Writing to Get Into Someone’s Head

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brain-emotionsMalcolm Gladwell writes in What the Dog Saw, “Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade. It succeeds or fails on its ability to engage you, to think, to give you a glimpse into someone else’s head.” This is true whether you write non-fiction, novels, or the blend of these two: the memoir. The getting a reader into another head? That’s the work of good character-building.

Building characters comes from a knowledge of behaviors. The Meyers-Briggs personality tests rank people in four areas, using questions that measure whether you are more of a:

• Introvert vs. Extrovert
• Thinking vs. Feeling
• Sensing vs. Intuitive
• Judging vs. Perceiving

Giving yourself a test lets you ally yourself closer with one of the ITSJ combinations. It’s a great starting point for understanding aspects of a character. The book Plot vs. Character outlines the 16 types of personality combinations you can arrive at. Best of all, it derives a personality summary from each combination. For example, here’s ESTP, the extrovert who needs sensory motivation, thinks more than feels, and perceives more than judges:

Tolerant and flexible; actions, not words; the doer, not the thinker; spontaneous; implusive; competitive.

It’s much easier to dream up a character, for some writers, if you can peg that person on one of those 16 summaries. Best of all, since the basic types have been summarized, it helps get the plot-first writers motivated about characterization. The summaries and the types are an easier step up into someone’s head. You have to take this step to make a strong character, or at least one who makes sense when they act.

That’s an important step to get your writing into someone else’s head: the reader’s. “Oh yeah, I know somebody well who’s like that” is the kind of connection you want readers to make with your story’s actors. A plot can be brilliant and lure a reader to the story. They stay more often, and bring away more from their story time, when the actors are memorable.

Filling Out that Early Draft of Your Book

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hungry_babyNovels arrive, like babies, at expected weights. A writer who’s poked around websites or attended conferences knows the numbers. It’s tough to consider anything under 60,000 words a novel. The spot that most agents like to see for a debut novel is about 80,000 words. Science fiction and fantasy writers can go as high as 120,000 and get a commercial deal.

But what if you’re 20,000 words short of even the 60K? How do you look for what that early draft of your book needs in order to grow to term, like babies do? It’s tough for a preemie to make it in the world, in the same way that a small book will scuffle to make an impact. Where do you look to fatten up that early draft?

Character is usually the broad-brush answer. Early versions of novels exist in the most complete fashion inside the writer’s head. You can see your hero, the story’s villain, all the trusty sidekicks and baffled authority figures, the mentor and the confidants. The question becomes, do your readers know them like you do? I like to tell writers that if it’s not on the page, then it’s probably not in the story.

Motives: I need to know what your main character wants desperately. I want to see the achievement or the object or the relationship that leaves a hole in their heart, because it’s missing. You can show me this in the part of the story where the story starts. Pixar calls this the “Every day…” part of the writing. I call it Life as Your Character Knows It. If at all possible, try to show that “Every day” instead of telling it to me.

Settings: It can be tempting to paint each loving detail of a house, a shop, a town, or a beloved car. In the same way, your early draft writing can linger on the physical details of significant characters. These details are only important to the story if they keep showing readers that missing element your hero wants. How does the hero feel about the peeling paint on the windowsills? Can you show me that feeling in a scene? There’s a great exercise called the Character of Setting, where details for descriptions are chosen based on what the feeling of the character is at that moment of the story.

Early drafts of novels often need to be unpacked, like the old sea monkey kits that would arrive from the cereal box companies. (That’s a Boomer reference if ever there was one. You used an eyedropper of water.) You drop emotions onto the little moments in your story. You slow down the narrative progress and linger over the sensory moments. Your early draft, if it’s short, doesn’t have to rush toward one event after the next. Plot is the events that happen in a book. Story is what makes the events matter. You can only create the meaning for a book if I understand the characters’ hearts.

If your characters start talking to each other in an early draft, that’s a fine spot to expand the sea monkeys. Conflict drives all lively dialogue. Let me see a bit of battle, confusion, or misunderstanding of one another while the characters sort things out in talk. In the best of scenes, there’s action to provide counterpoint to the talking.

History: Resist this if you can. Flashbacks are tolerable to a point, but what’s happening in the now of the story is the most important thing to a reader. Extended explanations to recount events about why something is significant are often shortcuts. Telling has a valuable place in story creation. Showing is more riveting, and it provides a hard-wired magnet for attention of the reader. Telling compresses time and scoots us through the story’s slow spots. Showing lets us walk through the garden with eyes on every flower.

Keeping your main character’s yearning in every part of the story will give your early draft the food it needs to grow to term. Some writers have to cut back when they get to later drafts. Some need to make more events take place, to cut back on the interior voice of the book and get out of the heads of characters. But for many an early draft, showing the character’s desires and fears, their hidden shame and forbidden joy, is the best nourishment to make it grow.

Pick a path that’s more personal

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In The Writer’s Path, by Todd Walton and Mindy Toomay, writers get a few exercises (among many in the book) that use the letter form. Letters are more intimate, a way to get at style and voice that might be escaping you in third person writing, or the constraints of writing a novel, or a story, instead of simply telling a tale.

The book says that “the difference between stories written for publication and [those] written as a letter to a friend… may have no technical difference whatsoever. But the difference in our sense of love and trust for the people who might see or hear our words is enormous.”

So in one exercise we practiced tonight in the Writer’s Workshop, we wrote a letter to a friend about an interesting person in our lives, or in our stories. The writing came out with extra voice, compressed detail that did not seem forced, vivid images, and no affectation. On a revision, you might be able to use this writing inside a story or novel itself. At the least, it gives you a grip on voice for a narrator, as well as character details that are most important.

First off, find out what to write about

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Journals can act as a good tool for writers, keeping your pen moving like lifting weights in the gym. The best kind of journaling, according to Robert Ohlen Butler, is a description of the sensations during an emotional moment of your day before you sit down to write. First thing in the morning, if you can.

This kind of prep writing is vital to knowing what makes your writing’s heart beat. This morning I practiced a journaling exercise from Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. She says that the essential thing to writing is to write about something you really care about. How to know? Make some lists.

Pick big emotions, according to playwright Claudia Johnson, who Burroway quotes in the chapter “Whatever Works” (Humor me here, while I share my own answers)

What makes you angry? Bullying, elitism, being shut out, cruel criticism, injustice.

What are you afraid of? Being abandoned, becoming irrelevant, loss of my mental and physical faculties, heights.

What do you want? Love and acceptance of who I am, supportive relationships with friends, peace and beauty from nature, the reward of service, unexpected joy, to lead, teach and nurture

What hurts? Being excluded, dashed expectations, disrespect for my aspirations, watching someone I love endure pain, being distrusted

What really changed you? My Army service, Dad’s suicide, drugs and then arrest, becoming a father, divorce from Lisa, then leaving my son’s home when he was 6, finding a partner for the rest of my life.

Who really changed you? Jim Lindsey, my first real community newspaper editor. Shawn Hare, an actor in the Melodrama Theatre. My son Nick. John Wilson, magazine owner. Jim Hoadley, my counsellor and “provisional governor.” My wife Abby.

If all this sounds theraputic, confessional, intimate, it should. “Those will be areas to look to for stories, whether or not the stories are autobiographical,” Burroway says. Some time back I wrote a short story called “Two Guys,” about partners in a New York City hot dog cart business. They were breaking up. Underneath the drama and the characters was the reality of seeing my collaboration with my wife in business start to unravel. I wanted a literary journal. She wanted yoga. I never ran a hot dog cart, but the emotions of a dissolving partnership felt the same.

Burroway reminds us that novelist Ron Carlson says

“I always write from my own experiences, whether I’ve had them or not.”

How valuable is the idea?

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Tonight over a few brews, after a bike ride, a friend asked me about ideas and writing. I mentioned that I’m heading back to Iowa for the Summer Writing Festival, and described the workshop process up there. Manuscripts get shared among those classes, we comment and mark up the writing, then tell the writer how we felt as readers while consuming the story.

My friend asked, “Aren’t you worried about people stealing your ideas?”

It’s a question I’ve heard before, so I had a ready answer. “Not at all. The idea is not the most important part of my creative writing.”

Why? For me, it might come from my years in the theatre, creating roles. We worked from the character outward, reading every line we had been given, looking at the relationship between our character and the others in the play. We were hungry for details of description, habits, beliefs, age, blind spots. All the things that make up a memorable, vivid character. We made up what we didn’t read, found motivation and meaning in costume and voice.

So I’ve learned to build my creative writing from that foundation. Who is it that reader is seeing and hearing on the page? What does that character want more than anything? Answer those questions for everybody in the story, and you’ll have an idea that flows from character. I’ve never been one to start from plot, the heartland of ideas.

The fellow who wrote screenplays like Mr. Holland’s Opus, Pat Duncan, schooled us on the relative value of ideas during the Heart of Texas Screenwriter’s Festival in Austin. He said he’s got a file cabinet full of ideas. Duncan said “Start with a character with a problem, or a situation or a place you want to explore.”

Stealing? Sure it goes on, and artists quip that “if you’re going to steal, steal from the best, the masters.” But what they mean is to steal technique, style, or structure; the substructure of story that is almost impossible to duplicate exactly. Start with the same idea, two writers might. By the time they finish, get through rewrites of their own, or from agents and editors, and they won’t have the same book.

Forget those copious copyright notices on your manuscripts. Make your characters vivid and original and give them tough problems. That’s where the ideas come from, and the ideas are like water in the sea. It’s the fish that draw our interest.