More on building extreme characters
Published: September 2, 2011
|In the October 2011 issue of The Writer, fiction writer Eric M. Witchey described how to give your fiction more character but putting contradictory, irreconcilable traits into the same person. “If we … link a character’s irreconcilable self … to a story’s overall theme,” he wrote, “we can grab and hold our readers until the character is released from his torment.”|
Part of the discussion focused on his short story “Reunion,” which appears in the Eric Hoffer Prose Award anthology The Best New Writing 2012. In the story, which has elements of magic realism, the main character, Gordon, began in Witchey’s mind “as a collision of two roles: He is mentally ill, and he idealizes a ‘normal’ life.” He built the story from that simple start.
Following is his Workout sidebar, which offers a process for building extreme characters.
I wrote “Reunion,” a short story about a man, Gordon, who attends a family reunion and is terrified of children. (Specifically, Gordon suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder with hebephobia—fear of children; his illness grew from a childhood filled with bullying and maternal abuse.) My story had emotion, a character in conflict, and a revenge-based resolution, but in its initial stages it felt like reading the phone book.
The solution: I wrote many different scenes until I found Gordon’s irreconcilable self (IS). Then I revised the controlling theme to give the story an unexpected resolution. Instead of healing or merely getting revenge for wrongs done in the past, Gordon embraces his abnormality.
Here’s how you might follow a similar process:
1. Create a character and assign him or her an IS and a controlling theme. You have to start somewhere.• Write a short narrative in which the character is working in opposition to the environment. No other characters should appear on stage. Try to imbue the narrative with character attitude colored by the emotions you’ve chosen. Avoid direct thoughts and rhetorical questions. Push word choice, action, and selection of details to deliver the emotion and conflict. In Gordon’s case, test scenes included his trying to step across the threshold of his house; his attempting to speak to a stranger; his attempting to touch a child for the first time in his adult life; and his attempting to enter his mother’s room to speak to her about the past.
2. Brainstorm a list of seven to 10 emotions the character might need to display in order to demonstrate the beginning of your story’s theme.
3. Select the three or four most important emotions from your list. In Gordon’s case, they were frustration, determination and hope.
4. Create a setting from your character’s everyday life to reinforce the three or four emotions he will display. In Gordon’s case, I ended up with a sealed car with no air conditioning in a hot August sun.
5. Establish conflicting scene goals for your character. Make it something simple from his normal life. In Gordon’s case, he wants to get out of the car to join a family reunion.
6. Use a three-layered approach to writing a scene in which your character displays the emotions you’ve brainstormed:
• Write the same event, but ignore setting entirely. Work only with the character in opposition to another character. In this case, the scene should be primarily indirect dialogue (in which speech or conversation is summarized) and character actions.
• Write the same event, but now only do subjective, interior narrative in which the character is in opposition to himself relative to the scene goal.
7. Consider your IS and controlling theme. Do you still feel like they can work together? If not, revise them—usually in the direction of greater specificity. If you think they can work together, repeat the scene-development exercise a few more times or until all three efforts start to rely on one another for reinforcement. While working with Gordon, one of my iterations of this exercise yielded a rather graphic piece about Gordon being caught naked in the backyard. Additional iterations led from there to Gordon’s IS, which allowed me to revise the ending to include his acceptance of himself as he is.
8. Once you’ve begun to see that the three pieces are starting to depend on one another’s characteristics, begin with a blank page and write the same event as a full scene in which all three layers work together to display and reinforce the character’s IS and the reader’s introduction to your controlling theme.
9. Repeat the exercise, but focus on the transformed character and the reader’s last exposure to your controlling theme.
Eric M. Witchey's second novel, Beyond the Serpent's Heart, the tale of a young Mayan man's struggle to avert the end of the world foretold by the Mayan calendar, is available from IFD Publishing through most e-book distributors. He has sold more than 70 short stories, and he has received a number of writing awards. Web: ericwitchey.com.