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A Farewell: It's Time We Talked About Character

Mar 29,2015
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And so it comes to this, Insiders. My sojourn down Inside a Dog has come to an end. In this, my farewell post, I want to talk about creating fictional characters, and engaging with them as readers. To do so, I’m going to focus closely on point of view (POV for short).

When I teach writing workshops, I encourage writers to think about their characters’ lives from as many angles as possible. We start with the simple and obvious: gender, age, name, species (Human? Tiger? Werewolf? Mutant? Etc.). We then progress to the more specific: where they live, what they do, their family background and home life, and the whys of each. Then we drill deeper into the more intimate, private, and bizarre details: what they want most, how they annoy others, when they first fell in love, when they first discovered their life’s calling, what they’d eat if no one was watching. We could add a thousand more questions. The point I stress is that you must know your characters as fully as you can, in order to bring them to life on the page.

The overarching lesson about knowing is context.  To know someone, we must know where they’re coming from, and what they’re coming from. Not just Bosnia, but a refugee camp. Not just the suburbs, but a dysfunctional, abusive home there. Not just Manhattan, but a penthouse suite, with maids and chauffeurs. Not just high school, but a military school where you’re tormented for being gay.

When we talk about point of view, about POV, in fiction, we start with the mechanics. Is it first person (I did this, I did that), or third person (he did this, she did that)? Is it limited third (we only see what the character sees and knows) or does the novel’s vantage point creep toward something more like omniscience, with the ability to observe other characters’ movements and/or know their thoughts and motivations? At the risk of being creepy and Big Brother-ish, you could think of every novel as being the creation of a floating head. A set of eyes to see, a set of ears to hear, a nose to smell, a brain to understand, interpret, narrate, even pass judgment. The floating head is not the novelist’s head (thank goodness; I’m rather attached to mine) but the head of a persona created by the novelist, through which the tale will be told. Where is that head located? Is it inside a character’s head? Or perched like a parrot on her shoulder? Does it travel about, through space, and through time? Does it have the godlike ability to read thoughts, or is it limited to what can be seen and heard? Is it trustworthy? Might a novel come from more than one head? And on, and on.

There’s so much more we could say about the shades and technicalities of point of view, but I want to push past that and marry the idea of creating and knowing a character through context, and understanding point of view.  Again, to beat my drum: point of view is so much more than first vs. third (or the wonky quasi-second person – but not – POV of my title All the Truth That’s In Me). It’s bigger than floating heads. It is knowing and understanding your character’s context, to the best of your ability. File 30309

Atticus Finch, the hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, is one of the most beloved fictional characters in American letters. He taught Scout, his daughter, this: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Yesterday I visited a high school for teens from troubled – sometimes unspeakably broken -- backgrounds. The students wowed me with their maturity, kindness and resilience. The teacher, Ms. Cathy Blacker, was inspiring in her passion for teen literature and for using it to change and heal her students’ hearts.  On her bulletin board she displayed guidelines for how to read and understand a fictional character by searching out his or her point of view. She breaks it down as follows (I am both quoting and paraphrasing here):

Status/Class: Is the character wealthy, poor, or in the middle class? Do they occupy some status as part of a clique, club, or group? How does this help you understand how your character might feel in a passage?

Education: How well or poorly educated is the character? Was this learning formal or informal? How does their educational background influence their thinking in this passage?

Religion/ethics: What do you know about the character’s religious background or ethical position? Do glimpses of it appear in the passage? How does it help you understand the character’s attitude in a scene?

Experiences: Consider the experiences a character has encountered. How might those shape their thoughts and feelings? Do such attitudes appear in the passage?

Gender: Consider whether the character’s gender or gender orientation influences what the character says, does, and feels.

Family role: Determine the character’s role in their family. Parent/child? Oldest/youngest/middle? Spouse? Ask yourself how this information might influence the character’s words, feelings, and desires.

Ms. Blackler is teaching her students to be wise, empathetic readers. It was clear from their participation that they understood that lesson. My hope is always to teach writers to approach character creation with the same careful and thorough concern. How we read characters, and how we write them, is a mirror into how we view and treat others.

By teaching her students to be such thoughtful readers, Ms. Blackler also teaches them to be thoughtful, aware, empathetic human beings. Can you imagine a world where politicians, business leaders, faith leaders, and other key influencers were more intimately aware of context? Of what it means to be poor? To have parents in prison? What it means to be Muslim, and live in Melbourne, or Paris? What it means to go to engineering school as a woman, or to play competitive football if you’re gay? What it means to be the middle child in a large family with a mother who’s mentally ill, and a father who refuses to see it?

Can you imagine a world where neighbors, coworkers, peers, and fellow citizens could look at one another with the same kind of thoughtful understanding?

It’s a beautiful dream worth writing about. It’s a dream worth reading into being, and teaching others to love reading, in order to bring it to pass.

Thank you, Insiders, for sharing this journey with me.

Three Irrelevant Facts About Me:

  1. I am hopelessly wordy. But you knew that by now.
  2. I am hopelessly nerdy. I fear you’ve probably figured that out, too.
  3. I’m a little obsessed with Dr. Who. Did I say that already? 
Mar 31,2015

Thank you both! Vikki, I look forward to reading your posts and getting to know you better. Thank you so much for your kind words. I've really enjoyed blogging here. Formulating these posts on different aspects of craft has taught me a lot. Maybe I should do this more often. I can't wait to make the long flight to Australia. Long plane rides don't bother me. They mean more time to read and write. :) Cheers!

Mar 30,2015

Thank you, Julie, for a month of funny, wise and inspiring posts! My well-loved copy of All the Truth That's in Me is still doing the rounds among friends and writers (I know who you are - give it back). Such a gorgeously-written and heart-in-throat story - I can't wait for the next one. Thank you also to Sally for her wonderful illustrations. I'll be writing inside The Dog for the month of April but I just wanted to say hi and thanks and goodbye, for now. Hopefully we can convince you to hop a long flight to Australia one day. So, thanks and best wishes for the new book!

Vikki Wakefield

Mar 29,2015
anonymous's picture

And you are a terrific teacher, Julie!  Thanks for the post.  Will definitely be using it...

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