It has more to do with the reality of such places. Here, the mundane becomes concrete and tangible: the florescent pink door handle, the flickering light of glass cases, the smell of coffee and powdered sugar (and crisping dough creations in the back-room oven). From the badly designed Styrofoam cups–with lids that never quite fit–to the faux wood shelves attempting to capture a sense of “rustique,” the donut shop is quintessential for one of my favorite fiction exercises… the character build.
Why? Why not create character in a chic Parisian cafe? Or a veranda in Venice? Or a yacht off the Caribbean coast? You could. But the goal is to create a real, live character–someone readers can identify with and believe in. Unless you spend a great deal of time traveling to or researching those three suggested locales, instead of real, you’ll likely get ideal. And frankly, ideal people aren’t very interesting.
Fundamentally, character-building, like world-building, requires research. The difference tends to lie in dynamism versus stasis. Usually, once we have a map of our landscape, it remains the solid surface upon which and through which change happens. One of my novels takes place in Newport News, Virginia. I can rearrange street names a bit for effect, but I can’t add a mountain range in middle of town (unless that happens to be part of the plot—Newport News and the Unexpected Everest). The setting does influence the characters, though, and characters do change. They talk, too, and if you haven’t a good foundation for your character, dialogue is endlessly difficult. So how do we begin?
Over the past few years, I’ve taught a number of college-level creative writing classes, and I’ve learned one powerful truth: no one likes a group assignment. Fiction writing is personal and my students, many of whom are very unsure on their authorial legs, are horrified at sharing. For those of us who write regularly (published or unpublished, fiction or non-fiction), we know that the golden rule of becoming a better writer is to have readers and reader-feedback. But assume for a moment that you don’t know that—or that you are, like my students, brand new to the experience. It can be utterly horrifying. So, I found several strategies very useful for getting a writer out of their own head, and these work equally well for a more seasoned writer stuck in the character-building no-man’s-land.
First, we asked a writer to give us the name of her lead character and a series of traits. This student, who I’ll call “Sue,” had fleshed him out a bit already: Male, fair complexion, a bit wishy-washy, looking for work. The plot revolved around the main character accepting a dodgy job offer, so this way of perceiving him made plenty of sense. But none of us could “see” the character yet, and Sue had trouble finding his voice. So we did an experiment—and I asked the unthinkable:
“Sue, I want you to sit quietly for the next ten minutes and let the class take over your character.”
If I had asked her to wrestle live octopi while wearing a meat-suit in shark-infested waters, the result would have been about the same. But this was a necessary intervention. For the next ten minutes, regardless of the plot, Sue’s classmates came up with additional traits. He was gluten intolerant and had other food allergies. He’d broken up with his girlfriend the week before. He had a green thumb for houseplants. His sweater was on backwards. Etc., etc. The scene was slightly frenzied; it was amazing to behold the creativity spawned by this trait list. Some of the suggestions were rather silly. Others ended up being important (and in fact, the character remained a sufferer of Celiac disease). It didn’t matter that Sue would throw away much of the suggested material as inappropriate or unnecessary to the story. Her hero had become real to the rest of us and so also to Sue; his hesitant step as he entered the tea shop, awkwardly turning down his interviewer’s offer of pastry because of allergies, sealed him in our minds. And of course, the scene developed at the same time. Sue had seen the character through the eyes of other people, and the gritty not-glamorous reality of a Midwestern bubble-tea shop suddenly infused the scene with new life. And of course, it helped that there was a bubble-tea shop not far from campus—and that research might involve a beverage and people watching.
I dub my classes “no-fear creative writing” because I do, in fact, ask them to perform feats of great boldness in the face of insecurity. Another exercise actually required students to trade main characters, putting them in entirely new scenes and time periods to practice the relationship between scene, setting, and character. I imagine I’ve been cursed a-plenty, but I’ve also witnessed great successes, particularly with dialogue. On March 21st, Stephen Leigh spoke extensively about dialogue (and its discontents). As he explains, “Your plot will force your characters to respond in some manner. How they respond to the stimulus of the plot is characterization.” The same may be said of setting; our gluten-free, nervous job-seeker would look very different if plunged, suddenly, into Cold-War intrigue as a spy—but if we have developed that firm foundation, he will nonetheless respond and speak with the same voice.
SO, if you are struggling with characterization, I have two strategies to suggest. First, go to the donut shop, the greasy spoon, the local pub. Go to the laundry mat, the barbecue, the chili cook off. Let the warmth and light of real places and people (with the grit and the soot, the dirt and the smudge, the cackle and the gossip) soak into your creative synapses. Let the dung of the ordinary fertilize your garden. Second, share these characters. Try out some of the exercises above. Let people intrude upon your vision and so expand it. You don’t need to keep it all, but you may learn from the experience and see with fresh eyes. In the end, you might be very surprised by what you end up with…you might find that the characters don’t look the way you expected or behave the way you want. They might argue with you, even. Good. That means you have done the hard part–you created something with vittles, innards, guts. In general, they will take over the rest (whether you want them to or not).
We will look more specifically at plot (what to do with the characters once you’ve got them) next time. For now, let’s talk about strategies—these or your own. I look forward to your comments!
Author, historian, and adventurer at the intersection, Brandy Schillace spends her time in the mist-shrouded alleyways between literature and medicine. Taking a cue from Edward Gorey and John Bellairs, she writes Gothic fiction with a medical twist. Her first series, The Jacob Maresbeth Chronicles, will be out spring 2014 with Cooperative Trade. Dr. Schillace is research associate at the Dittrick Museum of Medical History, managing editor of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry, book reviewer for the Huffington Post, and chief editor for the Fiction Reboot and Daily Dose blog. She helps develop medical humanities curriculum for the Cleveland Clinic Lerner College and teaches for Case Western Reserve University’s SAGES program. Her non-fiction book, Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying can Tell us about Life and Living, will be released in 2015 with Elliott and Thompson.
Blog’s “about” page: http://fictionreboot-dailydose.com/
Goodreads book page: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/20927933-high-stakes