Thursday, January 28, 2010

Becoming your Character

Sorry I missed you last week, I've been thinking about character a lot lately. To me, it's the core of a story; who someone is and what they are made of. It was Booker T. Washington who said that character, not circumstance make the person, and I won't argue much with that. But bring character and circumstance together and you have the makings of a real story.

It's one of the most exciting parts of writing. Often it takes time and sometimes a lot of coaxing (of kids, spouse, your subconscious, the muse) before you're in a physical and mental space where things fall in place and you're allowed to discover who your characters are. Sometimes it's like lightning and you suddenly know exactly what your protagonist would have done and maybe more importantly, why. But you have to be ready.

Last week I chaperoned my son's class to a performance by the Richard Alston Dance Company visiting from the UK. They were brilliant and engaging, not to mention understanding that this was likely the first modern dance performance most of these elementary age kids had ever seen. Richard Alston himself, took the time to point out how the pieces contrasted, as well as a guided pre-interpretation of the stories and movements within the dances. After their two pieces were finished there was a Q&A. The best question by far was when the male dancer who had the part of Petrushka was asked what his favorite thing about dancing was. He didn't hesitate to respond that it was the process of actually becoming his character and understanding how Petrushka would feel, move, think, and exist that made dancing so thrilling to him.

This process is exactly what makes writing such an adventure to me. I constantly ask myself, What would I do if I were him/her in that situation? Seemingly infinite possibilities may overwhelm you, but the more you know your character and see the world from their eyes, the better your story will be.

Oh, and coming soon, this blog at my own domain (they wouldn't give me a kingdom).


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

What a wonderful comment by the Petrushka dancer. He certainly knew how to reach kid's imaginations.
And I agree with you that the best stories merge great character development with the circumstance.

Annotated Margins said...

I read a blog a few weeks ago that discussed something I had not really considered before, even though I'm a big Sherlock Holmes fan: every character should have a history that need not be revealed to the reader, except as the character thinks back on particular parts of their lives. The blog said that there should be such a detailed history, that many parts of the character's history will not make it into the story except in passing, if at all. Holmes was always saying things to Watson like, "I knew him from a lunch we shared at such-and-such-a-place, but he never details that memory.

Winter Hansen said...

Exactly! I've come to a part in my story where, in order to figure out what the main character does, I need to find out what her Grandmother did in a similar situation many years before. The history of each character in a novel and how the webs of their lives touch each other work together to help make a story become more authentic.