I’ve never really thought much about writing characters despite often becoming so immersed in a character’s life when I read that when I finish a book I feel like I’ve lost a good friend. Although I know characterization is important to a story because it’s the characters that readers identify with, I always figured that my characters would just develop along with the storyline. I guess I assumed that characterization would just happen, magically, without much thought. And perhaps, in some rare instances, it does; however, Carol Bruneau‘s WFNS Creative Writing Workshop made me realize that rare is the key word in that last sentence There is no writing fairy that will magically build characters for you as you work on story or plot.
Creative writing with Carol Bruneau: Week Two
I realized during the second class of Bruneau’s workshop, which focused on creating and developing characters, that one of the reasons I’ve stalled with my current writing project is that I barely know anything about my characters: what they like, what they dislike, what they want, what their motivation is, what their hobbies are, what their flaws are, whether or not they have a speech impediment, a limp, dry skin, thinning hair, and so forth. The list of details that can create a character are endless. How can a writer, therefore, create a character and put that character into various scenes or situations that are meant to elicit a reaction from the character without first knowing anything about him or her, without first having intimate knowledge about his or her thoughts, fears, hopes, pet peeves, insecurities, physicality, humiliations, motivations, upbringing, family life, work life, failures, and successes, etc.?
Bruneau’s workshop taught me to think about characters as though they are real people. She even suggested that a good starting point is to create composites: Take characteristics from various people you know or have known in the past and blend them together to create a foundation for your character. Then build upward, inventing, to create a character that fits into your story. Of course, depending on how alive your character — this person you’ve created — becomes to you, your story may change or go in a different direction in order to accommodate your character rather than having your character accommodate your story. Bruneau says, “When my characters become real to me, my story becomes real, and by that I mean it takes on the dimensions and complexity and quirkiness of real life.”
During the class, Bruneau gave us the following writing exercise:
Take a person you remember vaguely from your early childhood and describe him or her. Sketch details you recall, then keep going, inventing where “facts” peter out. Tips: Imagine this person in private, something he or she wants, his or her hobbies, home, family, pet peeve or neurosis, and/or something that this person would not want on his or her resumé. If you imagine this person in a negative way, try to come up with something good, something positive, or endearing about him or her. On the other hand, if this person is good, come up with some kind of flaw (nobody is perfect).
I found this exercise both fun and helpful. Building a character from scratch can be challenging, but creating composites is a good starting point to launch from. When doing this exercise I also found it helpful to imagine that I was a journalist asking my character questions as though I was interviewing her, getting ready to write a biography of her life. And, like a biographer, I’d go back again and again asking the same or similar questions to confirm or enrich details, and asking different questions to get a broader picture of the overall person.
When writing characters, Bruneau stresses that if you don’t like a character you’ve created or you don’t find him or her engaging, then it will be difficult to stick with writing this character. It will also likely be difficult for your readers to engage and sympathize with the character. This is the difference between a round and flat character. E.M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel states, “The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat.” To make a character and a story real you have to convince yourself before you can convince your readers. After learning about characters in Bruneau’s workshop and working on her writing exercises, I feel that my characters have become alive and, hopefully, much more convincing.
In my next blog post I’ll discuss the third class of Carol Bruneau‘s creative writing workshop where she discussed developing dialogue and narrative voice.
Click here to read what I learned about writing in Bruneau’s first class.