Focus on Character

I’m venturing into my next novel-length story. This time, however, scenes haven’t been popping into my brain the way they did with Unspeakable. Hanna and Hank became quite tangible to me as characters very early in the process. For my work-in-progress (WIP), I have the basic frame of the plot and the characters, but there’s still a lot of work to do before I start writing that first chapter.

This past week I attended a writer’s workshop, Focus on Character, at the Alexandra Writers’ Centre Society in Calgary. It was taught by the wonderful Emily Ursuliak, who gave me permission to post part of what I learned on my blog.

How Do We Create Characters?

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THE DETAILS

We need to know a lot of details about our characters. But we don’t always need to share all of them. They can weigh the story down. Stephen King has said that the power of description is to give a few vivid details and let the reader fill in the rest.

But those details aren’t always visual. It could be how your character moves, speaks, or smells. The key is to know which ones matter to the story, but first you have to discover what those details are.

WRITING EXERCISES – DO THEM…KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS

Emily gave us several writing exercises during the three-hour workshop. All of which helped me learn much more about my characters. The process of writing about your characters in different situations or points of view, makes you understand your characters.

When I read the Harry Potter series, I always had the sense that J. K. Rowling knew more about her characters than she ever revealed. That’s what made her characters seem so well developed – because they were. J. K. has pages of detail about each of her characters (including family trees, powers, etc.) written on scraps of paper somewhere. But she doesn’t necessary reveal all the those details in her books. Some of those details are boring, but it helps her understand why her characters behave the way they do.

Emily had us do a writing exercise where our character went through their morning routine. I thought, Oh no, that’s the boring stuff, no one wants to hear about it. But guess what? By doing the exercise, I found out that my main character is a bit on the anal side – I didn’t know that before. Would I put that scene in my novel? Not likely. But that’s not the point – it’s to know your character better.

We need to understand our characters’ motivations, strengths, weaknesses (a necessity), backgrounds and what their relationships with other characters are like. If your characters are one-dimensional, it doesn’t matter what a great plot you have, people will stop reading.

EMOTION

Emotion is really important to how your character comes across and how they react to different situations. We don’t all respond to emotions in the same way. In the case of anger, would your character try to do a lot of damage? Deliver low blows? Try to get a rise? Withdraw? So Emily had us write scenes that would evoke grief, sadness and anger in our characters. I learned that my main character (MC) withdrew and internalized a lot.

POINT OF VIEW

Looking Through The Lens
Looking Through The Lens

We were also asked to take a scene that we had written and then change the point of view (POV). POV is basically where the lens is pointing.

There’s 1st person:

I ran to the store, my fists pumping.

3rd Person:

She ran to the store, her fists pumping.

And, one I’ve never attempted before…

2nd Person:

You ran to the store, your fists pumping.

Weird, right? But, Emily explained that the 2nd person can be very useful when trying to express a sense of dissociation when a character is experiencing trauma, or is drunk or drugged.

So, I’d like to share with you a couple of the writing exercises I completed during the workshop. They feature the main character in my WIP experiencing anger. I used the same scene using the 2nd person as it was really a scene about my MC experiencing bad news that was very traumatic to her.

In 1st person…

The doctor explains it to me. But his voice comes out toneless, without meaning. The only thing I hear is, “It’s over”. You’re over. You’re over. A drown of nasal sounds, punctuated with, “You. Are. Over.” 

I stand up. He’s in the middle of a sentence or something. I don’t know. I don’t care. I step away. One foot in front of the other. My movements are slow at first. Like I’m under water. The weight of the water is there, but I can never be weightless in it again. I brush some papers off a desk. A ghost of a movement. I’m swimming now, I pedal ahead. And I’m running until I slam through a door in a stairwell, it clangs behind me, and my head swims and spins, and I collapse onto the stairwell before everything goes black.

Now here it is again, in 2nd Person POV:

You stand up. The doctor’s in the middle of a sentence or something. You don’t know. You don’t care. You step away. One foot in front of the other. Your movements are slow at first. Like you’re under water. The weight of the water is there, but you can never be weightless in it again. You brush some papers off a desk. A ghost of a movement. You’re swimming now, you pump your feet forward. And you’re running until you slam through a door in a stairwell. It clangs behind you, and your head swims and spins, not from the news. But from what the news is about. You’re not you anymore and you collapse from the weight of it, from your broken mind, your broken skull, and everything goes black.

Does she seem more traumatized? I think so. Therapy! Therapy! We need character therapy!

Well, that was the whole point.

Further vs Farther

I’m posting a little later this week as I’ve been hard at work, reviewing my editors preliminary edits of the manuscript for Unspeakable.

I’ve learned quite a few things. Among them? I’m dash crazy – a fact I already knew. 😉

One of the things that surprised me though is that I used “further” incorrectly. Check out this sentence from Unspeakable:

I decide to take what little I can get and sink further into the couch, further into him.

My editor, Tanis, with ReVision Editing, changed it to this:

I decide to take what little I can get and sink farther into the couch, farther into him.

What’s the difference? Well, I wasn’t sure. So I asked my husband, a man who uses the word “tranche” in everyday conversation. True story. Over beers with friends, he used the word “tranche”. But I digress.

He wasn’t sure, but said he preferred my version.

So, I looked it up. And here’s what I found out:

Farther’ signifies distances. As in, “The hare is farther down the track than the turtle.”

Whereas, ‘further’ is a figurative term, as in, “You’ll get further in life, if you study hard.”

However, some dictionaries say that they can be used interchangeably. So, I guess it depends on who you believe and what feels right.

This is my final version of that sentence:

I decide to take what little I can get and sink farther into the couch, further into him.

I always meant the second ‘further’ to be figurative, as when she sinks into the couch, she is allowing the relationship to progress further.