Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Back to Basics

One of the first things you learn in writing workshops is that characters should change (or the reader’s perception should somehow be changed by something that is revealed in the story). Rules are meant to be challenged, but sometimes if your writing isn’t connecting at the level you want it to, it helps to get back to basics.

Character change can be obvious. Your character can be alive at the beginning of the story and dead by the end. But that’s not the type of change we really mean. We are looking for internal change. Master teacher Jerry Stern used to refer to a story where nothing changes as a “zero-to-zero” story. But, but, we would complain, there are plenty of changes. Look at the body count! Body count? You can get that in any newspaper. He meant a deeper and more profound change.

In terms of pure entertainment, you will not always see change. Lucy and Ricky are Lucy and Ricky from beginning to end. But in transformative writing, change of some kind comes with the territory. We look for it in novels, short stories, essays, and memoirs. What did you or the character learn? What did you overcome? How did you find the strength to overcome it? If it’s too easy, we won’t be interested. We want characters who face real challenges. Sometimes we writers like to protect our characters. We don’t want to put them in harm’s way. We’re like overprotective parents who won’t let our children ride a bicycle for fear they’ll skin a knee.

Harry Potter is a classic example of a character that is required to face challenges and to overcome them. Think of how he grows in strength, power, and maturity over the course of those seven books and the enormous obstacles both external and internal that he must overcome. Look at any short story or essay you love, and you’ll most likely find a turning point somewhere in the narrative -- a shift, a light shining where before there had been darkness. It may be quite subtle but it will be there.

We read for insight into the human condition. If our characters (or ourselves) start out as all-wise, all-knowing, all-loving, then where can they go from there? Well, you can disabuse them of their naive notions and turn them into raving cynics, which isn’t a bad way to go. At least it’s some sort of change.

In transformative writing, we go into the dark places. We linger in them. You cannot perform real alchemy without doing so. In fiction, we do this exploration through a character. We must allow our characters to have a shadow side. Integration of the shadow, facing the shadow, embracing the shadow: these are all ways our characters (and ourselves, by extension) grow. In my memoir, I had to show the parts of me that weren’t so pretty. If there is no crime, there can be no redemption.

Even Mahatma Gandhi had a less than savory side. He apparently liked to sleep naked with very young women (a grandniece in one case) to test his willpower. Of course, those involuntary emissions he experienced were cause for concern.

One of my favorite exercises to do in a workshop is one I call “Confessional Booth” or “The Trial.” First, make a list of your various selves. Then choose a self that you don’t often let come out of the closet and let it speak to us, let it tell it’s side of the story.

Here’s an example from that exercise by writer Roberta Burton:

You say I'm crazy. You tell me I did not see you beat the child who stands before you. You tell me I did not have welts on my legs from the switchings. You tell me I did not see you throw out the burning pot. You tell me I did not feel sad, angry or sick. You tell me you never experienced anger. You tell me I do not want the down comforter I requested for Christmas. You tell me I have always wanted the moon; that if you gave me a car, I would want a credit card for gas. You tell me I cannot have an education because my brothers will use theirs instead. Then you tell me never to talk about what goes on in our house. I am not crazy. I will show you. I will become a therapist so I can talk about what goes on in families. I will become a therapist so I can recognize your neuroses and even your addiction that I didn't see as a child. I am not crazy. I am the one holding the keys.

Now that’s taking a look into the shadow. And there’s a foundation for a story in that little exercise.

So try the exercise above if you’re exploring ways to create character change. Here are a few other exercises to try:

1. Of course, we draw on life for our writing. So write about a time of change in your life. But don’t just skim it. Get into the very moment and bring in every detail. What did you see, hear, feel, etc? If you can’t remember it, make it up. Linger in that pivotal moment and use images to help us get it.

2. Look closely at a short story or essay that you especially admire. Was there an internal change? Can you identify it? What concrete details were used to symbolize the change?

3. Write a story about a first. First kiss, first date, first fight, first time you realized your parents were flawed -- or conversely the first time you realized your parents were somehow noble.

Always, always take your time. Write slowly, let the details fall into place.

1 comment:

  1. The exercise above is one that I really enjoy doing in my writing and it probably some of the best advice that I have ever received.
    I used to write when I was younger all the time but then I just quit. I have recently just picked back up on it but was struggling. This has helped me turn back on that creative flow that I have been missing for years.