Following the character wherever he might go
Over and over again in the process of writing my novel, I’ve stumbled across things about my characters that were unexpected. This is what I love about “literary” or character-driven fiction. It means letting the characters take you a little off-track from your plot outline, because you might discover some really cool things.
A recent chapter I was writing felt unfinished, I only had one scene. So I decided to let the protagonist tell me where to go next. He’s a bit OCD, so if his cell phone tweeted to remind him about an appointment, he would surely get himself there on time. So off he goes to a dentist’s appointment. I wasn’t too sure about this at first, what on earth was I going to do with a routine dentist visit? But I followed the character there anyway just to see what happened. It became an opportunity to characterize him further as he sits in the waiting room. I got to play with his feelings of loneliness and isolation. And the stressful sounds of drilling and scraping once he’s in the dentist’s office provoke upsetting flashbacks from the past, nearly sending him into a panic. So I was handed some conflict and emotional content as well as a great foreshadowing opportunity, which helps build suspense. Something fascinating happened that I’d never planned. In a dentist’s chair.
These opportunities make characters deeper and more believable. I’ve certainly learned the importance of structuring the story line for a full-length book; I need to take readers on a purposeful journey. But I also have to let my characters pull me in directions I didn’t expect — there’s so much more there than I imagined. They become real people. This is the exciting part of writing: discovering characters in their fullness, peeling them layer by layer.
By the way, some other juicy nuggets I learned/got reacquainted with at the Antioch Writer’s Workshop (I want to write these all on my whiteboard, but I’d run out of room):
- We write what we don’t know we know.
- “All first drafts are shitty.” (Anne Lamott)
- What sort of writer would I be if I wrote every day?
- Time is limited, and dirty laundry and dust are patient.
- Always begin a book in the middle of an active scene.
- Accept what comes in the writing, whatever it is. Be willing to fail.
- Use at least three senses to activate a scene.
- Concrete images are alive and contain secrets. Abstract language isn’t live-giving.
- Every scene in a book should have a purpose.
- Show, don’t tell.
- “Art is transferring feeling from one heart to another.” Leo Tolstoy
- Don’t write about characters, write with characters.
- “There is a certain grain of stupidity the writer can hardly do without, and that is the quality of having to stare.” (Flannery O’Connor)
- Don’t keep secrets from the reader that don’t need to be a mystery, but…
- If there are secrets to be revealed, don’t tell the readers pieces until they have to know.
- Characters should never tell each other what they should already know. (Don’t use dialog to inform the reader.)
- Don’t explain why a character said something. Let the story arc fill that in.
- Humility, consistency and authentic detail make a story narrator reliable and likeable.
- Don’t read crap! Life is too short.
- Everybody in publishing is scared right now.
- “The moment of victory is far too short to live for that and nothing else.” Martina Navratilova
- “The harder I work, the luckier I get.” Samuel Goldwyn
- “Words are always a gamble, words are splinters from cut glass. I write because it is dangerous, a bloody risk, like love, to form the words, to say the words, to touch the source, to be touched, to reveal how vulnerable we are, how transient.” Terry Tempest Williams
This past spring I attended the New York City Pitch Conference and pitched my memoir to four editors and agents. I successfully got the interest of one editor from St. Martin’s Press, and he requested the manuscript. He loved the writing, but said that memoir is hard to sell right now. It has to be either really unusual or really universal. I guess mine is somewhere in between. I may shelve it for a while until trends change. Or rewrite it as fiction.
Currently I’m eleven chapters into a new novel, tentatively titled Gunbarrel Hill. I took the first 20 pages to the Antioch Writer’s Workshop this month and had a great, week-long experience. I learned many things, but especially discovered I need to make sure my main character’s motivation is clear, from the beginning of the story. Motivation = what the protagonist wants/needs, and the stakes have to be fairly high if he doesn’t get it. Once I determined what that was (my protagonist wants connection with other people) and determined how it may change as the story moves on (he will probably decide he needs to give up some connections to live an authentic life), it will drive the character’s behavior and be the engine of the plot. It will also influence many of the metaphors! That was a real eye opener.