#RutBusterBook: Getting to know you

Building characters is a critical – and, I’m learning, quite difficult – part of writing a book.

TLDR: I’m a first-time author writing a picture book, and I’m taking readers along on the journey.

 

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My absolute favorite TV show is The Good Place. My son and I watch the show together, often replaying scenes over and over to catch gags we missed the first time because we were laughing so hard. His favorite character is Jason, the sweet Jaguars-loving doofus who died in a robbery attempt gone horribly, hilariously wrong; I adore Michael, the world’s only bowtie-wearing demon.

As a writer, I appreciate Good Place for more than just its clever jokes. It also can make me cry. The continuity of the characters evokes that emotion, achieved from the writers’ hours of discussing each person’s motivations and desires.

Jason reacts to situations in a distinctly Jason-y way. What he says is often ridiculous, always funny, sometimes sweet – but not surprising, because he’s utterly consistent. Fastidious Michael, meanwhile, is endlessly fascinated by human behavior, and his reactions to it are always so on-brand. He once watched the entire run of Friends in an effort to understand his mortal companions – resulting in a hilarious episode where he riffed on every situation in the context of the sitcom.

Good Place has taught me characters should shock you with their actions but not their motivations. Those stem from their basic traits, be they greediness, generosity, or vengefulness.

I’ve given the subject of character building a lot of thought as I work on #RutBusterBook, where my biggest challenge lately has been bringing my characters to life.

See, my background is in journalism. I don’t usually create characters. I observe them. I interview people and build my story from there.

My picture book is based on real history. My two main characters lived in the 1880s. Clearly I’m not interviewing them.

So I have to flesh them out myself.

I keep asking myself, what makes them tick? Why do they do this or that? Sometimes I create answers based on what I know about them through my research. I have trouble, though, translating those imagined into concrete character traits and behavior.

Every time I think I’ve filled in a blank, I see more gaping at me. For instance:

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  • I know my protagonist sent a series of letters to the president. But I don’t know why she did it—was she bored? Was she the 19th-century equivalent of an internet troll?
  • I don’t know how she felt when she mailed the letter. Was she nervous? Hopeful? Did she even imagine the president would read it?
  • I know she didn’t tell her family about the letters – they were amazed when the president eventually arrived on their doorstep to discuss the letters’ content – but I don’t know why she decided to keep her mouth shut.

Can you write a book if you haven’t connected to your characters? I wonder this as I write and rewrite parts of my picture book.

The passages lack the warmth of my nonfiction writing, when I rely on the real voices of my subjects to guide me. What I’ve written sounds more like a recitation of facts than a story. My readers require insights on why my characters act a certain way. I’m stuck conveying actions instead of emotions.

I see this problem. Yet I struggle to fix it.

Can I develop the skill of hearing what a character has to say? Can I work at this like I worked to run a faster mile or develop better grammar skills?

Many times, I have read accounts from authors describing how they hear their characters speak to them. How the story sometimes veers off in unexpected directions because that’s what the character wants. This hasn’t happened to me AT ALL. Which has led me to question my abilities.

Can I develop the skill of hearing what a character has to say? Can I work at this like I worked to run a faster mile or develop better grammar skills?

Or is hearing your characters’ voices something you’re born with, like rhythm or perfect pitch (neither of which I have)?

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I wonder if it’s personality-based. I’m not a daydreamer. I’m not sentimental. I’m terrible at discerning others’ emotions unless they’re straight-out crying.

I’m a goal-oriented, practical person. I have never felt a desire to write because I had to get story out; I write because it feels easy and natural to me, and I’m really not much of a talker. (So at least I have one characteristic of a writer. Hurray for introversion!)

Tonight, frustrated once again by my characters’ one-dimensionality, I turned to my most steadfast companion on the #RutBusterBook journey: Google. I searched for character-building exercises to help me find my characters’ voices. I’ve done this before. But this time I found something that gave me hope.

Midway down the first page I looked at, I discovered a reference to The Trolley Problem. This is a philosophy class exercise that asks students to decide whether to pull a lever that would save five people but kill one, or do nothing and kill five people but save one.

The Trolley Problem featured prominently in an episode of The Good Place. I laughed out loud when I saw it on the page. And, as suggested by the author, I asked myself what solution my two characters would give to this problem.

They made different decisions. I pulled up a blank Word doc and began writing about why they made their choice. These paragraphs won’t make it into my book. But they do bring me one step closer to connecting with my characters, allowing me to imagine the how and why behind the who and what of the story.

 

 

So, where am I on my book today? I have:

  • Been reading a lot of historical documents from the era my story is set in. I figured I’d have to take a trip to view a couple primary sources, but it turns out a surprising number are available online, which is better for my budget. Note: As someone insanely devoted to multi-tasking, I do a lot of this reading on the treadmill, and I highly recommend this option if it doesn’t make you sick.
  • Fleshed out a story idea to a well-known online magazine that responded to my pitch for a fact-based story on my main character. Crossing my fingers this one comes through.
  • Looked at a few agents’ submissions pages. I’m not anywhere near ready yet. But I want to have a file full of places to query when the time comes.