Monday, May 26, 2014

Character Development

1. Emotional or intellectual
2. Physical
3. Their relationships with other characters
4. In the eyes of the reader

What does it mean for a character to develop? And is that development necessary for a story to succeed?

Some writers and instructors hold up character development as the focus of any good story. They are advocates of the epiphany, a turn in a character's inner life that divides them into who they were before and who they are after. There is no question that this kind of personal realization has its place in storytelling, but it's hardly the epitome of the craft, and it certainly isn't necessary.

Self-styled literary writers have wrung out the epiphany in their novels and short stories until the trick has dried up and become stale in its predictability. Not uniformly so, there is always outstanding work, but it's gotten so that many writing programs have forgotten the flavor of any other kind of writing. Ask yourself, how many of your favorite stories have an epiphany as their climax? How many use it at all, and was it even the most interesting part of the story?

Character development does not have to be pronounced. Big, dramatic change isn't a must, but neither are little changes either. Take your lead character and spin them through a few challenges, or stroll alongside them during an moment in their life. Write them as just exactly the same person at the finish as you did at the start. I have it on good authority that, in spite of every superstition to the contrary, neither you nor, more importantly, the story will be consumed by fire the instant you type the final word.

In any event, characters always develop. Contrary to your best efforts, they do so. It happens because of the most crucial element of this discussion: the reader.

Every new character you write, you introduce to the reader for the first time, and each subsequent page is an opportunity for the reader to get to know that character a little better. Even if you write a totally unoriginal character like a lone gunman of few words who rides into some downtrodden town and doles out justice in hot lead, the reader doesn't know what he's going to be like as he crests that first hill at daybreak. They don't know what few words he will say, or how he'll say them. Or if he'll talk differently to the barkeep than he did the stable boy. Anyway, no character is ever totally unoriginal if they are authentically rendered.

All reading is discovery, and as we discover the characters of a story, they develop in our minds. Maybe some of those developments change our impression of them. Maybe not. But on page 800 or the fourth book in a series, the process continues. Each event and interaction, every moment of quiet contemplation, represents a choice. The decisions your characters make constantly redefine them.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

 “A writer is someone who has taught his mind to misbehave.”—Oscar Wilde

“Take, take, take.”—The White Stripes

A common question many authors sneer at, likely because the answer isn't nearly as simple as the question is innocuous. As if there could be any one place a writer gets their ideas.

I once told the editor of my former English department's newsletter, a man who wanted to publish one of my poems, that, in fact, I had not written any of my own work. I admitted to him confidentially that I had unearthed the various stories and poems at the end of a long stone wall beside a big oak tree. The scribblings were folded into a box under a rock that had no earthly business in that Maine hayfield. A piece of black, volcanic glass. I threw myself on his mercy for my literary treachery. If he believed me, I was pardoned, but my work was never featured in the newsletter.

Stephen King takes the opposite approach, saying he gets his ideas from “everywhere.” I don't know whose answer is more unhelpful, but his is closer to the truth.

Yesterday a middle school aged girl asked me, wasn't it true writers get most of their ideas from dreams? Never mind what I was doing talking to a middle-schooler, but the prevailing interest in the question surprises me. (I wasn't doing anything talking to the middle-schooler, just having lunch with my friend, her relative through marriage. She isn't married, he is. Never mind.)

Being a writer isn't something you are born with. You don't wake up one morning with a headache and a little case of being a writer. You don't have special story dreams, or invent a whole world halfway through breakfast. What you do is teach yourself to pay attention to things that are interesting. An artist might watch for interesting images; a musician listens for interesting sounds. Ideas don't pop into your head so much as you stumble over them in your reading, watching movies, or just walking down the street. What you have to do is know to stop and pick the thing up, wherever it comes from, so you can play with it later to see if the idea goes anywhere.

All writers are forgers. There's no need to be ashamed of that so long as your thefts are piecemeal. If you spent your whole life on a lonely island, what chance is there that you could write anything beyond the limited scope of the horizon and your own meager thoughts? You wouldn't even have any youthful fairy tales to populate your imagination. What you have to do is “stuff your head,” as Ray Bradbury said. Dive in to anything that interests you, and then when you sit down to write, or even if you're just daydreaming, you'll start shuffling the pieces around until you hit on something that excites you. You won't be able to help it.

Don't forget to play—that's key. Misbehave. Surprise yourself. Take what the other guy did and do just the opposite. Pluck a quote from The Shawshank Redemption and twist it to your own purpose. See what happens. Just maybe leave the antics out of your correspondences with publishers. Such people often have no sense of humor about the seriousness of their work.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Tenth of December

"Two fallacies that need to be debunked. One is, 'To be a writer you have to get an MFA.'  False. Two is, 'If you get an MFA you'll be a published writer.'  False."—George Saunders

George Saunders reads a near-sci/fi story from his latest collection, Tenth of December, and answers writing questions. Literary circles consider his work to be outstanding. Maybe worth a look. His advice, at least, seems sound.

At this reading he talks about editing, and honoring the readers intelligence to keep a story interesting. "As a general writing principle, you're main job is to do something, and then notice it, and then adjust accordingly. And then notice a thing that you've done, and adjust accordingly. Kind of rinse, lather, repeat, you know, a million times."

George addresses other questions such as what makes a good writer, and how a writer approaches truth in their fiction, “one phrase at a time.”