Thursday, June 27, 2013

Making a Good Character Look Bad

Create a scene in which your character does one of the following:
  • is hurt or humiliated
  • does something stupid
  • makes a fool of herself
  • knowingly commits an immoral act or does not speak up when someone else does
  • shows through her speech or actions that she is wrong about something important
It's easy to fall in love with your protagonist or identify so closely that you are unable to get your character into any serious trouble.  But a story in which your character does nothing wrong can end up short.  Create a scene where your protagonist is hardly at her best.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Character Monologue Exercise

Try writing a monologue of your main character.  Let there be another person in the room with him, to whom he is speaking.  The situation should bring out extreme emotion from your speaking character:  joy, despair, fear, anger, frustration, etc.

 Write one page of the monologue in first person from the character's point of view.  The goal of this exercise is not to provide plot but to push this character towards an extreme feeling.  Let him harangue. Doesn't have to make sense.  Just go with it.  What matters is to feel the emotion, then write whatever comes out.

Innermost feelings then can be externalized into concrete outer action.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Knowing Your Character

I have a character about whom I have been writing/thinking for 20 years.  I know his feelings, but he still eludes me.  So I am trying this exercise:

Try to visualize physical attributes.  (Age, height, weight, good looking, or not much.)

What does he care about?
His greatest failure?
His greatest obstacle?
His dream?
His greatest drive in life?
What does he like to remember from the past?
What does he like to forget?
What is his character flaw?
What is a visual image or metaphor to symbolize your character?  This might be an animal, a flower, a color.

Write one page describing this person from your own life.  Focus on him and not just how you feel about him.  If you walked into a crowded room of two hundred people, he should stand out.

Perhaps this exercise will serve to make my character real.  Maybe it will even lead to scenes I have not yet imagined.

Try it.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

How to Learn What Your Character Feels

Growing up, I was often reminded of being too sensitive.  "Don't take everything to heart, kid," my father would say. "Stop taking everything so personal!  You're way too sensitive!"

Well, guess what?  I haven't changed in more than seven decades of living.  In fact, I've turned it into a strength in terms of writing.  I can sense people's feelings from a distance, just from listening to them talk.  I document these feelings on paper.  Then I intuit an internal or secret life.  What part is kept hidden that no one knows about?  Grief?  Shame?  Guilt?  Obsessions?

And voila!  I have a character.  I go beyond the basic physical description. There could be scars (both physical and emotional), a certain the set of the mouth, an odd way of walking, a look to the side, a way of folding hands, twirling a lock of hair, scratching the head or a pinching an ear.  These details portray feelings central to the character.

No one gets through life unscathed.  Start with basic feelings --  happiness, sadness and so on.  Pull back and imagine what's lurking behind.  Racism, growing old, poverty, evil, injustice, sin, ambition, deceit.  The fiction writer wants to portray a concept, an emotion, an idea, but has to do so dramatically by showing and embodying the idea.  Your mind is making associations -- telling you something is there and more can be revealed.

Take an image, let's say a wedding ring on your character.  What is she doing with it?  Twirling it around her left forefinger?  Maybe around her right?  Shining it with a tissue?  Taking it off and on?  The wedding ring alone shows something, but the action around it tells much more.  Once you've nailed the gesture, explored it fully, you'll feel what the character feels.

Then what happens next?

Thursday, June 20, 2013


Writers are nosy; they don't mind their own business.  They eavesdrop.  They spy.  In Seattle there is a bus I once rode.  Stuff happened on that route.  A couple sat handcuffed together.  A man got on and poured his coffee in the coin box when asked to dump it outside.  A guy on a cell was trying to buy a goat.  A dog got on without any apparent owner and got off two stops later.

I listen in on conversations and try to capture patterns of speech.  No character speaks the same as another character.  I write down snatches of what I hear.  A person's speech tells us a lot about his education, where he grew up, about his job, his self-esteem.  The volume of pitch of spoken words vary during conversations. I listen secretly.

Sometimes I sit in a public place near the most interesting people I can find.  Get myself a coffee and open my notebook.  I'm unobtrusive, but I listen.  I don't even have to see the people talking.  Later I will put these people in a complication.  They can be in a very ordinary situation such as washing the supper dishes or talking during an opera intermission.  Trouble finds them when they least expect it.  They're surprised when during a perfectly routine event becomes potentially difficult.

I listen wherever I am.  What I am waiting for are voices that evoke the human condition.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Writing About Loss

Loss and grief:  What else is there?  We are all exiles from the garden of childhood.  Our exile is the beginning of our drive to create.   We don't lose our childhood in one swoop.  It's a gradual process, often still going on into adult life. 

Write towards loss.  The idea is to make art of your experiences, no matter how painful.  Negative emotions can electrify on the page.  Our culture focuses on the positive.   If we're optimistic and joyful, this will reflect on our life.   But plumbing our depths is where we find the core of our story and the talent within us.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Leave Out Your Darlings

 In writing, leaving out is just as important as what you put in.  New writers sometimes get bogged down by too much material.  If your descriptions do not advance the story, leave out.  Separate what is essential.  Set aside the rest.  Move your narrative forward, choosing only what burnishes the page.

The time to do this is in the editing stage.  Revision, revision, revision.  Be willing to lose something, often referred to as "killing your darlings."  What you think is profound and literary may be unworthy of your piece.  You will be a better writer for turning aside from anything that distracts from the story.

Focus on being concise and readable.  Not self-indulged.

Progress On My Second Novel

The main problem in my second novel is drawing out the female protagonist. She is 21, admitted to a psych ward of a hospital after a suicide...