It appears all publishers, agents, and editors have been accounted for post-hurricane. I think we need to move the book business inland.
On to character! It's always fun to challenge yourself by writing characters outside your own experience. Otherwise we couldn't have period novels, or fantasies, or novels written by men with convincing women in them, and vice versa. White people couldn't write black people and short people couldn't write tall ones. It would be chaos. There's a mechanism we develop that allows us to move fluidly past our preconceptions, to look past the surface of a character and discover motivation. If I write a Chinese person, and I only go as far as "they act like this because they're Chinese" as a motivation, then I'm a jerk and the character doesn't work. There's more to it.
Now, you'd go insane trying to develop a full set of motivations for every character. You'd turn into Proust. So this is one of the core challenges of writing characters that trump your experience with their own, although you don't know much about them. It's part instinct and part knowing what's universal about people. I wish I was better at it; that's probably why I'm ruminating on the subject now.
I can write pretty much any sort of person I've observed superficially, and the character will survive for a few pages. But these folks can't hold out for an entire book. A fully realized character takes a much deeper understanding of the real inner workings of that person's mind, which includes their religion, ethnicity, sex, race, life experience, and so on.
That said, I don't write fifty-page biographies of my characters. If you fart around trying to get everybody exactly right, paradoxically they often turn into caricatures. The tricky thing is you have to let what you don't know about someone's life experience provide you with clues that will further refine them into the living people that appear in a well-told story. Let them reveal themselves as you write, and learn from what you discover.
I'm writing a 13-year-old girl at the moment. She's from a small town in New Hampshire, as I am. So I've been writing her more or less according to my experience as a 13-year-old boy, because I know what that's like. However, as I write, I come to things where I think, 'ah, but a girl wouldn't typically respond that way,' and then I look at it and think why that is. And a kind of architecture appears around the difference between my experience and hers. That architecture is character.
When I was a kid I lived next to one of the oldest cemeteries in America. So I never had the slightest fear of graveyards; they're just golf courses for dead people. At one point the girl in my story walks through a graveyard out in the middle of the woods, not hurrying. I paused, because it looked wrong on the page. Why wasn't she spooked by the place? She doesn't live next to a cemetery. Are girls more afraid of cemeteries than boys? She ought to be afraid. Why, then, didn't she hurry? Because she's defiant, I realized. Because she's grappling with other fears she seeks to master, and she refuses to give in to her fear of something supernatural when there are real things to be afraid of.
I didn't try to deny her behavior and say, silly girl, you're supposed to be scared, then rewrite her that way. That's not who she presented herself to be. Instead I looked at what she did and thought about why she did it against my expectations.
The cheesy explanation for her apparent fearlessness would be to make her, in fact, fearless. But nobody at 13 is fearless. It's a time when childhood superstitions and suppositions are at war with new information, not to mention hormones that make the emotions fly around like bats at sunset. So having her be fearless might be okay for a character that only has to live for a few pages. A fearless 13-year-old? Okay, a novelty character for half a chapter. But somebody who must live through the whole book needs to be more true than that. Being spooked, but refusing to let it show (even though she's entirely alone) -- that's who she is. It's true to her.
That's the mystery of character. We guess at who they are, write something down, and the characters show up and tell us how we're doing. It's a strange process, having an imaginary adolescent girl tell me who she is.
3 weeks ago