Wednesday, July 15, 2015

In the beginning

A few weeks ago I blogged about the light summer reading I had compiled for my newest novel, the second in the Amanda Doucette series. The first, entitled FIRE IN THE STARS, is in the hands of the editor, and I expect to get the first edits back in a few weeks. But in the meantime, as is often the case with writers, I am already deeply immersed in the second. FIRE IN THE STARS is set in Newfoundland and deals with foreign refugees and the international trade in hapless, desperate people.

The second, tentative titled THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY, deals with ISIS, Jihadism, and radicalization– hence the light summer reading. Lest people wonder whether I am turning into an international spy thriller writer, have no fear. I don't know anything about the international espionage world, and I would not even attempt to fake it. I want to write about what I know, or at least what I can learn about and hope to understand. Psychology.

To me, stories begin and end with character. Why do people make the choices they do? What pushes them to the brink? What happens to them and how do they extricate themselves. If we don't care about the character, we won't care about their story, no matter how many breathless car chases there are or how many people they sleep with.

The new novel sits on the table, awaiting inspiration.
So in tackling a new story, my first job is to try to get myself inside the heads of the characters I create. All writers do this, unless they are merely painting by numbers. It's the only way to create vivid, believable characters instead of cookie-cutter, one-dimensional placeholders who move robotically through the plot at the whim of the author. I call my technique "method writing", because it involves slipping into the character's skin, imagining myself in the scene, drawing on all the senses and all my own memories and imagining how the world and the situation looks from this character's point of view. Although most writers are quite empathic and can readily put themselves in another's shoes, I suspect my years as a psychologist help me in this regard. Psychologists get to hear the personal struggles and feelings of all sorts of different people from different walks of life. But more importantly, a good psychologist spends his or her life listening and trying to see the world from another person's point of view in order to figure out how to help them and how to build bridges to them. It becomes second nature to us, to the extent that my children used to accuse me of mind reading.

Last week my fellow Type M-er Sybil posted about the value of acting lessons and improvisation skills in the creation of character. I think she was getting at the same idea. Actors immerse themselves in the character they are to play, so they can live, breathe, and imagine that character's every move. This too is about empathy, literally feeling for another. Improvisation is a tool actors use to discover their character and to probe more deeply into their feelings and needs. Reading her post, I realized I use improvisation on paper too.

At the beginning of a new novel, I don't know my characters very well. I discover them as they encounter each other and the situations I throw at them. Background character sketches can be stilted and static, whereas the characters who confronts  each other on Page 4 have to come alive and react. So my initial scenes with new characters are tentative and exploratory. Sometimes, especially when I'm stuck, I throw two characters into a scene with very little idea what they're going to say or how it's going to turn out. That's the essence of improvisation. In those interactions, the germ of the scene emerges and the story races ahead. Sometimes. Other times the interaction leads to nothing and is ultimately cut from the manuscript. But it is never wasted. Through that aimless wandering, I have learned more about my characters and fine-tuned them into more interesting, layered people worthy of being in the story.

Or I have turfed them out and brought in someone better.

None of that would have happened if I hadn't climbed into their skin and let them loose to explore the story.  What about others? What are your secret techniques for creating character?

1 comment:

Eileen Goudge said...

I have deck envy, Barbara! Who wouldn't be inspired sitting there by the lake?
Characters develop over time, like you said. As with wine it can't be rushed.