Our Characters, Ourselves*

 

OK, that title is a bit of a misnomer–this post isn’t wholly about bodies–but I liked it.

This post is about the characters we create: both on paper and on, well, us.

What happened is this: I was told I needed a headshot for story I wrote that will be published later this spring. My rarely-needed “headshots” are usually crop-jobs needed to extricate my face from the face of a small child or two. My last good headshot (above, left) was taken when I was 18 and an aspiring dancer–a whole lifetime and profession ago.

I figured it was time. So I made an appointment for a blow-out at my local salon, where they said they would also make sure my makeup was camera-ready. Then I had my husband shoot a couple pics of my face, sans offspring, so that this journal can have my modern-day visage (above, right) for viewing alongside my story.

Also, I will be recording myself reading my story, so that the journal can have my voice along with my story along with my face. This is all OK and even flattering; this is what we call exposure (ahem).

Do you ever think about your own character? As bloggers we all have a handle, a personality. Mine’s Rust Belt Girl.

I realize I spend so much time thinking about the characters I create on paper that I forget my own character, my dominant persona. I was a ballet dancer in my youth; then a student; then a young married woman; then an aspiring writer; then a mom.

The “mom” character is basically all-consuming. The funny “mom” memes you see online–that’s for real. In writing, what “mom” means is that I’m supposed to write children’s literature now that I’ve birthed children who read literature. Instead, lately, I like to write about taboo subjects; a little incest anyone? (Please don’t message me with weird responses to this aside I meant to be funny/not funny.)

Onward…this story of mine that will be published later this spring (or wet-winter), I actually let my children read. This is a first.

One of my boys said he thought it was going to be funnier; one said he didn’t. Both read it until “The End”–4,000 words–so in my eyes it passed 8-year-old-boy muster. But I did have to “clean it up” first, which my more astute of my astute sons said meant, “Take out the bad words.” And the drug references and the…

I create characters to live a different life, though I love mine. I’ve talked here before about my penchant for writerly distance. Still, the characters we create are extensions of ourselves.

The other night, I attended a lecture/Q&A on developing believable characters in our writing, hosted by the Maryland Writers Association’s Annapolis chapter and featuring author and editor Barbara Esstman. My character-building takeaways:

Characters inhabit a world–closed or confined systems can work well: think Lord of the Flies or The Handmaid’s Tale–with walls of some kind that will lean on and pressure a character. These boundaries that test a character can help the writer show what the character is made of.

At least one of the main characters must have a problem to solve; when the character arrives at a solution, the story ends.

Characters have a history before the start of the story. The writer should know it, but must decide what the reader needs to know and what the reader doesn’t.

You know, sorta like this whole blogging thing. The reader needs to know us writers and highlights of our history–the stuff that matters–to understand our character, to feel invested in us and want to follow our story.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Thank you for following my story.

Do you consider your blogging persona? (Is it just me?) Is it one in the same with you? Somehow different?

Have any tips for creating believable characters in essay, memoir, or fiction?

* A little nod to Our Bodies, Ourselves (a book about women’s health and sexuality first published in the late 1960s). A relevant character-building takeaway: characters, like real people, have needs and wants. Characters, like us, go grocery shopping and sneak ice cream at 10:30pm. (Oh, is that just me?)

a bit of writerly advice

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Give a monkey a monkey bar.

David L. Robbins, novelist, educator, playwright, essayist

No, I’m not talking about the zoo–unless that zoo is the wonderful world of novel manuscript revision (did my sarcasm shine through there?).

Rust Belt Girl followers know I’m currently reworking my historical novel, chapter by painstaking chapter. And, as with most things, I’m not doing it alone.

Robbins–quoted above–taught a historical novel-writing course as part of my grad program, way back when, when the first little seed of my novel was planted.

His advice is evergreen. To me, “give a monkey a monkey bar” means to give a character something to showcase what he or she can do. Phone calls and meandering strolls don’t let a character prove their worth–unless he suddenly realizes he’s lost his voice or she breaks a leg.

Today, I’ve dumped a scene where I had two guys sitting in a bar exchanging information in favor of a steep trek into the clouds of the Marin Highlands where a WWII battery fortification is being constructed. We’ll see if the scene goes or stays.

But advice is always welcome.

What’s your best writing advice?