Stretching Our Characters

Last night, as I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, I was reminded yet again of one simple rule of storytelling: never let your characters get comfortable.

The episode took all of the show’s main characters and put them in situations where we would never imagine them, situations that seem antithetical to who they are. As a result, even though the plot was exceptionally weak, the episode was enjoyable.

This is a lesson I need to take to heart. Sometimes, as I write short stories or novels, or as I read short stories or novels, the authors will allow their characters to sit in their comfort zones. Perhaps a character’s comfort zone is fighting evil, like a James Bond. In that case, giving them more evil to fight doesn’t seem to do anything except let them stay where they’re comfortable. But if James Bond had to, say, let someone else fight evil instead–now he’s being pushed. Now he’s being stretched.

It’s when characters are stretched that I find myself most engaged in a story. Seeing them do what they’re best at is only interesting for so long.

The point being this: I need to remember to always stretch my characters in every way I can think of. I’ve seen a lot of stories suffer from underdeveloped characters due to comfortable scenarios, and I need to be careful to not make that mistake. If they’re comfortable, something’s wrong and the audience will probably lose interest very quickly. I need to heed that idea, and implement it in my own writing.

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Writing As Respect

Recently I wrote a short story in which my main character took a position I personally completely disagree with. The details were unimportant; what is important is something that happened after I finished the story. Even though I ended up critiquing the mindset my character had, writing from his perspective brought something to mind.

Even though, by the end of the story, I still disagreed with the viewpoint, I respected it a bit more. It wasn’t that writing from his perspective had changed my mind, but rather it had shifted my perception–even if only a little bit. I saw the rationale behind the ideas he espoused. I understood the frustrations the ideas were born out of.

And really, this shouldn’t surprise me. It’s not anything new to say that writing is empathy–in fact, I’ve written on it before.

Pablo Picasso is often quoted as saying, “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth.” I want to take that in a way that Picasso probably didn’t intend. When I wrote this character, which all his flaws, with all his opinions I disagreed with, I thought that he was lying in many of his declarations.

To put it simply, I thought, and still think, that many of the things he said were wrong–in the sense that they were not accurate representations of reality. But now let me apply Picasso to this story to explain precisely what I’m trying to get at. While this story was hardly art, it was, in a sense, a lie to (hopefully) tell the truth. My character may have been wrong, but through displaying the opinion of my character, I understood a little bit better the rationale behind that opinion.

Through writing what I believed to be a lie, I understand better the reality of why people hold the idea, or at least I hope so. So perhaps this is something else we can add to what is quickly becoming a list of “Writing As [Blank]” posts. Writing is thinking, writing is empathy, and maybe writing is also respect.

Could I be completely misguided in this? Absolutely, and because of that I’m curious to hear what you have to say. Is it valid to think of writing as respect?

Writing By Profession

Like the last quote I posted, I don’t agree with everything here. I do think it brings up a good point, though, about writing the best that one can, and working as hard as one can on one’s writing.

Do you know what I was smiling at? You wrote down that you were a writer by profession. It sounded to me like the loveliest euphemism I had ever heard. When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never. I’m a little overexcited now. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished. You won’t be asked if you were in good or bad form while you were working on it. You won’t even be asked if it was the one piece of writing you would have been working on if you had known your time would be up when it was finished—I think only poor Soren K. will get asked that. I’m so sure you’ll only get asked two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.–J.D. Salinger

Describe Your Sorrows

I don’t necessarily agree with everything said here, but I think it’s an interesting perspective on writing to consider.

Describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance. — And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.–Rainer Maria Rilke

Write Until You’re Done

Last Thursday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal contained a fascinating article by Rachel Emma Silverman. It was entitled, “The Clock Hurts Your Creativity.” It reported the findings of a forthcoming research paper studying the effects that different types of scheduling have on our creativity. While there’s not much support in the WSJ article–it primarily lists the conclusions of the paper–what it does tell us is thought-provoking, and I think it has some interesting implications to consider in regards to writing.

The researchers, in several experiments, found that people tend to schedule daily activities in two ways. One way, which they term “clock time” is when you organize tasks based on a clock. You enter data into a spreadsheet from 10 to 11, then have a meeting from 11 to 11:30 and so forth. “Event time,” meanwhile, is when you organize tasks based on their completion. You enter data into a spreadsheet until it’s done, then email your colleague to see if he’s around for a meeting.

Basically, to quickly apply this to writing, “clock time” would be when one sits down to write for one hour, and then resolves to be finished as soon as the hour is up. “Event time” would be sitting down to write, and finishing whenever you feel like you’ve reached a stopping point for the time being.

That’s the distinction, but here’s one of the conclusions the paper comes to:

The researchers found that people who schedule tasks by the clock tend to be more efficient, but they feel they have less control and flexibility over their schedules. That’s because much of their day is controlled by an external force, the clock…By contrast, those on “event time,” who work on tasks until they feel they are done, feel they have more control over their schedules and feel happier at work. They tend to savor positive emotions more, perhaps because they move on from an activity when they sense it is complete, rather than when the clock tells them to.

That’s the first conclusion, and it seems to me that this is the application to writing: when we write until we feel we are done, we’re happier overall with our writing. And, at least in my experience, when I leave a writing session happy with the work I’ve done I’m more inclined to come back at a later time to continue. Right there seems to be one advantage to writing using “event time.”

The paper then concludes by making a suggestion:

To be sure, the researchers say that companies shouldn’t lose clocks and schedules altogether…But in more creative pursuits, such as ad copywriting or academic research, better to provide employees with bigger blocks of time and allow them to finish tasks as they see fit.[sic]

I certainly don’t think we can draw grand and exaggerated conclusions from this, but I do find that I, at least, might be helped by viewing writing this way. Perhaps I won’t get as much done in my writing without scheduling specific blocks of time in which to do it, but this paper seems to suggest that the best creative environment, the environment that best lends itself to writing, is one running on “event time.”

I found this quite humorous. I do wish Safire would have included what Orwell did after he gave his list of writing rules. He said, “break any of these rules instead of saying something outright barbarous.” This list is helpful, but as many authors have pointed out, rules are quite difficult to pin down when it comes to writing. That being said, enjoy the quote.

Do not put statements in the negative form.
And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a
great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
De-accession euphemisms.
If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.”–William Safire

Driving At Night

“E.L. Doctorow said once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
–Anne Lamott