Putting Your Character in the Driver’s Seat
In Dr. Lisa’s Class we’ve been talking about what drives fiction: plot, character, voice. Even in cases where a great plot drives the story, you still need strong characters to drive the plot.
Katherine Paterson has said, “Fiction allows us to do something that nothing else quite does. It allows us to enter fully into the lives of other human beings.” That’s an amazing feeling when it happens, but how can we go there when a story really is plot or voice driven? Our characters can be difficult to get to know. How do we enter fully into their lives as human beings when we are limited to the experiences of the one life we get, and we have to pick the kids up from school at three?
Characters are no different from other people. You get to know them by spending time with them, doing stuff together, and getting them talking. You can’t go putting words into their mouths, either. They need to feel free to speak up for themselves, and sometimes they surprise you.
Nancy Willard has said, “I could make an outline of the story I want to tell, but my characters don’t like outlines. If I let them unfold in the writing itself, they’ll reveal themselves in more interesting ways than my outline could ever have imagined for them. Getting to know your characters is like a block party: you start with a few people, and suddenly the whole neighborhood shows up.”
For your characters to drive the story—for them to take it over and seem like such real human beings that readers get fully absorbed into their lives—they need independence. They can’t be little clones of you or just do as they’re told. They can’t be inserted just to do some job you need done in the plot or to hit home a point.
Character-driven stories need authors who are, like actors, able to take on other personas and project the full range of human emotion into each part. You have to be able see things from all directions and not let your own attitudes blind you to different viewpoints and possibilities. The poet John Keats called this negative capability. Emerson called it the transparent eyeball.
Yes, your characters come from inside you, and they exist only because you made them, yet they need to exist outside of you in the same way as your real, live family and friends do. Just knowing how your villain rationalizes bad behavior isn’t enough. You have to empathize, to inhabit the heart and soul of each character you create to be an honest conduit for their deepest desires and emotions.
It’s probably a good thing that most people can’t understand Hitler, but authors aren’t most people. Aren’t you glad that J.K. Rowling understood Valdemort?
Like relationships in real life, the writer’s relationships with people in character-driven literature take a lot of time and patience. It’s not uncommon to spend the whole first draft or two or three getting to know who your story people are and how they’d really react under all that conflict you’re loading on them to make the plot move. Don’t expect them to reveal themselves whole and entire during the first few visits. It’s with time immersed in their lives that you’ll discover all those little nuances of personality, tastes, aptitudes, attitudes, and habits that make human beings unique and interesting.
Once you know your characters from the inside out, they can drive the plot. If you know them only from the outside in, the plot will drive them.
Exercises to Develop a Transparent Eyeball
1. Imagine a complex and confusing accident scene. Describe it from the biased viewpoints of at least 5 very different characters.
2. Model a believable villain on a real person you think of as beyond reproach. Model a believable protagonist on a real person who rubs you the wrong way.
3. Spend ten minutes a day listening to a type of music or watching a television show that you really, really hate. Then, write a scene in which that activity is a favorite pastime of a character you really, really love.
4. Learning close observation transfers across the arts, so take a drawing class or work through a how-to book like Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.
5. Try out for a play. If you don’t get a part or if you’re too shy for public performance, read scripts aloud to yourself. Use dramatic expression; attempt to inhabit each role emotionally.
A version of this class first appeared in Once Upon a Time (Summer 1998) in a four-part series on driving forces in fiction. And yes, I have done all of the exercises myself.
©Lisa Rowe Fraustino 1998, 2010
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