Friday, June 17, 2011

Getting Past What Your Characters Aren't

Welcome to our book talk on Bird by Bird. I know, the book has been out forever, but I missed the discussion group! Finally, this is my chance. I’m glad you’re here to discuss the chapter, “False Starts.” If you haven’t read the chapter, you must forget your groundless inhabitations and jump into the conversation. I learn so much from you.

“Brother Lawrence…saw all of us as trees in winter, with little to give, stripped of leaves and color and growth, whom God loves unconditionally anyway…When you write about your characters, we want to know all about their leaves and colors and growth. But we also want to know who they are when stripped of the surface show. So if you want to get to know your characters, you have to hang out with them long enough to see beyond all the things they aren’t.” Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott

All I have in my writing pocket right now is a seed of an idea. The story is peopled by shadows of characters—a middle-aged woman, her mother and father, perhaps a child, and another older man. Keeping the analogy of bare trees in mind, my characters are mere sprouts, indistinguishable from a stalk of corn or an oak at the moment.

I definitely need to hang out with them. Won’t you sit in? I heard an author interview on my favorite podcast, Pen on Fire. The author—can’t remember her name—interviews her characters as if preparing to write their biographies. She fills notebooks with notes.

Here is my first interview with Barb, my protag. We’re sitting at a sidewalk cafĂ© in a small California beach town, because this is my interview, and I can do it anywhere I want. There's coffee and lots of chocolate on the table, so this should go well.

Me: You look nervous, Barb.

Barb: Shouldn’t I be? I won’t have a secret left when you’ve filled your notebook.

Me: We’ll start slow. There’s no rush. We’re both after the same thing, the truth.

Barb: Really? The truth? I’m not sure I’m all that familiar with the concept anymore. I thought I was, but in the last six months…

Me: You’ve had the rug pulled out from under you?

Barb: I’ve been swallowed by a whale. Which way is up, really?

Me: Perhaps we should start earlier. What is your earliest memory?

Barb: That would have been the Maple Street house, I suppose. Before Gary. That’s my younger brother. I don’t know…

Me: You’re thinking of something.

Barb: It’s silly.

Me: Go on.

Barb: Okay, if you insist. I was hiding in the broom closet. In fact, I was sitting on Mom’s Electrolux. She was calling for me from the kitchen. I should have gone to her. I knew I should have. I heard it in her voice. She was getting angry. But I stayed in the closet. I remember having to go to the bathroom. Number two. I’m sure there’s some deep meaning to that. I remember reading something.

Me: I’ll do some research.

Barb: You will?

Me: What happened next?

Barb: I was afraid of having an accident but more afraid of coming out. I’d waited too long. She would know I’d hidden from her. Our house was small, not a manor house where a little girl could get lost in her dreams. Mom wanted something from me. I don’t remember what.

That’s it. That’s my first memory. Your book is going to be awfully boring.

Me: Not at all. Besides, we aren’t finished yet. Was anyone else there, in the house?

Barb: I don’t think so. I remember other times, and, you know, they could have been before the closet thing or after, now that I think about it. Once I screamed my throat raw, trying to avoid a nap. My temper was legendary, the topic at many a family function. And another time, I remember eating tomatoes, still warm from the summer sun, with my dad under the apple tree.

Me: Tell me more about your father.

Barb: Dad? Well, he has his passions. Of late, he’s a bit delusional. I worry about his arteries hardening. That would affect his thinking, wouldn’t it? Anyway, he’s always been a bit of a showman.

Me: Is he a good father?

Barb: I love my father very much.

Me: Perhaps my question was too broad. Did you and your father get along?

Barb: Absolutely.

Me: Care to elaborate?

Barb: He’s not the man I thought he was. But then, I’m not sure I know my mother either.

Me: That’s quite a discovery to make at forty-eight. We’ll have to talk more about your parents, but I can see you’re about to bolt. Shall we set a time for tomorrow?

I’m not feeling great about the interview. Getting information out of Barb is like giving birth to a water buffalo…breach! I’m not even sure I like her name. Cynthia? Linda? Lady Gaga? Better? Not? Was this a false start? I’m not going to worry about it, much. After all, this was our first lunch. Once she trusts me, I’ll see her true colors. Her personality will bloom. She’ll tell me funny stories about her dog. Is she married? I’ll ask her tomorrow.

For now, all I know is she isn't all that close to her parents. She seems bitter. But she has nice memories of her father. Her mother, not so much. Chances are I'm completely wrong about her. More chocolate. Definitely more time.

How do you get beyond all the things your characters aren’t? Do you fill out an inventory? Use Meyers-Briggs personality types? Base your characters on people you know? When have you had your first impressions of a person changed by spending time with them? How much time are you willing to invest in getting to know your characters? How do you know when you know them well enough to start writing?


Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Love this post. Particularly the idea of first impressions and how they can change.

That's a theme I always seem to come back to in my writing. Not just in the sense of the author getting to know her characters better, but in the way we can construct a character for the reader - lead them to a certain place where they feel they know all there is to know about that person - and then dismantle those assumptions one by one.

The best authors do that in a way that leaves you reeling, but simultaneously nodding. Because once you see the truth, you realise it couldn't be any other way...

Marian said...

Now I see my mistake. My plot has been dictating my characters. My characters should be causing the plot.

Anonymous said...

Oh. This is great! I'm going to try this!

Patti Hill said...

Karen: Yes, we have to peel our characters like onions for our readers. Thanks for bringing that up.

Marian: Starting with the characters is called character-driven fiction. When the plot takes center stage, as in suspense, thrillers, mysteries, that's plot-driven fiction. Of course, master writers do both. They create characters who drive a well-honed plot. Writing is very paradoxical.

Susie: This was a fun exercise. Barb seems a bit overwrought for my tastes. It will be interesting to see how she develops.

Anonymous said...

Patti, I love this. Love your interview with, uh, Barb. I agree, maybe that's not her name. She's holding out on you in big ways.

I'm at the same point in my writing that you are. A woman came to mind the other night and began telling me her story. We're getting to know each other. How I love the discovery.

Wonderful post, as always.

l said...

To me, the best part about writing is getting to know my characters. I treat their interviews like I treat meeting a new friend--slowly, with surface questions first and deeper questions later. I enjoy it a lot and I hope my readers enjoy it too! :)

Anonymous said...

Isn't it fun to see how thing develop and progress throughout the writing?

Anonymous said...

Isn't it fun to see how thing develop and progress throughout the writing?

Nikole Hahn said...

Barb pulled her feet close to her chest, comfortable in the dark of the broom closet.
"Mom's yelling." She buried her face in her arms. She whispered it to her invisible friend, Frank. Mom said there was no such thing as invisible friends. Mom said alot of things that didn't make sense especially today.

She could hear violent sounds outside the closet door. A fist cutting through a wall. A plate crashing against a cabinent. Barb squeezed her eyes tight and thought Frank did, too.

Barb squeezed her eyes now after taking a trip into the past, and opened them to face the interviewer.

"What do you want to know?"

The interviewer had kind eyes. "Everything."

"It hurts too much. I don't think I can talk about it."

"You must. If the story doesn't get out, you'll never be free."

Hope I inspired you!

Danie Marie said...

Character interviews? That's a new concept for me. I've done character charts, but doing interviews and filling notebooks, I'll definitily have to give it a try...

Megan Sayer said...

I find this stuff really fascinating, thanks for sharing your process Patti.

I didn't think Barb was overwrought. I was looking forward to delving more deeply into her secrets! But maybe I like overwrought...

Karen I REALLY like what you wrote about the dismantling, that's sparked a bunch of new thoughts for me. BTW, have you ever read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd? It's probably the best example ever written of that deconstruction - and an EXCELLENT read.

Patti Hill said...

Sharon: If we could get Barb on the line for a conference call, that would help.

H: I so agree. Developing characters, writing their history, and then spending most of my time with them is about as good as it gets.

Susie: Good writing takes time and much of that time is spent in a sense of discovery. It's quite a hopeful act.

Nikole: Frank? Hmm. I love magical realism. You may have sparked an idea. Thanks for that and for expanding Barb.

Danie: This is new to me, too. I wonder how great interviewers do it. Do they do tons of research on their subject before the interview or go in fresh, blank?

Megan: I've put a hold on the book at the library. Thanks a bunch. Deconstruction is a challenge. Always good to have an example.

Maybe Barb didn't seem overwrought because you couldn't see her biting her nails. LOL

Jan Cline said...

Character development is my weakest area. I enjoyed the interview so much. It reminded me of a scene from the old movie The Snake Pit with Olivia De Havilland. The Dr. kept probing until they got to the bottom of her issues. A great scene and now I can see how this would really help me get to know my characters and give them a past.
Thanks for the interview!

Sandra Stiles said...

I loved this post. I taught an after school writing club for middle school the last two years. We used the book Spilling Ink by Ellen Potter. She recommends something similar. While working on a project I interviewed my characters and was shocked to discover that some of my characters were not who I though they were. This really surprised me. This is a great technique.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Megan, thanks for that recommendation. I just downloaded it to my Kindle. (Ooh, I love saying that. The novelty still hasn't worn off.)

How shameful is it to confess that I've NEVER read a single book by Agatha Christie?? Now I have a good place to start. :)

Patti Hill said...

Jan: I'm glad you enjoyed the interview. Since this is new to me, too, I'm eager to give it a try. It takes tons of time to really know your characters. Hanging out with them is a place to start.

Sandra: I heard this once and believe it to the core: No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. It's very good to be surprised by your characters.

Karen: I've never read a Christie novel either. I guess it's time. If only I owned a Kindle. Sigh.

Megan Sayer said...

Yay for Agatha! Karen and Patti I'd love to hear what you think of the book.

It did occur to me recently that Agatha-readers really are a dying breed, which is such a pity because her books are not only brilliant reads, but an insightful look into a culture and society long passed. Roger Ackroyd was written in 1926 and is still one of the best murder mysteries I've ever read.

Oh, and if you're in the mood for more Agathas afterwards, I'd highly recommend Murder on the Orient Express...I read it every 2-3 years, it's that good.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

Patti, you need to write a Christmas wish-list and stick it on your fridge. If Santa doesn't see it, someone else might. ;)