Last month, a friend entrusted me with the privilege of skimming and commenting on her draft of a novel. Her writing was excellent, the setting unique, and the characters engaging, but there was something not quite right. I paced around my room, tracing the edge of a braided blue rug, mulling over the disconnect, and eventually got to thinking that the protagonist’s desire was not in alignment with the trajectory of the story. The novel drifted like an untethered canoe—one floating past the dock, just beyond reach.
As novelists, we learn to figure out what our characters want and send them in search of their desires. We’ve all heard what Kurt Vonnegut had to say on this topic during an interview posted in the spring 1977 issue of The Paris Review: “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
But how dull, right? A glass of water. And what if the character desires something immaterial, such as acceptance or a sense of belonging? It’s hard to communicate ethereal desires in an opening scene and hook the reader there. A novel has to build to them. I suspect Vonnegut would agree, but I think he’d tell writers to give a protagonist an interim motive—something to strive for en route to the climax. Something concrete like thirst. All desires (immaterial or otherwise) lead characters to take action in a world experienced through the senses—taste, touch, sight, sound and smell. Characters do stuff (they’re boring if all they do is sit around and think about meaninglessness or feel despair), and readers connect with them when they do stuff. When a writer describes a scene so well that it pulls readers in, inviting them to experience the world in which the character lives, details as seemingly insignificant as a glass of water matter.
My friend crafted unique and endearing characters and set them in a story that holds tremendous promise. Now her protagonist needs to want that glass of water that is… look… over there… in that glass tumbler on the windowsill… the one with the ribbon of yellow-green pollen dust at the base where the condensation has pooled… the one just out of reach… just past the edge of the bunched-up rug she’ll have to step over when she wants a sip, but she’s not looking down and her heel is going to get caught, and… uh-oh.
Many thanks to The Paris Review for posting the entire 1977 interview with Vonnegut.
Posted in Uncategorized
Tagged character, craft, desire, Kurt Vonnegut, motivation, plot, protagonist, revision, structure, The Paris Review, writing
During one of JRW’s twitter-chats (#jrwc12) with upcoming conference speakers, we were posing questions for Kristen-Paige Madonia, author of Fingerprints of You, and she tweeted that she’d spent four years getting to know her characters. Four years? Ouch. I’d hoped to have a second novel under contract before my first appears, but I’m not so sure I’ll meet that goal. I’ve been struggling with my next novel, wondering whether my story works, and fearing I might have to banish it to a drafts-folder.
But Madonia’s comment gave me hope. Rather than lamenting that sometimes it takes as long as four years to write a novel, I’ve felt relieved. It’s okay! I don’t have to beat myself up over the next one not yet working. I’m breathing deeply again. I’m not under contract. I can take my time. Pfew. If it takes my characters four years to reveal themselves to me, well then, that’s what it will take. Implicit in my deep breaths is a new confidence that it will happen. I’d been rushing the writing, and now I’m slowing down and re-learning how to trust the process.
This past week I’ve been reading Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins, an approach to novel-writing based on techniques in method-acting. I’m trying out her suggestion to interview my protagonist, and the kid is talking up a storm. Few if any of his ramblings will make it into the novel, but in absorbing his world-view, I hope I’ll be able to make his presence on the page authentic. Let’s see if I can do it… Let’s see if it takes me four years…
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Tagged Brandilyn Collins, character, conference, dialogue, Kristen-Paige Madonia, process, protagonist, revision, twitter, VCFA, writing
For a few years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as a primary-level reader/judge for James River Writers’ Best Unpublished Novel Contest. We hold a large, quiet party. Readers pull blind manuscripts from a pile and stretch out across sofas and chairs to score them while nibbling on sandwiches, sipping coffee… It goes on all day and sometimes more than a day, depending on how many writers enter the contest.
Every year without fail, the manuscripts that don’t score well are those that begin with back-story rather than in scene. Back-story is the history a writer needs to know to create characters who ring true. But readers only need to know that today, now, in this opening scene, the character feels and wants something. The emotion hooks the reader, giving the author time to supply back-story later.
The challenge is to figure out which details are absolutely necessary for the reader to know, and when and how to bring them in. Richmond writer Dennis Danvers gave me a great tip in this area: introduce back-story as the protagonist needs to think about it, or as the past occurs to the protagonist, not as the writer thinks she needs to educate the reader. In other words, back-story is relevant only if it matters to the character.
Early drafts will run heavy with back-story, and so they should. But in the revision process, as the right structure for a novel emerges, writers who focus on present-action scenes rather than back-story have the greatest potential to hook their readers and keep them turning pages.