Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Partial Book Review Part 1: Character

Recently my family and I went on vacation to the beach. It was one of those rare weeks where I could actually sit down with a book and read more than two sentences in a row. The book I chose was Novel Voices: 17 Award Winning Novelists on How to Write, Edit and Get Published, edited by Jennifer Levasseur and Kevin Rabalais. Now, as I said, I was able to read more than a few sentences at a time, but I wasn't able to read more than a few pages. So I only got about half way through. Even though I haven't finished it I've really enjoyed it.

The thing that is great about this book is that several different authors--from different genres--are interviewed, giving their opinions on the writing, editing and publishing process. Its great because a lot of the trials they face are things that I have problems with too. One of my favorite interviews so far is with Richard Bausch (I will admit I have never read any of his work). According to his bio, he has written a substantial volume of short stories and novels. I wanted to share a couple of things he said that really struck me.

One of the things he talked a lot about was character driven stories. He "...takes characters whom he loves and visits troubles upon them." I loved that. Maybe a little too much. There is something sadistic about being a writer, you know? We make up these worlds and these people and then wreak havoc on them. But the conflict and the character development that results is what makes the story. Bausch says, "Fiction is about trouble. I make up characters who are decent or who are trying to be decent, and I add trouble. The more the better."

Another author, Charles Baxter, said this of character and conflict: "I see it in relation to a Parker Brothers board game from my childhood called Careers. In that game, you had to get sixty points, and you had to decide ahead of time what you wanted and in what proportion. The points could be in fame, money, or love. You could go broke and say, 'All I want is sixty points in love.' The first person to get sixty points in the proportion he or she asks for wins. If you say at the beginning that you want sixty points in love and you get sixty points in fame, you don't win because you got something you didn't want. This is a pretty good metaphor not only for life, but for narrative, as well...characters are often in a state of lifelong dramatic irony."

Carrie Brown had this to say about character: "Empathy is, for me, [the] route to understanding and creating character. I don't necessarily like a character, but I have to know him; I know what it feels to be like him." In the same way, Andre Dubus said, "I try to see the characters, to know some of their history. I think about characters for a long time rather than just starting the story and seeing what they do. I like to feel that I can get inside of a character. I used to tell students to write sketches. I told them to know if their character prefers a bath or a shower."

I'll admit, character has been a weak point for me. I'm alright at creating worlds, vivid details, exciting story lines and action. But when it comes to emotional development I'm, well...stunted. This advice (there was obviously a lot more in the book) has already helped me become better at writing more realistic characters. Hope some of this inspires you guys to get to your computer or notebook and start writing!!

1 comment:

  1. I love how you describe this point of view. It really is the way the reader comes across the character; wanting to relate and cheer for them in the troubles they face. I think too often writers approach a story the other way around. They think of some crazy situation that interests them and then try to plop a character in and hope they survive.