Recharge: Day Three - You Be Me For a While and I'll Be You
Hello and welcome to Day Three!
So far we've talked about inspiration and place. If you're stopping by for the first time, read about how this low-key, low-pressure writing retreat works.
Tell us something about yourself that makes you unique - a quirky habit or unusual characteristic.
Here's mine: I hate socks. If I could, I would be barefoot all the time. My #1 choice of footwear is flip flops. Two things make this problematic: first, I live in Minnesota. Not exactly practical nine months of the year. Second, after 12 years of retail management, several broken toes, and three broken feet (I've broken the left one twice), my feet are UGLY. Hideous. I hide them in socks and sturdy, functional footwear. And since my practical shoes are often quite ugly themselves, I like to go a little wacky with my socks - stripes, polka dots, holiday themes, etc.
|My Ugly Feet in Cute Flip-Flops|
As readers, we want a book's characters to be unique, dyanmic, memorable, relatable, genuine. We want to know more than the surface details. We want to be able to picture the character in our mind's eye, yes, but we need a reason to connect with the character, which requires deeper knowledge -- we want to know their innermost fears, their secrets, their flaws. And when we connect, we care. We care about what happens to that character. We become emotionally invested in the character and their fate. It's what keeps us turning the pages, biting our nails to find out how it all turns out, hoping for a sequel when we close the book at 2 am. (And then feeling despondent when you learn the sequel won't be released for a year.)
As writers, it's our job to do all that for our readers. Our characters are living, breathing people inside our heads and our hearts. And like with setting, we just need to get what's inside us down on paper. We need to make these characters -- who have been walking around inside our heads, leaving footprints from their muddy Doc Martens, putting their feet up on the ottomans in our minds -- come alive on the page for our readers. No big whoop, right?
Writing fully-formed characters who grow and change is a big whoop. It's a huge whoop. It's hard. You must reveal your character slowly and throughout your work in a balanced variety of ways: through physical description; through the characters' actions; through dialogue; through interactions with other characters; and more.
Let's meet Harry Potter.
His aunt was back outside the door.
"Are you up yet?" she demanded.
"Nearly," said Harry.
"Well, get a move on, I want you to look after the bacon. And don't you dare let it burn, I want everything perfect on Duddy's birthday."
"What did you say?" his aunt snapped through the door.
Dudley's birthday -- how could he have forgotten? Harry got slowly out of bed and started looking for socks. He found a pair under his bed and, after pulling a spider off one of them, put them on. Harry was used to spiders, because the cupboard under the stairs was full of them, and that was where he slept.
When he was dressed he went down the hall into the kitchen. The table was almost hidden beneath all of Dudley's birthday presents. It looked as though Dudley had gotten the new computer he wanted, not to mention the second television and the racing bike. Exactly why Dudley wanted a racing bike was a mystery to Harry, as Dudley was very fat and hated exercise -- unless of course it involved punching somebody. Dudley's favorite punching bag was Harry, but he couldn't often catch him. Harry didn't look it, but he was very fast.
Perhaps it had something to do with living in a dark cupboard, but Harry had always been small and skinny for his age. He looked even smaller and skinnier than he really was because all he had to wear were old clothes of Dudley's, and Dudley was about four times bigger than he was. Harry had a thin face, knobbly knees, black hair, and bright green eyes. He wore round glasses held together with a lot of Scotch tape because of all the times Dudley had punched him on the nose. The only thing Harry liked about his own appearance was a very thin scar on his forehead that was shaped like a bolt of lightning. He had had it as long as he could remember, and the first question he could ever remember asking his Aunt Petunia was how he had gotten it.
"In the car crash when your parents died," she had said. "And don't ask questions."
Don't ask questions -- that was the first rule for a quiet life with the Dursleys.
Uncle Vernon entered the kitchen as Harry was turning over the bacon.
"Comb your hair!" he barked, by way of a morning greeting.
About once a week, Uncle Vernon looked over the top of his newspaper and shouted that Harry needed a haircut. Harry must have had more haircuts than the rest of the boys in his class put together, but it made no difference, his hair simply grew that way -- all over the place.What have we learned about Harry? We've gotten a thorough physical description, but Rowling has gone beyond the basics. By adding in details about his relationships with Dudley, Aunt Petunia, and Uncle Vernon -- and how Harry is treated compared to Dudley -- we have a very good understanding of Harry's place in this family. The Dursleys treat Harry poorly, without regard or respect. Rowling does not come out and state this; she shows us through interactions and dialogue and Harry's actions. She is slowly beginning to reveal Harry's character (and that of the Dursleys).
I've put together a few fun exercises to guide you as you get to know your characters better. Some of it may end up in the text somewhere; some of it may be rubbish and will never be known to anyone but you. Today, just focus on ways to dig deeper. But a word of caution from Anne Lamott in BIRD BY BIRD: SOME INSTRUCTIONS ON WRITING AND LIFE:
Just don't pretend that you know more about your characters than they do, because you don't. Stay open to them. It's teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It's that simple.
Let's really get to know our main characters. I will oftentimes answer a set of questions about my character's personality, likes, dislikes, quirks, etc. Remember Before Facebook when you would receive chain emails with 30 questions like "What are you drinking right now?" and "What is your favorite movie/song/restaurant?" and if you sent your answers to fifteen people including the person who sent it to you! within 48 hours, you would be showered with good luck?
And then, when you signed up for Facebook, every other day you were tagged on a note like "Name 15 movies/books/songs/guitarists that influenced you in no more than 15 minutes and then tag 15 people including me because I really want to know your 15 movies/books/songs/guitarists?"
You know what I'm talking about. My favorite Facebook note was 25 Random Facts About Me.
Your MC wants to tell you 25 Random Facts, too. Ready, Set, Go!
Exercise #1: List 25 Random Facts about your MC
Exercise #2: Answer as many of these questions about your MC as you would like:
- What is one goal your MC would like to accomplish during their lifetime?
- When your MC was little, who was their favorite super hero and why?
- Who is their hero? (a parent, a celebrity, an influential person in one’s life)
- If your MC could visit any place in the world, where would they choose to go and why?
- What’s the ideal dream job for your MC?
- Is your MC a morning or a night person?
- What are your MC’s favorite hobbies?
- What are your MC’s pet peeves?
- What does your MC dislike about themselves?
- What’s the weirdest thing your MC has ever eaten?
- Name one of your MC’s favorite things about someone in their family.
- Tell us about a unique or quirky habit of your MC.
- If your MC had to describe themselves using three words, they would be…
- What does your MC think is/was the most difficult part of growing up and why?
- What is the one item in your MC’s closet that they can’t live without?
- What is the one item in your MC's closet they can't bear to part with, even though it's too small/out of fashion/full of holes?
- What does your MC love doing most?
- Who or what makes your MC laugh the most?
- Tell about the most embarrassing incident of your MC’s life.
- What was the funniest or stupidest thing your MC ever did in their life?
- Describe your MC’s worst date.
- Describe your MC’s best date.
- Describe your MC’s dream date.
- If your MC were an animal, what would they be and why?
- If your MC were a cartoon, which one would they be?
- What’s the worst thing your MC did as a kid?
Exercise #3: Imagine a character who is shopping at the flea market in this photo. Who are they? Did they come here intentionally or just happen upon it? Write a paragraph or two to describe your character and what they purchase. For an additional exercise, write about the person who sells the item to your character. What is the story behind the item? Why are they selling it?
Exercise #4: Make a list of 10 of your favorite characters. These can be from books, TV shows, movies, etc.. What do you love about those characters? Why are you so drawn to them? What makes them memorable?
Exercise #5: Go to your WIP. Find a passage where you describe your MC. Is it straight physical description? Could you rewrite this information into a scene and reveal details about your character through dialogue and interaction as well as physical description? Give it a shot!
She couldn't wait any longer.
FOR FURTHER READING:
- LIST YOUR SELF: LISTMAKING AS THE WAY TO SELF-DISCOVERY. This is a great journal, one that I've used not only for myself but as a way to brainstorm ideas for my characters. List what always worries you, day in and day out. List all the people you aren't talking to anymore. List the crazy stuff you've done for love. Just a few excellent examples of ways to get to know your characters.
- CHARACTERS, EMOTION & VIEWPOINT: TECHNIQUES AND EXERCISES FOR CRAFTING DYNAMIC CHARACTERS AND EFFECTIVE VIEWPOINTS by Nancy Kress
Happy Writing and thanks for stopping by. I hope you've had a chance to visit other retreat attendees. :) See you soon!
You be me for a while, and I'll be you.