Notes on Building Character (in fiction, not your own)

I decided to make a quick summary of techniques for those writers who take notes that are typically as chaotic as mine or who missed last night’s JRW Writing Show “Put Your Characters on the Couch: Psychoanalyze Your Fiction.” I relay some exercises directly from the panel and other of their insights I have re-phrased as exercises. (But by no means have I captured everything they said. A hearty thanks to Cleve Lamison, Jon Sealy, Ted Petrocci, and Gigi Amateau for sharing as panelists and thanks to all the organizers.)

Techniques when you want to know your characters better or round them out. (Of course, you as the writer might not share all the details with the readers, but the answers should influence how you write the characters.)
1) seat your characters at a dinner table and let them interact.
2) interview them. Write out your questions and answers. Ask about secrets, shameful deeds of their past, hopes and joys, etc. Include the things we have inside us but might not always share.
3) find what you can hate in a character you love (or want to love) and vice versa.
4) steal details from real people to provide your characters a consistent personality, plausible biography, and context that shaped them. Observe what real people do with their hands, eyes, words, etc.
5) invest something of yourself in your characters so that you avoid treating them as clichés, but let them be their own people.
6) have the characters make mistakes you wish you’d let yourself make (or have them make mistakes you don’t make or stop making mistakes you make).
7) increase or decrease a character’s self-insight.
8) let another character do something that the main character could or would normally do or wanted to do.
9) keep in mind that the more time a reader spends with a character, the more likely the reader will trust that character.

Finally, an aside from Ted. Psychology tends to notice male morality as defined by whether or not an action is justified, whereas female morality tends to be whether or not anyone is harmed. Does that explain differences—and different numbers of—male and female villains in fiction?

Nothing Left to Save?


I recently listened to the New Yorker podcast of Tobias Wolff’s “The Night in Question.” In it, a man has to save either his son or a train of strangers, including some real crooks. A brother and a sister also have to choose which versions of themselves and their families they are willing to spare or sacrifice. It’s a classic dilemma, but increasingly, our era seems to have developed a different answer: destroy oneself and others. Save none.

Indeed, the (mass) murder-suicide and suicide-bombing have permeated our world. I read a German article on the Las Vegas shootings that felt compelled to explain that such rampages in the US were like car crashes: they happen as a consequence of our infrastructure and make the news less from rareness than luridness.

Many perpetrators might imagine complete annihilation as the means to some sort of digital immortality or more enticing afterlife. Nonetheless, something greater also appears at work: utter despair. Resentment and entitlement have long motivated human vengeance, but it seems that there used to be a point in saving oneself to fight another day, or at least to die in order to aid one’s allies. Now, however, it often seems that the despair is so great that the attacker accepts in advance that the blow will hardly change the world, so there is no point in surviving, either. Such an individual has no allies, only generalized enemies. Such an individual registers a complaint rather than proposes a solution. That is a pathology of infrastructure, precisely because it has not always been with us.

When I looked back to the domestic terrorism of the 1990s to research Wisecrack, a strange glimmer of hope registered even in desperate acts. The Unabomber hid to prolong his career. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombers or 1993 World Trade Center bombers did not stay in their trucks. They believed themselves able to change the world as well as to exist in that changing world. They may not have wanted to live with pain and anger, but they didn’t necessarily want to die for them, either. I’m hardly advocating for one form of mayhem over another, but what does it means when we lose the desire to save someone?

I’m reminded of a haiku:

The lightning bug blinks
and that is its existence
which it cannot see.