I'm going to repost some of my blog entries from my time as writer-in-residence at the Annenberg Beach House in Santa Monica.
To read the introductory post, click here.
It’s no secret that plot and character development are the keys to writing great fiction. Today, I wanted to focus on character.
There’s an arc that needs to happen with the characters you write, whether your writing a 400-page novel or a ten-page short story. The character has to change. This doesn’t mean they have to become better or learn something (although this can be satisfying for a reader) but they do have to begin one way and end another way.
(An example of how a character can start on a high note but end on a low note can be found in my short story, Plush, originally published in Booth Literary in February, 2014. Here, the main character goes from being full of pride, boasting that he ranked as the number one cuddler at his job to feeling defeated by the end of the story, when he realizes how immobile his life really is.)
One great tip that is oft repeated is to make sure your likeable characters have an unlikeable trait and that your antagonists have something we can all relate to. This ensure that you are writing well-rounded characters.
But where does one get the inspiration for their characters? The answer is simple: all around us.
Writing can be a primarily private exercise. This is why I have loved my time at the Annenberg. It has transformed the privatization of my writing life into a public engagement. I am used to being at my home office, sometimes in pajamas, shutting out the the rest of the world, so that I can better enter the world in my head. But you can’t write in a bubble forever. And I think that one of the best strategies to overcome writer’s block is to get out into the world and observe. Writers are like ornithologists tracking birds - like Jane Goodall following primates. We are the recorders of human behavior in all of its grit and glory.
I spend a good amount of my time here on the veranda overlooking the beach. People pass by the beach path on bike, segway (the non self-igniting kind), roller skates and on foot. Each person I see could easily turn into a character if I took the time to flesh them out. One woman that particularly struck me the other day was dancing her way down the bike path. Dancing! I had to know more.
What kind of music was she listening to?
Did she dance around all the time or just on this bike path?
Did anyone ever tell her to stop?
Did she do this often or was today the first day she was inspired to dance?
Had she been formally trained as a dancer?
It doesn’t matter what the real answers are to these questions. I am a fiction writer. I get to fill in the lines. She is someone who will stick with me for a long time and should you find a woman dancing through life in the pages of my next book – you’ll know who inspired it.
In the meantime, here are some tools for writing memorable characters: