Category Archives: Writing Character

Writing in Process: Using Alternative Voice to Understand Internal Conflict

Running manOne of the great things about my online writing community is the way we keep each other motivated, often in ways we don’t expect.  Last week, I shared how it had motivated me to re-set my 2014 goals after I shared a brief excerpt of Wake and gotten feedback that pushed me to think, to have confidence and above all, “Keep going.”

My 500 wordsToday’s post is sort of Jeff Goins’ fault, as the day 19 prompt at his 500 words challenge was to write in another voice. So it is I spent the day evaluating a process I have been going through in deepening internal motivation of a novel character.

This post serves as follow up to several novel revision articles posted over the past year. I’ll include the relevant links to individual revision steps for anyone looking for more on the revision process.

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Revision in Process: Internal Motivation of a Main Character

Throughout my series of posts on Novel Revision last summer (this link takes you to all posts on Novel Revision, or find links to individual skills within this post), I revealed how deeply I felt the need to push my main character, Carinne (Revising a Flat Character).

Motivation for the male protagonist, Michael Roonan, was clear from the get-go. He’s killed people; guilt and loss compel his self-castigation. But, in early versions, Carinne’s written motivation was only that she was getting out of a bad marriage and she fell in love with Roonan.

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

Truth: as I wrote about in Can Literary Fiction Be Hot, the romantic element is often the most compelling and memorable aspect of fiction that sticks with us.  Still… My gut told me there had to be more to her motivation than “failed marriage” and “he’s hot.”  Kind of lame motivation, right?  Too thin, too predictable, too linear.

Many of my novel revision posts have shared the ways I’ve challenged my own understanding of Carinne and character motivation because, one way or another, my gut told me that I knew something more about her than I had written.  (Did you pick up on that when I distinguished her “written” motivation, above?)  But I needed to go deep to put it into words, and part of that included distancing the character from my own experience.

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

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

The eye-opener was in an exercise I completed (October Challenge: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation), where I kept assessing and re-assessing stakes for the internal conflict of the main characters.  For Carinne, the written stakes were only whether she raised her son alone or if she could get her lover back with her. Then I realized it wasn’t her own stakes that drove her, but those of the little boy, Liam, she had conceived with Roonan.  The driving motivation to go find Roonan had to come from a place beyond romance — she was off to find him so that her son would not grow up without a father.

Along the same time, I wrote last summer that I had come to understand a crucial backstory for Carinne that distances her from myself.

This is something I have not written about, but have felt deeply in the year and a half since a young photojournalist went missing on assignment.  His last tweet — from a birthday celebration with friends — and the pride in photographs he shared in his online portfolio — have stuck with me as an eerie, disembodied voice over the months his parents and sister worked through international channels to discover what happened to him.  As much as the news speaks of military or civilian losses, lost journalists has been a major piece in international affairs of the past 20 years.

The thing with this novel I am writing is, it has to do with why people get involved in violent international affairs. Roonan became a murderer while doing everything he could to avoid involvement in paramilitary activity in his family’s Irish border town. Carinne meets him years after the violence, finding the ghost of the man. A failed marriage is not her motivation; I quickly wrote that out of the early draft.  Carinne came to life for me last summer when I stopped apologizing and making excuses for her and let her behavior be entirely contrary – then let the missing reporter be the loss that drove her chaotic behavior.

True Revision Can be Messy

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

Danger Book May Bite c. Elissa Field

I began last summer’s revision-series with a post titled Work is Messy, Book May Bite.

What a mess new motivation makes of a draft, but slowly the 2 internal storylines have been laying themselves out clearly in parallel to one another, as the external conflict brings the story to resolution that genuinely resounds with meaning, as Carinne unites father and son.  Yeah, okay: it can be romantically hot, too, but the resolution now resounds on a more universal level.

I once watched my stepmother unravel a month’s worth of knitting to correct a missed stitch in a complicated fisherman-knit afghan, and I couldn’t believe the patience and insistence on perfection it took for her to do that.  Taking apart this main character, Carinne, has felt like all that unraveling — pulling the whole novel apart and putting it back together.  But I knew in my gut that it wasn’t “there” yet.  I love the characters and their story, but I just knew that the resolution of an international conflict could not be just romantic happily-ever-after. The little boy was symbolic of something in the opening, and he had to be the core of the resolution, as symbol of something greater for the novel to resound.

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The Work in Process

That’s a lot of thinking out loud.  How does it play out?  One approach that brought me closer to understanding the mother’s motivation was to write scenes from the child’s perspective.

In final revisions, I’ll be deciding between a close-omniscient or alternating third person narrative structure, which means I am not yet sure if I will keep the boy’s voice or just let it inform the mother’s perspective.  But, for the sake of sharing a piece of the writing process, here is the scene I shared at Gae Polisner’s Friday Feedback last week.

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Excerpt from Work in Progress, Where the Wolves Find Us (nicknamed Wake)

Context:  This excerpt is from a rough draft rethinking an opening scene from the son, Liam’s, perspective. The novel opens with the mother (Carinne) finding her son burying something in the back yard. As Carinne is in the process of washing mud from his hands, he asks, essentially for the first time, if his father is dead.  This becomes the inciting event; by the end of the chapter, Carinne is searching for the missing father.  The drafted scene below is from a long riff that came out when I took time to see “life with his mother” from Liam’s perspective. What would he see, hear or feel, growing up with a mother isolated and obsessed with missing people?

His mother’s shoulder was warm against Liam’s back, the water glittering beneath the sink-light as she sudsed his hands. He clapped his hands so bubbles sprayed and he tracked them, her voice murmuring in his ear as each iridescent orb floated up and sideways and down, each at its own rate so that his eyes measured them as if racers toward a finish line. Plik! Hope. Plik! Each popped, no matter he’d resisted the urge to touch them. Each, in its own path, flicked a mini explosion of its membrane and ceased to exist in the vacant spans of light.

Carinne’s voice reached a pitch – Liam’s feet had kicked dishes stacked in the sink – then went silent, replaced by the constant curt voice of men and women from the television playing in the next room. News. Always the news, and he hated it.

He patted suds onto her cheek. She took it as a joke, laughing, her eyes smiling at his.  He hit her again,  harder, wanting it to stop: the man chopping news into his head.  An airport. A warning. A plane stopped along a runway. Heads talking. The plane. More heads. A fire truck.  She would look: study the stream of words at the bottom. Flip three channels forward, pausing on each. Each, more news. Then back.  Even she didn’t care, he could tell. She took in what was happening the same way she studied the noise of trash men arriving for the blue bins or the neighbor’s garage door motor starting: look to the noise, see it for what it was, and disregard it as not affecting them.  But most hours of the day, he could not make her change the channel.  “Just let me see what’s happening overseas,” she would tell him, “Then we’ll change it.”

She corrects him now, “We don’t hit!” gripping his hands together in her own as if for prayer. He twists his head away and pulls his hands. “Hands are not for hitting,” she recites.

He says very quietly, as if to an unseeable friend, “I hate the news.”

She lets go, relieved. The smack makes sense, as it hadn’t a second ago. He leans into her shoulder, his dried hand reaching along the back of her neck to where her hair is softest, her baby again. “I hate it, too,” she says.

She will change the channel, this time, but he doesn’t believe she hates it. The firemen spraying foam on the plane by the runway did not interest her, but other times she has watched the same repeating footage, over and over.  A black uniformed policeman being interviewed in a mist of rain, dark clouds rising behind him.  A white SUV driving between sand-colored buildings in a cloud of dust behind a reporter cloaked with a checkered scarf. Over and over, she might watch these. Study the images to the corners of the screen. Study faces blurred in the background. Over and over. Then flip channels in hope to see the same scene from another angle.  Not notice the stack he’d made of his cars: three tall, now four, his eyes widening, willing them not to topple.  His mother frozen silent, remote clenched in her hand. Sometimes tears. He hated it as she did not. So easily, she could have flipped to another channel. Thomas the Train. Even Dora.

“I hate the men,” he said once.

She had turned away from him like she did when he broke something and she was mad even though she said she wasn’t.  “Never hate the men,” she said.  She left the room, crying and trying to hide it from him, as if these men were her own friends, her family, as the empty house of the two of them showed no sign of.

Have Feedback?

Of course this piece is in draft form and out of context, but constructive feedback is welcome.  I am on the fence whether it is helpful to actually use the child’s voice, as I think it would be tough for a toddler to carry the opening voice of an adult novel. Would you try to use his voice, or just let his insight inform the mother’s POV?  Hmm.

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What About You?

Are you revising fiction this week?  What challenges do you run into or what has worked well for you? If you’ve also been sharing your work or revision strategies, feel free to add your links or comments below.

Are you exploring issues of conflict or stakes in a character you are writing?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that get you more authentically or deeply into your characters’ motivation?

For more posts on this site related to character development:

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

Done. Done. Chickie approves. cElissa Field, repro w permission only

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c. Elissa Field

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Filed under My Work in Progress, Novel Writing, Relentless Wake, Revision, Writing Character, Writing Process & Routine

Novel Revision: Can Literary Fiction be Hot?

hotfiction

Expressive eyes of Gerard Butler. (celebs101.com)

So what am I working on next, in this series on mid-process novel revisions? Okay, confession. Maybe, while working on novel revision this week, I caught myself admiring Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. And maybe I rewatched Sense and Sensibilities, catching my breath for the 99th time over Colonel Brandon’s silent anguish of love. Maybe that had me thinking about hot main characters and romantic plots.

But then, just maybe, as I reread parts of my novel which has matured into its thematically-layered 4th or 5th draft, I stumbled upon a love scene between my main characters and cringed.

For a complete list of articles from this Novel Revision series, look below.  But today it’s time to take on love scenes.

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Love Draws Us In

If you’d asked me what this novel was about during first drafts, I would have called it a love story. It opens with the prattling of a toddler conceived in a love affair between the main characters. I feel a loyalty to that love spark, even as growth in the story has come to focus more on the layers of conflict and the larger theme of civilians avoiding violence during war.

That early feeling of falling in love with this broken main character is a central integrity to the story that doesn’t leave me.  Key transitions in plot hinge on the moment they met, the moment they were drawn to each other, the moment they first, well, you know, and whether they are in love, and how that changes their original response to conflict. The love tension between my MCs is the fun part of the story, and a powerful inspiration that keeps me going from draft to draft.

Tough, my current revision process tells me.

How many first dates, even well described, would make it through the rounds of novel revisions? As I re-read these original scenes and decide how to edit love into the final drafts, I’m left wondering what role sex plays in literary fiction.

Purpose of the Sex Scene Fits the Purpose of the Genre

Sex plays different roles in different genres, of course, and thinking about the purpose of a genre helps to establish a guideline for the purpose sex scenes would serve in a book.

If I were writing romance fiction, the purpose of my sex scenes would be to evoke a romantic experience for the reader. For a mystery or thriller, sexual tension might accelerate the tension of a crime or create the more mysterious, romantic motivation for a detective or spy. For young adult lit, sexual activity is handled carefully to depict first experiences crossing the threshold from childhood to adulthood, and is therefore likely to focus on hesitation or anticipation, and small details a young person would remember of a first kiss or holding hands.

In each case, defining the work’s purpose is a good starting point in knowing what love scene details will advance a story without being off kilter or over the top.

What is the Role of Sex in Literary Fiction?

Literary fiction is less easily defined than some other genres, so I was left wondering at the role of sex in my WIP. In many cases, literary fiction is a hybrid with other genres, containing elements of romance, mystery, historical, coming of age, or science fiction. In Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass addresses the effective crossover between literary and commercial fiction.

What is generally the case in all literary fiction and its hybrid/crossover varieties is that heat and passion can’t be the only purpose of love or sex in a story. Dang. I can’t just say my MC is a hottie and they are so in l-o-o-o-ve. The passion has to fuel or depict a larger purpose in developing character and advancing the conflict.

Of course, there are numerous literary best sellers where sex is not present. In his essay, Sex in Literature, Adrian Slatcher references Julian Barnes in saying “‘the author feels a commercial obligation’ to write about sex. But there have been several literary bestsellers to involve almost no sex at all.”  In Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, there is the non-sexual tension of his main character not sleeping with the prostitutes he befriends. In Alice McDermott’s Charming Billy, love is brotherly and era-appropriate dating scenes involve sitting on a blanket at the beach or arriving at a nanny’s house to pick her up for a date.

But sexual passion is fuel in much of literary fiction. Looking back on stories that continue to resonate as classics, it’s often a romance at the heart of the story that we remember. The fact that the romance between my main characters is important to my own interest in my WIP tells me that I need to give careful consideration while revising, for this to remain a strength in the final story.

Sex Reveals Character and Conflict

Literary fiction tends to be centered on character transformation, and sex can be a powerful symbol of where a character is in conflict. Sex is symbolic of inner conflicts of being trapped, captured, free,  released, linked or united, and often serves as transformation in the plotline of internal conflict resolution.  This can appear as outright sexual activity and its outcomes (think Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter), desire that fuels action without explicit sexual activity (Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence) or the state of desire restrained from action (Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day).

Romantic desire can appear to stand alone as a character’s inner conflict, but is generally symbolic of something more.  Even in novels like Pride and Prejudice, where the character’s internal conflict is resolved through acknowledging mutual love and marrying, that desire for love is integral to a larger theme of defending personal identity within the external conflict of England’s old property laws. Sex is an inherent theme of Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, but serves to create tension and release of tension and violation within a greater theme of war.

As much as love or sex can be used to signal transitions in inner conflict, it is also used in opposition. Sex is the external act of internal emotion, and tension arises if the external act (or lack of action) is in conflict with what the reader knows about inner emotion. Intense emotions are created when a reader knows the character’s desire but the character does not act on it, as in Kasuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, which exudes a sensual tension partly because the butler never breaks his reserve.

Similarly, sexual behavior or loving actions can create a dramatic contrast to depict a character’s inner torment. In Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, the scene when soldiers walk to a brothel while on leave is the antithesis of sexy, establishing through contrast how nightmarish their battle world has been and how dislodged the men are from emotion. The presence of sex without love or compassion is often symbolic of inner dysfunction, as Hemingway often used to signal the disembodiment of humanity after the shock of war. Reams of literary fiction include sex as sickness or sex in its dysfunctional state, such as The Kite Runner, The God of Small Things and The Color Purple.

Not Choreography

One of the simplest rules I’ve heard in knowing how to write sex in fiction is that effective sex scenes do not involve choreography. If you could replicate the movements and positions based on what is written, then it’s too much.

Like any other sensory details in successful fiction, sexual details have to serve the story, not just paint a picture. In that sense, I have been really resistant to say my main character is beautiful or describe the dramatic eyes I imagine for her love interest (yeah, that picture up top comes close). My story is not advanced by the characters being attractive.  Beauty is only meaningful when it reveals what the character perceives as beautiful, or beauty in relief against themes of pain or darkness. Hot details need to be something more than just what we, as writers, find hot in a mate. As with any character traits, they should reveal the character’s fear or hope or history or greater desire and what keeps them from finding happiness. For my female character to notice scars on my male character’s knuckles is more meaningful (and less ridiculous) than to say he has nice hands.

Often, the novel’s sexual tension is best achieved in description of a nonsexual event. In Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, the hottest sensuality comes not from deflowering of the mute wife, but in the nights she sneaks to feed the wild tiger meat from her husband’s stores.

But let’s say we do want to communicate that the scene was hot.  The details to establish hotness still need to fit the novel’s theme, advance its conflict, and fit the voice. Only rare novels would benefit from Victoria’s Secret outfits and naming of body parts and positions. Words that are hot in imagination or real life — like lips and fingertips and more — often turn ridiculous in writing (and euphemisms can be even more ridiculous).

Successful sex scenes often evoke sensuality with words unrelated to the body or actual sex. Even in overtly sexual novels, like The English Patient, sexual details are often odd, like sexualizing the divot at the base of the woman’s throat. Hardy described blooming mushrooms in the woods rather than describe Tess’s virginal skin in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Gabriel Garcia Marquez has his characters wait a lifetime to reach fulfillment in Love in the Time of Cholera, and description of that scene involves reference to constipation.

Revising with a Mind to What Makes Sex Scenes Work in Literary Fiction

It seems the key is to understand the purpose or message of your own novel, and know your story’s internal conflicts, to understand which kind of sex (or lack of) scene can work within your story. Sex is one of the choices my characters make in carving out their odd path toward resolving their inner conflicts, and their scenes together reveal love and hope and passion and parental intentions, but also dysfunction and imbalance and fear.  Revising feels like coming at the scenes from an angle rather than head-on, working to deepen character and conflict, understanding how each detail reveals the progression in character transformation and not just heat.

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What About You?

Have you been conflicted in writing or revising love in a story?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that help you stay productive?

If you want to read more on the subject, I admired this great post by English writer Isabel Costello: Sex Scenes in Fiction.

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Recent posts:

Or, here is the current series on Novel Revision Strategies:

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Filed under Novel Writing, Relentless Wake, Revision, Writing Character

Writing Character: Say the Things We Never Say

tunnel forward under  ft mchenry

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve been posting a series on Novel Revision Strategies, to address the kinds of revision that take place during the intermediate process between a completed draft (in 3rd or 4th version) but not quite ready to polish and submit. Links for the whole series are below.

A major part of mid-process revisions includes evaluating conflicts, stakes and character motivation, and it is exactly this that has come up 3 times in my morning writing:

  • Stakes: At Wordsmith Studio, Kasie Whitener posted the next question for our craft discussion which references Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. In chapter 2, Maass says, “If there is one single principle that is central to making any story more powerful, it is simply this: Raise the stakes.” Our discussion is to ask the question, “So what?” in challenging whether our own stories have set high stakes. Back in October, I addressed this challenge using a checklist in October Challenge: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation.
  • Clueless: I stumbled on the post 50 Thoughts #5: I Don’t Know What I’m Doing by another Wordsmith Studio friend, Jeannine Bergers’ Everett, and was reminded how often — as writers, as parents, as adults — we are trying to figure something out and think ourselves incompetent and clueless but keep going anyway simply because it’s our job. Keep reading; this all comes together…
  • Say it: This actually came first. I started the morning writing 1,249 words that began with my character saying the words, “I was wrong to do that.”

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Raising Stakes: Characters Say the Things We Never Say

I’m actually having a stressful morning. Some readers who interact with me in other forums may know I ran into a number of irritating obstacles in life while Mercury was in retrograde the last couple weeks.

The details aren’t interesting, but are parallel to Jeannine’s memory of her mother saying, “I don’t know what I’m doing,” while cutting her children’s hair (yes, Jeannine is very funny; look for the link below because you’ll want to follow her). I’m trying to get on the road to take my kids on their summer vacation to visit my parents and am nearly paralyzed with worrying that I’ll forget to pack something, that there’s some business I was supposed to attend to here in town, that…

Just as I was tempted to tweet something like, “It’s really scary to be a mom,” I realized what a genuinely true statement that is, and how blatantly obvious, and how no one ever says it and how, well… I wasn’t going to either.

And… of course, since I’m so darn obsessed with this novel right now, I was less concerned with feeling bad for myself than I was struck by the truth that this is a big part of raising the stakes for characters: the power of saying it.

I could describe the tedious list of things it takes to pack the car for a trip with the kids. I could even write the details in a way that is interesting and evocative. In chatting with a friend, we’d roll our eyes and laugh, make it into a charming joke where we empathize over parenting or the summer heat. But, as long as we’re not drama queens, it’d stop there, right?  That’s how stress gets used in our real lives: I turn it into some socially appropriate, “can you believe it?” joke about my day and move on.

I don’t tweet the true statement about the fear or anxiety.

Because I’m not a character in a novel.

But my character is.  And what got me writing this morning was an a-ha trigger of the one line my character needs to say.

At the moment she abandons her mother and sister and grandmother on a trip to Ireland to run off with a man she just met, she doesn’t need reams of polite excuses as to why she’s justified. She needs to say what we don’t say in polite chatter: “I was wrong to do it.” The second I typed that line this morning, an entire new insight opened into the relationship between Carinne and her mother, and their shared grief over her lost brother.

In raising our character’s stakes, our characters shouldn’t politely back down from making a wrong choice or being scared. Fear and anger and mistakes are where conflict happens. Even if I later edit that sentence back out, treating it as a prompt, and only keep the writing it provoked, it was fascinating how readily the flood gates opened the second I said words we don’t normally speak out loud.

“It’s really scary to be a mom.” And all the honest, true details of that emotion write themselves. “I was wrong to do it.” And all the honest emotions of what it means to have done something knowing it was wrong, immediately raise the more interesting question of, “Well then why did you do it?” 

This a-ha could not have found more of a kindred spirit than in Jeannine’s post (DO read it, when you’re done here), in which her mother says blatantly, out loud, what no one confesses: “I don’t know what I’m doing.” As Jeannine’s post and my own experience this morning reveal, it is amazing the authenticity and empowerment that actually saying these unsaid statements produces.

Want to Turn This Into a Prompt?

  • What is one of your character’s values? In what way does the story’s conflict or your character’s choice violate that value? What is a statement your character would not admit to? Now, make your character say it.
  • What is something your character fears? Make your character say this out loud.
  • What weakness or fear does your character fear will keep him/her from what he/she desires? Say it out loud.
  • And, to keep you on track with WSS’s craft chat, ask yourself about any of these questions and statements, “So what?” Are these high stakes, and in what way could you raise them?

Do Now:

Do go read Jeannine Bergers Everett’s post on her blog Mobyjoe Cafe: Throw Out 50 Thoughts #5: I Don’t Know What I’m Doing. Jeannine is extremely funny and insightful, so I really recommend following her.

If mention of the Wordsmith Studio craft discussions has you curious, look for announcements of our group’s weekly writing activities via the #wschat hashtag on Twitter.

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What About You?

Are you exploring issues of conflict or stakes in a character you are writing?  What challenges or obstacles do you find?  Or, what tactics have you found that get you more authentically or deeply into your characters’ motivation?

For more posts on this site related to character development:

For my current series on Novel Revision Strategies:

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If you like this blog, be sure to subscribe using WordPress’s +follow option, or via email or RSS feed. I love to connect with like-minded readers and writers!

Recent posts:

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Filed under Novel Writing, Revision, Writing Character, Writing Prompt

Novel Revision: Revising a Flat Character

Editing manuscript for Wake, poolside, during summer months off. Can't argue with that. c. Elissa Field

Editing manuscript for Wake, poolside, during summer months off. Can’t argue with that. c. Elissa Field

One of the biggest jobs I addressed in novel revisions over the winter had to do with one of my three main characters. She was originally the main POV, but I wasn’t excited about her voice.  Not helpful: I thought of her as relatively unlikeable: sullen, and not the way Jane Austen used to fix by saying, “It’s just that she has her head in a book.” No. My girl, Carinne, was broody.

I’ve written about my challenges with her twice before. You don’t need to read these now — they’re long-ish and I’ll give explanation, below — but here are the prior posts:

Is this Character the Best POV?

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

Father and son. copyright Elissa Field

That last link shares a tool I used to evaluate the stakes for my characters — which revealed what I had already suspected: weakness in Carinne as main character was hint that she is not really the center of the conflict. 

In early versions, it was natural for Carinne to be the main POV as she fell in love with the other main character and tells the story (in present and past) after he is reported to be dead. Her POV allows his life/death to remain in question.

But in revisions over several months, much of what I’ve written has been from other points of view (Michael Roonan, his best friend, and his son, Liam). I set aside the actual WIP and went “off road” into the internal and external motivation, the characters’ voices and backstories and fears and desires, the setting. The male MC, Roonan, had a famous motorcycle racer for a father, and the voice of Roonan came alive the more time I spent thinking about that. (Here’s a bit of draft-work I shared from Roonan’s perspective)

As Roonan’s voice comes alive in new material, it allows the 3rd person POV to not be centered on Carinne but alternate between characters. The fix: Carinne is not “flat” when seen through Roonan’s eyes — and the story is stronger for being centered on its conflict.

c.Elissa Field

c.Elissa Field

It’s Not You, It’s Her

Going to the other posts listed above, one of my struggles with Carinne was that “challenge of the character most like myself.” While Carinne is not an autobiographical character, I still have that authorial “blind spot” and resistance in portraying her.

I called her broody up above and that’s the “character like myself” obstacle: my own self-consciousness about never wanting to be melodramatic or complain gets in my way when expressing Carinne’s crisis. In hard times, my family’s attitude is, “Well get to work and solve your problem.” But, uh — that attitude isn’t helpful when you’re a character depicting your reaction to an inciting event and wrestling your way through a book-length conflict. If authors toughened up and spared the emotion, we’d have very short books.

Following advice in those posts, I had to create authorial distance to see Carinne as outside myself, and I had to be unapologetic. When Carinne fights with her mom in an early chapter, I can’t be thinking, “I don’t want to write about fighting with a mom. What if my mom thinks I wrote it about her?” Because — well, yeah, I did, in the sense that I used the knowledge of how uncomfortable it is to be at odds with your mom and that it was a sign to the reader that the mother knew something more was going wrong with Carinne. As I occupy and own that truth, the scene I first envisioned loses thinness and takes on the resonance I intended. If you read yesterday’s post, the “something more going wrong” is the revised backstory that has me so busy right now. In getting to know Carinne outside myself, a much clearer backstory arose, empowering her motivation throughout the book — and also helping me see her as a character distinct from my own experience. There was no simple trick to doing that, other than continually asking myself, “Why would she do this?”

Likewise, in answering that question, I had to step fully into — and not back away from or deny or justify — the choices Carinne makes. I had to let her make bad choices — resulting in a memorable story — rather than back away and try to say, “She didn’t really do that.” Oh, yeah, she did that! She was bad, and we’re having fun reading the consequences. Um. I mean, sorry about that, Carinne.  When I fully owned what she had done and went deep into why she would do it, the story took over.

Now to Integrate Those Changes

At this point, integrating these changes into the WIP seems to resolve the issues with this character by writing Roonan more fully, seeing Carinne from his perspective and having Carinne own her experience. As the story gets going, it now seems clear that she has a good reason for her broodiness: She’s raising a baby by herself who was fathered by a man she last saw when he saved her from being shot, and feels isolated when everyone thinks she should get over it.

My remaining insecurity in revising Carinne will be that she is the voice of the opening chapter, which carries so much weight. That is, the first page is a disembodied internal monologue in Roonan’s voice, hinting at death and guilt, then the chapter opens with Carinne watching their son in the backyard, and responding to the inciting incident of the son questioning his father’s absence.

Beta readers have liked the opening, but I’ll still be jumpy about it as I finish revisions and I’m sure I’ll keep pushing myself to get her voice right. (What was the theme yesterday? “Sometimes the Work is Messy” and, “Danger – Book May Bite.” )

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Daredevil: Sharing a Bit of Today’s Work

I did something brave the other day. I submitted an excerpt of chapter one for consideration by a lit mag that publishes first chapters. (If by any wild chance you happen to be a reader or editor at said magazine-that-publishes-first-chapters, can I say just how fabulous you look?)

I won’t post the opening, to avoid negating “first pub” rights, but I wanted to share a bit of the work I’ve been revising.  So here is a short bit of Carinne’s conflict from the end of the chapter, an excerpt from my novel in progress, Wake:

She sees herself already, weak as she will be later, when Liam has fallen asleep – not in his bed, as other mothers would be so good to do, but stretched out long like a dog across her bed, sighing in his sleep as if it were such work to be here on this earth as a little boy, such relief those hours left alone to sleep, return to wherever it is he came from.  Wherever it is children come from and the dead return to — and she won’t be able to fight it, that urge, once again to hunt for Michael Roonan. Search websites and news footage and maps shot from space, pictures so accurate a man could be standing in that shadow beneath a cloud, looking up to wave.

Search until sleep took over. Never to find.

As if it had never happened.

I ran, she remembered.  Ran.  Escaped the agent dispatched from Dublin Centre, escaped the gardai at the rotating brass doors at the front of the hotel, slipping, ankle twisting.  Everything moved.  Rushing cars that might have been standing still.  Pavement rushing up to her, blood on her palm as she brushed gravel from her knee.  Blood at her wounded shoulder, gauze plastered in a crust to her skin.  A tunnel in her shoulder, perfectly-pierced hole raged through by a bullet plucked with stainless tongs.  The sound.  The sound of that flattened lead bud clanking into a metal pan, tongs rattling behind it.  Bullet. Real.  Real as a bullet clanking into that metal pan.  I was there.

She might have screamed it into the street, turning heads of Dubliners, of footballers anticipating a match, tourists murmuring as they all did, “World Bar, St. James Gate…”  Her vision blurred.  She stumbled blocks she could not have retraced, voices calling to her in her stumbling rush, blood maybe seeping through the bandage at her shoulder, crazed fear at her eyes – here and there they called out as to an injured animal, “You, there!”

Me there.  Over and over they called it out.  Me there. I was there.

Tiny bud of infant, even then, swimming its way north.  Evidence.  There, then.

Here, now.  Liam stretched asleep, like a dog at her feet.  Given over to it, once again: searching on her laptop into the night.  Hunting for Michael Roonan.

“I’m sorry I’ve lost your father,” she whispers.  “I’m sorry I have no answers for you.”

If you want to leave constructive feedback, I’d welcome answers to these questions:

  • Does the character/action/voice hook you? Do you want to read more?
  • Are there any details that work? Is there wording that is confusing?
  •  If Carinne seems flat to you, what do you feel is missing? If she’s not flat, reassure me if you found her engaging.

Read more about where revisions take me next:

Read this January 2014 post, which continues to share how I push Carinne’s character and explore the perspective of her son, Liam, including a draft excerpt from this same chapter, written from Liam’s perspective:  Writing in Process: Using Alternative Voice to Understand Internal Conflict.

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What About You?

What challenges do you encounter in writing character, or what approaches do you take to understand their motivations?

I find I’m slow to describe physical appearances — are there certain details you always include or tend to exclude?

I’ve enjoyed connecting with readers about your current writing goals and challenges. If any of this post or the links resonated with you, let me know.

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Writing Workshop: Novel Writing Prompts from Donald Maass

When life intervenes, writing can compete hard for our hours. Especially if a day job or kids cry for our attention, we can have days we wish writing had its own demanding boss screaming, “Write! Write!”

nephele_tempestThanks to her March Madness Challenge, we can all pretend agent Nephele Tempest of the Knight Agency is that stern boss. Or encouraging one.

Tempest’s challenge is to make time to write every day. She supplements this with homework and “circuit training” — which began with a challenge to compile a list of at least a dozen writing prompts. This is why bosses are fab: if you asked me, I’d say I don’t like prompts. Too work-out-ish. Let me just write.

Donald Maass

Donald Maass

But Tempest says, “Gather prompts,” and I am suddenly reminded that agent Donald Maass has been tweeting a thought-provoking series of novel prompts, one per week, since 2011. In March, Maass’s agency website shared at least 50 of the 101 prompts he had tweeted at the release of his Writing 21st Century Fiction, a to kick a good WIP into “breakout novel” shape. (The list of prompts is no longer on the site. Look for other links below.)

Here are some of the prompts from Maass’s list that challenge my thinking with my WIP.  Please follow the link to his agency website for the whole list or find more recent prompts in his feed on Twitter at @DonMaass . Update 6/2013: the list has been removed from the site, but Maass does tweet occasional prompts from his book, using the hashtag #21stCenturyTuesday.

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  1. “What’s the worst thing your MC does? Whom and how does that hurt? Now work backwards, set it up to hurt even more.” Thinking to myself: the death MC caused. Hurt his mother, his brother, himself. But what about his younger siblings, his mother’s family? What about his son? Did his mother have a best friend who never forgave him for it?  Hmm.
  2. What’s the most selfless thing your MC does? What good change or effect does that have on someone unexpected? Add that in.” Curious in the absence of this. Who in my WIP is selfless? Would it be more revealing if they were selfless than if their motivation were more immediate?
  3. “Find any violence in your ms. Delete any shock, fear or horror. Replace with two *conflicting* emotions that are less obvious.” I like this, as writing violence can be as challenging as writing sex: for literary fiction, you need the effect of the thing, and I’m curious about this challenge for getting further from the obvious.
  4. “What should your readers most see, understand or be angry about? At what story moment will that happen? Heighten it in two ways.” Mulling (which is why prompts are great): have I been clear enough with this?
  5. “What does a sidekick or secondary character see about your MC that your MC denies? Force a showdown over it.” My MC would have a heart attack over this one. It is a key point to the story: the fact his best friend knew his error all along. But, hmm. There’s never been a showdown, and that intrigues me.
  6. “Over what does your MC disagree with his/her boss or mentor? When does the boss/mentor prove to be right?” While my MC is focused on ways his father mentored him, a small conflict as prompted with his boss (a minor character) could be perfect diversion to expose a clearer image of how the world sees my MC.
  7. “Find a small hurt someone suffers. What’s the big principle or hidden injustice it represents? Stir your MC to anger over it.”  My WIP opens with a small hurt that engages the reader. The injustice is clear as it leaves a little boy without a father. It’s that last bit that lights a flare: I’ve never let my MC know about it.  How would he react?
  8. “What’s the worst thing that happens to your MC? Work backwards. Make it something your MC has spent a lifetime avoiding.” Yup. This is key to MC’s internal conflict. Lifetime of avoiding wills his fear in.
  9. “What secret is your MC keeping? Who is keeping one *from* your MC? Spill the truth at the worst possible time.” I’m debating a story thread I added last fall — knowing it is strong, but weighing if it takes power away from the MC’s story. This question is key as I decide if there should be another secret in play or not.
  10. “What does your MC know about people that no one else does? Create 3 moments when he/she spots that in others.” Roonan: everyone is hiding. Or he thinks everyone is hiding, or sees what everyone is hiding. (Which may be true, but reveals more his animal state of having lived in hiding.)
  11. “Find a small passing moment in your manuscript. What big meaning does your MC see in it? Add that.” Like the one before, these are intriguing as they provoke: what does the MC see that no one else does? What a great way to reveal inner conflict.
  12. “Give your MC passionate feelings about something trivial: e.g., cappuccino, bowling, argyle socks. Write his/her rant. Add it.” I just think this one’s funny.
  13. “Your MC’s worst quality: let him/her struggle with it, provoke it 3 times, make it cost something big, then allow change.” Use this one to evaluate where his worst quality is revealed, where this might incite more. And the love interest’s worst quality?
  14. Who in your story has an ironclad, unshakable belief? Shatter or reverse it by the story’s end. Force him to rebuild.”  Yup.  Reversed.  Shattered. Time to rebuild.
  15. “What principle guides your MC? At what moment is it most tested? When does it fail? Put it into action three times.” Roonan: to stay out of the violence. Secondarily, he had to protect his younger brother and sister. In protecting or helping vulnerable people, he backs into violence.
  16. “Find a corner, crossroads or dark object in your story. Invest it with eeriness, unknown portent or dread. Go there three times.” There are guns in the book, but a vintage motorcycle and bag of locks would be the dark object. Or is there something else?
  17. “What does your antagonist believe in? Who else shares those values? Why are they actually right? When does your MC see that too?” If anything, this challenges me to wonder: am I too quick for MC to agree with antagonist?
  18. “What’s the worst thing your antagonist must do? Make it against his/her principles. Make it unthinkable. Then make it imperative.” Thinking… External antagonist? Wondering if there is a place for this. But also, how about internal antagonist? Have I directly confronted this? Is this what compels his mistakes?
  19. “What does your protagonist most want? How is it truly something that everyone wants? Explain & add.” I’ve written about this before (here). My character wants the same happiness he thought his parents had. Writing needed might include those directions: “explain & add.”
  20. “In your climactic scene, what are 3 details of place that only your MC would notice? Cut more obvious details, replace with these.” Intriguing challenge.
  21. “During a big dramatic event, what’s one small thing your POV character realizes will never change or never be the same again?” My immediate thought is a smaller detail, not the obvious change.
  22. “Cut 100 words from your last 3 pages.You have 5 minutes. Fail? Penalty: cut 200 words.” We all love-hate this one.
  23. “What’s a moment when everything could change? Pause. Explore. What does it feel like to be weightless?” This tweet provoked a transformative emotional response in a crucial moment in my WIP when I came across it last fall.

Updated Summer 2013 — Here are several resources for learn more from Maass:

Hey! Want an opportunity to read Maass’s book, work on your manuscript and trade notes with a fab writing group? My friends at Wordsmith Studio have selected Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel for our book chats on Twitter, starting July 1, 2013 at 9 pm EST. We’ll discuss the book at chats July through September, using Twitter chat-tag, #wschat.

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What prompts or other writing inspiration do you use to start your work? Do you avoid prompts or welcome them? Have you posted your own prompts before? Feel free to share your link or favorite prompts in the comments.

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Writing Character: Challenge of Revising the Character Most Like Yourself – Part 2

c.Elissa Field

This is the second of two articles addressing the challenge some writers have identified of writing the character most like themselves.

Read the original post for an explanation of who this character is, and how the idea for the post originally arose  from a small tangent during the fabulous workshop I had with Ann Hood in Miami last May:

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5 Approaches for Revising:

Again, not all authorial characters are broken — but this post addresses the situation where characters drawn closely from the author come across as flat. Each of the following presents a possible source of the problem and how to address it.

  1. See-through narrator: beginner’s error?  In one of my early novel attempts, I had a central female protagonist who essentially represented my entrypoint into the story. She was roughly my age, my cultural background, etc. Her story arc was dynamic, but she was the least fully-written and least empathetic character. I realized I was intentionally keeping this character thinly written, nearly transparent, as if she were a window to see through to the story.  Have you ever read an editor’s list of “beginner errors”? While revising this story at Bread Loaf one summer, I was startled to find this approach on a list of errors committed by first-time novelists who are still trepidatious about claiming that right to just present the story. It’s possible a transparent-window-character really is an effective device for your story (they do exist in some successful published work), but my authorial character did not ring true.  Fix?  The simplest approach is to eliminate the character — no window is needed for you to ‘frame’ the story. If you resist deleting the character, this means you believe the character has a purpose in the story.  Take the time to understand why you chose this perspective and own it.  Don’t avoid the character; understand the tension and emotion they create, and write the character fully.
  2. Lay back on the couch & tell me about your childhood: another beginner’s error?  Editors also report a beginner’s error of feeling a need to explain the psychology behind our character’s choices. This can be common when writing about from real life. Much of our memory may come from psychological processing of an event.  But see if the flatness of your authorial character arises from too much explanation of their thoughts.  Reams of psychological explanation is less intriguing than actions and emotions that reveal the same information, and can seem inauthentic or defensive. Fix?  Psychological explanation is often written as a placeholder for motivation in early drafts. As the action and emotion of scenes become more full in revisions, see if you can simply delete the explanations. If these other scenes have not been written, make notes to yourself of what the psycho-babble is trying to accomplish, then envision the kind of interaction between characters that would reveal it. An entire scene might not be necessary; a single line revealing a memory might suffice. A reader will always find psychology more believable if they came to the conclusion on their own through experiencing the character, than if you explain it.  Also, see 3.
  3. I’m a good girl/boy.  I spent my whole life trying to convince my grandmother that my hair was the current style, my brother that I hadn’t packed too much on the family trip, and anyone else that I wasn’t difficult.  Best thing ever was the year I realized it was okay if my hair was not my grandmother’s style, my suitcase was overpacked and I was as difficult as anyone else around me.  Around the same time, I realized I was raising my characters to be as well-behaved as my family wanted me to be.  If a character did something inappropriate, I caught myself reeling them in or tried to explain it away.  If they had affairs or stole or were judgmental, writer-me immediately tried to take it back (or, see #2, gave psychological justification and excuses).  Around the time I gave myself permission to be sassy, I read a single perfect line of writing advice: the most memorable characters are not well-behaved.  Not that they’re rude, but they have opinions, they speak out and take action.  Not that they’re all adulterers and murderers, but they make high-stakes mistakes, and story arises from the consequences, not excuses.  Best characters would, in all hopes, make my grandmother’s eyes fly wide first in horror, then in secret glee for having done what she would not have allowed me to do.  Fix?  Don’t hold back.  In Hood’s advice below, note how important it is that we create distance and not expect our characters to behave as we do. If you gave your character a gun, don’t apologize when it goes off — and it should.  Characters should get in positions other people avoid, or say things they shouldn’t, or do the wrong thing and then another wrong thing after that.  Sitting primly on the couch and keeping thoughts to themselves would rarely have kept even my elders turning the pages.
  4. Hood’s advice #1: Continuing from part 1, in our workshop writer Ann Hood said the key is to create the resonance and fullness of story in characters based on reality. A common sign that a writer is too married to reality is when they defend a manuscipt by saying, “But that’s what really happened.”  To write effectively from real life, a writer is seeking to create resonance and meaning that were not apparent in the thin reality.  To do this, Hood said, “You have to establish authorial distance [between yourself and the character] to be able to see the character as a character.” Distance allows us to view others more clearly — from all sides, with interesting filters — than we do ourselves. The key is to create that ability to see yourself at that same distance.  Fix?  Hood said the key is to give the character one quality or trait that is absolutely not like yourself.  Give them a tick. A quirk, an idiosyncracy.  Give them an obsession.  A hobby, a talent.   Make them older than yourself, younger, or change their gender.  Give them a profession or talent or hobby that defines their lives.  It’s not a small shift — the goal is to create something in the character that is utterly unlike yourself so that you start seeing them as someone other than yourself.  In the gap, you can begin to have perspective and write more fully.
  5. Hood #2:  Saying the same thing differently, Hood referenced another author in saying that developing story arises by repeatedly asking the question, “What if…?” Each answer to the question spins details to character or setting or obstacles.  For example, Hood wrote one of her novels in response to the grief of losing her daughter to a sudden illness.  But what if she directed that grief into learning to knit?  For a current story I am writing, a main theme is my own, but what if the character were ten years older? What if she worked in a museum tending taxidermied exhibits? What if something were stolen, so the story seems to be about the theft, not her inner struggle?   Fix? Begin with a “What if” that is not true of yourself.  What if… the character was a man or an older woman or an artist or just witnessed a train derailing in the middle of the night behind her father’s barn…

More revision strategies?

For a 6th example, I’ll suggest this and you are welcome to offer a solution. 

  • I’m just not that into me.  In freelance work, I once interviewed a woman who had been an entymologist and lived in the jungle for 6 years before going back to school, studying urban planning and being appointed to public office. It was a fascinating article on how those unconnected roles represented her drive to serve. Yet she was shocked that anyone found her years in the jungle interesting. For me, that is parallel to a truth when I write a character like myself: it’s easy for me to be fascinated by a character I’m just getting to know, while falling flat to describe the character who feels like the same somebody I’m inside every day. One of the problems with writing authorial characters arises when we don’t gain Hood’s authorial distance to perceive ourselves as interesting characters. If the character most like yourself feels boring to you, perhaps this is the dilemma. Fix? The fix may mean not writing about yourself if it bores you, or perhaps Hood’s advice in 4 & 5, to gain the distance and interest to write more fully. Or, how would you suggest solving it?

How would you answer that — or what other dilemmas do you run into with characters drawn from your life? Share your answers, ideas or links in the comments!

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Writing Character: Challenge of the Character Most Like Yourself – Part 1

Adapted fr a picture taken of me with my best friend (cropped, in adaptation) by his mother on the first day of 2nd grade. In many ways, characters are thinly disguised versions of the writer. Sometimes that grants vivid authenticity. Sometimes, not so much. (c. Elissa Field; repro w written permission)

Twice in previous articles, I mentioned the challenge of writing the character most like oneself, and it’s time I give the intended explanation.

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Where the idea for the post arose:

Along with posts on  internal and external conflict and character emotion, the impetus for this article arose from a small tangent during the fabulous workshop I had with Ann Hood in Miami last May.

Among stories I’ve worked on in the past, I knew who my trickiest, most elusive or least successful characters were, but hadn’t noticed a pattern until an offhand comment from Ann. In responding to another writer’s manuscript in workshop, she observed that the flattest characters we write are sometimes those most like ourselves.  A little bell went off inside as I realized it was these characters I wrote with the least interest.

In conversations with fellow writers shortly after, over and over they agreed, which provoked need to tie together Hood’s advice with other a-ha’s on how to bring these characters to life.

Today’s post, part 1, will define why this is a challenge. Part 2 of the series will offer revision strategies.

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First, what does that mean: “most like myself”? 

In discussing this with friends, many are writing fiction from an autobiographical story, so have a character who is literally modeled from themselves.  Others might write themselves as a character thrown into unfamiliar or fantastical settings as if the stories were vicarious lives.  Hood herself used the example of writing her novel, The Knitting Circle, which she wrote in response to grief overthe death of her daughter.  I don’t write autobiographically, but each story seems to have a character — not always the protagonist — who is most invested with my own history.  She is my gender, and may have a lifestyle, profession, interests, roots or age drawn from my own.

Each of these is an example of a character drawn from the author’s own identity.

But isn’t that what it means, to “write what you know”?

Obviously, the odd snippets drawn from our lives can set our work apart.  Such details give our work texture and voice and authenticity.  One of my favorites to write was the opening lines of a novel draft where the character has a memory of running from the shoreline carrying a minnow cupped in her hands as a girl.  I like the immediate connection to childhood and nature, and it was perfect metaphor to the mystery of the story.

Drawing on actual experience creates writing infused with and anchored in something vivid.  That’s why we do it.  That effective use of authorial experience is not the challenge this article addresses.

Yet writing from self — not just experience — develops its own challenge.

In the workshop with Hood and in conversation with writing friends, the challenge arose that characters written based on ourselves sometimes feel — at least in early drafts — flat.

In some cases the writer is aware of it.  In other cases, it was something reported back from beta readers or agents.  The character might be written accurately, but wasn’t engaging or dynamic.  They were lifeless or invisible or downright annoying or defensive or without motivation.

Hood is known for teaching nonfiction and memoir, and her fiction is often rooted in personal experience.  During our workshop, in responding to one writer’s manuscript, she gave example of the process she went through in revising one of her novels.

Making a connection to the weakness she addressed in her revisions and the manuscript at hand, she said: characters telling our own story “can suffer from attachment to reality.”  The problem, she said, is that reality often comes without the fullness and resonance of story.

In my experience, I was surprised to notice authorial blindness might have me writing vivid factual details of the character’s life, yet her emotions and motivation remain unrealized or unengaging, in the same way that you could have a vivid, accurate list of ingredients for the grocery store, yet that is not the same as visualizing a fully-prepared dinner laid out for Thanksgiving.

Like shaving or putting lipstick on without a mirror, you know where you are, but not quite how to see yourself — or therefore reveal yourself to a reader — without perspective.

Some examples:

My own weakness is that the character most like myself is often the one I am least curious about.  I am excited getting to know this shady, paramilitary character in my draft, Wake, or the Cuban-exile, artist mother in Breathing Water, or the fastidious doctor surrounded by monkeys in another draft.  The daughter or girlfriend character?  Not so much.  It’s not that I don’t like her, but, well, I sort of forget to write her. Raised to be a good, self-deprecating American, I might even tend to write her vaguely annoying.

Sometimes — especially if I was writing into unfamiliar territory — this character provided my own entry point into the story, the point at which I bridge my own knowledge or culture or personality, to the less familiar places and culture and experiences I might take the story and characters. The resulting character revealed my vulnerability and initial lack of insight, without yet contributing the meaning such a character was intended to offer.

Hood’s basic advice:

On a most basic level, Ann Hood said the key to writing characters based on the writer is for the writer to create authorial distance.

Begin with the value of your experience, but then create distance by changing key elements through the process of asking, “What if?”  Create differences between the character and self so that you start to feel that curiosity, start to imagine that character as someone fully fledged and outside yourself.

Having bashed my own characters to provide examples, I should offer one I’ve written where I saw Hood’s advice working.  I feel myself closely identified with the protagonist of my story Jar of Teeth.  Beginning with truths from my own life, this character had once marched on Washington for Roe v. Wade (as I once did) and made it through college and dating years never unwittingly pregnant and therefore breathed a sight of relief at never having had to use the rights of Roe v. Wade (also true).  But what if she were older than myself, living in a different city, and with a job cleaning the taxidermied exhibits in a museum? And what if her child were not my young sons but a college aged daughter, and what if that daughter was now asking her to pay to avert her own sudden emergency? Without giving away the whole story, I can say that I see this character as more three dimensional, being outside myself, than if I were imagining her from the inside-out.

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Can you share an example of a character that challenges you and may fit this pattern?  Does Hood’s advice ring true for you?  Or what other advice have you encountered?

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