A writing exercise for “Meeting your Characters”

Last summer I had my first experience teaching writing without the focus on memoir, when I taught a class for Story Circle Network titled, “Summer Fun and Games for Writers.” Here is an excerpt from a lesson, followed by a piece I wrote for an exercise I assigned to the class. 

Meeting Your Characters 

In memoir, you—the author—are the hero of the story. Everyone else plays a role in relation to you. In fiction, on the other hand, you have complete freedom to make some characters heroes, others villains, and allow some to play complex roles that mix support and resistance for motives of their own. What roles do the characters you want to write about play? Are they protagonists, supporters, adversaries, or some blend of these roles?

As writers we must understand our characters deeply, then bring them to our readers. That means using vivid details, just as we might use in describing a setting. The same 5-sense survey that evokes a place can be used to describe a person. The rough texture of my father’s shaved cheeks, the stains that always trickled down the front of his shirts, the smell of his pipe tobacco and fishing tackle—these keep him alive in my memory, and appear in my writing about him.

Don’t stop with the observable details. Go deeper….

Characters don’t appear in isolation; each comes from a background. Convey cultural details to make your depictions of people richer. What is the individual’s spiritual, cultural, or economic setting? What is her educational level? What occupation, what avocations, does she pursue? Explore these aspects of your characters through descriptive writing. When space permits, reveal them through “show don’t tell” scenes. Otherwise, parcel out the descriptors so your readers get to know your characters, without slowing down the pace of your story with a string of adjectives.

Assignment: “Perhaps”

Observe a stranger. Imagine this person’s cultural background, from clues you observe. Make up motives for his or her actions. Ask the character, “what are you feeling?” Follow up with, “Oh really? Why?” (Yes, I mean that literally. You’ll be surprised where this leads you.)

Sarah White’s Exercise: “Perhaps”

Are people and their dogs really alike?

In my dog class—that’s agility training, in which my fox terrier Bibi and I are participating—there are a number of human/dog pairs and one in particular that has been annoying me from day one. This has had me thinking about how people are like their dogs, or not, as I observe this particular stranger.

“Katie’s Mom” we’ll call her. Katie is a Dalmatian, I think, although her spots are brown, not black. Katie’s Mom is a white, middle-aged woman, who carries too much weight for her height. Because she wears a lot of her weight through the middle, she looks a bit like one of those Weebles that wobble but don’t fall down.  Because she keeps her hair trimmed short, her head appears too small for her body, and somehow sets me up to expect her to be a bit small in the brain.

She’s friendly, talkative—mostly to Katie, in loud baby-talk–and unaware of what’s going on around her except for whatever she’s focused on at the moment. When her attention is on Katie she is all baby-talk at double-volume, and Katie is a wriggly ball of pleasure adoring her. When her attention is someplace else, Katie is a rocket on a rope. I try not to stand next to Katie’s Mom as we line up to do our agility lessons, because Katie will be lunging for Bibi and vice versa—Bibi would rather this be a play group than a class.

When Katie’s Mom gets corrected by the teacher, she responds a lot like a not-very-bright dog. She acts chastised, apologizes, then asks for more explanation, then asks to try again, or asks more questions—takes up class time, in other words, and shows such eagerness for the attention that it embarrasses me to see it.

But on the other hand, Katie and her Mom are really doing pretty well in class. It’s clear that they are doing their homework, practicing the skills we’re shown each week, making up in enthusiasm what they lack in comprehension of exactly what we’re learning or why.

Katie’s Mom, what are you feeling? “I don’t like ambiguity,” she says in my brain, although I don’t think Katie’s Mom would use a word like “ambiguity.” What flusters her most is when a new instruction seems to conflict with a previous one. Take the teacher who last week stopped her for repeating commands. “If you keep saying ‘follow, follow, follow,’ Katie will think she’s supposed to hear it three times before she follows you.” Katie’s Mom replies, “But at the rally last week they told us to keep saying ‘follow, follow.’” And there’s a clue to Katie and her Mom—they’re going to a lot of dog events, really working this Agility thing.

You don’t like ambiguity? Oh really, why? “I’m always struggling to figure out what’s going on. I feel like I’m always a little behind. There’s a lot of noise in my head,” she replies in my brain. I feel the click of truth. No wonder she’s loud, unfocused, needy. She has a head full of voices that have too often been critical, impatient, eager to be done with her and her eagerness to please and her cluelessness about how to.

Maybe in agility class Katie’s Mom has figured out exactly where she belongs. She’s found a place where there are rules she can learn. A place where she will compete, and win, and the prize will be the attention she’s always wanted.

Katie and her Mom are a lot alike. Katie is the pretty, eager child her Mom has always been inside.

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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