Friday, January 17, 2014

How Writers Reveal a Character through "Container"--The Environment of a Story

A memoirist was trying to write about the sadness she felt at her father’s death.  Her writer’s group gave her unexpected feedback:  while it was clear she was very sad, when they heard her speak of his death, her feelings on the page were abstract, hard to really grasp. 

“They don’t feel any of the sadness I feel,” she told me.  She cried when she wrote, so this confused her.  

When I read the chapter in our next online class together, I too noticed how distant the writing felt.  My take-away was an almost-intellectual sorrow, a wistfulness, rather than any strong emotion.

A very intelligent woman, this writer worked as a psychologist.  She knew people, she understood how they ticked.  But she hid her “character,” herself, behind her thoughtful prose, rather than revealing it. 
   
Tricks to Reveal Character
The memoirist tried different ways of bringing herself to life on the page without telling the emotion she was trying for.  She described sensations in her physical body, her gestures, her action and dialogue.  She focused on herself as an external person would see her, and this helped a lot.

But it was only when she began to work with “container,” the environment where the scene takes place, that her character opened up on the page.  In surprising ways, that actually surprised her too-and taught her more about her own grieving process.

Because it acts like a mirror to reflect back the character’s inner and outer workings, container is a stellar way to let readers feel more emotion on the page.
Container Reflects Who Your Character Is
Look around the room where you’re sitting right now.  If it’s your home or office or car, it’ll probably reflect something about you:  your choices made manifest in color, shape, texture; in photographs or art; in order or disarray; in music choices and food; even in the temperature you’re most comfortable at.

Readers clue in to container almost unconsciously.  We look to it to tell us more about this person on the page, and whether we should invest.


Outer Container Comes First
Most writing classes discuss setting, the outer container.  Setting is revealed through the five senses:  sight, sound, taste, touch (texture and temperature), and smell.  Readers want to immediately know the time of day or night, where we are in a room or garden or other specific location, how the light falls on an object or a wall or someone's arm, what smells and sounds surround us.

Many writers omit these details, thinking they slow down the prose.  Bad call.  These sensory details are the main transporters of emotion for a reader.

Imagine a play set on a blank stage--no backdrop, no furniture, no atmosphere. OK, maybe nothing is an atmosphere, but only if the actors are very talented and can create something from that nothing. It's much easier for the audience to perceive, say, an 1850s interior farmhouse if there are furnishings and a woodstove and windows with eyelet curtains.

Same in your story. Outer container is shown via your surroundings, what your narrator notices. It's transmitted to a reader most easily via the five senses: smell, sound, taste, touch, sight. And it's best done without interpretation, no qualifiers, nobody telling us what the sights mean.     

We engage most when we can "be" in the place you're describing and make up our own minds.