Friday, October 30, 2020

Writing Real-Life Characters: How to Get to Know the People You Already Know

I got an email from one of the students in my last online Afternoon Character Intensive. Since the workshop, he'd had a mini-breakthrough about his memoir--specifically the cast of characters he's trying to include. His mixed-up, even dangerous, family history means the players onstage are very individual, with quirks and tendencies. But he knew them so well, he'd not written that individuality onto the page.

It was hard enough coming to terms with their effect in his life. He wanted to write what happened, not who done it.

But he also knew that characters in memoir must be memorable--as memorable as those in a good novel--for readers to really grasp their importance and impact.

As he worked on one of the charts we use in the class to track key character arcs (growth of different characters who matter to the story), the breakthrough came.

The chart asked certain questions I've found very helpful in writing characters. Beyond appearance into physical habits, tics, gestures. Then into longings and fears. And much more. As my student completed the chart during the Zoom class and got feedback later in his breakout group, he realized why certain people in his memoir appeared "flat."

"I know them so well," he said, "but I didn't realize how much I was leaving out for the reader." We know them, yes, so we writers omit the obvious (to us) because it's boring, difficult to write about, not important, or [fill in the reason]. But the reader is left in the dark. "I didn't know how much I was leaving my characters open for guesswork by the reader," my student said.

If the reader has to guess, if they have trouble picturing the person, if the character isn't different from other characters, they don't care about that person in the story. If the writer can bypass his or her "knowing" of the person and treat them as a stranger, they begin to bring in the qualities that cause reaction and engagement by the reader.

Because what's obvious to us, because of our long history with this person, is never obvious to the reader.

You can get this insight via feedback. Writer's groups, writing partners, agents, and editors are all helpful at pointing out what characters feel invisible or undeveloped. I'd suggest learning the same writing techniques that fiction writers use, though, as a first step. Not make stuff up about your familiars, but present them with the same vividness and uniqueness.

Fiction writers study this, they know it's part of their craft. Memoir writers could benefit from it too.

Here are some easy techniques to try:

1. Pretend you're a reporter assigned to interview this person. Imagine asking your character questions--about things you know and take for granted or don't know. Write down the answers you get without second guessing them. Sometimes this taps into subconscious memory and things emerge that are helpful to your book.

2. Check out these character questionnaires from novelists. Spend time with them--you might be surprised at what you've omitted from your writing that winds up on the questionnaire. Consider where you might add the details you discover.

Good resources for Character Questionnaires

Writers Write

The Novel Factory

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