You always meet with something surprisingly great when you give a little bit of yourself. I facilitated my first NaNoWriMo write-in session yesterday and found the experience inspiring and uplifting.
My workshop on “character development” turned into a lively discussion about character history, motivations, conflicts and evolution. We also touched on the relationship between the writer and his/her characters, as well as the challenges of knowing when to let your characters run free and when to reign them back. Everyone in the room offered unique insights to the discussion, and when it was over, I was bubbling with new ideas for my own work and a re-energized outlook on my place in the world as a writer.
I want to give a shout-out to everyone who came out to write with us yesterday. We writers tend to be cave creatures, but when we do emerge and come together to examine and appreciate the thing that we love, the craft to which we give so much of our selves, magic happens.
Most readers prefer to be drawn-in by narratives with intriguing characters with whom they can relate rather than complicated plot-driven stories that lack well-established characters. The more rounded your characters are, the more believable they are and the more empathy you’ll be able to elicit from your readers.
Below are a few points to consider when you’re creating a new character.
Know your character’s personal history. Focus on the experiences and memories that define the character’s personality and existential place in the world.
Don’t just include random information, instead zero-in on the pivotal moments that shape your character’s decision-making process, allowing past experiences to inform future behaviors.
Include memories, good and bad, that your character revisits when he/she is alone, afraid, joyful, angry, resentful or envious.
If your character has quirky traits or a phrase that he/she repeats often, then it should be something profound, alarming or interesting enough to add to his/her overall development and drive the plot forward.
Exercise restraint when using this device, the occasional, well-placed quirky trait or phrase is always more powerful than randomly scattered ones.
What does your character look like? Focus on something unique or play with the idea of appearances playing a role in the outcome of conflicts and/or plot twists.
Consider the possibility that the character’s perception of self may not align with how he/she actually appears to others.
Interesting characters are usually caught in a moment of indecision or near-decision at some rest stop along the highway of their inner journey, consider the factors that propel your character towards or away from his/her intended destination.
What or whom is your character willing to risk to achieve his/her goals?
Perhaps it would be more satisfying if he/she were to meet with failure instead of success.
All characters face external conflicts, but the more interesting ones harbor deep-rooted internal ones.
Do the conflicts in your story satisfactorily disturb your character’s ability to self-actualize?
For better or worse, every character should undergo change throughout your narrative. A character’s evolution should be something that readers can track and understand: what events inspired this change, how much has he/she changed, does this change work with or against the momentum of the plot, etc.
By going through a personal evolution, does your character also affect change on his/her world and/or other people in it?
Evolution, by its nature, is gradual. Change shouldn’t happen spontaneously. It should be something your character earns throughout the narrative.
If you get your kicks from discussing the mannerisms, behaviors and back stories of people who don’t exist, then I’m your gal!
I’ll be leading a workshop on character development as well as facilitating the National Novel Writing Month session on Tuesday, November 20, 2018 from 2:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m at the San Luis Obispo Library (995 Palm St.). Come with your novel and spend the afternoon writing with your fellow novelists.
A young girl watched her big sister from across the riverbank as she threw their pet dog into the water, where he was carried off and drowned.
His rag body swung
into the swells
of her rage.
The big sister denied this memory, but the young girl insisted on remembering. And though time marches on, it cannot erase this betrayal that has wedged itself between them once upon a time when they were both still young.
Big sister and I stood
on opposite banks
The phantom stink of water
coated the inside of our mouths.
We tried to gag it out,
but it lingered.
“Down River.” The Journal (The Ohio State University), Columbus, OH, Volume 42 Issue No. 3, Summer 2018, pp. 48. The award-winning literary journal of The Ohio State University, The Journal has recently had poems reproduced in the Best American Poetry anthology. Founded in 1973 by William Allen The Journal has published prominent writers such as Carl Phillips, Mary Jo Bang, John D’Agata, Terrance Hayes, Lia Purpura, Ander Monson, Brenda Hillman, D.A. Powell, Jericho Brown, and Donald Ray Pollack.
“Phôi Pha (Wither)” is a poem about old age, about being the only one left to tend to the dead, about there being no one left to send you off when your journey begins again.
no one left to burn spirit money
and paper houses
incense dust grows into ant hills
The subject of the poem remembers her youth, when she once was the “village beauty …body pink and firm as pomelo flesh.”
[…] she recalls
girlhood dreams the way a fictional
woman remembers love faithful
to an altered truth
If all that she is are her memories, then how is her existence defined now that all the witnesses to her life are gone?
“Phôi Pha (Wither).” The Journal (The Ohio State University), Columbus, OH, Volume 42 Issue No. 3, Summer 2018, pp. 47. The award-winning literary journal of The Ohio State University, The Journal has recently had poems reproduced in the Best American Poetry anthology. Founded in 1973 by William Allen The Journal has published prominent writers such as Carl Phillips, Mary Jo Bang, John D’Agata, Terrance Hayes, Lia Purpura, Ander Monson, Brenda Hillman, D.A. Powell, Jericho Brown, and Donald Ray Pollack.
Carried a single branch inside my river,
downstream through milky lashes,
tattooed lips and deceitful thighs.
We are unreliable and cruel like the water.
Carried you into goodbye fingers
of spicy savage lickers… carried you
like a burden… like a shameful secret.
You are the life, and I am the delusion.
Do you know me, or I, you?
The irresistible melancholy of the miracles
that have soiled the currents ruptures
like stardust above the greatest cycle of life.
Time will eventually trot away
like dogs on parade. Love will scorn
like the mundane minutes of a lifeless day.
Without the right words to say,
the right hip sway, I am not
the right person to convince you to stay.
I can only promise you that I will hate you
just as much as I love you today.
~ by Samantha Lê
With a special thank you to Mr. Ryan Loyd, friend and fellow 312.
In “Watching Dad’s Porn on the VCR,” a poem about girlhood, the speaker of the poem searches for her identity in the images reflected back at her from the television screen “…Mouth of a prophet, tongue of a poet….” Her sense of self is tangled up in what she believes to be the definition of a man—the one for whom the women on the screen carry out their performances.
“Watching Dad’s Porn on the VCR.” The Minnesota Review (Virginia Tech, Duke University Press), Durham, NC, Issue No. 90, Spring 2018, pp. 15. Publishing contemporary poetry and fiction as well as reviews, critical commentary, and interviews of leading intellectual figures, The Minnesota Review curates smart, accessible collections of progressive new work.
In “Border Crossing,” the speaker of the poem laments about being labeled an “illegal.” She remembers a life, before the change in geography, where she was a complete person, “but between the leaving and entering they changed how they look at me—objects once labeled can’t be relabeled, you know.” Somehow in the border crossing, her existence was reduced to one word, a word that carries with it all the weight of past and future discriminations.
“Border Crossing.” The Minnesota Review (Virginia Tech, Duke University Press), Durham, NC, Issue No. 90, Spring 2018, pp. 14. Publishing contemporary poetry and fiction as well as reviews, critical commentary, and interviews of leading intellectual figures, The Minnesota Review curates smart, accessible collections of progressive new work.
made up of consonants
and super hero punches
the guy with a secret name
no one can pronounce […]
We live in an age of comparisons. We write farfetched narratives for the lives of strangers, friends and acquaintances, then find ourselves, by comparison, to be as soft and unappetizing as a croissant in a microwave. It is madness.
“That Other Guy” is published in Issue No. 4 of Outlook Springs, Spring 2018, pp. 71, a literary journal from another dimension devoted to fiction, poetry, and non-fiction tinged with the strange.
The child rides on the backseat of the family’s bicycle and takes stock of Vietnam’s ravaged countryside after the revolution—its people and animals, its landscape and violent history. “The Way to Cái Răng Floating Market” captures the complicated adult world through the eyes of a child—the humming poverty and hunger, the trembling of the land. Geography is destiny, and this fact becomes the child’s identity. She sees her future, and it is the product of a past that she did not help to create.
A stuck sensation—the way fish
bones dig at the throat—
the old woman sings water-buffalo-
herding songs and breaks
the topsoil with a hoe: a rusty tin turns
upside down, a clump
of clay drops to the ground. […]
“The Way to Cái Răng Floating Market” is published in Issue No. 68 of Bayou Magazine, Winter 2018, pp. 86-87. Founded in 2002, Bayou Magazine is a biannual, national literary magazine published by The University of New Orleans. Writing that first appeared in this journal has been short-listed for the Pushcart Prize and named in the notable essays list in Best American Essays.
In “Visions of the Aging Poet,” the young writer glimpses visions of her aging poet teacher outside the halls of academia where he’s god. Under the light of an ordinary day, she realizes the evolution of their relationship, how she’s poised to take his place on the world’s stage, but he’s not ready to let go. He struggles against history to remain relevant.
At the podium, you sprout beak without heart.
Smoky breaths; velvet tongue.
with unwritten lines. Desperate
for love, you chase away the audience […]
The complete version of this poem is published in Vol. XXVI of The Lullwater Review, Winter 2018 issue, pp. 23. The Lullwater Review is Emory University’s nationally recognized student-run literary review founded in 1990.