Tag Archives: Karen Russell

4 Strategies for Creating Compelling Characters

23 Jan

“An indispensable book that belongs on every serious writer’s desk.” Buy the book here.

Last week, Austin experienced two days of real winter, which meant my 6 and 8-year-olds had no school. Because it was cold and icy, playing outside wasn’t any fun, so we did what anyone would do: watched movies and built medieval siege equipment out of pencils. They both really wanted to watch Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, but I didn’t feel like explaining all of the sex jokes, so instead I introduced them to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc. I hadn’t seen the movie since I was a kid, and so I was surprised at how corny it is. It wasn’t just the special effects (skeletons that look like Halloween decorations); the plot is pretty silly as well. But that didn’t matter. The movie holds up, and my kids loved it, because Harrison Ford creates a captivating character. We would have watched him in any movie—and throughout the 80s and 90s, American audiences did.

The movie was a reminder that if you can create a great character, the rest of the story often falls into place. Or, at the very least, the story gets easier to tell.

You can find four exercises designed to create captivating characters in The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction. They exercises are inspired by excerpts from two novels and two stories: the novels The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales and Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older and the stories “My Views on the Darkness” by Ben Marcus and “Proving Up” by Karen Russell.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide here.

A Short Preview of the Exercises

Each excerpt is accompanied by an essay on the craft within it and an exercise for adapting the strategies to your own work. Here are the first steps in each exercise:

Create Characters with a Single, Definitive Trait, inspired by The Regional Office Is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

  1. GIVE YOUR CHARACTER A DEFINING TRAIT. It can be something physical like size, hair color, or an odd body part; in Homer’s Odyssey, the Cyclops, as everyone remembers, has one eye. You can make the trait behavioral: a tic or disorder (as in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), a pattern of behavior (laughing at the worst moments), or a temperament (rage, kindness). You can also use a piece of clothing or accessory; everyone knows that the Monopoly man has a cane and top hat.

 

Make Your Characters Into Something New, inspired by Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older

  1. IDENTIFY THE TYPE OF CHARACTER. It’s no secret that characters fall into types: heroes/villains, protagonists/antagonists, detectives/ criminals, butt-kickers/butt-kickees, and lovers/love interests. Think about the role your character plays. Is she the one going on a trip? The stranger coming to town? For just a moment, think about your story in terms of those outlines we’re all familiar with. Which one are you writing?

 

Define Your Character’s Emotional Response to Conflict, inspired by “My Views on the Darkness” by Ben Marcus

  1. SKETCH THE OUTLINES OF THE CHARACTER’S CONFLICT. Marcus’s story uses the genre of apocalypse. People on earth are dying in seemingly large numbers. Not much else is revealed—and we don’t need much else. People are dying, and the living are searching for ways to survive. That’s the conflict. So, begin by stating your story’s own conflict in a sentence or two: _____ is happening, and this causes ____ to happen. This structure works for intimate conflicts as well as apocalyptic ones:

X had an affair, so Y ____.
X got sick, so Y ____.
X owed me money, so I ____.
X fell in love with Y, and Y _____.
X did ___, and so her best friend Y ____.

 

Generate Tension by Giving Characters Unequal Access to an Object of Desire, inspired by “Proving Up” by Karen Russell

  1. IDENTIFY THE OBJECT OF DESIRE. The object is often named in the title: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Lord of the Rings, The Goldfinch. Or the object is implied by the genre: love, vengeance, the solution of a mystery. In most cases, the object is set before a character as a prize, but it’s only over time that the object gains personal importance to the character. This is especially true in mysteries: someone gives the detective a job, and at some point, that job becomes personal. (Sometimes there’s even a line: “Now it’s personal!”). So, even if the object seems a bit dry at the start, you’re at least giving yourself something to work with, a direction to point your character in.

 

Put these strategies to use, and you may have the next Indiana Jones at your fingertips.

Good luck.

You can pre-order The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction here.

 

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An Interview with Kelly Luce

2 May
Kelly Luce's debut collection of stories will be released in October by A Strange Object.

Kelly Luce’s debut collection of stories, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, will be released in October by A Strange Object.

Not many writer biographies can go toe-to-toe with the condensed history of Kelly Luce: She once attended a fiction seminar in Bulgaria, she was the writer-in-residence at the house where Jack Kerouac lived while writing Dharma Bums, and her forthcoming collection of stories has the knockout title Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaka Grows a Tail.

In this interview, Luce discusses first sentences, the challenge of finding the right publisher, and books that make her say, “Oh! Oohhhhh!”

Michael Noll

The story has a perfect first sentence: simple, yet absolutely essential to the story. It accomplishes in seven words what some writers spend paragraphs doing: creating and then breaking a routine in order to find where the story begins. What was your approach to writing this opening?

Kelly Luce

It’s funny; when I read this question I thought about the first sentence (“Since Rooey died, I’m no longer myself.”) and felt sure that it had been there since the start, from draft one. It seems like such an obvious opening. Maybe too obvious, you know? Then I dug up my early drafts. After having a drink to brace myself, I was able to face them…and I discovered that that line didn’t show up until draft 7. I don’t remember what the process was like that brought me to write it. Maybe this is a testament to how hard it is to put into words what is simple and true.

Michael Noll

Very early in the story, this paragraph appears:

“Here’s a story: two people are in trouble and the wrong one dies. There’s been a cosmic mix-up, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it, and they all live sadly ever after. The end.”

I love this paragraph because of its speed. The distance between “two people are in trouble” and “the wrong one dies” is vast—an entire story lies in between—and yet the paragraph doesn’t bother with any of that. It keeps rushing along, moving from the comedy (in the Shakespearean sense) of “cosmic mix-up” to the tragedy of “they all live sadly ever after.” Is this speed something you purposefully strive and revise for, or is it present in the earliest drafts?

Kelly Luce

Thank you. Though this paragraph also came fairly late in the drafting process, after I decided to try introducing the cover-story subplot, it came out fully formed in one of those rare moments when the writing goes on auto-pilot for a few lines. Rhythm and sound is one of my favorite things about writing, the way syllables and commas pile up and suddenly stop, the way long sentences full of short words interact with short ones made of long words, the interplay between vowels and consonants, the way internal rhyme can create gravity. It becomes very physical. So I feel like the answer to your question is, both: I strive and revise for appropriate rhythm, and sometimes it happens in draft one; other times the conditions aren’t right for it to show up until draft ten.

Michael Noll

When I was in graduate school, the term “magical realism” was popular, mostly due to the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Salman Rushdie. There weren’t a lot of American writers working in that style, and some critics wondered if it was possible to use it in this country. Yet here we are a few years later, and the most influential American short story writers are Aimee Bender and George Saunders, whose absurdist, fantastical stories are perhaps an American adaptation of magical realism. Your writing also seems to fall into this category, so I’m curious how you would explain its appeal. How did the American short story move from the dirty realism of Raymond Carver to the contemporary mixture of fantasy/comic-book/genre/absurdist/supernatural elements?

Kelly Luce

I’d love to know more about this, myself. I have no idea why the American short story has moved beyond Carver’s realism, other than to say that things always change, and what’s fashionable in one era is sort of inevitably not in the next. I mean, what made Carver who he was as a writer (other than Gordon Lish)? What was he shifting away from? That might help us figure out why we’ve moved on from his example, at least somewhat. It could be that this generation of writers and readers is reacting to that generation, looking for something different, or at least being willing to consider something different. Certainly other countries have not suffered as much (I consider it a suffering) from a dearth of imaginative/non-realistic writing during this time. What was it about America, specifically, that made realism the desired form of expression during that time?
Still, from what I’ve read of lit mags and recently released collections, as well as at workshops I’ve participated in during recent years, I’d say the dirty realist story still has quite a following. Maybe, with the advent of online publishing, magazines have been able to take a few more chances on what they publish, so there’s both more supply and demand of the weirder stuff. Or maybe the rise of the reputable online venue let publishers who were outside the box get a foot in the box. A story from my collection, for example, was published by the Kenyon Review Online, which purports to publish more experimental work than the regular KR. Would they have printed my story five, six years ago, in KR proper? I don’t know. But a lot of readers have been able to connect with that story and say, hey, this is my kind of thing and I want more, and we’re lucky that there are places like Fairy Tale Review and KRO and Unstuck and a ton of others meeting that demand.
We all loved reading as kids, and kids’ books are often extremely imaginative. In this age of extended adolescence and “be yourself” messages, maybe those writers who wanted to play a bit more with fantasy/genre/supernatural stuff felt free enough to do so. Or maybe like me, they read Girl in the Flammable Skirt or Pastoralia and went, Oh! Oohhhhh!
Michael Noll

You’re a really talented writer with an enviable body of work—stories in reputable journals, prestigious fellowships. Your debut collection of stories, Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, will be released in October, and reviewers will almost certainly compare the writing to that of Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, two highly regarded and popular writers.

A Strange Object is an independent press in Austin that publishes books that take risks, buck form, and build warm dwellings in dark places.

A Strange Object is an independent press in Austin that publishes books that take risks, buck form, and build warm dwellings in dark places.

As a result, your book seems like it would be awfully desirable from a publisher’s perspective.

Yet when readers open it, they won’t find the name of a major, New York-based publisher. Instead, they’ll see the name of a new independent press based in Austin—A Strange Object. Can you write a little about how this relationship with A Strange Object came about? What makes A Strange Object a great partner for your collection?

Kelly Luce

Will you marry me? Or can I pay you to come over every day and tell me nice things?

The relationship with A Strange Object started a few years ago, when Jill Meyers was editor of American Short Fiction and accepted a short-short of mine for a series on their website. That’s how I met her and Callie Collins, who worked at ASF as well. When they started A Strange Object, I was one of the writers they contacted about submitting a MS.

I always had a sense that I wanted this book to go to an indie press, and that my novel, which I’ve been at for a few years, would be the New York book. Maybe it’s because I heard so many rumors about story collections being treated like redheaded step-kids by the big house publishers, or maybe it’s because I never had the guts to push my agent, who represented my novel, to do anything with the stories. A\SO is the place for this book, absolutely. They get the strangeness, they love things about it I’d forgotten, and through editing they’ve made it a way better book than it was when I submitted it to them. The design is gorgeous, smart, clean. The cover artist is incredible. When you’re working with a small press, you’re pressed right up against the taste of the people who run it. And these guys are like…I don’t know. They’re not like anybody, which is the point. I have a crush on them.

May 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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