Tag Archives: creating characters

How to Play “This I Believe” with Your Characters

25 Jul

Owen Egerton’s novel Hollow, according to a NPR review, contains “the kind of grace not usually seen in accessible modern fiction.”

A few years ago, National Public Radio ran a series called “This I Believe.” People, some famous and some not, wrote short essays about their beliefs. It was fascinating because of the weight that we give to those three words. To go public and say “I believe ____” is much different from saying, “I think ___.” We associate the word beliefs with something deeply held and essential to the decisions we make every day. Beliefs are not easily changed, and when they challenged, the internal crisis we feel can leave us distraught.

As writers, we can use our characters’ beliefs against them for gripping results. Owen Egerton offers a perfect demonstration of this in his new novel Hollow. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a crisis of faith experienced by Oliver Bonds, a beloved religious studies professor at the University of Texas. After his son dies, his life unravels until he is nearly homeless, his only friend a man who wants to join an expedition to the North Pole to discover an entrance to the Hollow Earth. In this passage, Bonds describes his belief system before his son died:

I believed I believed nothing.

It wasn’t true.

I believed, without ever saying it, that the world was basically good. I believed moral behavior was rewarded by the world. I believed cruelty to be its own kind of punishment. And though I never would have admitted it to anyone, least of all myself, I believed that the most horrible things don’t really happen.

I saw the photos of typhoons drowning entire villages or genocidal wars. Monthly I tithed to charities aiming to end modern slavery or encourage basic health care in poorer nations. But in some deep secret way, I didn’t believe in these tragedies. They were distant, unreal, fantastic. Or, worse, I believed I simply didn’t see the bigger picture, the vague grander scheme that explained these tragedies.

I had one over-arching belief, so basic to my life that I never felt the need to distinguish it as a belief any more than a person would count the sun’s heat as an article of faith. I believed the world made sense.

Clearly, the passage lays out his beliefs, but what makes it really interesting is the phrase “I believed, without ever saying it…” We probably all hold beliefs that are both too important and too fragile to articulate to others or ourselves. We’re afraid to speak them aloud because we know there are arguments against them, and we worry not just that someone might make us look foolish but that we might not hold the belief as firmly as we thought.

Those are the soft points that, as writers, we must press hard upon. And Egerton does, to devastating and thrilling effect.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s clearly state a character’s beliefs, using Hollow by Owen Egerton as a model:

  1. Start with the easy beliefs. It’s pretty difficult to immediately jump into something as sensitive as our most deeply held beliefs. You’re not likely to share your own with a random person, and neither are our characters. So, don’t make them. Instead, let your characters talk about their beliefs about basic elements of their lives: their partners, kids, friends, jobs, schools, hobbies, etc. Get them talking. This is a brainstorming exercise, and so let your characters say whatever they want—whether it’s in first person or if you’re saying it for them in third person.
  2. Push on those beliefs a little. Try using this sentence starter: “I don’t usually tell people this, but I sometimes wonder if…” You can also change the pronouns to the third person. You’re searching for a belief that is the equivalent of a friends-only Facebook post, something that might require a personal connection to fully understand or that the speaker might not want perfect strangers to know. You can try something embarrassing or funny or whatever. You’re playing, so don’t overthink it.
  3. Keep going until you find yourself feeling uncomfortable. Your character is most likely not you, nor even some version of you. But you should still pay attention to your own comfort level. We’re often made uncomfortable by people revealing things that we, personally, are fine with, but we sense that they are not and so we begin to cringe. If something you write makes you cringe, even a little, follow it.
  4. Use the belief against your character. Oliver Bonds believes that the world is basically good and sensible, and so Egerton challenges him with something awful and senseless. How will he respond? What will he do? This is the basis of the entire novel.

The goal is to discover your story’s plot by finding out what your characters believe and introducing elements that make those beliefs seem untenable.

Good luck.

How to Create “People Like You”

28 Mar

Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s debut novel, Everything Belongs to Us, was called “a Gatsby-esque takedown, full of memorable characters” by the New York Times Book Review.

In real life, we often fall into an “us and them” mentality and then struggle to break free from the restrictive stereotypes that inevitably result. Some of these “us and them” traps are so clear that we have names for them: racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia. But just because we avoid these (or try to) doesn’t mean that we don’t succumb to others, even in small ways. As the great writer Barry Hannah once told a class of students, “There are two types of people in the world: Those who like the movie Rocky and those who do not.” While this is, on its surface, a far less serious “us and them” binary than, say, racism, anyone who’s gotten involved in a heated argument about aesthetics knows that they can quickly escalate. In life, that’s bad. In fiction, though, it’s good.

A great example of using an “us and them” binary to create character and story can be found in Yoojin Grace Wuertz’s novel Everything Belongs to Us. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

The novel follows childhood friends who are now college students in South Kora in 1978.  Jisun’s father is a wealthy businessman, and Namin’s family runs a food cart. They both want to resist the dominant political system, which reinforces their inequality, but they take different approaches. Namin studies hard in order to get a good job, and Jisun pretends to be a factory worker in order to organize the workers in protests. In one of these protests, she gets arrested, but then the police realize who her father is and publicly pull her out of the jail cell and away from her fellow protesters. In this scene, she goes to visit Namin at home, and they get into an argument about how they spend their time:

“So go ahead, spend your life marching and shouting slogans,” Namin had said. “But I can’t. I need this. People rely on me, you know.”

“And you think no one relies on me?”

“Who, Jisun?” she’d said. “Who relies on you? You have no responsibilities! Everything’s always been given to you.”

Jisun had actually stamped her foot like a child throwing a tantrum, raising a low cloud of dust over the courtyard. “No responsibilities?” she’d shouted. “Who do you think I’m doing this for? Why should I work so hard when people like you don’t even appreciate it?”

“‘People like me’?” Namin had shouted, too, forgetting to keep her voice down. The neighbors could repeat this argument word for word in the market for all she cared. “‘People like me,’ you mean, who are helpless, who need big, powerful champions like you to fight their battles? Is that what you think you’re doing? Let me get this straight. Do you actually expect me to be grateful?”

The passage starts with Namin describing how Jisun spends her time, but it’s not simply a factual statement. It’s charged: “So go ahead, spend your life marching and shouting slogans.” Then they get to the heart of the matter: why they do what they do. Who they do it for. And that’s when Jisun breaks out the phrase that changes everything: “people like you.” Notice that it only appears when she’s been challenged—when her motives for something she cares about deeply enough to go to jail get challenged. The relationship has been transformed in ways that will drive the story forward.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s create an “us and them” binary, using Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz as a model:

  1. Start with an unlikely relationship. Almost every sitcom starts with one: two or more people who are friends/family/coworkers despite seemingly unresolvable differences. In Everything Belongs to Us, the differences revolve around class. They could be anything, but in this novel, in South Korea in 1978, class is a major point of conflict. So, if you don’t yet have your characters in mind, look around the world you want to inhabit. What issues are people fighting over? What are the sides of the argument? Give each of your characters a different side.
  2. Put one of the characters in trouble. The scene starts after Jisun has been 1) arrested and 2) revealed as wealthy in the midst of working-class protesters. Things are not going great for her, which means it’s a great time to put her in scene. Characters (and people) who are stressed tend to act out or without thinking, which is almost requisite to create plot and tension. What sort of trouble has your character gotten into?
  3. Let the other character belittle that trouble. Namin’s response to the arrest is to suggest that protesting isn’t a good idea in the first place. Even worse, she does it in a condescending tone: “So go ahead, spend your life marching and shooting slogans.” It doesn’t matter if she’s right. What matters is that it makes a stressed character want to act out, which she does. So, how can you use tone and dialogue to allow one character to diminish another character’s situation?
  4. Break out the binary. Jisun says, “People like you.” She could have added, “The trouble with…” and it would have fit perfectly. So, try this. Let the character whose trouble has been belittled respond with a statement that begins with “The trouble with people like you…” What does “people like you” mean in the particular circumstances of your story? It’s a statement that automatically leads to conflict. No one ever gets confronted with “people like you” and shrugs it off. Those are fighting words, so let them fight and reveal the tensions that inherently exist between the characters.

The goal is to create tension and story by putting one character in trouble and having another character challenge and belittle that trouble.

Good luck.

Create an Emotional Backdrop for Your Characters

6 Sep
Hannah Petard's novel, Listen to Me, was a New York Times "Editors' Choice" and a Washington Post "Best Summer Thriller."

Hannah Petard’s novel, Listen to Me, was a New York Times “Editors’ Choice” and a Washington Post “Best Summer Thriller.”

Most of us have had this experience: we’re upset about something and chew it over in our minds, over and over, becoming dead certain about the rightness of our feelings and thoughts—and then we share them with someone. Suddenly, we understand how wrong and ugly our thoughts have become, perhaps as soon as they leave our mouths or maybe not until the other person puts us in our place. If we’re lucky, our ugly thoughts are about someone or something not present, and we feel relieved: “Whew, I’m glad I said this here instead of out in public.” If we’re not lucky, our ugly thoughts are directed at the person we’re talking to. In that case, our lives are about to get unpleasant. When it happens in fiction though, the drama is about to get interesting.

This is exactly what Hannah Pittard does in her novel, Listen to Me. A review in The Washington Post said, “You won’t put this story down… Pittard is operating at a level few writers attain.” You can read an excerpt here.

How the Novel Works

The novel is about a married couple, Mark and Maggie, who take a trip to visit his parents in the midst of some marital strife. It begins as they get ready to leave and focuses on the small things that must be done: taking out the trash, walking the dog, packing the car. The chores, of course, are also the sort of things unhappy couples argue about, and so each one provides an opportunity for either Mark or Maggie to think about their partner’s failings. One of those internal monologues goes like this:

Maggie had an excuse for her behavior, but it was getting old. It was getting old in part because she’d been getting better. The symptoms now felt disproportionate to the cause. Like, for instance, Patricia Hatchett, who was also in the History Department, had lost a baby last year, and Mark wasn’t the only one to notice that she looked better these days than ever. He’d heard she was considering a run for chair, for Christ’s sake. It embarrassed Mark that his wife had become a completely different person just because she’d been mugged. Strike that—because someone they didn’t even know had been murdered. But what was becoming more and more apparent—and this wasn’t a happy or an easy realization—was that Mark was spending his life with one of the world’s weaklings: the type of person who gets diagnosed with cancer and, instead of going outside and taking on life, gets in bed and waits for the inevitable. He’d expected more from Maggie. My god, he’d expected so much more.

This is some pretty ugly stuff: “one of the world’s weaklings” and using someone else’s tragedy (lost a baby) to justify his own self-righteousness. It might be tempting to write something like this as dialogue, to just come out with it and turn the ugly thoughts into a full-on fight. The problem with doing that, though, is that it doesn’t leave many options for going forward. Once you call your spouse a weakling and compare them unfavorably to cancer patients, the dice have been thrown, so to speak. By making these thoughts simply that—thoughts—Pittard has created an emotional backdrop to everything that Mark says or does, which is almost certainly less awful than the backdrop. This creates tension: we know those ugly thoughts are lurking, waiting to get out, and so as the novel’s plot escalates, we worry about what Mark will do when pushed or stressed too far.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s  create an emotional backdrop for a character, using Hannah Petard’s novel, Listen to ME, as a model:

  1. Give your character something to mentally grouse about. Mark is upset with his wife’s behavior after getting mugged. Forget, for a moment, how unfair his reaction might be. The truth in life is that people are often selfish and we manage to maintain relationships and find happiness because we minimize and make amends for our selfish acts. But that doesn’t mean anyone is perfect. So, let your character lash out selfishly—in the privacy of his or her head. The character can be upset with something out in the world (the cable company, a professional sports team, immigrants) or with something that he or she actually encounters: a spouse, family member, coworker, or neighbor. What irritates your character?
  2. Establish why this person/thing irritates your character. This is probably the selfish part. Mark is irritated with Maggie because she’s become less enjoyable to be around. Her reaction to being mugged has interrupted their lives together. But, again, forget whether your character is being fair or not. By letting your character think selfishly, you are, in part, creating an aspect of that character’s self, something the character wants badly to protect.
  3. Let your character compare the irritant to something better. Mark believes that his coworker, Patricia Hatchett, has responded to difficulty in a better way. He’s thinking, in different words, “Look at So-and-So. Is she (acting like you)? No, she’s (what’s she’s doing instead).” This is something that people tend to do when they’re unhappy—they go in search, mentally or physically, of something to justify their unhappiness. What comparison would your character make? Who is the So-and-So in your character’s version of “Look at So-and-So?”
  4. Let your character compare the irritant to something bad (in your character’s view). Mark compares Maggie to a cancer patient who sits at home, waiting to die. Clearly, he thinks this is a bad thing. It’s really just a straw man that Mark has created, a manifestation of his own ideas. That’s why he doesn’t give a name to the cancer patient—as anyone who’s seen cancer knows, the details can get in the way of how we believe a person ought to react. He’s basically saying a version of “You’re like someone who (does something theoretically awful like stealing candy from a baby or eating the last slice of pie without sharing).” Obviously, I’m a fan of pie and so that’s something that I might say. What would your character say? How would you character fill in the blank of his or version of “You’re like someone who ____”?

The goal is to create the emotional backdrop for a character, the worst-case version of his or her feelings on a subject. This backdrop gives readers a sense for how far a character might go in a dramatic moment.

Good luck.

An Interview with Anthony Abboreno

10 Oct
Anthony Abboreno's story "Filler" was published at American Short Fiction.

Anthony Abboreno’s story “Filler” was published at American Short Fiction.

Anthony Abboreno is currently pursuing a PhD in Literature and Fiction Writing at the University of Southern California. In 2008, he earned a Master’s in the same subjects at the University of Southern Mississippi. He has work forthcoming in Reunion: The Dallas Review.

In this interview, Aborreno discusses organic surprise vs goofball chaos in character creation, how to begin a story, and whether present tense is the root of all storytelling evil (hint: he says it’s not).

(To read Abboreno’s story “Filler” and an exercise based on the story’s character development, click here.)

Michael Noll

I love the description of the daughter’s eating habits:

“She is a foodie, we would say: maybe she’ll be a chef. But the real issue was not whether she would be a chef, but the galaxy of other things that taste in food implied. She was going to be cultured and smart. She would never have to stand at the edges of a crowd and feel uncomfortable. She would always have something witty to say, and she would never be lonely, and neither would we.”

The passage captures so well the way that parents’ hopes for their children (and for themselves) color even basic observations. It’s also a great demonstration of how characters are built using the smallest details. I’m curious how you approached this description and, in general, how you created the characters in the story. Did you have a sense of them in your head from the beginning and find details that matched? Or did a detail occur to you that helped you to imagine the characters?

Anthony Abboreno

In general, I would say a little of both. I have a rough sense of characters when I first introduce them to a story, I think, but my ideas sharpen as I introduce details, or write the characters in a scene. For me, I seem to have the most success creating lively characters when I allow the writing to shape them a little spontaneously: for me, what makes a piece of fiction or a fictional character seem alive is that small element of surprise. When a person says or does something that doesn’t quite fit your preconceptions, but when you look at the context that led up to it, and the consequences that come from it, it all makes sense. The second part of that formula–the consequences–is especially crucial, I think, and is how you avoid things seeming totally random, or (heaven forbid), quirky.

The only way I know how to strike that balance–organic surprise vs goofball chaos–is to start with a rough image, but allow things to shape themselves as I write. If I allow myself to feel surprise as I write, and I follow through on that surprise, usually it works for the reader too. If I plan too much, I get bored with the writing, things start to feel contrived, and then the reader is usually bored as well.

Michael Noll

I was reading a few stories by a writer the other day and noticed that each story started immediately in scene: washing dishes in the kitchen or at a table in a restaurant. Your story doesn’t do this. It begins with the description of the daughter–and it’s a large-frame description, not one focused on the daughter in a particular moment in time but rather a facet of her personality. Did the story always begin this way? Or did you find the beginning through revision?

Anthony Abboreno

The story always began that way. It seems relevant to mention that I originally wrote this story for a workshop assignment, where I was supposed to bring in something around four pages–I knew the story couldn’t be too long. I had an idea that I wanted the story to traverse a large span of time, but I wanted all of that time to pivot around the key scene with the lobsters. The only way I knew how to do that in such a small space was to include some generalized description, and so I started with that.

If I were writing a much longer piece–something Alice Munro length, or even a novel–I might have tried to begin with more in-scene writing, but I’m not sure that the lobster incident could hold a longer piece. In general, I try to write as much in scene as possible: if I catch myself writing a lot of broad description in a first draft, it sometimes means I am dawdling because I don’t want to engage with the gross unpredictability of people doing and feeling things. The stories that result, if I let myself do that for too long, are usually pretty dull, and nothing happens in them. At the same time, however, sometimes a little generality is just the right way to go. The key for me, I think, is not to let it go on for too long. You don’t want to spend more time setting a scene than making a scene.

When I was a little kid, we had a bunch of car tires in the backyard that I could play with. My Dad would get annoyed throwing a baseball with me, because I always wanted to spend more time picking out which tire was going to be the catcher, or first baseman, or whatever, than throwing the actual ball. That made the game more interesting for me. But you want to make sure you don’t waste the whole afternoon picking car tires.

Michael Noll

The story’s main scene is told in present tense. I once heard a well-known editor say that stories should never be told that way. Obviously, you don’t agree–and, clearly, your story is successful. Did you ever question your use of present-tense? Did you try out any other ways of writing the scene with the lobsters?

Anthony Abboreno

I like the present tense. For one thing, it suits many of the characters and situations that I am interested in–occasions when people are self-aware, but maybe not as much as they should be, and impulsive action overtakes reasoned action. At times like these, consequences are only recognized later, if at all. The unpredictability of present tense–the sense that anything could happen because things have not yet happened–suits this type of situation, I think, and it’s why I used it in the scene with the lobsters.

My understanding of the anti-present-tense stance is that it creates stories that don’t engage with time in a measured enough way; that the stories which result blow past quickly without enough time for reflection. But that’s how life is experienced, much of the time, and there is a sadness in that that is worth capturing.

Michael Noll

You’re a PhD student in Literature and Fiction Writing at USC. The PhD in creative writing is a relatively new, but fast-growing, option in creative writing graduate studies. How is it different from your Master’s experience? What went into your decision to pursue a PhD?

Anthony Abboreno

A few things went into my decision to getting a PhD. For one thing, I would like to make my living as a teacher someday, and the PhD seemed like a way to make myself more competitive on an increasingly competitive market. I was tired of being an adjunct.

But it was mostly, to be honest, a way to get myself some more instruction and time to develop as a writer. I rushed into my Master’s program a little, almost straight from undergrad, and while I learned a lot, I think I could have gotten more out of it if I had been a little older, or more mature (of course, that’s hindsight, always). The PhD is a chance to give that another shot.

You know, since there isn’t much of a paying market for stories, landing a graduate fellowship is the only opportunity most beginning writers have to live off their fiction, and get a lot of useful feedback on it. You want to use that opportunity wisely, and take as much advantage of it as you can. I’ve done this whole thing on fellowship, and I am extremely grateful.

In terms of the coursework, it’s not terribly different–maybe more advanced. My MA was a split MA, with some measure of critical and creative writing involved, as was my BA, so I’ve balanced both sides, always. My understanding, talking to people who have received MFAs that were specifically in creative writing, is that they did relatively little critical writing in their programs. But I like the critical side! Sometimes literary criticism is very helpful in informing the craft of writing, and sometimes it isn’t, but it’s another enjoyable way of experiencing and talking about books. That’s the main thing writing stories or essays is really about, for me: enjoying fiction so much that I want to find new and better ways of enjoying it.

October 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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