The Recalcitrant Character

Recalcitrant:

re-cal-ci-trant

-adjective

1. resisting authority or control; not obedient or compliant; refractory

2. hard to deal with, manage, or operate

This describes exactly one of the characters in my novel.  Actually he's very passive aggressive in the novel, but as I've been trying to get to know him better, he's been recalcitrant, unyielding in giving up his secrets.  Which has made it difficult for me to move forward on my novel rewrite.

I'm going through and deepening my understanding of my secondary characters as a precursor to actually starting the rewrite.  Yesterday and today I've been working on the husband of my protagonist.  But he's balky and remote and really didn't want me digging around in his psyche.

Finally, through perseverance, I managed to get him to talk, and I learned a lot about him, interesting things that will flesh out his character in the novel.  This got me to thinking, how, as with all fiction, what you need with characters is a way in.  You need to find the key that will unlock who they are for you.  And sometimes you may have to try a variety of techniques to accomplish this.

Here are a few:

1.  The Ordinary Day.  I wrote a blog post about this recently, and I still think it is the most useful character exercise you'll find anywhere.  But what works for me, may not work for you.  Honestly, what works for me this time through might not work so well for me next time through–that's the nature of fiction writing.  So I reserve the right to fall out of love with this exercise.

2.  The Interview.  All your journalistic types will like this one.  Pretend you are going to write a feature article about your character and interview her.  Or, imagine that you are interviewing him for background on a certain aspect of his life, say, his work, and ask questions.  Often if you can get a character talking about a specific thing you can keep him talking. 

3.  The Character Dossier.  Write down all the specifics–height, weight, appearance, style of dress, mannerisms, etc.  The basic exterior stuff which can often lead to interior stuff.  For instance, perhaps you see your character as very tall and then you realize she stoops all the time.  From there its a short leap to understand that she's embarrassed about her height and that knowledge can lead to all kinds of revelations.

4.  Dressing the Character.  I got this from Robert Ray, author of The Weekend Novelist, which has fabulous prepping exercises for writing a novel.  (His website has some pretty good stuff on it, too.) Have your character go to her closet and write what happens as she dresses for the day.  This can be folded into the ordinary day exercise.

5.  In the Dream.  Another one from Robert Ray.  What does your character dream?  Ray recommends that you use the phrase in the dream as a starting point, and continue it throughout: in the dream, the sky was purple and the moon blue, and she was walking through a forest.  In the dream, cats barked and she understood everything they said to her.  In the dream...I've found this an especially useful, if sometimes odd, way into those totally refractory characters.  (Note the use of the word refractory, which means, hard or impossible to manage.  I just learned that this morning, while looking up the definition of recalcitrant.)

6.  Action.  The novelist Darnell Arnoult tells her students to give themselves short assignments and often these involve characters in action.  So, for example, write about your character under something, breaking something, cleaning something, above something, shopping for food, buying gas, whatever.  You get the idea.  The beauty of this is that you can often write it when you only have a little bit of time.

Okay, those are my suggestions.  What about you?  How do you deal with recalcitrant characters?

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8 Comments on "The Recalcitrant Character"

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Charlotte Dixon
Guest
06/30/2010 21:29

J.D., Recalcitrant: contrary, contumacious, defiant, fractious, indomitable, insubmissive, insubordinate, intractable, obstinate, opposing, radical, rebellious, refractory, resistant, resisting, stubborn, undisciplinable, undisciplined, ungovernable, unmanageable, unruly, untoward, unwilling, wayward, wild, willful, withstanding.

Good list, eh?

As for the new design, it is not quite done, there is still some tweaking, but overall it is pretty good, huh?

J.D. Frost
Guest
J.D. Frost
06/30/2010 18:31

Nice new look! Is this the word of the day feature? If it is I demand (necessitate, obligate,compel, call for, push for, require) the list of synonyms. You can see how lame my thesaurus is.

Christi Corbett
Guest
07/01/2010 07:43

Love the new look!
Christi

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
07/01/2010 08:14

J.D., glad you liked the list, it came courtesy of dictionary.com. Thanks for missing me–I actually hate not posting every day! But the rewrite is going pretty well and I hope to be back to my usual schedule soon.

Christi, Thanks! I notice things are backwards from what they used to be, so there’s still work to be done, but overall I like it a lot.

J.D. Frost
Guest
J.D. Frost
07/01/2010 04:18

🙂 That is a good list. It looks great now. If tweaking helps, so much the better. I hope your rewrite is going well–and that is what you should be doing–but you have been missed here.

Amber
Guest
07/01/2010 18:30

I have a recalcitrant character, he just wouldn’t let me in his head. I did a fast flow free write speaking directly to him. After some name calling and a bit of strong speaking he opened up. However we still have more work to do as he is the main character.

I look forward to trying your suggestions.

David Paine
Guest
07/01/2010 18:41

Okay, I have no problem tiptoeing toward triteness … Love the new look, toots!

Like your list, too. Especially #4. I’ve got a character in her closet right now. We’re dressing for car pool and a Junior League meeting. Then I’ve got another one in a another sort of closet altogether, and I’m waiting for him to pop out.

Also, of course, I’m glad you survived all the festivities. That looked like one hell of a party tent!

Charlotte Dixon
Guest
07/02/2010 06:49

Amber, That’s exactly how I felt–that this character would not let me in his head. Once you manage to open the door a crack, it usually flows, though, its just getting there that is hard.

David, Glad you like the new look, this weekend I’ll be playing around with it and tweaking things. I like it a lot, though. Hope your characters get in or out of their closets, one way or another.

It was a huge party tent! My daughter, being an event planner, magically knows how to get such things.

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