From the Basement

June 18, 2010

Trust Your Characters

It’s a slow process, learning about characters. Sort of like making a new friend – it’s gradual. You can’t force it. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t force the characters. Force the characters and you risk killing the story. Ah hell, you kill the story.

It’s the same way with deciding which music will keep me going through the story. I write in silence but I listen to music to feed my muse, to put me in the mood, in that place that takes me there. Tonight, there were three songs that came to me for this story’s soundtrack: Beth (originally by Kiss, but I listen to the Glee version), Summer in the City (Regina Spektor), and Red Dirt Girl (Emmylou Harris). Summer in the City is for the piano; when I heard that song (God bless the random option on iTunes), I realized that my main character plays piano. Red Dirt Girl is for her mother. And Beth, I have no idea. Maybe the dad, who isn’t really in the story. Or maybe I just really like the texture of the song.

I cleaned my desk today. Clutter prevents creativeness. So I cleaned my desk, mostly. And I unwrapped a “note block” and started ripping off the small white notes (like Post-Its only without the sticky), and writing things I knew about my protagonist, and taping them onto my wall. I have 12 notes for her. Some are character traits, like that she’s impatient and restless. One is her favorite color (usually not something I think about, so that was weird, but it’s ice blue, in case you’re wondering). Some things come randomly, like the knowledge that she plays piano and her dad is the one who taught her. I know that she orders a Caesar salad with every meal and that she retreats into herself when asked about things she doesn’t want to talk about.

I also know that I have no idea what’s driving the internal conflict. Well, I know that it’s a conflict with her mother. Something happened three years prior to the story (that it was three years ago just got dropped into my lap), and I don’t know what. It’s big. But I don’t know. And I try to stop myself from filling in the gap: was it an abortion or a huge fight or manipulation or knowledge of her father or …? It does no good to fill it in. It’ll fill itself in.

When it comes to writing characters, I’m a firm believer that they should let themselves be discovered. I used to be the 20-step writer – you know, fill in 20 character traits, describe their physicality, decide on a personality, go from there. Now I’m more inclined to the Stephen King method (which actually applies to uncovering story, but I apply it to characters): they are bones that we as writers dig up. They’re already there. We just have to sense them, find them, excavate them carefully, removing one bit of dirt at a time until we get a clearer picture. It takes time, energy, devotion. The story is there. The characters are there. And if you trust yourself to find them, if you trust yourself enough to keep moving the pen, eventually the story and characters will start moving so fast you’ll struggle to keep up. Eventually, the story writes itself and the characters do their own thing.

That’s the point I’m excited to get to. I’m not there yet. I’m only three thousand words in right now. It’ll take a while longer before a picture starts to emerge. But it’s already changed from what I thought it was, and that’s a good thing.

Trust the process. And, to offer one of my favorite quotes on writing, never hope more than you work.

P.S. The reason for the hiatus was an excursion out west to attend the wedding of a dear friend. And then I was tired and took a break from blog writing. And now I’m back, working on a novel, still applying for jobs, and hopefully continuing to blog through the whole process.

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2 Comments »

  1. I don’t know about clutter preventing creativeness. I prefer to be surrounded by creative clutter. Empty spaces make me worry that something is missing and so I don’t allow any empty space on my desk.
    I have to agree with you on characters though. You can’t just plan out a character using a chart or a web and have anything other than a 2-dimensional cut out of a character. It is in the slow build-up and development of that character that we manage to make them real. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Comment by Cassandra Jade — June 18, 2010 @ 6:20 am | Reply

    • Hello – nice to meet you! Re: clutter, I was just expounding on my own process – for me, too much of it for too long starts to bother me. But everyone works differently. I enjoy hearing about how other people write; it’s always interesting. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by. – TGD

      Comment by girldownstairs — June 18, 2010 @ 6:02 pm | Reply


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