Character Development: Faculty Advice and Pet Peeves
Kelsey Shields, UR Writing Consultant
(printable version here)
Sometimes it helps to hear advice from those who have experience writing and teaching fiction in order to get an outside perspective. Below are pieces of advice and personal "pet peeves" of two creative writing professors at the University of Richmond, Dr. David Stevens and Professor Allison Titus, followed by complete transcripts of their interviews.Think Outside the Box
Dr. Stevens states that "my biggest pet peeve is student failure to think outside the box of their own limited lives. Getting drunk at a frat party, having a bad experience at a formal, arguing with a roommate: who cares? Yet every semester some student wants to regale the workshop with thinly-veiled accounts of his or her own college (or even high-school) existence, most of it a horrible cliche."
"Here's the sad truth. Every day, people get married, get drunk, get a job, get laid. Every day, people celebrate a birth or mourn a death. Though the experience is new to you, stop and think before you write about how original your idea or character will seem to other people. I feel genuine sympathy for those students who write stories in which a character laments the loss of a grandparent, because I know what's really happening is those students--having lost grandparents of their own--are working through personal grief. But being sad is not a story. Being sad is an unfortunate side-effect of being human. Now, if a character loses a grandparent, and that loss causes a psychotic break, and that character goes into a casino with a baseball bat and starts beating all hell out of a row of slot machines, then you have the beginnings of a story."
Don't Censor YourselfDr. Stevens offer more words of wisdom for novice writers: "I would say the biggest problem in terms of character or story development is self-censorship. Young writers want rules. They want to know what they should and should not do. But fiction writing is--and always has been--an act of transgression. As a writer, you should feel a little dangerous, a little unsettled, even a little bizarre writing characters the way you do. In one of his more famous essays, Emerson quotes Goethe thus: 'I have never heard of any crime which I might not have committed.' Goethe, in other words, has never heard of any real-life event so horrific that he could not imagine looking straight at it as a potential source for art. All writers should be so brave and unflinching."
Love Your Darlings
Allison Titus, a published poet and adjunct professor at the University of Richmond, states that her biggest pet peeve is "a character that's not fully inhabited by the writer, that hasn't been committed to. For example, it's helpful/necessary for a character to have a background, behind-the-scenes life that's established at least in the writer's mind so his or her habits or mannerisms or preferences can get revealed and convey an entire and complicated person. Even the smallest gestures are evidence of some impulse or habit your character carries around." For more information on this, refer back to the Signs of a Weak Character section in "Editing Your Characters."
Complete Faculty Interview Transcripts
All of the above. To the question's list of inspiration sources, I would also add TV shows, movies, commercials, comic books, myths, YouTube videos, fairy tales, dreams, Facebook, old trunks in my attic, and chance encounters with former students at P. F. Changs. I am always surprised by the self-constraint some writing students employ. The dictum "Write what you know" is not meant to limit writers to a small core of family and friends for source material (though some writers never need more than that small core). Rather, it's a command to investigate, to experience, to research, to broaden one's horizons. If you're not happy with "what you know," then find a way to know more: read, travel, ask questions, don't be afraid to look closely at people on a train or in a restaurant. Imagine a life beyond your own.
Yes and no. Often a small part of a character presents itself, and I start kicking that detail around in my head. The more it rolls around, the more narrative detritus it picks up, until one day there's a fully-formed character sloughing through my brain. Writers take different approaches. Some imagine the character first, waiting for his or her situation to evolve organically into a plot. Others imagine a good story then design a character to fit that narrative. There are many points in between and no right or wrong. Writers should do what works best for each story.
Level of detail is key. Writers are exposed (usually early on) to the idea that they should know much more about their characters than what appears on the page. It's a good rule, I think, though hardly universal. One should remember that characters evolve with the story. What you think about a character early in the writing process--his or her hopes, fears, tendencies, etc.--may not be what you think after editing the story's final draft.
Sometimes I give students a character "checklist" so they can see what kind of details a story might feature. Random details, for example, can be a particularly effective means of offering a glimpse into a character's mind or habits. The danger, of course, is that writers become wedded to these lists, trying to fill in the details of a character before the story begins. For this reason, most experienced writers eschew such devices, but I will occasionally refer to them--especially late in the writing process--when I am trying to find a quirky way to communicate some idea about a character. (I have attached a sample checklist to this email, adapted from a textbook I use entitled What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, edited by Anne Bernays and Pamela Painter.)
I don't think there's a ready-made list of bad character decisions. Everyone makes their own mistakes. I see a lot of bad college stories because I work at a university. But, in general, I would say the biggest problem in terms of character or story development is self-censorship. Young writers want rules. They want to know what they should and should not do. But fiction writing is--and always has been--an act of transgression. As a writer, you should feel a little dangerous, a little unsettled, even a little bizarre writing characters the way you do. In one of his more famous essays, Emerson quotes Goethe thus: "I have never heard of any crime which I might not have committed." Goethe, in other words, has never heard of any real-life event so horrific that he could not imagine looking straight at it as a potential source for art. All writers should be so brave and unflinching.
Be as detailed as possible. Love words and the way they can create people, events, worlds. And when you think you've gone too far, take a step back to reassess: it's possible you haven't gone far enough.
From anywhere/everywhere. Usually something will spark the idea of a character - I'll imagine the beginning of a character, and then use whatever is interesting that occurs to me or that I encounter (from reading or overhearing or witnessing or whatever manner of stumbling across) to add layers or fill in the gaps. There's always some composite at work.
I don't have a process that's very directed, but I do find visual imagery helpful for contemplating or setting a character's mood/tone.
Writers should try to avoid generalities, and focus instead on particulars - of language, of details, of mood, of scene...
I have a suggestion for an exercise in character development: I always thought it would be fun to answer the Proust Questionnaire in your character's voice, as part of the inquiry into and invention of their personality.
Thanks to Dr. Stevens and Professor Titus for their contribution to this site!