Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy


Notes of scene and personality of my character, scribbled in the margins while reading Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions.

My writing hours are all about budgeted time — hours or whole days declared for fiction, versus blocks of time commanded by the kids, teaching writing, client work, and the daily grind.  While teaching usually yields hours every day for me to write, the last two weeks were forfeited almost entirely to the end of the school year.  As Friday was finally the last day of school, it was interesting to see what writing work I would land on, in my first days of freedom.

My main goal for summer’s longer hours focuses on the two novels I am revising

That work craves larger blocks of hours for rereading drafts. I last left off rereading the more finished draft, Breathing Water, needing to decide between two voice options, then delete some random chunks in the middle, and fix any broken transitions. The second novel, Wake, is still working its way to becoming a first, full draft, so there is a veritable carnival of piecing together the written portions, replacing original ideas with newer scenes, now curious to chart plot points and track how effectively the story unfolds.  Revision to three short stories is also on target for the summer, as it has now been nearly 10 months since the last time I submitted work.

With those clear goals, you’d think the first free days would have been spent rereading those drafts.   There will be days that I do exactly that.

But today was messy. Messy to wake from the deluge of the past weeks: blearily checking email, voicemail and social media to see what was going on while I was otherwise occupied.   Messy to face the end of year mess my house becomes, with two wild monkeys disguised as sons co-habitating with me.

Messy to greet the twine-ball of pent up ideas my writing mind is today.  Apparently, a mind antsy with ideas, made to wait days to write, does not reach its turn ready to proceed in an orderly fashion.

Writing Character

Today’s writing job, instead, is to re-open the copy of Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions that I’ve been reading for the last week. I attended a workshop with Hood in Miami, last month, and bought the book from the Books & Books table at her reading.  While the workshop focused on novel beginnings, Hood’s lectures and responses to workshop questions shared a wealth of advice, both from her own experience and drawing on advice from dozens of other fabulous writers she has worked with or learned from in her roughly 30-year career.

In that vein, a single line of advice she offered (how to avoid writing flat characters, when writing those most like yourself), piqued my curiosity to read her book, which explores the full gamut of how to write characters with complex and authentic emotional resonance.

As I pick it up today, however, it is not to continue reading, but to face the rampant notes I scribbled wildly in the margins when reading last week. The picture accompanying this article is modest compared to the extended scene scrawled in the margins stretching 6 pages, between headings for “Anger” and “Confusion.”

Creating Emotional Characters:  Hood on Anger

Ann Hood begins the section on writing Anger with a quote from Margery Allingham’s Death of a Ghost: “‘Outrage, combining as it does shock, anger, reproach, and helplessness, is perhaps the most unmanageable, the most demoralizing of all the emotions.'”

Applying this to writing, Hood says, “Anger has so many gradations, so many levels, it is indeed — for the writer at least — one of the most unmanageable emotions.”

The paragraph following this lists words for the myriad levels of anger people experience (from pique, ire and exasperation, to madness, wrath and ire), with the warning that writers “tend to write anger as a flat or simple emotion, something closer to rage.”

By contrast, she says, “What makes the emotion so interesting — and challenging — is that it has many different levels.”

This idea that emotions are not one-dimensional, not predictable, but composed of complex gradations, unpredictability and even contradiction, is key to her advice throughout the book.

Messy Writing: Scribbled in the Margins

Roonan, the enigmatic male character in my draft, Wake, is confused, guilt-ridden, self-condemning, but rarely angry.  Still, a single line at the end of those three paragraphs in Hood’s chapter on Anger triggered a newly-revealing scene.  Roonan cascades through layers of emotion, through the tiers of family history he has previously misunderstood.

In one fit of messy scribbling, I tied together a series of tropes that have been disconnected references scattered through the story.  Roonan now connecting the inner (and reflexively external) conflicts signalled by his father’s racing motorcycle, his mother’s reaction over evidence of a death, memory of cleaning up to protect her, facing the day his brother died, discovering the bag of locks his father had left stashed beneath the bed… the guilt he lives with keying back to a single, fierce moment of fury, in which he sees himself fulfilling everything he had set out to avoid.

In my head, I understand each of these elements, but in this baby-draft, they were as-yet unwritten.  Magically, this dam of understanding burst in reaction to a single line at the end of those 3 paragraphs of Hood’s advice: “Sometimes anger leaves you sated.”

So it is that today’s job is to return to those notes, transcribing them into the “add-on” document I keep in Word as new material to be added into the draft. The work may remain messy after that, or may fall into a neat pattern of revision as planned.  The key, I’ve found, is to respect where my head is — most of all, to get all fresh material recorded, so not lost, before pushing myself back to revision.

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More on Character, and Hood’s Advice on Beginnings

I’ll share more of Hood’s advice on character, as well as advice on writing beginnings in coming posts.  If you have specific questions (such as Hood’s advice regarding the challenge of writing characters similar to yourself), let me know in the comments.

Want more?

copyright Elissa Field; all rights reserved, no repro without written permission

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

 

Ann Hood’s Creating Character Emotions: Amazon Powells    Indiebound.org

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14 Comments

Filed under Novel Writing, Writing Character, Writing Life, Writing workshop

14 responses to “Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy

  1. Maybe it’s because of past experiences, but I never found anger particularly unmanageable. I think I am very much in touch with that side of me that just wants to jump at people’s throats or punch them out sometimes. As a result, I think characters going through that emotion seem authentic in my writing.

    Love and affection, on the other hand, come out very awkward for me, at least in the traditional sense. It’s why I seem to only write dysfunctional relationships LOL

    • Love and affection? *thumbing ahead through Hood’s book* Looks like I have another 30 pages to make it to Fondness, hit Love 60 pages after that, and then Passion (which, ironically, is immediately followed by Resignation).

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. Veronica Roth

    I like the way Hood has organised the book. I’ll have to track it down and read it now! How lucky you were to do a workshop with like-minded people. That’s always so inspiring. Isn’t it? As for the disguised monkeys…yup…been there. :)

  3. It just occurred to me today that dialogue arising out of strong emotion is the hardest to write, to get it right. I need to check out Hood’s book! Thanks…

    • Hood does mention dialogue, as an expression of emotion. I highlighted another line in her book that had to do with much of the value in dialogue being in what is NOT said.

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. This is so helpful–I’ve got to write an angry character this week! I like the reminder that anger is about layers–that it isn’t just flat like rage.

    Oh, and I keep an “add on” document in Word, too!

    • elissa field

      Jennifer, I’ve just now relocated this comment, which I meant to reply to the day you posted… Although now I can ask: did you write the angry character yet? I’m curious to know how it went! In considering my own, I’ve been particularly thinking about “contradictory” behaviors — when a reader gets that the character is doing the opposite of what they’re feeling, in a way that makes the emotion resonate more, not less. Hmm. Hope you are having good writing days!

      • I have only written some childhood scenes leading up to the anger. The anger is already there–he plucks wings off of a butterfly–but everything else is pretty sweet–for example he tries to pick some flowers for his mother but pulls them all the way out of the ground by mistake. He does this even though he is angry with his mom. So yes, I guess I’m starting out with contradictory stuff. Writing is so hard. *sigh*.

        • elissa field

          I love those details, Jennifer — the do instantly create the emotions of a son. There is something very compelling about them. It’s hard, but keep going, and have faith in the work. Forget the deadline and audience, if that helps. Just appreciate your time with the character. :)

  5. “the challenge of writing characters similar to yourself”: Yes, this is a challenge I face. It certainly seems like I need to read Ann’s book. I think the reason the main character in my first novel isn’t quite “there” yet (I’ve had readers tell me the book really comes alive when the focus leaves the protagonist and moves on to another character!) is that she’s too much ME. I’m not consciously holding back, but I seem to hold back just the same. Interesting stuff. I’ll get Ann’s book. Thanks! Great post.

    • Gerry, I’ll post Ann’s advice about that next. Her book is great, but the exact advice she gave in workshop about characters most like the author isn’t included in the book, so I’ll pull my notes and share what she said. Thanks for commenting!

  6. Hi, Elissa–
    I just tagged you in the Lucky 7 Meme Challenge! Go to http://gerrygwilson.com to check it out. I hope you have time for this; it was passed on to me, and sometimes I’m hesitant to tag others because these things do take time. Anyway, I’d love to see a bit of your WIP.

  7. Very nice blog …looking forward to more…Tim

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