Oct 27 2009

Writing visit and deciphering cyphers

Published by at 6:33 am under characterization,voice and craft,Writing

Steve just had a guest in, a writer friend from Montana, and we had an enjoyable week here at the Dreamcafe hanging out and having many writing conversations. I’ve had this next topic come up in writing talks with two different people just in the past week, and since it’s something I’ve been working on myself in the novel over the past couple of months–with some measure of success ongoing–I’m interested to hear other thoughts.

In the character creation phase, I’ve noticed a couple of different ways (so far) that they tend to show up for a story. A quite common way is to discern that a story needs a particular person or type of person for a plot-important role, and through various methods gradually increase your understanding of that character until they morph from flat into 3D “alive” people about whom you care and want to know what happens to them. (A different way, characters showing up Athena-like as fully formed personalities from when they first arrive on the scene, is very interesting but perhaps a subject for another post.) This post is more concerned with a pothole along the first path, when you either aren’t sure which tricks to use to bring your Frankensteinian creation to full life, or when you’ve tried all the tricks in your toolbox and they still lay inert, cyphers upon the page.

What are some of the tricks in your toolbox for solving such an issue? Advice I’ve personally given this week includes the classic actor question: for each character ask yourself “what is their motivation for being here and doing these things in this place and time”? If you’re a visualizer, then close your eyes and view the story world through the eyes of your POV character. How do they move through their environment? What traits about others do they observe or note when interacting? What do they observe, what are they likely to ignore as irrelevant? These questions and more can help focus your visualization and possibly give new insight into a character.

If you’ve done a slow build and already know a lot about the character but they are still motivationally mysterious, make sure you haven’t neglected developing their idiosyncrasies of behavior and attitude. Maybe they’re the sort of person to always wake up at 7:03 am each day, or they genuinely believe they’ve seen Elvis in the grocery store, or they always play the same sequence of “lucky” prime number lottery picks that are the combo of their first address and the anniversary of their first break-up for reasons known only to themselves. The more of these quirks you know, the more likely you’ll start seeing some indication that the character is taking on a “life of their own” in the story world.

There’s the interview approach, where you write both sides of you asking your character questions that you want to know the answers to, and their responses to those questions. And don’t forget Steve Brust’s classic advice (that’s obviously worked well for him for a while now), which is “don’t forget the cool”. If you make a character who YOU think is cool and are interested in following around to see what they do, there’s a good chance that at least some percentage of your audience will agree with you and want to follow along too.

So that’s some of what I’ve been saying; what are your thoughts on the matter?

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Writing visit and deciphering cyphers”

  1. Steven Bruston 27 Oct 2009 at 3:40 pm

    This reminds me of an interview with Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolfe mysteries. Mr. Stout said that there are two sorts of characters: created and contrived. The former are pieced together by the author, the latter emerge fully-formed like a drop of cliche from the brow of Zeus. He believed the reader could tell the difference, and the latter sort felt more real. Interesting to think about, anyway.

  2. Reesaon 28 Oct 2009 at 10:01 am

    Interesting! Do you find that you agree with Stout’s conclusion? I would think that the point would be the same as the end result of whether you were divinely inspired by a section or pulled the words out one bloody letter at a time…if you did your job right, the reader can’t tell which sections you bled for and which you exulted in. It seems like if the “created” characters were done thoroughly enough, that they should be *end-reader* indistinguishable from the ones that just popped into being and who you had to learn about the hard way. On the other tentacle, logic isn’t often holding sway in these areas so I could be missing an angle here.

    On a side note, I don’t like his chosen labels. To me, “contrived” implies a more artificial or strained construct than “created” does and therefore the labels seem like they should be reversed, and I wonder if this is one of those times where the alliterative strain worked against the concept in defining it. What do you think?

  3. Steven Bruston 01 Nov 2009 at 9:33 am

    I half agree with his conclusion. I think there is such a difference, and it is clear to the author, but as a reader, I don’t think I’ve ever noticed it; certainly not reliably.

    From my perspective, the terms are accurate: when I’m piecing together a character, it really does feel like I’m contriving him, as opposed to other who seem to be created out of some nebulous region of the subconscious. But I think most often I do something in between–I discover the character through writing about him. That is, I need someone in THIS place, and a tiny splash of description will sort of emerge, and I’ll decide he needs this and that characteristic, and then he’ll start talking, and pretty soon I know him through a process that is half creative and half contrived.

  4. Reesaon 03 Nov 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Or, going back to Greek roots, we could have Athenate and Pygmalionesque as the division names. Or, that could be the much sillier option.