The Benefits of Exploring Characters
“Plot is no more than footprints left in the snow after your characters have run by on their way to incredible destinations.”
I love this quote from Ray Bradbury. It focuses on two things; firstly it answers the age-old question - what comes first - plot or character? Secondly, it emphasizes the concept of pursuing a character, not knowing where s/he will lead you. That's what this post is about, letting the characters in your work-in-progress dictate the journey.
I started work on my latest story this week. It has been percolating in my head for a while, at least the characters have. An estranged couple who may (or may not!) care for each other despite everything that has happened to them. I'm three chapters in and starting to hear their voices. This part of the process is the most exciting for me. I'm looking forward to seeing where they take me. It got me thinking about how other authors treat this topic. Here are some insights.
“A character has to be ignorant of the future, unsure about the past, and not at all sure what he’s supposed to be doing.”
Anthony Burgess appears to approach the writing process in the same way, except his perameters are time-related rather than distance travelled. I like that because it often helps to explore the character with the benefit of a time machine. For instance, I like to write diary entries of a character, describing events which may or may not appear in the story, they fill in the details and give a clearer picture. If you're not sure how to leave your character at the end, how about moving forward in time to look at what happens after you leave them. Do they live happy ever after or do problems remain? Ones they may be more adept at handling as a result of what has happened in the story. Their uncertainty about the present is crucial, it generates tension, introduces risk, because we (the character, the reader and the author) don't know what is the right thing for them to do. The author's one advantage in this situation? If the character makes the wrong decision, you scrap the decisive event and rewrite that part of the story - you are the master of time!
“Don’t write about a character. Become that character, and then write your story.”
I subscribe to this view from Ethan Canin, best selling author and teacher, because I believe my acting training kicks in here, I can't help but do this. As I write, I immerse myself in that person, a rather schizophrenic approach to writing I appreciate not everyone will want to do. As an actor you explore the role, you examine the character's motivation in order to better understand why you speak and behave as you do. I'm consider how the character will use their body, in any dialogue especially, why they sit when they do, what mannerisms they possess. As an actor you also need to consider the background of the role too - back to Burgess' practices here. The main thing to remember is, as an actor, your adoption of the role requires you to appreciate how to communicate it effectively to your audience, in this case, the reader. I will often edit out stuff after the story is complete, because I've established certain gestures, body language, speech patterns - it helps to include them in the first draft so I can get to grips with the person.
“Storytelling is an act of cruelty. We are cruel to our characters because to be kind is to invite boredom.”
I've seen a couple of writers on Twitter reference this idea, this quote is from Chuck Wendig. I've included it here to emphasize Chuck's point that a character's suffering is what engages the reader. We're more likely to care for someone if we see their pain, we trust the writer will provide an end to it, at some point and we want to know how that will come about. This isn't a question of rampant sadism though, it means exploring the character to find the right kind of pain and knowing how much of it to apply. (A statement which conjures up Laurence Oliver's dentist in Marathon Man as he tortures Dustin Hoffman. Urgh!)
“The more complex you make your secondary characters, the more lifelike and involving your story will be.”
The sign of a good writer, for me, is someone who pays attention to this rule from Donald Maas, literary agent and writer. To return to my acting metaphor, it's like performing against bad actors. They give you little to react against, the "bounce off". Good actors will deliver a line or create a bit of stage business, which requires you to react to it. For instance, if one person turns their back on you as you deliver your line, that requires a reaction from you. You may want to provoke them into doing something to get their attention. The weak actor will stand there and say the line, it's performance in a vacuum. Secondary characters offer this provocation all the time and, if they are clear to you in this way, it forces you to think about each character's reaction. It doesn't need a lot of extra writing your editor will cross out with their red pen either! Simply adding, "Don't turn your back on me!" and you've got the reaction. It generates conflict naturally, but you need that character's depth in the first place. Think of all your characters as a cast, with actors playing the roles.
“Good dialogue comes from character development. The better you know your character, the more specific the dialogue will feel.”
This advice from Chris McCoy, screenwriter and novelist, follows on naturally from my previous point. In a first draft, I can linger on a line of dialogue for some time as I work out what the character is trying to say. In some instances I know they'd say something at that point, there is provocation there, staring them in the face. Finding the right words, getting rhythms right, including any speech patterns that person has, generating the right syntax - all these things need to be considered. I tend to write their response and let the conversation develop for a while and then review it. Does it sound right? Is the conversation taking these people in the direction it needs to go? (If it has a direction! It might not, these may be people who don't say what they mean!) Often, I'll rework the dialogue, tweak it till it works. Other times I'll delete it and start again. The exercise is useful, it's helping you find that character every time you do this.
“It begins with a character, all I can do is trot along behind him trying to put down what he says and does.”
I'm going to conclude with this statement from William Faulkner, it reinforces Bradbury's quote at the start and rounds off the post rather neatly. You know you're on the right lines with a concept when you have two such brilliant writers making the exact same point!
I'd like to emphasize why I enjoy this process. Sure, it is time consuming. For people who plan their stories in carefully crafted detail, this process may sound ridiculous. For me, I think it comes back to my training as an actor - it brings the satisfaction of finding a character, developing it until that person is ready to meet its audience. I think it's why I always enjoyed improvisation more than acting. (Plus, I was lousy at remembering lines!) As a writer, I've come to realise it's the same thing but in a different medium.
The crucial thing is to enjoy the exploration process, never leap ahead of your character when it looks like you know where they're going. Enjoy the journey, it can be as satisfying as arriving at the destination.
I hope my post helps you to explore the characters in your WIP and to get some satisfaction from the process.