Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Tag: Writing (page 1 of 2)

Create Complex Characters

This is the first in a series of posts on creating complex characters.

Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction: a Guide to Narrative Craft, says that “your fiction can be only as successful as the characters who move it and move within it . . . . we must find them interesting, we must find them believable, and we must care about what happens to them.”

A complex character exhibits conflict and contradiction. Burroway says, “Conflict is at the core of character, as it is of plot.” A complex character’s conflict will be not only with the world or with other characters. A complex character is in conflict with herself. This is where contradiction comes in. Each of us at times exhibits a particular human characteristic, and at other times exhibit its polar opposite. As Burroway puts it, “All of us are gentle, violent; logical, schmaltzy; tough, squeamish; lusty, prudish; sloppy, meticulous; energetic, apathetic; manic, depressive.”

One of the most common recommendations given to writers about creating well-developed characters is to build a character bio sheet, listing physical, emotional, intellectual characteristics, preferences, dislikes, habits, and so forth. The idea is to build up a reserve of details from which you can draw as you write the character into the narrative. Such a list helps you understand your character’s motivation and gives you the concrete particulars that help you dramatize a scene.

I would suggest that any character bio sheet should include a consideration of contradictory tendencies the character might exhibit. Choose three contradictory tendencies and make lists of specific ways in which these contradictions are exhibited. For example, if we take Burroway’s first example from above—gentle, violent—it might look like this:

Our character, Larry, is a fifty-year-old man, balding, thin, brown eyes, with calloused workman’s hands. I’ll keep the lists short for the sake of space.

Gentle Larry                                                               Violent Larry

Combs granddaughter’s hair                             Pounds fist on vending machines

Cuddles with the cat                                               Kicks the cat off the porch

Holds wife’s hand before sleep                         Aggressive toward co-workers

Works in flowerbed                                                 Yells at other drivers on the road

A middle-aged working man who combs his granddaughter’s hair is a lovable character. That the same character pounds on the vending machine and kicks the cat off the porch is a bit disturbing. But it is also very human. We are all clusters of contradictory desires and motivations. We may all admire the gentle Larry, but we will identify with, more deeply sympathize with, the complex Larry who does all these things.

Making these “contradiction lists” serves a practical purpose for your narrative. It helps you to show, and not tell, the complex nature of your character. You may not use everything in your lists, but your understanding of the contradictions inherent in the character make her more complex and more interesting.

From the Forge: on Joyce Carol Oates on Writing

For most of my professional career, it seemed as though Joyce Carol Oates published a new novel every year, in addition to short stories and all manner of non-fiction pieces. So when one recent list of writing advice from well-known writers included three suggestions from Oates, I was intrigued.

Her first suggestion was this: “The first sentence can be written only after the last sentence has been written.” I have mentored people who were working on longer manuscripts—novel or memoir—and who reached a point at which they struggled to find their way. My advice was usually to write a draft of the final chapter, as they saw it at that point, and then to come back to where they felt lost. In a way, it’s almost too obvious. We can’t know how to get there if we don’t know where we’re going.

Oates’ second suggestion was to keep in mind Oscar Wilde: “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.” This is funny and may seem a bit absurd on the face of it, but I think Oates is trying to say that both fiction and memoir are story, and story is a crafted thing from which the writer must step back and observe with a critical eye. If you become too self-absorbed, it is easy to lose the necessary sense of story as art, as a made thing. Even in memoir, your life must be a story that is crafted to accomplish your objective.

The final piece of advice Oates gave was, “Don’t try to anticipate an ideal reader — or any reader. He/she might exist — but is reading someone else.” Okay, this is the witty, ironic side of Joyce Carol Oates. I doubt that she really believes this one herself. But it might serve as a reminder that, even though we need to know our audience, we need even more to know ourselves and our characters because those are the sources of our story.



Show, Don’t Tell?

If you’ve been a creative writer for very long, you have heard this directive repeatedly—Show, Don’t Tell. But what exactly does it mean? What does show mean? What does tell mean?

Here’s a simple definition for each: to show means to present fictional material through immediate sense perceptions, to offer character experience. To tell means to present fictional material through the narrator’s analysis, to offer abstract ideas.

Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, says, “Fiction must contain ideas, which give significance to characters and events. . . . But the ideas must be experienced through or with the characters; they must be felt or the fiction will fail . . .”

Maybe the directive should be “Show ideas, don’t Tell them.” The reader should be able to understand the story’s ideas through the characters’ actions and experience. If the narrator has to spell out the meaning for the reader, then the writer has not done a good enough job of telling the story.

Burroway offers several techniques for showing, not telling. The most important of these is the use of Significant Detail. “Specific, definite, concrete, particular details—these are the life of fiction,” she says. She is referring to details that appeal to the senses—things seen, heard, smelled, tasted, or touched. But a writer must do more than simply offer sense details. The details “must be details ‘that matter.’” This idea of careful selection of details that “implicitly suggest meaning and value” is central to Burroway’s argument.

Here’s a simple example. Your character has lost her job and is feeling depressed. Your narrator can simply say, “She was depressed.” In that case, you would be telling the reader by using an abstract expression. Simple and direct, perhaps, but also boring. On the other hand, your narrator can have the character open her second bottle of wine, spill some on her blouse, and begin to cry. The room may be drab and dark, the sky dull and cloudy. A bird singing outside the window may make the character angry. All of these details are experiences that reproduce the emotional impact of depression for the reader.

When you use carefully selected, concrete, descriptive details like these, you are showing, not telling.



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