I’m in the kitchen icing a cake.
This happens, like, never. I’m a notoriously bad cook. When my kids see me making dinner they cry and run away. Baking is better, but I do it so infrequently no one ever really remembers I can, including myself.
So I’m icing this cake. It’s a zucchini blueberry cake with lemon buttercream frosting. (Kinda weird, right? But also maybe yum.) My hair is a mess. So is my face. Not to mention the kitchen. In fifteen minutes a group of friends will show up at my door for book club (aka, wine club). The knife slides along the surface of the cake, forming tiny wakes of buttercream, when suddenly a voice says, “Most of the time I feel miserable and alone.”
The knife stops mid-swipe and I listen. Not with my ears, though, because the voice is in my head.
The call is coming from inside the house.
I don’t know who this character is talking to me (yet), but in my mind I can see her walking through a crowded high school hallway and in my chest I can feel what she’s feeling. It’s like I’m some kind of medium for fictional people.
I put down the knife, pick up a pen and start writing her down. The cake can wait. So can my hair and my face and the clock and my friends showing up at my door with wine. There’s a voice in my head with a story to tell.
And that’s how this writing thing works.
For me, at least.
Even though the SCBWI Summer Conference was, like, ages ago, I still have pages and pages of notes to share with you. And today, I’m sharing what I learned about character from Gary Schmidt.
But first I have to tell you something about Gary Schmidt. He has border collies. And that makes him awesome.
Gary led a breakout session on character, during which he handed out old-time photos of people and asked us to create characters based on the photos. It was an interesting exercise. (My character turned out to be Annie, an exhausted housewife whose favorite room is her closet. Poor Annie.)
Before going into depth about how to discover details about character, Gary shared four assumptions:
1. Character is plot
All plot emerges out of character. Plot happens to and out of character.
2. The first task is to get the reader to turn the page
There are round and flat characters. Round characters are interesting and cause the reader to keep reading. Flat characters aren’t helpful to anyone.
3. Nothing is a one-off
Everything connects, ever detail, on some level.
4. We come to our characters little by little and not all at once.
As we write we accumulate details that build a character. It takes time to build the details that build a book.
Underlined and surrounded by asterisks in my notes is perhaps the best bit of wisdom Gary gave during his session:
Speed is not the friend of the writer.
I enjoyed Gary’s session on character, but enjoyed his closing keynote speech even more. I’ll share those notes in a few days. In the meantime, I highly recommend you visit Gary’s site, where you not only can learn about his award-winning books, but also see some video clips of his beautiful border collies.
I found Rachel Vail‘s session on Hearing Your Characters during the Summer 2010 SCBWI Conference not just entertaining, but insightful. Using examples from her own work, she gave practical exercises for figuring out who your characters are and how each is distinct from the others in the story.
The room for this session was packed. So is my notebook with notes from what Rachel had to share. I’m going to condense it down to her main points and suggest you take any opportunity you have to hear her speak on writing.
Rachel has a background in theater and uses her acting experience to assist her when she’s discovering who her characters are. In acting, she explained, before you can enter the stage, you must know who you are. All of you. Everything is affecting you. You must enter wanting something from the scene. How do you keep it fresh day after day? By your intention. Each show you must choose a slightly different intention before you walk on stage.
The same is true for your characters.
When writing each character, you need to:
- Figure out who the character is
- Figure out what the character wants
Some of the techniques she uses to do this include:
- Explore how the character feels and moves in their skin (How do they walk? How do they feel growing up in front of everyone? How do they experience adult emotions for the first time?)
- Use a sentence completion form to interview your characters; fill it out quickly and repeat the form several times over the course of the book as the character changes (Example questions she gave were “My favorite food is…” “The worst thing I ever did was…” “When I grow up…”)
She discussed the challenge of writers block, and suggested speed writing as one cure.
- Give yourself ten minutes to speed write the answers to the character questionnaire so you know your character better.
- Give yourself ten minutes to push your way through the scene you’re afraid to write.
- If the story won’t budge, maybe it’s the wrong scene for the book. Give yourself ten minutes to write a different scene and see if the block frees up.
She concluded by offering the following tips about writing in general:
- Know everything and then learn more
- Astonish yourself
- Keep learning
- See with new eyes, again and again
- Be ruthless with your words and your characters
- Fall in love with your story
- Reward yourself
- Be true, but be kind
- Remember your characters evolve, grow and change
I am reading two books right now.
Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville, and Without A Map, by Meredith Hall.
Perdido Street Station takes the reader to New Crobuzon, a fictional city thriving below the decaying corpse of a giant creature.
Without A Map takes the reader to remote regions of the world and remote regions of human emotion.
The books are on opposite ends of the spectrum from each other, from steampunk fantasy to grief-stricken memoir. But the books are quite alike in one aspect: they take the reader on a journey, one I feel confident saying is outside the norm of most of our everyday lives.
From Perdido Street Station:
“New Crobuzon was a city unconvinced by gravity.
Aerostats oozed from cloud to cloud above it like slugs on cabbages. Militia-pods streaked through the heart of the city to its outlands, the cables that held them twanging and vibrating like guitar strings hundreds of feet in the air. Wyrmen clawed their way above the city leaving trails of defecation and profanity. Pigeons shared the air with jackdaws and hawks and sparrows and escaped parakeets. Flying ants and wasps, bees and bluebottles, butterflies and mosquitoes fought airborne war against a thousand predators, aspises and dheri that snapped at them on the wing. Golems thrown together by drunken students beat mindlessly through the sky on clumbsy wings made of leather or paper or fruit-rind, falling apart as they flew. Even the trains that moved innumerable women and men and commodities around New Crobuzon’s great carcass fought to stay above the houses, as if they were afraid of the putrefaction of architecture.”
And from Without A Map:
“I walk with no plan, through Ba’albek and Masyaf and Saida and Sabkha and back through Masyaf. In every place, men and women greet me with hands extended. They smile, drawing me in as if I belong to them. I have no idea who they think I am. They share food with me, flatbread and warm tangy yogurt from the bowl on their door stone; it always means they leave their own meal hungry. A woman beating a rug in her yard calls to me as I walk by her house. She looks sad and tired, like all the people here. She holds up her hand: Wait. I sit against the low cement wall surrounding her dusty yard. In ten minutes she comes to me with two eggs, fried warm and runny and life-saving, and flatbread to sop it up. She stands smiling while I eat, her black skirt and thin black shoes powdered with dust, her hens wandering near us, pecking in the dirt.”
One of the main characters in Perdido is Lin. She’s a khepri, which means she has a beetle-like head and a human body. A very attractive woman’s body to be precise. In my imagination, her face resembles a sleek, red ant.
Without A Map is a memoir, so the main character is the author. She recounts her sad history, being shunned at age sixteen for getting pregnant, losing all sense of herself and traveling — walking — to the far regions of the world.
I have little to nothing in common with either of these characters.
And this is why I read. To step into the unfamiliar. To experience another life. To see a different part of the world, or visit a world that exists only between the pages of a book. I may never visit the Middle East, and I certainly will never visit New Crobuzon, but because of these books — because of reading — I feel like I have.
I hope to do the same with my books, for my readers.