Monday, April 18, 2011

Giving Characters Their Emotional Acre


I meant to cover more ground each time I posted on our book talk about Anne Lamott's book, Bird by Bird, but there's so much in each chapter. Today, "Character." Let's flang some ideas around about developing characters and infusing hope into our stories. If you haven't read the book or chapter, no problem. We love hearing what you have to add.


Every single one of us at birth is given an emotional acre all our own…And as long as you don’t hurt anyone, you get to do with your acre as you please. Anne Lamott

I agree with all Anne Lamott says about creating characters. They have their acre, just like we do. In fact, they are us—sometimes a lot of us and sometimes just the fearful, ugly, and angry parts. This makes us love them all the more to the point we don’t mind spending months and years with them. And there are times to leave your character where “Jesus flang him.” Yes, characters do zig when you think they should zag. We’ve all had to run to keep up with our characters, but where they get flanged is usually better than where I can plot them. And so, we learn to trust our characters and Him who flangs them.

And we must know our characters better than we know our sisters and brothers, certainly better than the minds of our grown children (oops, another topic). I answer 50 questions—from what my characters carry in their wallets or purses to their physical and emotional scars. I search and search for a picture of them on the Internet, along with pictures of their houses and their dogs. I also give them a moral flaw that embarrasses me, and make sure their personality profile fits a Meyers-Briggs category. When that is done, they are no longer ephemeral, a mere shadow in my imagination, but flesh and blood. They frequently take showers with me and whisper to me in the twilight between wakefulness and sleep. I get very lonely between stories.

One step Anne leaves out that I’ve just started to include comes from my reading of John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story—I hope I’m not committing some sort of book-talk incest by bringing up another book. Please forgive. According to Truby, I must, must, must know why each character is in the story. Are they there to provide opposition, sage advice, or are they an ally who seems strangely sinister? Actually, this step comes before all the questions and Internet searches.

Before I knew to build characters around their roles, I’d invented Fred. I wrote four or five scenes with him and the protagonist. He was charming in a threatening sort of way. Good looking. Wise in the ways of the world. Best of all, he spoke snappy dialogue. Not good enough. I fired him because he didn’t move the story along. Worse, he detoured the story! I deleted 10,000-plus words that involved him. If he’d had a job to do, this never would have happened. Please note: Fred is still in my deleted scenes file. When he gets his story-world résumé in order, I might give him another chance.

Fred isn’t the only character I’ve had to excise from a story. My deleted files are full of interesting, quirky yet unnecessary characters. I don’t have time for such indulgences anymore. That’s why I’m adding this step to Anne’s chapter on character (I know, such hubris). You might want to add John Truby’s book, The Anatomy of Story to your reading list.

I can’t sign off on this post without adding my amen! to the importance of hope in novels. A novel must be hopeful. And the characters are the source of that hope. They’re the ones who face tough situations —from deep psychological scars to the destruction of all the love. They suffer for the sake of story, and come out of the gauntlet a better version of themselves. If this doesn’t happen, you might as well throw rocks at your reader. It hurts that much.

And don’t confuse a happy ending with hope. Tied-up-with-a-bow stories are false, not hopeful. Characters demonstrating growth, the evidence of redemption and renewal in the face of overwhelming destruction, that’s what I’m talking about. And that change can be subtle, a slight turning of the shoulders toward truth. That’s hope.

How do you build your characters? If you dare, tell us about a time you based your characters on someone you know. Having characters get flanged somewhere unexpected can be unsettling. Has this happened to you? How did you adapt?

13 comments:

Wendy Paine Miller said...

In my current WIP, I had a character show up after the fifth chapter. I wanted to say, "Whoa, buddy. Where did you come from? Why are you here?" But I ran with it because that is the utter thrill for me about first drafts and guess what? He revealed why he was there as I kept writing. My MC needed his exact personality in her life to draw out some deep feelings.

He baffles me still (not someone I ever imagined writing) but he's grown on me. Like fungus perhaps, but maybe that's because like you, my characters like to shower with me, too. ;)
~ Wendy

Cynthia Davis said...

I like Lamott's comment that you take dictation from the characters "as they tell you who they think they are and what life has been like lately." My characters tend to do that on a regular basis and realign the story at the same time. That's what, ultimately, tells the real story and makes the characters feel authentic.

Patti Hill said...

Wendy: Yes, I've had characters show up, too, and they needed to be there, but there are times when characters who don't do their job should be let go. Fred has been waving at me, trying to get my attention, for my new WIP. He may be perfect. It was just like him to show up tot he party too early with a jar of bread and butter pickles.

Cynthia: I liked her comment about listening to her characters, too. It takes time to get to know your characters, that's for sure.

Paula Wiseman said...

Patti, I do those same kinds of things to nail down my characters. (Whew! I feel much more normal now!) I've taken psychological inventories for them. I always have a series of pictures to go back to.

I timeline their lives to put them in context, and before long I know what they would order at a restaurant, what shows and movies they would watch and what books they'd pick up.

Sometimes they surprise me, but I love waiting to hear from them, and letting them speak for themselves.

In any other field, this is probably mental illness. Thankfully, in writing, it's necessary! It's probably the most fun.

Katie Ganshert said...

I had a character, like Wendy, who popped up out of nowhere. But unlike Wendy, she made my story wander. So as much as I loved her, I had to cut her out.

Drawing out my characters is such a mysterious process. I honestly don't figure out who my characters are until I'm done with that first draft. That's why I always feel a bit lost as I work my way through the first draft. It's during the many stages of revision that I finally figure out who I'm writing.

Patti Hill said...

Paula: I do a time line, too. This helps me to place them in history--what sorts of events would influence their perspectives and the pop culture they lived. It also helps me keep the chronology of their life events straight. Refer to it often.

Katie: I suppose your way of creating characters would be like going on a journey with someone you'd only just met. Very intriguing.

Kathleen Popa said...

There's a good timeline tool here:
http://www.ourtimelines.com/create_tl_2c.html

Kathleen Popa said...

Oh, and here's another:
http://www.dipity.com/

If you're the type to want to keep notes on your iPhone, here's a good timeline app:
http://www.lifetrackapp.com/Welcome.html

Lori Benton said...

Patti, I've had quirky minor characters I've had to send to the deleted file because they did nothing to push the story forward. On the contrary, they brought it to a stand still. I've had secondary characters balk at the arc I gave them and insist on blossoming into something quite different--derailing the entire ending of a novel, in one case. She was right, darn it. I see that now.

Patti Hill said...

Katy: We can always count on you for a techno-tool. Thanks!

Megan Sayer said...

In my very early 20s I started my first full-length manuscript, about a character pondering the meaning of life and death against a sweeping backdrop of the environmental destruction in Tasmania in 1972 - the year before I was born. I moved him into my old home town and he met a single mum and her young daughter and blah blah blah. Did heaps of research, wrote some fantastic scenes, and then decided to write a time-line.

Hmmm. That was when I discovered that I'd inadvertently made the mum character exactly the same age as my own mum. The daughter character turned out to be exactly the same age as my mentor, and the time the final conflict took place was the month I was conceived. I laughed it off as a strange coincidence. Then, a few months later, I realised for the first time that the conflict in the mother-daughter relationship was infinitely more interesting than anything that was happening with what I considered the main story. And I'd been subconsciously writing about my mother and myself.

That was the day that WIP went into a box on the top of the cupboard. It's still there.

Patti Hill said...

Lori: That's exactly what I'm talking about. Did you go to Mt. Hermon? Any news about your WINNING manuscript? We're cheering for you!

Susie M Finkbeiner said...

I was writing plays for a church a few years ago. Into one of them I wrote my boss and her terrible temper. It was her totally! It was so fun for me to write.

Then, the night of the play, I heard from backstage that my boss was in the audience. I was sweating!

She loved the character...never realizing that it was her!