This blog first appeared on the SCWA Columbia II Chapter’s blog in 2017.
Don’t I Know You? by Kasie Whitener
In 2015, I presented a workshop for SCWA on plot arcs. My co-presenter had the subject of character development. She detailed a process she’d created that employed the Myers-Briggs personality tests to diagnose characters. I was stunned by the science of her methodology. It had never occurred to me to be so specific, so intentional about a character.
A year later when I started using Scrivner, a word processing software program for writers, I dallied with its Character templates that ask for the character’s physical description, personality, habits and mannerisms, background, internal conflicts, and external conflicts.
I write literary fiction which is: 1) a character-driven story, and 2) creative storytelling. Put another way: in literary fiction, who you tell a story about and how you tell the story are way more important that what the story is.
Suffice it to say, I should have intimate knowledge of my characters. They are 50% of the novel’s equation. So why don’t I put in the work of my Myers-Briggs-savvy co-presenter?
Anxiety over whether I have fully developed these characters used to haunt me. In every revision I would ask myself, “What does this character want?” In every scene, I would think, “Is this consistent with his personality?”
It drove me crazy.
Here’s the truth of it: my characters live with me. I see them, hear them, talk to them, commiserate with them, and love them. They start talking and I start writing. That’s why I write literary fiction.
My stories don’t begin with “there was a boat at sea and a storm came up…”
They begin, “Lord Byron tastes like opium.”
My characters are rich and textured because they’re imperfect and messy and undecided. They don’t fit templates; they change their minds and become better people and become worse people and apologize and then screw up again. My characters are real people.
And therein, writer friends, is my problem.
Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton
Aaron Sorkin tells us characters are not people. They must be finite, they exist only in the story.
So, my biggest chore in revision is exaggerating the relevant parts of a character’s personality and minimizing the irrelevant parts. This streamlining is especially needed in short stories where irrelevance can derail an entire story.
My entry in this year’s Carrie McCray Award contest is about a woman running into an old lover on her daughter’s first day of kindergarten. My workshop readers asked: Is she married? What kind of work does he do? Why didn’t they ever reconnect after that one hookup?
The story doesn’t need those answers. It doesn’t even use her name. She’s every GenX mom on the first day of kindergarten looking into the eyes of the hottest guy she’s ever had sex with. That’s the story.
Paring down real people into characters is hard. I’ve only recently discovered one of my main character’s primary internal conflicts and I’m on draft eight. Templates and methods and programs and suggestions are great. But they can’t compete with the voices in my head.