Tag Archives: character work

Language

In On Writing, Stephen King comments that readers never ask writers language questions, i.e. how does a writer come up with the right language for a story? Or a character?  Dialogue? It’s hard work, actually. I’ve been thinking a lot about it this past week because my revision work on Perceval’s Shadow last weekend put the question of language in my face. It’s all about word choice, but that sounds much simpler than it is.

I worked last weekend on chapter 2, a Pierre chapter, i.e. a chapter told from third person point of view close in to a 10-year-old French boy who’s been living on the future war-torn Viennese streets. He loves Japanese anime, specifically the anime of Hayao Miyazaki in two of Miyazaki’s famous movies, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle, especially the latter. This boy just started identifying himself in his mind as a friend of the Wizard Howl as well as the Warrior Ashitaka, I had no idea why, but I went with it. Pierre is also artistically gifted — he loves to draw and he loves architecture, so he’s visually oriented. I wanted to capture a sense of his mind, his personality, and explore more his love for Miyazaki.

This excerpt is from the first draft:

He strolled down an aisle of butcher stalls, one hand skimming the edge of the displays, eyeing the sausages, the gruff stall owners, and where the most shoppers had stopped: a stall on the left, four stalls ahead. He increased his pace. At the target stall, he darted between two rotund women and grabbed a pair of bratwurst with his left hand. One woman cuffed his head and the other reached to hold him, but he ducked and ran.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Rudloff

Not bad. But everything about this excerpt screams me writing description. I wanted to choose words that would be revealing of Pierre, not me. How does he see this outdoor market and the people around him? Is he afraid? Confident? Does he have a plan? His goal is to steal enough food to get him through another day. With these questions in mind, here’s what I came up with in the revision:

He strolled down an aisle of the butcher section, one hand skimming the edge of the displays, devouring the sausages with his eyes, keeping his distance from the gruff stall owners.  Most of the shoppers had stopped at a stall on the left, four stalls ahead.  He increased his pace.  The crowd around the stall would hide him while he snatched the meat.  All those Viennese women!  They became flustered when something extraordinary happened, like an invisible French boy stealing from right under their noses.  He grinned.  They probably saw the meat move up and fly through the air on its own.  Imagine!  Of course they would become flustered.  They could not explain what had happened.  The police would come and shake their giant heads at the women and their stories of meat flying through the air on its own.

At the target stall, he darted between two rotund women and grabbed a pair of bratwurst with his left hand.  One woman cuffed his head and the other reached to hold him, but he ducked and ran.  These women had tried to stop him.  How could they see him?

In this revision, I wanted to show him thinking more of being helped by the Wizard Howl, and Pierre immediately decided that Howl had made him invisible. I realized after I’d finished, that as a homeless boy, he felt invisible to most of the people around him. All the nice Viennese do not want to see him or other homeless boys, dirty and starving, collateral damage from the war. If they saw them, the Viennese would either feel helpless to do anything or uncomfortable and overwhelmed by the “problem” and want someone else to take care of it, i.e. the police or government.

Photo: der Standard/Robert Newald

In the second excerpt, I write much the same thing as in the first excerpt, but in the second it’s no longer me describing the action. By sinking into Pierre’s thoughts, the paragraph takes on the quality of Pierre’s personality. It begins by changing “eyeing the sausages” to “devouring the sausages with his eyes” and sinks deeper with the exclamation “All those Viennese women!” He imagines their reaction to meat rising through the air all on its own. He is psyching himself to make his move to steal the bratwurst. The language I’ve chosen reflects that and his narrow escape in the following paragraph.

This is an example of working with language, how language supports character and action, and how it sets the tone for the story. The words I chose reveal Pierre’s character. To accomplish this, I thought long and hard about who Pierre is, how he sees the world, how he sees himself in the world, and how he’s chosen to cope with his circumstances. I was satisfied with the result.

Perceval’s Shadow: Revision Work 1

So, here I am, facing the words I’ve written to tell the story of Perceval’s Shadow, the second novel in the Perceval series. I thought I’d start a mini-series of posts about the revision process on this novel to share its progress and maybe a little about my own creative process.

Revision work is all about making decisions. If you’re a terrible decision-maker, maybe creative writing isn’t a good fit for you. The decisions start as soon as the idea comes into a writer’s head — they masquerade as questions that need to be answered. Who is this character? What does she want? Is this story a short story? Novella? Or maybe it’s a screenplay? Where is this character? What’s her backstory? And so on — just a taste of the questions that come up at the beginning of a first draft.

For the first revision, the questions are different. The first question I asked myself was do I read straight through the draft and then start the work, or do I just start the work with chapter 1? My reply to myself, after a few minutes of thought while staring at the manuscript pages, came with a certainty of feeling in the pit of my stomach that spread throughout my body: just start the work.

So, I began by reading through the notes I’d been making over the years (yes, years) with my ideas for how I wanted each chapter, page, and paragraph to go to move the story forward and reveal character. I do that reading in motion, i.e. I walk from one end of my apartment to the other and back. Over and over until I finish going through the notes. Then I sit down at my desk, pull out my favorite purple ink pen, and begin reading chapter 1. This chapter surprised me quite a lot. It’s in good shape and I had few changes or edits. Later I discovered the reason — in the back of the file folder are five other chapter 1’s marked “old” and written all over in different colored inks. I’m certain that chapter 1 will require even more work, but for now, it’s in good shape.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Rudloff

Chapter 2 introduces a new character, a 10-year-old French boy named Pierre. As I began reading, I remembered how Pierre had come into my life, following me around for months before I finally figured out where he belonged, i.e. in this novel. I’d had an incredibly deep feeling for Pierre — I’m very attached to him, very protective. I’m hoping that these feelings will channel into the other characters in the story. Pierre will need their affection and protection. My prose in this chapter needed much more work than the first chapter, and I slowed down to do the work and took my time. And all through it, Pierre’s introduction into the Perceval series pleased me. I liked his feistiness. I went through this chapter twice during two different weekends.

After the second day of working on chapter 2, I turned to chapter 3. The work on this chapter began at a snail’s pace. Immediately, I saw that this chapter would need a great deal of work during this revision, and required a thorough re-think. But I know what I want this chapter to accomplish regarding revealing character and moving the story forward. The trick will be asking the right questions and  putting what I learn on the page.

Revision work is like eating chocolate — it is not to be rushed but savored as a total immersion experience. The first revision for me is not about grammar, syntax or an extensive line edit. It’s about making certain I got the characters right. Revision work is the true work in writing, work to be as creative as in the first draft but in a different way, work to be focused on character. Even when I’m not at my desk, I’m thinking about it.

Remaining True to Characters

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo at the Sistine chapel, Vatican city, Rome, Italy

What writer hasn’t grappled with the sense of playing God while writing characters? It is a seductive feeling.  Power.  Control.  Bossing characters around so that they do and say what I want. Wow. Certainly can’t do that with people in real life. But guess what? It doesn’t work anymore with fictional characters than it does in real life. That is, if you want your characters to truly be themselves. I’ve experienced characters staging protests and coups when I’ve forgotten my true place as the writer and tried to play God, and so now that I’m doing lots of revision work, it’s time to remind myself just what remaining true to characters really means.

Observe

People Watching

The first thing is to step back and watch. As I read my writing, or anyone else’s, that’s what I’m doing mentally. I wouldn’t try to interfere with someone else’s characters, and so I will not interfere with my own. And actually, that possessive “my” is relative — at some point, characters become their own people with their own personalities, thoughts, and feelings, motivations, behavior, and speech, and when that happens, that’s when a writer knows he or she has succeeded in creating characters who are as real as people in the real world. Part of getting to that point is believing they are real people.

While doing revision work, it’s important to set aside all my own ideas and preconceptions about each character, and just watch them as I read. Who are they? What do they want in the context of the story? What will they do to get it? What is their worst fear? What is their primary emotional flaw? Watch the characters in their behavior and speech to learn the answers to these questions. I’m usually not surprised by the primary characters but sometimes a secondary character will shock or surprise me, and then that opens up possibilities for the story that I had not seen before.

listen

iStockphoto

How a person talks reveals an awful lot about their character, education, and background. Pay attention to the rhythm of the speech, to the use of language, to the choice of words. Pay attention to how characters talk to each other.

When I was working on Vasia Bartyakov in Perceval’s Secret, I knew that he was Russian, and that his English would reflect the influence of his native tongue. But what really came through to me from him with his English was a sense of his natural exuberance. He’s old enough to have some idea of the way the world works, but still young enough to believe in optimism and the inherent goodness of human beings. He loves life. He loves music. Every word out of his mouth and the way he said it reflected that. I learned all that by stepping back and listening to him, and stopped myself from putting words in his mouth that I believed would move the story forward or reveal character. What I learned from Vasia is that characters love to reveal themselves through their speech if you shut up and listen.

witness

Write what you see and hear. Describe it as closely as you can to what you saw and heard from your characters. I call this “witnessing.” This is where the give and take between the writer and her characters really comes into play, and it’s important that the writer remain true to her characters, i.e. be worthy of their trust and belief in her by being faithful to what she’s seen and heard.

In the revision stage, it’s just as important to remain true to the characters, to insure that even if dialogue needs to be cleaned up for whatever reason, the writer preserves the original intent and meaning of that dialogue. What I most often run into with dialogue is that I need to relax it, make it more like the spoken speech that it is rather than only speech that is read. People rarely speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences. I want my writing to be the best it can be in order to be an accurate and trustworthy witness to the lives of my characters.

conclusion

Characters may be watching the writer as closely as the writer watches them to determine if the writer can be trusted with their story. They give themselves over to writers, and at the same time, writers need to respect them and the process that the writer and characters are both part of. The next time you’re tempted to play God with your characters, just think of how much you may hate being bossed around, controlled and manipulated, and treat your characters the way you want to be treated yourself.

Revision Work: Character

I love revision work.  Last Monday I began revision work on Perceval’s Secret, going through the editor’s comments on the manuscript, the editor’s notes, and my notes.  This revision is about more, more, more: punching up the suspense, punching up the music, punching up character.

Credit: SkyLightRain.com

Credit: SkyLightRain.com

While it was reassuring to hear that I had a solid foundation for each of the characters I’d created, several need more work.  What I do depends on what the character needs.  For example, one needs more fleshing out but in brush strokes, not a whole canvas.  Another needs clarification and to be more likeable.  I want to talk about that latter character here.

This character is among the major ensemble of characters that drive the plot.  I see him as the “villain.”  He is a complex character with psychological issues as well as great ambition.  Right now, the editor noted that he was too “self-absorbed” and “not very likeable.”  I wanted him to be self-absorbed because that is consistent with his psychological issues.  Likeable?

Why are people likeable?  Well, a person could have a warm, friendly demeanor and personality, open and accessible.  She could also be kind, compassionate, interested in the world and other people.  She may be generous in spirit, heart, and with her time, as well as her money to help friends and those in need.  Some might find a devout person likeable, but I’ve never found someone who’s openly religious necessarily likeable.  I’ve been personally wary of such people.  A likeable person is “fun” to be around, a happy person perhaps, someone with energy and drive, someone who cares.  Rather than describing a character with all these words, I need to show the character’s likeability through his actions and the way people respond to him.

As I was talking about this with the editor, a scene came into my head, an existing scene, and one that I could use to show the character’s likeability.  In this scene, he’s returning to his apartment and he spots his landlady working in her garden in the backyard.  As the scene stands now, he does stop and chat with her for a moment, then he goes on to his apartment.  How can I change this scene to show his likeability?

The scene will begin as it already does with the character returning home.  He spots his landlady working in her garden and goes over to her.  During their conversation he reveals his own gardening experience and asks if he could help her with her gardening, kneeling down next to her.  She’ll be surprised, but pleased, and gives him a bit of weeding to do.  I’m not sure yet how I’ll move him from that position to his apartment yet, but it will come.

Showing his caring about something his landlady cares about is one way to make this character likeable.  He steps outside of himself for a few minutes.  How I balance this likeability with his self-absorption will be a challenge.  On the other hand, I just had a thought: he would want approval and seek approval.  Not quite pathologically, but it will be important to him.  People seek approval in a variety of ways, so I’ll have options for this.  He may be seeking approval with his generosity — he wants people to like him.  This fits with his psychological issues.

I finished chapters 1 through 6 this week, and I’ve already begun the work of gradually showing the character as likeable in his behavior and his actions.  I can’t wait for Monday and more revision work….