Are you making stereotypes of your characters? Are they predictable? If so, you need to give them a good hard shake and see what falls out of their pockets. If you’re lucky, you’ll find something deliciously odd, dangerous, or scandalous. The goal here, folks is surprise. And surprise for we writers is good, very good.
That’s at least one of the thoughts I came away with from my workshop with Danzy Senna at Skidmore College this summer (see previous post for Part I). In several of the sessions, we reviewed more than a few manuscripts that had some scintillating prose surrounding the character, but there was the predictable narrative that never got away from itself, e.g:
A compulsive young man spends his day watching and calculating every minute[okay, fascinating], but nothing every challenged his compulsive habit, and nothing changed about him or around him; a little boy places a bowler hat on his head to make himself invisible because life at home gets pretty scary [intriguing, let’s keep reading], but he keeps doing this, no one does anything, and that’s all that happens.We’ve all done this! We get so into our characters and we love them, good or bad, but we don’t let anything happen to them to challenge them or transform them. Nothing pops out and hits them in the face. And to top it off, we may veer wildly off tone. Danzy explained this dynamic as the need to get a narrative strategy to help get inside your character, to get beyond the “clean and easy” (my term), and to get…well, “dirty” (her term). The idea, she said, is to get yourself out of your head.
She suggested reading some folk stories as a way to discover narrative strategies to strengthen your writing. “Notice the tone,” she said, “and study at the dialogue.” Using dialogue, she added, “helps you see more characters more clearly.” Folktales not only do this, but they use a framework that astounds not just us, but our characters, too. Here are a few that came out of that class:
• Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol’s "The Nose" http://h42day.100megsfree5.com/texts/russia/gogol/nose.html
• Italo Calvino’s Italian Folktales
• The Hebrew story about “the talking fish” that ran in The New York Times in 2003. http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=980DE0DE1F3EF936A25750C0A9659C8B63&scp=1&sq=Miracle?%20Dream?%20Prank?%20Fish%20Talks,%20Town%20Buzzes&st=cse
On another note, I should add that during my stay the faculty and my peers continued to expand our recommended reading list. Ah, that we should live as long to read all the good books our friends suggest! Here’s just a snapshot of several on my “to-read” list:
Bad Behavior - Mary Gaitskill
Letters to a Young Novelist – Mario Vargas Llosa
“Women in Their Beds” – Gina Berriault
“Hole in the Wall” - Etgar Keret
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers – Mary Roach