Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Category Archives: character

Writing Characters

Ken Levine (writer on M*A*S*H and Cheers and Frasier) has some great advice for writers trying to come up with characters.

How To Practice Your Writing Every Day

Life is complicated. You want to think that the guy who just cut you off in traffic is just a jerk. You want to be the victim or the hero in all of the little stories you live every day. And sometimes you are, sure. Sometimes you’re not. Sometimes you’re both wrong, or both right, or both just operating under bad assumptions.

Take a moment and step into the other person’s shoes. This is what every good writer has to be able to do. You need to see things from other points of view. Maybe the guy in traffic is a jerk who needs to get ahead of other people. What kind of insecurities make him that way? How does it manifest at his job, in his relationships, his life? There’s a character for your next story.

On Characters in Fiction

Via Nancy Nall:

“My experience with fiction is very limited — one screenplay, some abortive stories here and there — but the wonderful thing about it is, it’s a conjurer’s trick. You create your characters out of clay, breathe over them and make them live, and then they turn around, kick you in the kneecap, and start doing what they want. You can try to stop them, but doing so will retard your story. Your responsibility, as a writer, is to tell their story, and they will tell you what it is. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it; it’s the closest your average modern person will ever get to voodoo possession.”

Speaking just for myself, this is one of the things that keeps me writing fiction, that makes me cranky when I’m not writing, that gives me a rush when I complete a story. It’s that act of creation, of bringing characters to life and watching them grow, that odd feeling that they are almost independent of you (there’s a post coming in the future about the concept that writers “channel” their stories rather than creating them, the subject of a discussion with the award-nominated Ryan Campbell this weekend), watching them have triumphs and failures, loves and losses, lessons learned and lessons ignored. It’s why, even though “Moby Dick” is a huge, ponderous tome that most people haven’t gotten through, or have forgotten large chunks of it if they have, its beginning is one of the most famous in literature, because it introduces a character and a mystery and the tone of the novel all in three words.

And if you don’t know them, go look them up. :)

O Say, Coen You See

One of the interesting things about the Coen Brothers’ movies is the variety of reaction they elicit from their fans. People who claim to be fans of Coppola generally have the same set of favorite movies (perhaps re-ordering them a bit). Spielberg fans don’t say they love “Schindler’s List” but hated “E.T.” But ask a dozen Coen Brothers fans what their best movie is, and you’ll get six different answers. Not only that, you’ll inevitably get someone in the list who hated someone else’s favorite.

Lance Mannion, for example, in a very interesting post on their movies, writes, “The Hudsucker Proxy is a failure, and The Man Who Wasn’t There is a bad movie.”

The Hudsucker Proxy might be my favorite Coen Brothers movie, or The Big Lebowski might be, though I like O Brother Where Art Thou and No Country For Old Men. Lance loves The Big Lebowski and O Brother. He also likes Intolerable Cruelty, which I’ve mostly heard panned (haven’t seen it), and Raising Arizona, which is the Coen Brothers movie most people seem to agree on as “good” (and, oddly, I don’t have much affection for).

He doesn’t mention The Ladykillers, wisely. That might be the one most people agree on as “bad.”

I liked The Man Who Wasn’t There, personally, except for the odd space alien subplot. I thought Billy Bob Thornton was pretty effective, and the movie itself strangely touching. And I have a co-worker who hated The Big Lebowski. So who knows?

The interesting thing about all this is that I think Lance is right when he says they are cartoons, but the effect of that is that the characters become templates (tying into my last posting about characters) and we can project easily onto them. The Coens tell stories and create characters that people read a lot of themselves into, that they take very personally. They’re exaggerated enough that we can take their exaggerated traits and apply them to ourselves, or people we know. So people will say, “I can appreciate that No Country For Old Men was a good film, but I hated it.”

I don’t know whether there’s a conclusion to all this. Certainly the cartoonish aspects of the Coens’ characters is one of the main appeals of their movies (the others being the writing and the stunning way they immerse each movie in its own world). They’ve forged a successful career out of creating specifically unreal characters. Whether that’s something you want to do is your call, but you should remember at least that most memorable characters have some exaggeration or cartoonishness about them.

What is a story?

At WonderCon this weekend, I had someone asking me when there’d be a sequel to “Common and Precious,” and it got me thinking about this.

Our screenwriting teacher has a saying that no character in a movie represents a person. Every character represents a message, or a belief system: a way to live. Even in biographies, most characters are tailored to show a message of some kind through the story of their lives.

So a story, being the movement of characters through a plot, is actually a debate between different beliefs or responses to a problem. The resolution of the story is the success (or failure!) of one of the belief systems to resolve the problem.

Of course, this doesn’t mean your characters don’t have to be believable. It just means that in addition to being believable characters, they have to be consistent (“on message” in business-speak) throughout the story, or they have to have a reason to change. They have to be believable so that the reader believes that their solution to the problem at hand is a valid one. Otherwise, as Slartibartfast would say, “that’s where it all falls apart.”

So when I write a story with some characters I enjoy, I don’t automatically write a sequel. Sometimes I do, if I feel that the story didn’t really resolve. More often, the reason to write another story with the same characters is that you’re trying to illuminate another kind of problem, and the character’s approach to the problem matches a character you’ve already written. Which is why I am gratified to have people demand sequels of stories with the same characters, but I’m always unsure how to respond to it. It’s not that I don’t *like* the characters. It’s more that I just don’t have anything more to write about them. There has to be a story; I can’t just do a “what’s next.”

Now, all of the above is very clinical. And certainly, I don’t sit down to write a story and think, “Hm. This is an interesting problem. I wonder which belief systems I can use to illuminate my preferred solution, and how to create characters out of them.” But, to paraphrase my screenwriting teacher again, those concepts are at the foundation of any good writing, and although very few people actually work from the concepts out to the story, they are the underpinnings you need to be aware of when you are constructing your story.

Which is why, when someone wants to know what happens to the characters next, they are actually looking at the characters in somewhat the wrong way. The character has nothing to do without a problem to solve. And that is also why I find myself really interested in secondary characters, to the point of giving them their own stories on occasion. Their problems have not only not been solved, they’ve often not even been explored. I’d much rather do a story on them than another story with characters whose story has played out.

(And in fact, I am working–slowly–on a Night and Bright story, which a couple people have also requested. I like them too–not their belief systems, but the wrapper around them. They’re fun to write. And that, more than anything I just spent half an hour typing, is what determines whether another story gets written. :)

The Power of Four

I previously talked about the “rule of three.” Today’s post comes from a somewhat unusual source: ESPN’s Sports Guy. I read his columns a fair amount, because he’s an entertaining writer and offers a great mix of sports knowledge (historical and current) and pop culture.

Anyway, in a recent column about football studio shows, he brings up this theory about “the power of four”:

Unless you’re putting together a poker night or a group to play pickup hoops, in nearly every other conceivable scenario, you’re better off with four people than five or more. Dinner always works better. Vegas works better. Cabs work better. Sporting events work better. Road trips work better. Local newscasts and morning shows work better. Rock bands work better. The most successful sitcom ever (“Seinfeld”) centered around four friends, and the most popular female comedy series (“Sex and the City”) did the same. If you keep the number at four, you’ll always have enough people to make it interesting and everybody has a chance to shine.

Apart from the fact that I personally agree with him (especially about the dinner thing), this is an interesting concept to keep in mind when writing your scenes. Most of us tend to write scenes between two characters, sometimes branching out to three. I think you could reasonably go to four without confusing the reader. Beyond that, though, it gets difficult.

Depending on the length and genre of your work, four is probably the limit of major characters the reader can really care about, too. It’s like he says: keep it interesting, and everyone has a chance to shine. If you’re doing a big epic adventure fantasy where character development isn’t so much an issue, then you can have a Fellowship of nine plus a bunch of supporting cast. But in Katharine Noel’s Halfway House, for example, we have the protagonist, but her father and mother also have strong character arcs in the story. Her brother works as a secondary character, but doesn’t get a lot of the focus. “Common and Precious” has two main characters and two major secondary characters, and that’s about enough for that book as well (I did write a dialogue scene with four characters that was challenging, but a lot of fun to carry off).

Review: The Dive From Clausen’s Pier


The Dive From Clausen’s Pier, by Ann Packer
9/10, a rich, beautiful story about a woman figuring out her life

“Figuring out her life.” That’s a lousy way to summarize the trials and tribulations of Carrie Bell, the heroine of “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier.” We read the first chapter, a prologue of sorts, in our “Tension, Conflict, and the Unknown” seminar earlier this year, and when I asked our teacher for recommended books that handle tension well, this was one she recommended.

Packer certainly does know how to build tension. The first chapter nearly begins with Carrie saying “That year, the year everything changed…” but doesn’t tell us why until later, dropping other clues throughout until by the time her fiance Mike takes his fateful dive off the pier, we know something bad will happen. Things haven’t been good between her and Mike; like the lake, their love is at a low ebb. Carrie hasn’t had the strength to break things off, but she knows she will have to before they go much further.

This is a persistent trait of hers, to put off decisions until forced by a crisis. In the wake of Mike’s accident (a broken neck), she is trapped into the obligation she was planning to flee, now made more onerous by Mike’s disability. The first part of the book moves slowly, detailing how that one accident and her reactions to it unravel other parts of her life: her relationship with Mike’s parents, her friendship with her best friend Jamie, her friendships with the other members of their group.

It’s the second part of the book, after Carrie makes an initial decision about what path to take, where things pick up. Even though she’s made a decision, it isn’t final, and the path not taken still plucks at her even as she finds happiness in the course she chose. Tension between the two escalates until the end of the book, when she reaches a final decision, and a final peace of sorts.

For people who love good characters, this book is a rich Godiva chocolate assortment of them. I said once that characters become real from what they do, and memorable from how they do it. Packer’s characters are fully, achingly real, in such a normal setting that for them to be memorable would almost be a betrayal of the world. But they are all memorable in small ways, mannerisms like those we know in our own friends. I often felt frustrated with Carrie ignoring what seemed to me to be obvious choices, but had to realize that that is who she is; in her place, I would have acted differently (and it would not have been nearly as interesting a story).

The writing itself is marvelous, too. Carrie’s hobby is clothing and sewing, and Packer makes us aware of what everyone is wearing, to the point that I started to look around in my own life and notice clothes. This loving detail extends to the characters themselves. One of the lasting effects of this book, and the reason for its high score, is because after reading it, I feel less able to ignore the stories in all the people I meet and pass every day.

That sounds either terribly pretentious (“I can now see the hidden depths in everyone”) or ignorant (“I didn’t realize other people had depth!”), but I can’t think of a better way to say it. I think we all know that everyone we meet has a story just like we do, but most of the time we don’t think about it. It takes too much time and effort to think about what the woman who rushes onto the train every morning to get a double seat went through as a child, or why the guy with the laptop open in the coffee shop is just staring blankly out the window. But a book like this, so rich in characters and their stories, makes you reach out from your own story and touch other people’s, if only to wonder what they might be, if only for a moment.

And by the time Carrie has finished this chapter of her own story, you understand that although this is an ending, there will be more to come. She has reached as much of an equilibrium as any of us ever do. If it is not a completely satisfying ending, it is at least a very real one, and maybe the two are mutually exclusive, after all. If you love characters, if you love drama, if you love the small town and big city and all the people in them, you will love this book.

Envy and Suspense

Okay, that last post was sort of a cheat. This was something I thought about in reading Ann Packer’s “The Dive From Clausen’s Pier” (very good so far). I’m not sure how it will relate to writing, but I have confidence that somehow it will.

One of the characters in her book lives with very few possessions. The main character (at first) envies him his uncomplicated life. This is a pretty common emotion, commamdments notwithstanding (or maybe there is a commandment because it’s a common emotion). We envy the person happy with their job and say, “I want to work there!” We envy people who are content in their situations because we imagine that the situation and not the person is responsible for that contentment. And we imagine that because we want to believe that our situation, and not ourselves, is to blame for any unhappiness we feel.

What we really envy, though, is the contentment other people feel, not the specific situation they’re in. If the guy with no possessions was filthy and miserable, we’d say, “man, I’m glad I have my car and my library of books and my collection of Hummel figurines.”

Packer actually uses this in the book. Further along, the heroine starts to examine her possessions more critically and then to criticize the person living without. “Would it be so much trouble for him to hang one painting, something he liked?” (paraphrased). So she took something common (envy) and probed it, exploring the real foundations of it, and turned it around. Without the heroine actually saying, “I realized that I envied his contentment and not his sparse life, so I decided to become content with my life,” she eases us into that realization.

See, I knew I’d be able to bring that back around to writing somehow.

She also does a good job with suspense, often peppering the book with little teasers like, “it was only a week later that I saw his bedroom. […] But first, we walked.” She lets you know what’s coming, just enough that you wonder, “how do they get to that point?” It keeps the book exciting. I am actually anxious to keep reading and find out what happens. But more about that in the review, when I finish.

Where To Get Inspiration

One of the opportunities afforded by this convention is the chance to talk to people and hear their stories. This is why you need to carry around your little notebook: because if you’re ever stuck for a character motivation or a character type, the best place to refer is real life. That doesn’t mean you have to lift a story whole cloth exactly as it was told, but you can take elements of it. There are usually a couple key elements to a good story that make you think, “wow, someone really did that.” Use that with your own characters. One of my problems is that I try to make my characters too realistic, when a few elements of outlandishness are usually helpful in making someone memorable. And outlandishness is usually a characteristic of a good story, one people will go out of their way to tell you.

Also, think about that when telling stories of your own. What makes the stories from your past interesting? Do you have any stories that were *almost* a disaster? How would things have gone if they had turned into disasters? What odd behavior did you see in the people around you–like that ticket agent who was clearly having a bad day when she harassed you about the minor issue with your itinerary, or the girl at the Starbucks who took three tries to get your order right, and told you that she just wasn’t processing English correctly that day?

All of these elements are real. Write them down, remember them, refer to them, use them. I often take small occurrences that stuck in my mind from life and use them as textural details in my stories–and you can take the small occurrences that form the basis of other people’s stories and use them as well. The more sources you can draw from, the more textured and real your stories will feel.

Catching up, and Travel

It has been a long time–over a month–since I posted here. Life, in its usual way, has tossed shiny things and distractions at me, and though I have been writing my fiction, and writing in other blogs about restaurants, sports, and our writing workshop, I haven’t updated here. I have several books backed up to write reviews on, and some writing thoughts to share, but for the last two weeks, I’ve been traveling, and writing very little–at least, committing very little to permanence.

Driving to the midwest and back from California is a terrific experience. Because Mark’s family is in Colorado, we’ve driven to and from Colorado on a couple occasions, but the only other time I’ve crossed the highways from Minnesota to California since 1978, it was behind a moving van packed full of my stuff. That’s a story worth telling in its own right: the lake in Kansas that used to be a field, creeping over the highway; the black clouds and screaming headwinds of Oklahoma; the dry, empty flatlands of West Texas, dotted with crosses and prisons; the glow of Las Vegas visible from an hour away. But this was a leisure trip, visiting relatives in Colorado, friends and relatives in Minnesota, and various landmarks along the way.

It is always instructive to shake up your surroundings (perhaps not literally). Leaving the Bighorn National Forest in Wyoming, we saw some lovely little houses and wondered about the people living in them. We could never survive being a three-hour drive from the nearest place from which you could fly somewhere, but these people are clearly fine with it. They would look at our house, no doubt, and think that they could never live three hours from the beautiful empty spaces of the Central Valley and the mountains of the Sierra Range. The good people of North Dakota are like Minnesotans, only more so: their state capitol complex celebrates their “hardy pioneer stock.” They expect the worst from the world, and they get it, every December through March, and they soldier on (true story: I met a woman from North Dakota while I was living in Minneapolis who said that she liked the Twin Cities for their mild winters). These are all characters, archetypes, personalities. In a book, I might say to myself, this person comes from North Dakota, and even if it’s a fantasy world, I know what kind of person that is, what sort of world they grew up in, what their parents and peers were like. Maybe she is the kind of North Dakotan who moves away as soon as she reaches eighteen. Maybe she is the kind who was wrenched away from her home and still longs for it. Having been there, albeit briefly, I can imagine that background, and give her depth, even if none of it shows up in actual words on the page.

Book reviews soon to come. Sarah Canary, The Road, Music Through The Floor. Lovely stuff, all different.