The Sunday Salon: Character Development

At times while revising my novel, I’ve come to points when a character refers to something in his or her past and suddenly find myself lost, and having to flip section by section through my manuscript, backtracking to find the first reference to the event. Does the chronology match? How about my character’s attitudes and voice? Why is this past event so important?

When I set out to write the book, I thought I had such questions answered. My characters’ biographies firmly chiseled somewhere in the back of my mind, ready to march forward when called up, just like a computer file. Except, I think I’ve created multiple subfolders and new folders with new tidbits added, sometimes logging in stuff completely contrary to earlier renderings.

Could I have avoided so many different folders and such an information mess had I written detailed character biographies outlining history and wants and needs and desires beforehand? 

As I’ve been reading Elizabeth George’s Write Away: One Novelist’s Approach to Fiction and the Writing Life, I’m beginning to think I should have started out with something like the detailed character analysis she describes. Once you have a name for a character, she suggests you sketch out your characters what amounts to a combination of history and psychological profile.

In the midst of revision, I can see how such an analysis could help, how it might have helped before I even began composing the book four years ago. I avoided writing such a profile for each character, though, because I didn’t want to necessarily get locked into a specific path. What happened if the characters started really coming to life, and had their own directions to go? That, as I understood it, was what literary characters did. They developed on their own, like real people.

But real people have biographies, they have moments in their pasts, events in their past, people in their past, even if the past was just the day before, that fuel their desires and needs. So if characters are supposed to represent in some way real people, why not develop a profile, become their historian and shrink? With some of the problems I’m encountering in each draft I write, I’m beginning to think I should have had something firmer than my mind’s eye filing away bits and pieces.

What do you think? How do you develop your characters? Are they filling your brain’s folders coming out piecemeal, or do you have detailed biographies?

What Do You Write With?

I used to love reading Paris Review interviews, and especially when writers talked about whether they wrote with pencil, pen, typewriter or computer. Back then my inner Luddite smirked satisfactorily when writers said they wrote either longhand or on manual typewriters. At the time I was writing on a Royal manual typewriter and disdained the thought of writing on a computer, except for work. 

I loved the clack of keys against paper and platen and always remembered the essay in GQ magazine by Mordecai Richler, in which Richler poetically praised the typewriter as a writer’s muse. I wish I could find a copy of that essay.

Today I was reading a post by Nathan Bransford in which he asks: How Does Technology Affect Writing Style?

And I thought back to the days (not so long ago, really) when I wrote on my typewriter. Even when I converted to a computer, I sometimes still wrote a first draft of a story or even the first few pages of a story or a chapter on a typewriter. I felt then that my prose flowed better when it splattered out in Courier. 

I’ve gone back and read some of my sketches that I’ve saved, and there are some that seem stylistically better than what I write now. But, then other drafts are clunky, just as drafts I’ve written on the computer read clunky and misshapen and I think maybe the technology doesn’t matter: it’s always the writer.

Although I do have to say that when I go uber low tech and write a draft with pencil, I feel as if I write better, but I tend to rush what I write longhand and get impatient and want to actually be able to read what I’ve written (my handwriting is terrible; I’m a hellbound lefthander if my elementary Episcopal school teachers are correct). I don’t think I could write a draft longer than a few pages longhand: my eyesight couldn’t take it. I also edit better when I can print a draft and edit in longhand.

There are times, though, when I think about the typewriter, and long to pull it out and hear the clack of the keys again. Where’s the ribbon when you need it?

Reynolds Price and Memoir

A couple of weeks ago the NY Times Book Review published piece by David Leavitt on Reynolds Price’s memoir Ardent Spirits.

Reynolds Price

Leavitt makes an interesting observation about this memoir — it is old-school:

[Price]  sees memoir as an opportunity to reflect on youth from the sometimes cruel, sometimes merciful, vantage point of age. The trend among younger memoirists (and pseudo-memoirists) has been to recreate a specific trauma or traumatic period in the immediacy of its experiencing.

From the review, it seems Price delves into his homosexuality, but doesn’t suggest this experience was ever traumatic, just part of life. The bulk of the memoir, as Leavitt describes it, concerns itself with Price’s development as a writer. It’s nice to read about a memoir that for once doesn’t hinge on trauma. The review makes this memoir sound like a traditional autobiography, someone telling about a particular episode in or episodes in his or her life.

Also of note: apparently Price tries to distance himself from fibbers such as James Frey. Price apparently makes sure readers know up front that what he writes is to the best of his recollection.

I haven’t read the memoir, although I liked the excerpt from the Times, part of which Price writes about recognizing the talent of Anne Tyler, when she took his freshman comp course. What a great thing for a writing teacher to have happen — to know one is teaching someone with the potential to become a writer of some talent.

I do like Price. I’ve read a published collection of his notebooks, Learning a Trade: A Craftsman’s Notebooks, 1955-1997, a wonderful insight into a writer’s mind, and the process of writing. And his apologetic Letter To A Man In The Fire: Does God Exist And Does He Care?, is a powerful essay, a letter about faith to a man dying of cancer (Price is wheelchair bound because of cancer) that to me runs rings around anything C.S. Lewis ever wrote.

The Sunday Salon: WLT, Garrison Keillor, and Library Wanderings

Today’s post feels as if it might be a mashup of literary wanderings:

  • About at the midpoint of Garrison Keillor’s novel WLT: A Radio Romance. The humor in it, as I’ve mentioned, is a little more bawdy than Keillor’s Lake Wobegone novels or the radio show Prairie Home Companion. It’s structurally interesting, too, given that it’s largely about the fictional radio station WLT’s history; it’s largely set up anecdotally, though central to the narrative are the station’s founders Roy and Ray Soderbjerg and several characters in the radio family.
  • This week I also went to the library and picked up several books, including Elizabeth George’s Write Away, a book on craft and novel writing. I’m not far enough into it to make a full opinion about its value, but I do like her insights on developing character, in particular the character analysis in which she creates a character and writes a bio that includes psychological analysis of the character.
  • Other library finds include a book on blogging and a book on backpacking/hiking. A strange mix, but I want to improve my blog, and I want to learn more about hiking/backpacking, which is what I would be doing at the moment if it weren’t thunderstorming or threatening thunderstorms. Maybe it will clear up later, enough at least that the threat of being struck by lightning is less imminent.

Booking Through Thursday: Read It Again, Sam

Here is the latest from Booking Through Thursday:

What book would you love to be able to read again for the first time?

If I could travel back in time, or if my mental library suddenly found itself with an open space, I would love to be able to read with a fresh start anything by Hemingway. Actually it would be interesting to have read all the books I have read and then read The Sun Also Rises — my favorite Hemingway — and see how my tastes have changed. The question then becomes: Would I have the literary tastes I have now — the preference for plain styles, for instance — had I not read Hemingway in the first place?

Writing: Dungeons, Dragons and Narrative Drive

Reading the LA Times Book review, I came across this essay by writer Tod Goldberg, who describes the importance of Dungeons & Dragons in forming his need to write.

This was my first time playing D&D in at least 25 years. As a child, I played for a very specific reason: I loved to tell stories, but because of my severe dyslexia I couldn’t do it very well on the page. Every time I sat down to write, my thoughts would overwhelm my pen, and when I was done scribbling my story out, huge sections would be missing.

I’ve written before about the importance of D&D to my writing and reading life, although I wasn’t dyslexic. Also, when I first started playing, I wasn’t necessarily interested in storytelling; I was interested in the wargaming aspects of the game. I also was interested in the nature of escape into a different world.

Later on, as I read more fantasy lit, I began to enjoy the storytelling aspects of the game. The plots of my games became more elaborate, the characters more than numbers on a sheet of paper.

Playing the game also led to my first attempts at publication, when I entered a game module writing contest in Dragon magazine.

100 Novels: Let’s Get Sort of Physical With Nicholson Baker’s Vox

Nicholson Baker’s Vox (Vintage Contemporaries, 1993) made me want to cook. I finished reading the novel and felt the urge, the desire, the need to do something physical, something with my hands.

Cooking came to mind — my one specialty, lemon-oregano roast chicken. Images filled my thoughts: plunging my hand  deep inside a whole chicken’s gutted cavity to pluck out the giblets; mixing the olive oil, lemon juice, oregano, minced garlic, basil, salt and pepper to douse over the bird; feeling the heat of an oven at 350 degrees; tasting the first succulent slice of breast, juicetrickling as I bite into it.

If you know Baker’s novel, you know it has almost nothig to do with cooking. Although there is that scene on pages 132-133 of the trade paperback edition, an incident with Stouffer’s creamed chipped beef and pasta noodles . . .

You know the novel is about Abby and Jim, who have dialed a phone sex line for mutual arousal. Their conversations, however, go beyond basic arousal into digressions that lead them to learn much about each other — they seem compatible, but live on opposite coasts — and the nature of the erotic, although, as Jane Smiley notes in 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Vox never projects itself as pornographic (though it often uses the language of porn) but “comments on the artificially lurid quality of pornography.”

Artificiality seems the word that stands out here. Very little is physical in this phone line affair.

The two protagonists have voice and image to guide them. No evidence exists, despite the couple’s seeming compatible imaginations, the two ever connect, or that they will somehow meet and have a relationship.

Vox peeks into the nature of the erotic and the role imagination and fantasy have in our sex lives. The novel also explores the distancing and dehumanizing effects of technology.

Even when Jim and Abby describe dates they’ve gone on, they seem to prefer masturbatory experiences over intercourse. Jim, for instance, describes one encounter in which he and a woman from his office watch an X-rated video together: both become aroused, and the experience is sexually satisfying, but afterward Jim realizes he prefers going solo to actual sex. The physicality of sex is distracting to him.

An neither Jim nor Abby, as they close their call, seem able to imagine meeting. The novel ends with the simple line “They hung up,” the two callers retiring to their separate corners of the world.

As for me, well, last Sunday I cooked: the chicken dish, of course, though not a whole chicken, only breasts, and some substitutions were made with key ingredients. But still, it turned out tender and delightful.