Monday, January 17, 2011

Pitfalls of the Character Driven Writer: When Your Characters Won't Open Up!

Pitfalls of the Character Driven Writer: When Your Characters Won't Open Up!
You thought you knew who she or he was, but suddenly they seem like a stranger.
Despite a fascination with the human psyche, a character driven writer can find it difficult to get a character to open up? This is all the more challenging when you start off running with a character and suddenly you feel as if you've slammed into a stone wall. No matter what you do, your character feels one-dimensional. You thought you knew who she or he was, but suddenly they seem like a stranger.

Antidote: The Character Interview
Explore the character from the inside out, not from the outside in. There is a difference, and a very big one between the two.

Interviewing is different from a fill-in-the-blanks questionnaire

When your character won’t move, beware doing a fill-in-the-blank character questionnaire such as:
What is your full name? What are your parents’ and siblings’ names? What is your favorite food? Are you married? Divorced? Do you have children? What are their names and ages? What is your job? What do you spend your money on? Do you travel? What does a typical day in your life consist of? What is your character’s hair color? Eye color? What kind of distinguishing facial features does your character have?

The problem with such "fill in the blank" questions is when the answers become a snapshot of the character that arises from your mind’s perception of what is true about the character's life. Imagine if someone else filled out such a questionnaire about yourself. Would the answers give any real sense of you, the inside, depth you? Would the answers give any insight into your life’s journey? Probably not.

Bottom line: you can't just fill in the blanks and presume know your characters. This is looking at the character from the outside in.

Carl Jung speaks to this when he says: The work in process becomes the poet's fate and determines his psychic development. It is not Goethe who creates Faust, but Faust who creates Goethe.

This powerful image speaks to what that I believe is one of the driving forces behind the writing of any work of depth. We find out who we truly are when we stop defining and controlling our character and, instead, become our characters. When we become our characters, we are exploring character from the inside out. We become our characters. We feel what they (not we) fell. We see the world through the character’s eyes, not our own.

What make this journey so difficult is that we are being asked to give up control and allow our characters to take the lead ― even if we don’t like or “approve” of everything the character does and says. When we do this, the dazzling power of being a character driven writer becomes ours!

Easier said than done, you might be thinking. And that is true. Giving up control is never easy, not in life and not in our writing, which our minds often confuse with real life! However, there are techniques that make it easier to give up control. One of the most powerful is basic to good storytelling: show, don’t tell. And the easiest was to do this is to write in scene.

The prime mover of the scene is point of view. (The character’s POV ― not yours!) To this end, I have developed a very powerful technique that I use with my students called Character Interviewing. There is information on the blog on this writing technique and I also offer it in private Character Interview sessions.
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