Getting A Character “In”
Writing thoughts ahead! For a reminder of why I’m going to be so vague about what I’m writing about/working on, read this post.
In my high school creative writing class, my teacher used to have us go around in a circle and say a word— one word per person, until we had gone all the way around. After we said the word, he would say, in somewhat dramatic fashion, “see it!" And we were expected to stare at the middle of the circle and picture whatever the word was.
This was a practice that we mostly rolled our eyes at, at the time, but now I understand its purpose: he was trying to get us into the habit of visualizing very specific things. The way someone’s hands look, or what they fiddle with in their pocket; what they hang on their walls, how they take off their shoes. (Do they do the “jam your toes into your opposite heel and push” method? Or the “crouch down and untie shoelaces” method?) What do particular motions, objects, gestures, movements look like? How clearly can you “see it”?
I subscribe to the notion that unclear thinking leads to unclear writing, definitely, so visualizing something clearly is important. But my problem is not as much with clarity as with choosing obvious details instead of less-obvious ones.
I often have this great moment when I’m reading when I read a sentence and feel like it describes something simultaneously surprising and familiar— like a gesture that I’ve seen people perform a hundred times, but would never have thought to write about, something that says something about the character without having to lay it all out for me. I love that moment, that familiar surprise, that encounter with lively specificity.
I had another writing teacher— one of my college professors— who talked to us about getting characters “in”. This basically means that, particularly in a short story, you should include details that help a reader to remember and understand your character in a very short period of time. For example, in The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Gansey keeps mint leaves in his pocket and chews them frequently (which tells you half a dozen things about him, including the smell of his breath, without actually telling you directly). Or in Legend by Marie Lu, June’s obsession with detail (machine-like, often in parenthetical lists, usually all for the sake of strategy). As with any story, the characters establish themselves more and more over time, but it’s these grounding details, these unique, specific things, that I find myself remembering in the long term. They get lodged in my head— such that I can recall them easily over a year after I first read them.
Recently I realized this was something I was working on almost by accident. I had written the same scene no fewer than ten times. It was the moment when central character #1 met central character #2, and I wanted their first interaction to be dynamic and interesting, but it just kept falling flat, so flat I lost the motivation to continue each time. I tried different scenery, different action, different everything, and it just…wouldn’t work.
And then, as if a gift from the heavens…! Buttons!
(That’s right, I said buttons.)
Central character #2 walked onto the page checking the buttons on her sleeves for what seemed to be the thousandth time that day. I “saw” the gesture the way my high school teacher always wanted me to, and then I saw her. She was nervous. She was neat, particular, detail-oriented, and a little vain. I knew how she would talk. I knew that she was very still— maybe disconcertingly so. In other words, she was “in,” and it was as important for me, the writer, as it would be for a hypothetical reader.
Usually when I get stuck, it’s because something isn’t working for me, and I have to find a way to make it work before I can continue. If a character feels flat to me, all their interactions feel flat, and the whole narrative feels…blah. Boring. What I want, instead, is for my words to hit the page and spark, and details help that happen.
So, what I’m working on: specificity, just enough, and discarding the most obvious details in favor of the less familiar ones. (Even if they’re very simple— fiddling with buttons is something people do all the time, after all.) I’m working on getting the characters “in”.