Monday, June 6, 2016

Hole 4: Keeping Your Characters on Par and Writing Against Type


Creating realistic and compelling characters requires layering. In this series on Keeping a Character on Course Through a story, we've talked about stake, distinction, and world view, so let's turn now to talking about writing against type.

We've all heard the phrase, "There are two types of people in this world...[fill in the blank here] and a writer's goal is to create people who don't fit into this binary or any stereotype that limits people's understanding of others.

Not every construction worker will sit on a beam, eating lunch, and whistling at "lookers" as they walk by. While construction is a draw to folks who like hands-on experience with visible results, the type of person who wants to do that work varies wildly based on class, gender, faith, ethnicity, and a thousand other variables. How is your construction worker different than others?

Is she a woman who creates industrial inspired sculptures from work site scraps? A man who performs in an improv group on the weekends? A Mohawk grandson of one of the men who helped build the Empire State Building.  Is he struggling with a fear of heights and the knowledge that the world says Mohawks don't have such fears?

Getting a Little Theoretical:

There's a concept called "radical multiculturalism" which suggests that the only way to end discrimination is through the intentional deconstruction of the concept of the 'other' by viewing all cultures through an emic perspective."  Seeing cultures that are not our own as they see themselves requires understanding them and that means reading their stories and their history and getting to know as many people from as many backgrounds as possible.

Going Cross-Cultural:

As an author, it also means doing extensive research before creating characters from cultures that are not our own. Keep in mind, we do that every time we write. I've written about men, but I'm a woman. I've written about children and I haven't been a child in far too long. Writing cross-culturally doesn't just mean crossing ethnic lines.  I encourage people to cross all kinds of cultural boundaries with respect, honarable intent, and an open mind.

Here's a great blog by Molly Henning on resources for writing cross-culturally
10 Great Resources on Writing Cross-Culturally

Writing Against Type:

When it comes to writing against type:

1.Know the type. If you're creating a particular type of character, be conscious of how that type of person is often portrayed in literature, film, and humor and break the mold for that type.

2. Be aware of your own preconceived notions about a particular type of person. If you don't explore your own ideas about people, you'll act upon misconceptions without fully realizing it.

3. Learn about real people in that role. As a geek with zero athletic ability, I didn't have a high opinion of athletes, so I learned about athletes like Bobbi Gibb and Katherine Switzer, the two women who broke the mold and showed the world that women could run in the Boston Marthon. Gibb ran in 1966 by joining the race after the starting line because they wouldn't allow women to register. Katherine registered without declaring her gender in 1967.  Here's more about her run in her own words:

1967 Boston Marathon, the Real Story

These athletes like so many that I have known have demonstrated the heart, discipline, and individuality that go into being an athlete.

4. Be Genuine. In going against type, don't do it just to do it. Allow the unique qualities of the person to rise organically out of realistic life experiences.

5.  Be Complex.  Allow characters, even if they are  a secondary or a background player in the story, to be layered and complex. What makes them unique? How can you bring that out in economic ways. Patricia McLachlan, the author of the critically acclaimed [book:Sarah, Plain and Tall|106264] is a master at economic character development by giving them defining actions and characteristics.

How do you go against type in your own writing?

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A Character's Course Through a Story--Hole 3: Creating World View

Establishing your character's view of the world is such important part of making your character distinctive, it's a figurative "hole of it's own" in this golf course of character development we're walking through this summer. 

I also realized that readers will have to do a lot less scrolling, if I posted each "hole" of this course in separate blog.

World view is the way your character uniquely views the world s/he lives in and the more unique and nuanced you can make this world view, the more real your character seems. Junie B. Jones entirely kid-centric, totally Junie way of seeing things has made those books an international success because of her own unique, but totally relatable way of looking at the world. 

Showing the Readers The World "Anew"

Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life points out that authors need to recognize that choosing to be a writer is also saying that they have something to show the world they might not see on their own. When we write about life, we should do so with the knowledge that we need to help people see the world they live in "anew"--as if it is new to them.

Unique character world view is one way to do that. In my own work, I have characters who often have world views that are askew from those around them. In 1930s Louisiana, Nissa Bergen has a mama who crosses the color line, the gender line, nearly every other line she finds-- a free spirit, she refuses to bow to social customs. Nissa is her own girl as well, when her best friend, Mary Carroll intends to go flower picking in a dress wearing perfume, Nissa wants to know if Mary wants every wing flapping bug in the parrish to be tormenting them because perfume is just a nasty smelling bug attractor to her--not the typical feminine view.

Just as each writer should learn unique ways to describe ordinary things, they should be able to look at the world from a unique set of eyes and be able to look at the world through the eyes of each of their characters, even if they don't like the view. 

Seeing the World Through A Character's Eyes

Acting theory is a great way to learn more about how to see things from a character perspective. Screenwriters and fellow authors can also be helpful in this regard. Here's a recent article from the Huffington Post that might be helpful:

5 Ways Writers Can Get into the Minds of Their Characters

But let me offer an exercise that can limber up your literary mind reading skills. Go to a public place with a lot of traffic and pay attention without being intrusive. Notice how people reveal what they think of the world by the way they dress, what they eat, what they read, and how they carry themselves. 

If you see someone reading, try to imagine what they think of what they're reading based on the material, their appearance, and their body language, then ask for their opinion. 

Ask three different people what they think of a movie? A type of weather? A historical figure to notice how they express their world view differently.

This type of exercise hones your skills and allows you to internalize the way that each person exhibits a unique view of the world.

How do you get into the mindset of your characters?