The Power of Reunions

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This was a special weekend for me.  One of my very closest friends from college — my former roommate and music partner, actually — came to visit.  We talked and played guitar and laughed all weekend, and had a truly wonderful time.  We’ve seen each other many times since college — at least once a year, on average — and every time we get together it feels like no time has passed at all.  At least it does on one level, in terms of our rapport.  On another level, it’s absolutely clear that we’re older, that our lives have changed, that the issues with which we’re dealing now are utterly unlike those we dealt with when we were dumb college kids playing music and listening to records (yes, records) and chasing girls.

As with everything else that I do, this time with my friend got me thinking about writing, about storytelling, about character.  One piece of advice that I give again and again on this site is to use background work on characters as a source for short fiction.  In taking an episode form an earlier part of a character’s life and turning it into a short story, you accomplish several things at once.  1) You get to know your character better.  You learn something about him or her that you might not have figured out any other way.  2) You acclimate yourself to that character’s narrative voice.  Yes, it might be a younger voice than the one that will be in your story, but it’s still that person’s POV, and using it in a short piece before you take on the novel can only strengthen that voice for the larger project.  And 3) You give yourself a piece of fiction that you might be able to sell, thus improving your chances of finding an agent, finding an editor, and selling the larger work.

I thought of this today while driving my friend to the airport, because I realized that if I was a character in a book, and someone was reading the conversation that carried us from my home to the Nashville Airport (a 80 mile drive), that reader would have learned a tremendous amount about me.  They wouldn’t have needed to read any other scenes to figure out that I was a Dad and a husband; that I was a professional writer just emerging from a difficult patch in my career; that I was a musician and a photographer; that I’d gone to Brown University and had a great deal of fun in college; that I’d lost both my parents  in my early thirties; that I had three older siblings who had been through a good deal in their lives, too.  I could go on, but I think you get the idea.  More important, those reading this conversation would have gotten some idea of what each of these facts means to me, how, taken together, they have shaped my life and made me who I am today.

I knew from an early age that I was destined to write fiction, because I constantly found myself writing in my head things I’d just experienced or was still experiencing at that very moment.  It turns out the distance between writing my own life in my head, and writing the lives of characters I’ve created really wasn’t that far.  And I guess that’s kind of the point.  When you’re developing characters, you can do all sorts of background work and try to catalog their life experiences.  I do that.  I like to have a data sheet of sorts of all my major characters.  Where were they born?  What was their family life like growing up?  What were the formative events of their lives?  Etc.  But knowing those things doesn’t tell you as much about the character as writing the events themselves, or even writing a dialogue about them between your character and his best friend from college.

Any writer or editor will tell you that you need to show your readers rather than merely telling them.  You need to allow them to experience the fear or the anger or the passion your character feels.  Describing it for them just isn’t enough.  That’s true of this kind of background work, too.  You as a writer have to live your character’s past.  You can’t just make it up and jot it down.  You have to dive into it, submerge yourself in it.  You have to write it.  Because in writing it, you experience it.  You see it and hear it; you feel it and smell it and taste it.  And in doing that you make your character come alive; you make him or her become something far more tangible than a name and a list of attributes.

Your characters have childhood friends.  Maybe they have siblings they haven’t seen in years.  Arrange a reunion today.  Write about it.  Experience it with them.  Your characters and the stories they’re in will be better for it.

David B. Coe

http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com

http://www.DavidBCoe.com

http://magicalwords.net

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12 comments to The Power of Reunions

  • Great advice, David. Thanks. Genre fiction writers are so used to the idea that story is king that it’s easy to get lazy when it comes to rich, realized characters. Thanks for reminding us how important it is to really know the people we write.

    AJH

  • April W

    Great Advice. Just this week, I came to a road block in my novel. I took a break and started a short story on one of the minor characters. She revealed to me that she has quite a complex history that definately gives my larger work more depth and direction. I am learning so much from you all. Thank you.

  • >>Because in writing it, you experience it. You see it and hear it; you feel it and smell it and taste it. And in doing that you make your character come alive; you make him or her become something far more tangible than a name and a list of attributes.>>

    David, have you ever written a character at an earlier time and … not sure how to ask this … been worried at what you might find there? Or if not worried then aware that there might be a Pandora’s box there that will change everything? And if so, have you gone ahead, or is it something that you’re holding back from doing? I feel this way about my less complex characters, that they *appear* simple, but that dangers live below the calm, reflective surface. I am often loath to dive deep.

  • Wonderful advice, David. I’m going to take that advice and start working on stories from my character’s childhoods. I feel I know them well, but there’s so much backstory to my novels I think this will be a great way to better the continuing books.

    Happy Monday,
    Jen

  • Long live the short story! One thing I love about this profession — you never know it all. In all my years writing, this is the first time I’ve ever heard of using a short story as a way of understanding characters. Great stuff. Thanks. (Oh, and the doppelganger phenomenon continues — I’m going to Philcon this weekend where I will be meeting up with my college buddy who I see about once a year, catch up on life, drink and laugh, etc, etc. –insert Twilight Zone music–)

  • Thanks, AJ. I’ve always thought that stories can survive many flaws if the characters work. If the plot is a bit of a stretch or the worldbuilding is a bit thin, great characters can still rescue the book or short work. But if the characters are flat, if they fail to capture the heart of the reader, even the best plotted story set in the most amazing world will fail. My opinion.

    Glad that we’re helping, April. Dealing with a rough patch in the novel the way you have is a terrific idea. It allows you to step back from the story while still keeping your mind in the world and with the characters. Glad to hear that it’s made you look at your novel in a new way. Well done!

    Faith, I have to say that I haven’t really worried about this, perhaps because I tend to do my character studies before writing the book, so that I can factor in whatever I discover in the backstory. That said, I certainly understand what you’re saying: If I were to do what April has done (and in her case it seems to have worked very well) I would run the risk of learning something about my character that takes him/her, and thus my larger project, on an entirely different trajectory. I suppose that’s when the internal editor kicks in and asks “Do I give in to my character’s needs here, or do I step outside of the stories and impose the control I need to preserve the integrity of the project?” There’s no right answer of course, but that would be my thought process. It’s an interesting question, one I’ll have to address as I begin the rewrite of the new shiny and try to fit it in to the historical setting. I need to rethink my characters’ pasts, and I don’t know where that will take me.

    Thanks, Jen. I hope that you find the exercise helpful, as well as fun. It sounds as though you’ve already done work on the novels in question, in which case you should heed the warning implied in Faith’s question. It is possible to delve into a character’s past, only to discover that what you learn about that character is incompatible with what you’ve written in your main project. Just be conscious of it, and have in mind how you’ll deal with the issue if it comes up. Good luck with the stories!

    I appreciate the comment, Stuart — glad you like the idea. I have found again and again that those short works help me, even if most of them never see light of day once they’re written. And have a great time at PhilCon. Yeah, the doppelganger thing is a little creepy. Given that I’m older than you are, I have to assume that you’re copying me, and not the other way around…. 😉

  • I was told recently by one of my proofers of my WIP that my characters seem real. She reads a LOT. I must be doing something right, I guess. 😉

    I’ve always been big into characterization and dialogue. I’m pretty good at it. It’s one of the reasons why people have been asking me to work on their film scripts.

  • April W

    Hi Faith – I have two sets of rules for my current characters. One for my larger work and one for my experiment. For the larger work, I have the backstory in my mind [but I’m thinking of switching to Character Keeper(insert shameless kiss-up here)] and the character must adhere to those rules. For the experimental short story I wrote, I only held myself to those attributes that were actually expressed in the novel up to this point and held her to it with an iron fist. I kept the original backstory loose to roll around in my head, but didn’t force it. I don’t know if it was freshman luck, but it worked very well. The really weird thing is that I thought I knew this character well. She kind of stood up and showed me her angle. The facts in the larger work remained the same, but I now see them in a different light. I caught myself saying, “Oh, that’s why she did that in so and so scene. I thought it was because of X, but this makes so much sense in light of Z.”

    I am so excited about this new tool in my writer’s kit.

  • Thanks for the comment, Daniel. Sounds like you have a good handle on this stuff.

    April, this seems a great approach — maintaining control while still learning enough about your character to add dimension both to her and to the larger story.

  • Excellent idea, April. I too am just getting Caracter Keeper up and running, and I have sooo much stuff to input!

  • QUOTE: Thanks for the comment, Daniel. Sounds like you have a good handle on this stuff.

    Thanks much, David! Now if I can only get enough feedback to do more than those changes I’m finding on my own and get the thing finished and get a handle on successfully finding an agent.

  • Still wishing Character Keeper had a mac version. I’m thinking that I should check out Scrivener, which is a similar tool for mac format. That kind of program would be pretty handy for the new project as I do my research and figure out how to weave the story into the history.