On character

Happy Sunday, peeps–

I meant to blog this earlier, but got distracted with Hunger Games hype (my take on dystopian fiction and movies here).

ANYWAY! Caught this great blog by Bold Strokes writer Rebekah Weatherspoon about writing diverse characters over at her site, and that got me thinking about all the reasons writers come up with to avoid writing a character they’re afraid they don’t know much about. Then I read this other blog over at Writer Unboxed by historical fantasy writer Anna Elliott, and THAT got me thinking, as well.

And would you like to see where this led? Read on!

I tend to write like Elliott, in that I go with my gut, and if something doesn’t “feel right” in a particular scene or chapter or whatever, then I’ll try to fix it. A lot of my secondary characters are what I call “walk-ons,” in that they just kind of show up during my process, and generally help move the story the way it’s supposed to go, that “feels” right.

Elliott says, in her blog at Writer Unboxed:

I try to dig deep into what makes my characters unique, what exactly about them made me so intrigued with them, so determined to tell their story. And then . . . instinct takes over.

That’s sort of along the lines of what Weatherspoon discussed at her blog, and this is what I came away with: underneath our skin, we are unique individuals who might share similar hopes, dreams, and motivations, but there are elements that make us individuals beyond skin, and once writers get down to the very bone-level of characters, we should be able to populate our stories with all kinds of people while still remaining authentic (that word came up at Weatherspoon’s blog in the comments) to the narrative and the setting.

Part of that (at least for me), echoes what Elliott says, and she notes that a project she’s working on at the moment didn’t “feel right” though she loves the characters, loves the stories. So she put it aside for a while, was kind of cranky about it, but then a solution presented itself and she’s now back at work with the story. She concludes:

I think the ultimate goal of any author should be to internalize the basic rules of storytelling, internalize them so deeply that our instincts take over as we write, and the rhythm of a good story becomes as natural as the rhythm of our own breath.

Admirable goal, indeed. I’m a craft hog. I admit it. I like a well-crafted story, and I like all kinds of interesting characters with all kinds of things going on. To that end, Weatherspoon reminds us that diverse characters can and should be part of that craft, especially as people involved in our every day lives with all kinds of other people in varying relationships. She notes that some writers are “afraid” to write diverse characters, because they’re “afraid of stereotyping” and thus “getting it wrong.” To that, she says:

So what are we left with if not the stereotypes? Omission. Here’s the problem with complete omission, when you leave characters of color out (the same can be said of gay and lesbian characters, characters of varying gender identities, etc.), they no longer exist in your world. When they don’t exist in your world, they don’t exist in the reader’s world. This is dangerous, especially for people who are only exposed to diversity through books, film and television. Just as dangerous as the stereotypes and in cases, more harmful.

I’m still pondering this, and thinking about instinct and diverse casts of characters. I believe in my instincts about a story, and I believe in the characters who are in it. I also try to write stories that involve characters whose life experiences I don’t know much about, so I get down to their bones and I think about all the things they’d have to face in terms of their motivation, their backgrounds, their families, their cultures, whatever it is that makes them who they are.

So I’m exploring and pondering now how instincts play out in my own writing, and how that plays out with regard to the characters with whom I populate my stories. Thanks to both Elliott and Weatherspoon for writing two very different blogs that somehow managed to come to a convergence in my mind.

Happy Sunday, everyone, and happy reading, happy writing!

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