Layers, Like a Cake

chocolate cake

Naturally, I would put up a picture of chocolate cake

Let’s have an extreme example. Picture a man dressed in a nice gray suit walking into his boss’s office, where he suddenly shoves everything off her desk. Then he calmly sits down and tells her he’d like a raise, and he goes through reasons he thinks he’s a good worker and deserves it.

Does this sound like a real person?

And a less dramatic example. A person is waiting at a bus stop, gets on the bus and rides for a while, looking out the window, and finally gets off.

Does that one sound like a real person? Compared to the weird first example, which does not fit normal psychology, the second case sounds like something a person might actually do, but what do you know about the person on the bus? It’s almost like an empty space that we can fill however we want:

  • an old man in a military uniform, looking very tired, got on the bus
  • a young woman with pink-tinged hair, carrying a bag of fruit, got on the bus
  • a girl in her Catholic school uniform, talking nonstop on her cell phone, got on the bus

When I think of a character in fiction as being “real” I suppose two basic things are involved for me. First, the character must behave the way a person might be expected to. Of course people are varied and unpredictable, but if we get someone like the lunatic in the first paragraph above, we need a very good explanation. For me, this is extremely important, and my interest in psychological realism also concerns what kind of character the writer has created. A quiet, shy character, for instance, leads us to expect a certain kind of behavior. I’ve put a book down because the characters seemed unreal and it felt like psychological incompetence on the writer’s part.

The second thing I need for a character to seem “real” is enough detail for them to start to seem distinctive, with their personal habits and tastes and quirky bits. Like a real person. I think this is really hard to do, but when you get into working on it, it’s fun as hell. You can give that old man in a military uniform a white mustache, or he’s carrying a bouquet of white roses, or he’s reading a book of Persian poetry, or he’s humming a Willie Nelson song, or more than one of those at the same time.

This week I’ve been writing on the new novel, and I’ve been focused on getting the story down, just working out the plotline. So I was basically trying to figure out how to move from incident to incident, trying to say “this happened, then this happened, and then this”. Merely doing all of that takes quite a bit of energy, but when you get it worked out, you still don’t have very good writing. Maybe for some types of writing it’s good enough, but not for what I do.

My main character this week is an artist, and I had him mostly in two situations: at an arts center (Quinlan, if you happen to know Gainesville) teaching a class, and then he went home and helped his neighbor catch a goat.

So I worked all that out, but even as I was writing, I kept thinking that my character didn’t seem to have much depth. He was moving and speaking only because I needed him to, so that I could move the plot. He wasn’t moving or speaking because he wanted to, and he didn’t seem very real.

The way I write—and it just happens this way, I’m not planning this—is that I struggle to get some plot down, and then I go back and work on the characters, trying to do things that add some depth to them. One of the tricks for me, especially if they’re minor characters, is to have them speak, so that they aren’t just robots who move across the stage. For every character, I try to think a little about distinctive appearance and habits, so someone has a dangling silver earring, someone else has a baggy old corduroy coat, someone keeps brushing her hair out of her eyes, someone keeps looking out the window while he’s talking, and so on.

I think of this as writing in “layers”. The plot is one layer, adding depth to the characters is another layer, and eventually polishing the style is still another layer.

So I think my artist needs to go home, eat a piece of goat cheese, and think about goats.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), How We Create Magic

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