionate about truth that she feels it on her skin? Or why another person might jubilate over such an ordinary moment of time? In a few words whole characters have materialized in all their mystery and complexity. Wonderful, isn't it?

I read passages like these and determine to create story people just as rich. And then I look at the character creation sheets they pass out at workshops:

Place of Birth:
Favorite Color:

Questionnaires like these might help me track certain details so I don't turn the blue Toyota that drives through Chapter 6 into a green Honda by the time it arrives in Chapter 14. But by themselves they do little to help in character formation, not if what I'm after is the texture of a human soul.

For that, I might want to take my character to lunch. Sure, I'll ask her place of birth and favorite color, just to break the ice. But eventually I'll want to know about her childhood, and I won't let her get away with a simple answer. You know characters, don't you? She might answer, just peachy, when I suspect it wasn't, not living in the town she lived in, with a brother who ate salamanders on the back porch... So I study her body, searching for clues. I lift the cuff of her gabardine jacket to reveal a tiny tattoo on her wrist, a salamander swimming inside a teardrop. "Tell me about this," I say, and then wait out her silence while she looks away and studies her fingernails, till at last she tells me about the summer day when she was ten.

Once the ice is broken, any character will spill her guts if you listen. She wants the story to get out; otherwise she never would have brought it to you in the first place.

Let it go deep enough, and this gut-spilling will give you a story-tellers dream come true: characters with histories and scars, attitudes and points of view, and the little spark of something that makes us stand in wonder at their uniqueness, their transcendence.

And all of these things will lend a priceless quality to your novel: subtext. It's the way your characters say the things they say, the things they never say or always say, that tells us that there is more to this story, an untold past that the reader may never know but only guess at.

One of the best books I have ever read on the creation of story-people is Getting Into Character by Brandilyn Collins. Here's a bit of what she has to say:

"Understanding the use of subtexting in dialogue is particularly difficult for inexperienced writers. Often a new novelist's tendency is to use WYSIWYG conversation because he has not yet grasped how to convey meaning without actually saying it. Since novels call for at least some dialogue in the majority of scenes, a lack of subtexting presents a major problem for a story. When a novelist learns how to employ subtexting effectively, dialogue that had once been lifeless and on-the-surface is transformed into vibrant interchanges between characters, pulling the reader into the story."

I'll bet you've found some vibrant characters in your own reading. Why not share snippets from their stories that made them leap from the page?

We love to read what you have to say.


Wendy Paine Miller said...

I love reading and writing subtext. There's something so thrilling about it for me--maybe it's that feeling that I know my characters well enough to know how to swing it.

And this line...

"She wants the story to get out; otherwise she never would have brought it to you in the first place."

So. Rich.
~ Wendy

Lori Benton said...

I'm listening to Sacred Hearts, by Sarah Dunant, and wishing I was reading hard copy so I could flip through and pick a passage to quote here. Lots of subtext. It's a story of convent life in the 16th century. I'm halfway through. I hope it ends well.

I can't fully know my characters until they are let loose in the pages of their story, where they say things I don't expect, or they do or see something that triggers a back story spill I didn't see coming. This on-the-day discovery makes the writer process a little slower, but its what works in the end for me.

Love the quote from The Help. Sacred Hearts is stirring up in me some of the same awe at character-building that book did. The History of Love... haven't read that but you've made me want to!

Samantha Bennett said...

Paper Towns by John Green is rich with subtext. The main character is a girl who appears so put to together, but in actuality, feels paper fake. The story sticks with you. :)

Kathleen Popa said...

Wendy, you're right. Knowing your characters well enough is the key. You can't make them real to your reader if they aren't real to you.

Lori, I agree, you learn a lot about your characters in the act of writing. Still, I like them to feel free to tell me things just any time, and they often do. (The sign over my office door reads: "I know I'm in my own little world. It's OK, they know me here.") For me it's a mix of the writing and the talking off the page.

Sacred Hearts sounds intriguing. So does Paper Towns, Samantha. Thanks for the recommendations.

Anonymous said...

Katy, I really love this post. And I love the sign you have over your office door. I can so relate. Isn't it amazing how real characters become to us, the ones we read about and the ones we create? What an amazing study that would be. But here's a passage from Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg that endeared me so to the character of Helen. She's an author who's been asked to speak at an event, but she's not up for it emotionally or professionally, and it hasn't gone well at all. The woman who invited her is not one bit happy:

Helen says, "Again, I apologize for--"

"It's all right. These things happen."

"You know, I wonder if-- Maybe I could try again another time." She'll share with them the story about telling her father as a little girl that she was going to be a writer someday and how at first he had laughed but then had said, "I believe you." She'll explain how important it is to have someone believe in you, how important it is to nourish dreams, especially your own. She'll tell them that she used to pull books behind her in a wagon when she played outside, they were her favorite toy, and that all one summer, after her parents made her turn out the light, she read under her covers by fireflies in a jar. She'll talk about the time she was twelve years old and got so sunburned she couldn't wear clothes and had to lie in bed with only a sheet over her for four days and it was then that she read Gone with the Wind for the first time. And then she went on to read it eight more times. Oh, she can think of a lot of things to say, now! That the impetus for one of her best-loved novels was a sentence in a conversation she overheard in a gynecologist's office."

And much later she thinks this:

"On a few occasions in her life, Helen has felt deep happiness as a kind of pain. The day she married Dan. The day Tessa was born. Now comes another such time. She sits down and puts her hand to her chest and rocks. Thinks of all she has lost and will lose. All she has had and will have. It seems to her that life is like gathering berries into an apron with a hole. Why do we keep on? Because the berries are beautiful, and we must eat to survive. We catch what we can. We walk past what we lose for the promise of more, just ahead."

I love this character. She said so much to me in the reading of this novel.

Nicole said...

I started assessing myself. Not bad looking. Every bit of 6 feet. Women came on to me sometimes. And good looking ones, too. I knew the signals. I’d given them myself—mostly just for fun. Flirting gave your ego—and theirs—a boost without having to deliver, you know? Right now, I didn’t feel like I could deliver a newspaper, let alone . . . Divorce has a way of taking every facet of your self-confidence and devouring it through clamped jaws filled with razor teeth.

(Protagonist Michael Jamison from Breath of Life)

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Katy, your posts make me want to read your books. Boy, can you write.

Loving those snippets from Home Safe, Sharon. Wow. They just sweep you up, don't they? It's like peeking through a half-open door into a rich, cluttered, fascinating world, with the promise of more waiting just out of view...