Why am I defying laws of physics by appearing in two places at once?
Because we’re a week away from the pub date for The Art of Character, and in between popping open the Dom Perignon and soliciting celebrity piggyback rides, we’re trying to amp up the volume on the book’s release.
If you want to know the story of how the book came about—Deborah’s preoccupation—trundle on over to Jungle Red.
Here I just want to speak briefly about why I think the book is helpful, and maybe even important.
Some of the best books on writing in recent years have emphasized structure—specifically Robert McKee’s Story and John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. And though both books deal with character, Truby’s in somewhat more depth, I found there was something lacking in both that needed addressing.
Though both books and a few others deal brilliantly with the function of character, and discuss how the character is a crucial element in the story matrix, they leave largely unaddressed the trickier, subtler, more difficult, and thus most interesting parts of characterization—giving the character recognizable feelings and desires, contradictions and secrets, letting her think and feel and behave like a real and complex human being, not a plot puppet.
As I emphasize in the book, it’s important to think of the character not as just a cog in the story, but as a real individual, with a life “outside the narrative,” to whom the events of the story happen.
And it’s not enough to “take dictation from imaginary beings.” A great many clichéd characters sprang fully formed in their creator’s imagination precisely becaue they were derivative—vaguely concealed duplicates of other characters.
There’s no short cut. To create great characters you have to spend time. You have to feel deeply and imagine wisely. You have to ask a hundred questions and answer them not with your mind but with your heart and your intuition—and characters aren’t always quick or straightforward with their answers. Patience and attention are required.
The books I did find that dealt with this aspect of characterization didn’t take it far enough, in my opinion, or didn’t deal with it sytematically and comprehensively. On top of that, they were written in a style I found leaden, contaminated by “how-to.”
A character can’t be fashioned from ideas, or stitched together from parts, no matter how clever the tropes. You end up with a Frankenstein, not a Frank Galvin, or a Frank Pierce, or even a Frank Chambers.
But few if any of the books on writing I reviewed, even the ones I admired, offered any real guidance on how to conjure that organically whole yet emotionally complex hobgoblin we think of as a fully realized character.
I took only the mininum number of English classes in college and never took a creative writing course. I learned most of what I know about writing from trial and error—plenty of the latter—and breaking down scenes in acting school, where the importance of a physical and intuitive connection to the character was hammered into my over-analytical brain.
Writers lack the physical presence of the actor, and can’t rely on it. We have only words. How is it done?
I wanted to help writers figure that out by helping them move through each of the stages of characterization, from conceiving the character—and being wary of characters derived from the story, the finishing school for plot puppets—to developing the character, to understanding that character’s role in the story, to techniques for rendering her on the page.
I emphasize the importance of scenes, not information, in not just portraying your character but conceiving and developing her.
And I stress the need to plumb one’s own experience, emotions, and memory to create the intuitive facility you need to perceive your characters like figures in a dream, not pieces on a chess board—or the product of a checklist.
Last, I wanted to write the book in such a way the reader would feel not just informed but inspired. I wanted readers to feel compelled to put down the book and return to their desks and forge ahead with whatever they were writing.
From the response the book has garnered so far, I think I’ve been largely successful. Now the book needs to find its target audience: writers, whether just starting out or perfecting their craft.
If you’d like to try for a free copy, go to today’s posting on Jungle Red.
And if you’d like to pre-order the book, you’re only two clicks away, beginning with this one here.
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What are the easiest and most difficult aspects of characterization for you?
Who is the most interesting character you’ve come across in a book, play, film, or TV program lately?
Among the characters you yourself have created, which one’s your favorite? Which one was hardest to create or get right? Which one was easiest?
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Jukebox Hero of the Week: One of the points I make in The Art of Character is that a writer who writes for himself is "scribbling to a ghost." We write for readers, because the reader makes us honest.
But it's often important to personify the reader we're trying to reach, and envision that reader as someone who expects our very best.
The actor Joseph Chaikin wrote that he never went onstage without imagining Martin Luther King, Jr., in the audience. Since we celebrated Dr. King's birthday Monday, I thought it might be appropriate to choose this tribute to him from the late great Solomon Burke. It's a beautiful song about persevering despite the gnawing doubts that plague even great men and women, and the humility that comes with true courage: