In one of the “light bulb” moments during a lecture I was giving this afternoon, it dawned on me that I have an entire Playbook of character ideas I’ve been overlooking. (Yes, that is a “How I Met Your Mother” reference.)
I’ve tried to grow characters organically. I don’t want to force characterization. But still, I think these are some ideas that may help writers develop characters deeper. My current book is “finished” (see next section), but I may play with some of these scenarios during the next revision.
One of the courses I teach is Communication Theory, and today I gave a special lecture, called “Academic Deep Dive” on comm theory topics to our college transfer students. It dawned on me—why don’t I use some of the situations when writing? Sure, we all use these to some extent, but there’s some great stuff here, some opportunities to really see what our characters will do when presented with the following challenges.
One such challenge, which comes from Social Exchange Theory, would be to put a character in a relationship in which the costs outweigh the benefits. Again, I think some of this is natural, but I think we can add to the challenges to see what our characters do. I want fun, meaningful relationships in my stories, but we also need conflict in order to create dynamic characters. So one such way I’m going to play with that is really examine the relationships in my stories and ask, “Ok, who is staying in a relationship in which the costs outweigh the benefits? And why?”
Without giving too much of my current story away, my main character puts up with a neglectful, alcoholic mother. He tries to reach her and clearly puts in a lot of time or “cost” to this relationship. He gets back nothing. Why does he stay? Well, she’s his mom of course, and probably the people with whom we’d give the most “cost” to would be family, right? But what about friends, love, infatuation? Can you add elements to characterization where one character gives a lot and another gives nothing? What might happen then? I sure can think of past friendships that ended because they cost too much (not in money, but in a plethora of other sacrifices we make). Playing with that concept may be a way to further develop our characters and their relationships.
A second approach, which comes from dialectical theory, would allow us to play with contradictions in our characters. Without getting into the academics behind the theory, it simply asks a few interesting questions:
-- Why do we want to be intimate and close with others yet still crave alone time?
-- Why do we enjoy routines but also have the urge to be spontaneous?
-- Why do we want to publicly express ourselves yet maintain privacy too?
So how do we balance these oppositions in our own lives? And how can we use them to add to our stories?
First, it’s important to recognize that both needs—the contradictions—are natural. We need routine and spontaneity. It’s all about balance (isn’t life?). So here’s what I want to do: I want a character who has always wanted love and affection and closeness to wonder why he or she also feels the need for personal space. I want to see that conflict. I want to play with a character that is all about routine and pair him/her with someone completely spontaneous and see what happens. I want someone who feels the urge to open up publicly (to the point of vulnerability) but feel confused and challenged at the competing need for privacy (which could be especially interesting using today’s social media too!).
I could list a hundred other theories and ideas (and I would describe more if any other writers find the above situations interesting—just tell me you want more, please). They may not be all that unique and some are pretty common sense, but here’s the real beauty of it: We can ALL relate to these situations, and that may make others relate to our characters more too. I hope they are helpful and interesting. That’s the only reason I share them.
For those interested, I’ve “finished” my novel for a second time on Sunday. I had been combing through the chapters, making notes, adding and deleting, and generally making it a better book. I sent out just a few queries for now to agents who I think would be interested in my particular story. Please wish me luck. I’m hoping for an early Christmas present!
Regardless, my goal was to finish by December, so I met that goal. Come December, I will be on winter break from the college. Between now and then, I will again distract myself with other projects and try not to look at or think about my book. But the first day I’m on break: I’m re-reading and making notes all over again. Over winter break, if I don’t hear from an agent (or even if I do, because we all know that a book is always a work in progress until the moment it’s printed and hits the shelves), it will have a third major revision, perhaps using some of the ideas I described above.
If I were my own critic (and of course we all are), I would say this: I have the coolest plot imaginable to me. One of the first lessons a writer learns is to write the story he or she always wanted to read. If you’ve followed this blog, you know some about my geek interests, and this book plays on that. It’s the horror adventure story I would always have loved to read.
During the second major revision, I added more depth to the characters, fixed plot holes, and fine tuned some writing. My weakness was characterization. I was focused on the COOLEST STORY EVER and needed to add more depth to my characters. During this winter’s third revision, they’ll get even deeper. And maybe if you’ve followed this blog and get to read the book whenever it comes out, you’ll remember these little posts. “Hey- he talked about that adding those conflicting behaviors on intimacy/privacy, routine/spontaneity, and public/private—I see those here!” And for the few closest readers I have, I hope you will get a kick out of it.
The book will be published. Someday. I don’t give up.
There are a few friends out there I don’t talk to as much as I’d like. We are all so busy. So I thought I’d add some general randomness at this point.
I am SO EXCITED about spring semester. For the first time at the college, I get to teach a pure public speaking class as a face to face elective (I’ve taught a hybrid online version where students have to meet to do presentations but not an entire semester every class face to face). I sat down today—another distraction from the book too—and wrote about two pages of ideas for the class. The class is almost already full too, and registration has only been open a couple of weeks. Most people signing up for it are taking it as an elective. They’ve already had their COMM requirement. How cool is that? People volunteering for public speaking!? No matter what, I take that as a huge teaching win, and I can’t wait for spring. It will be the best class I’ve ever taught and the most motivational, inspirational, and fun. That’s my goal.
There were about a half dozen other things I wanted to include, but I’ll be honest: I have Modern Family and the Goldbergs on the DVR. And of course American Horror Story coming up soon. :) So I think I need to wrap this up and say good night and save other randomness for a future blog. As always, thanks for those of you who are interested enough to read this much. Leave me a comment or send a message if you wish, and I hope to talk more with all of you soon.