I was writing away on my new novel when suddenly the ex-husband from a novel I'd started and abandoned walked on.
He's my new favorite character, ever, and his insistent good cheer is going to make a great counterpoint to my confused, grieving heroine. I adore this guy. But how weird is it that he came over from the other novel?
It felt somehow wrong at first. Like he belonged only to the other story. But then I started thinking about it and realized, maybe he's been lying in wait all this time for the perfect place to insert himself. He's been waiting for his cue.
Is this weird?
Then I was sorting through old journals and found a sentence from a novel I wrote long ago, that has been lost to the sands of time: And then I watched him walk away from me one last time. I love that line. I know, I know, its pretty simple. But I still love it. And I may want to use it some day instead of burying it in a journal.
Or is there a normal for writers? Probably not.
This post is uncharacteristically short, without the usual "create a successful, inspired writing life" tagline because I want to hear from you. Have you had this experience? What do you think about transferring characters or lines from story to story? I'm all ears.
I'm hoping your responses will convince me I'm not crazy.
First off, I know, I know. I like me some convoluted headlines, don't I? You'd think a writer would be good at firing off snappy subject lines, but alas, such is not the case with this writer. I think it's the novelist in me who loves to write long headlines. Apologies.
You've landed on the third part of my series on what you need to do before you write a novel. You can read the introduction, with a bit about tools, on this post, and part two, about the idea and the process, on Wednesday's post.
Today's post is about character. It is one of my favorite topics when it comes to novel writing, because I'm one of those writers who believe that all story comes from character. Years ago my dearly departed mother told me to always make sure there were people in my snapshots, because photographs without people in them are boring. And you know what? Unless you're looking at a shot by Ansel Adams or someone of his ilk, she's right.
Novels are about characters in action. They are about characters in opposition. Novels are about characters in conflict. And so on. Given that novels are about character, it stands to reason that when setting out to write a novel, you should know a lot about your character. So, here goes.
A good place to start is by figuring out what your character wants. The novelist Kurt Vonnegut once said, "always have your character want something, even if its just a glass of water." Desire drives the world. It will drive your character, too. (My husband tells the story of the time we were in Paris and I found a jacket I wanted to buy. Suddenly, my French got really good as I found words to ask for the location of the check-out stand. My desire for the jacket overcame my fear of speaking the language.)
If you can't figure out what your character wants, maybe it is a need or fear that drives her. If you can't figure those out, proceed with the rest of the character exercises and then start writing. It will come to you.
Get a Visual
It can be incredibly helpful to have an image of your character in mind. Often people begin with a photo of an actress or public figure. This can be a great starting point, as it can help to write a description to have something to work off. Do a search on Google Image for multiple views to put on your vision board. Or use models from catalogs, which also afford you many photos. Or sketch your character.
Do a Dossier
You really need to know the nuts and bolts of your character and a bit about her background. Consider writing the following:
Age, birthdate and place
Height, weight, build, description of appearance
Marriage and family history (siblings? parents alive?)
There's more you can do here, too–this is just a starting point. As you write this, allow questions about your character to form and jot them down. Then answer them.
What is your character's ordinary day like? Write it out, from the time she gets up in the morning until the time she goes to sleep at night. Where does she go? What does she do? Who does she see? I learned this from a screenwriter (whose name I've forgotten) years ago. It is amazing how useful this little writing exercise is; try it. You'll learn a lot about your character.
These exercises ought to give you enough material to get going. In truth, often a character pops into my head and I write a scene or two with her to see if she's got legs. (Metaphorically, people, metaphorically.) Once I ascertain that she does, then I return to these writing exercises to learn more about her.
Create a successful, inspired writing life: Find images to represent your character and add them to your vision board. Then fill out a character dossier and write her ordinary day.
Please comment. I'd love to hear how you get to know the characters in your novels and stories. Do you write up character dossiers? Take them out on a date? Interview them? Do tell.
PS. Typepad's spellcheck has been wonky lately. Forgive errors. I've gone back over it a couple times, but something may have eluded my eagle eyes.
Years ago, I heard Margaret Atwood speak. She announced that she was going to share the secret to writing, and that, indeed, there really was a secret. The audience, composed largely of writers and readers, hushed, thrilled to be present at such an important moment. The secret to writing revealed!
"It's conflict," Margaret Atwood hissed. It was a pleasant hiss, but a hiss nonetheless.
And so, in case you hadn't guessed, the C word of the title is conflict, the life blood of every writer, the true beating heart of every story, just as Margaret Atwood said.
And conflict is the very thing we all do our best to avoid in life.
Makes for an interesting dichotomy, doesn't it?
I'm paraphrasing here, but Kurt Vonnegut's advice to writers was to make sure your characters want something, even if its just a glass of water. And then don't let them have it. Because:
Desire + Obstacle to Getting It = Conflict.
It's that simple.
It is also incredibly difficult. In all the manuscripts I read, usually the number one problem is a lack of conflict. In all the critique groups I've been in, the number one thing we say to each other is "more conflict."
And yet, when I coach people in non-writing endeavors, the number one thing they are trying to accomplish is to reduce the conflict in their lives, one way or another. This brings to mind a pithy piece of advice that Julia Cameron imparts in her book, The Artist's Way: put the drama on the page. She writes (and speaks of in person) a time when her then-husband (she doesn't name names, but it was Martin Scorcese) was gallivanting around Europe with a hot actress while she remained back home with the baby. Fortunately, this was pre-internet days so she didn't have to see their images plastered all over TMZ. But unfortunately, she had plenty of friends sending her newspaper clippings. Her response was to put her trauma into her creativity.
Put the drama on the page. Makes perfect sense, doesn't it? You need conflict in your writing and you don't need it in your life. Simple solution: take it from your life and put it on the page. I've had this in mind because I got Fannie Flagg's new novel for Christmas. It's called I Still Dream About You and its pretty good. Its a page-turner because she writes in short chapters, creates compelling characters, and most importantly, gives them plenty of conflict.
And here's the deal: her characters have fairly run-of-the-mill lives. They aren't out saving children in Africa or cutting deals on Wall Street. They are, except for the Little Person who becomes a real estate magnate, fairly ordinary people living in Birmingham, Alabama. But she finds a way to create tons of conflict in the moment to moment dailiness of their lives. And we can all learn from this.
For instance, one of the characters loves to eat and needs to lose a few pounds for her health. She lives with her sister, who is a nurse. And, of course, since the sister is a nurse, she's a bit of a nag about health problems. As we first meet Brenda, she has "accidentally" eaten all of her sister's carton of ice cream, and sis is due home from work soon. So Brenda puts a box of cheerios and some bananas in a paper bag (we know not why) and heads out the door to find a replacement carton of ice cream. But then the first store is out of it, so she has to go to a second store, and while she's at the second store, she notices that the yogurt place next door is open so of course she has to get some, and then there's a long line…and by the time she gets home, her sister's car is in the driveway. Ah, but never fear, she puts the ice cream carton in her purse and walks in the bag of cheerios and bananas. When her sister asks where she was, Brenda answers that they had nothing to eat for breakfast. See how much conflict she's managed to get into Brenda's every day life? And that conflict keeps the reader turning pages, even just to find out if Brenda will make it home before her sister.
The next time you're writing a scene (and this applies to non-fiction just as much) see if you can't get more conflict in. Think about giving your character even the simplest of desires (a glass of water) and see how many obstacles you can put in her way, like Fannie Flagg does.
Also take notice if putting the drama on the page doesn't help to relieve it in your life. Because I think it will. Which is why, when you fall in love with your writing, you fall in love with your life.
If you need help falling in love with your life, or your writing, check out my Get Your Writing in Gear sessions. And if you need ongoing help, I'd love to talk to you about that, too. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo of Marine by slagheap, from Everystockphoto.com. I snitched the photo of the book cover from the Random House site, but I don't think they will mind, seeing as how I'm promoting their author's book.
I've been struggling a bit with my new novel. I've gotten to know my main character quite well and I adore her, with all her foibles and faults. But, amazingly enough, she is not the only character in the novel. I know, shocking, but there it is. Other characters are giving themselves up to me fairly easily (there's a guy from Denmark that I'm really starting to like, too).
A very, very important character remains a mystery to me. She's like second in importance to the main character, so I kinda need to know her. And I've convinced myself that I kinda need to know her before I get much farther into the writing of this novel. (Although, if I give the impression that I've made a lot of progress, that is, alas, simply not true.)
So this morning I took myself firmly in hand. Every day this week it has been delightfully chilly in the early hours of the morning, when I rise, so I make coffee and feed the cats and then light the fire and sit by it and write. This morning I set myself a plan for all the things I need to know before I can really let myself rip on the first draft of this story.
And chief among them is, of course, getting to know this character. And so I wrote a list of what I'm calling character prompts, for lack of a better phrase. I got this idea from novelist Darnell Arnoult, and I think the first two prompts on the list are hers. The rest of them came off the top of my head, so who knows if I read them somewhere or thought them up myself. The idea here is to set your character in motion. You'll be amazed at how much you learn if you put your character in action using these simple prompts.
For instance, take, "reading." Sedentary activity, right? But also an activity that your character could do inside, outside, in bed, in a chair, on the couch, in a park, at the beach, and so on. And then there's the kind of books the character might like, whether they are fiction or non-fiction, trashy romances or YA novels. Or maybe she eschews books to read only on her Kindle or Ipad. Or doesn't read books, but pores over the internet for hours. And for each of these preferences, there's probably a back story that goes along with it, and all this adds up to a window into your character's psyche.
So here's the list of character prompts. Feel free to add some more good ones you think of in the comments.