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?