Sometimes like walking up the wall
I recently met a new crop of students who will head off to Teach for America this summer, and I was reminded of how much I like teachers for their mix of pragmatic zeal, toughness, and intellect. I wondered what advice I could distill for them, and I realized my thoughts (a) seemed a bit tough themselves and (b) could apply as well to teachers and students as to authors and fictional characters.
1) The teachers and students (or characters and authors) you meet are survivors, and you need to respect that they have survived. You may not like what they have done to survive, or how they continue to survive, but until you yourself can survive, you cannot much expect them to respect you.
2) The things you do to survive may not always be the things that help your students thrive. You might as well accept that, forgive yourself and the students as needed, and move on to make things better. Indeed, it is comforting to think that harm only results from evil, but that is seldom the case—and I don’t even mean some Arendtian banality of evil sense. You can inflict harm from ignorance, fleeting inattention, and understandable incompetence. You will inflict harm. You will be harmed. You may want to assign blame to feel better, but hesitate to assign blame to people rather than actions.
3) In case you forget it, you truly can make the world a better place, second by second, person by person, and many times that will also be fun.
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?