Last week, Roz Morris and I had the first of our four scheduled weekly editorial chats: Talking Plot. We’re running these chats here once a week throughout the month of April.
We had a fabulous time and covered all the basics of plot—Hook, Conflicts, Faux Resolution, and Climax—as well as event-vs-temporal structure, the biggest plot problem we see in client manuscripts, what stories are really about, and who originally said, “B’doing!”
And later in the comments. . .we got TIARAS.
Now please join us today for the second of these weekly editor chats: Talking Character.
Victoria: Roz, what’s your take on techniques for developing character, such as questionnaires?
Roz: Personally, I think all writers are different. We all need to get familiar with our characters somehow. For some, that will mean using exercises such as questionnaires, interviews and so on. Others will plunge into getting to know them as they act, perhaps writing scenes that will never be used, recreating their wedding list and what the most treasured items from it are. And of course, a lot more becomes apparent about a character once we’ve put them into the story and made them interact with other people, take action, make decisions and test them a bit.
I reckon there are few downsides to noodling around with a character before we start using them properly. Except for this—sometimes writers are tempted to shoehorn in everything that they have produced about a character, even where it may clutter. There’s a lot you might know about a character that no one else needs to know or see. But these facts help you write them with more certainty and authority.
Victoria: Yes—you’re talking about the 90% of the iceberg you can’t see, what Hemingway said gives it its dignity.
Roz: Dignity—and depth. Eee, he knew a thing or two.
Victoria: Good ole Hem.
You know, I find it’s almost always an issue of too much exposition rather than too many telling details. It’s fascinating to learn about characters by watching them walk and talk, move and act and interact with others. This is how we learn real people in real life. They have a cow if anyone alters the time on the little china clock? They won’t eat butter on their scones? They can’t be in a room with someone wearing loud plaid? These details aren’t important enough to stop the story over, but when you use them as layering—drop them into scenes in passing, in the middle of the real action—they snap those scenes vividly to life, while implying the needs and drives inside the characters that fuel the plot.
Roz: I can’t stand loud plaid either. Can I go in a book?
Victoria: But of course! I will give you a jaunty little tamoshanter and make you speak with a Scottish accent.
Roz: Drop the details in—that’s so important. It’s similar to the way you should use research. Find out loads about your topic, setting, situation—and use it only when strictly necessary. Not a drop more or the reader will spot you’ve inflicted an info-dump on them.
Victoria: Information is essential to learn how to handle properly. That’s a layering issue, and layering really is the life breath of three-dimensional fiction. I’m always telling writers, “Get your butt out in the world and take copious notes on what’s there. That’s your telling details,” but when you have a lot of information you need to convey—from research, as you say—that’s even better! You’ve already taken your copious notes!
Now you can either use them the difficult way, by launching straight into your story without any further preparation and just trying to develop a hyper-sensitive nose for exactly when a detail needs to drop, or you can use them the easy way, by taking a long, long, looooong time to develop on paper and in your mind this entire world in which your characters move. Writing scenes you may never use, as you mentioned. Then when you do write the scenes your plot needs, those details will simply be apparent because you’re already living among them.
You know, Flannery O’Connor noted when these details surface organically they begin to take on resonance and become symbolic. Those are the details that eventually form the nuances of your Resolution. I always tell writers to spend a long, luxurious time getting to know their characters. Not just the details of their world, but identifying the conflicting needs that power them and extrapolate from there.
So what’s the single most important thing aspiring writers should know about character?
Roz: Use the plot to test the things the character doesn’t want to face. That makes the most compelling story. It’s the skeletons in the cupboard, the stuff they need to deal with and move on from. Perhaps it’s emotional baggage that’s making them choose the wrong type of boyfriend. The grudge that means they can’t forgive a particular kind of behaviour. The nasty fact they’ve been avoiding. It’s got to be something that’s holding them back or spoiling their lives.
Victoria: Internal conflict. Absolutely. Stories are about people in trouble, characters struggling to save themselves, and the best threats are always internal because those are the ones that are hardest to combat. “You I can walk away from. But me I’m stuck with.”
Roz: Yes, yes, yessity yes! And if they deal with it they will emerge different and free. Which will be extremely satisfying for the reader. Would we be making a simplistic generalisation to say that all truly satisfying stories are really about that question—the ‘me’ that the characters are stuck with? Their own worst enemy who they have to make their peace with? If they can’t achieve that peace, is that tragedy? Even if it’s not high tragedy, it certainly leaves a tragic note.
Victoria: Simplistic generalization? [laughing] You say that like it’s a bad thing!
It’s neither simple nor a generalization. It’s the truth. We read to experience the resolution of the protagonist’s worst nightmare, and we have to go through the nightmare to get to the release at the end. In fact, I’d go even further and say we’re reading not for the character’s release but for our own. Storytelling is the careful, powerful, professional construction of a catapult to fling a reader into space toward epiphany. We can’t create the reader’s epiphany—it depends in part upon the reader themself, so each epiphany is a tiny bit different. But a really well-built catapult will put the reader pretty much where the writer wants them to go.
Roz: I wrote about this in a post a short time ago. I work out the emotion I want for the final scene and angle everything towards it. I realised in all my work, even the novels that are only seeds in my head, my last scene would be ‘feels so good to be free’. In each book, the story is about what the character has to do to break into that state of freedom.
Victoria: Oooh. Brilliant plan. Sometimes I like to write the Resolutions, too—sometimes that’s the best reward for slogging through the writing of the rest of the novel! But sometimes I like walking that wildcat line where the reader’s experience of freedom has to be inside them rather than on the page.
I have a client who’s writing very dark, very detailed, very beautiful edgy literary fiction. His first novel ends on the protagonist facing death. He didn’t want to tell the reader whether the guy lives or dies—he said he wasn’t sure himself. So we designed that final paragraph, those final sentences, to make the last words a clue (just a clue!) to the protagonist’s Resolution—which is not about life or death, but about his internal struggle as illuminated by the threat of death—leaving the reader to extrapolate their own Resolution from that.
It’s a gorgeous ending. It’s a hell of a novel!
Roz: I bet it is. An ending is emotional as much as eventful—a question of finding the point where the profoundest struggle has ended.
Here’s your weekly question, guys: What’s the biggest struggle you’re facing with character in your novel?