Craft: Finding your characters

I’m working on a couple of projects and it’s been hard to stay with each character. I knew that I needed to dive in deeper to each first draft. This questionnaire helped me focus and know each of my friends better. It’s a cheat sheet in a sense. It might help you. If so, use it, change it to suit, pass it along.

CHARACTER QUESTIONNAIRE

  • Date of birth: when and where were they born?
  • Astrology! Why not, eh?
  • What do they like to eat, drink?
  • Favorite clothes
  • Favorite music
  • What do they do on their time off?
  • Where did they grow up?
  • Who was a best friend and why?
  • What mischief did they get upto?
  • How far did they get in school?
  • What are the priorities? The goals?
  • What are they scared of doing?
  • Being?
  • What is the social place (class, access) your character lives in?
  • What is the story that can only happen to them?
  • Find a specific gestures, walk, or look for them
  • How do they rationalise their actions to themselves?
  • To others?
  • Find the details that are so telling, a gesture, word, action
  • A memory from pre-teens
  • A memory from teens
  • From twenties
  • What will they sacrifice for dreams?

Print out copies for each character, and scribble down ideas and play with it. Find them. They’re sticking around until you tell their story so you might as well listen to them. Have a chat, why not?

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MFA: well, I’d wanted a challenge

“Those blanks to be filled are like the variables in an algebraic equation, a network of complex relationships, their meaning determined largely by superposition, juxtaposition, and a literary order of operations that requires the computation of successive disparate parts individually first and then in small groups, and finally as one large whole-a lyric equation of the quadratic order, the results of which depended upon the data provided by the reader, but which all reside on the same curve of meaning, subjective iterations of the primary form envisioned by the author.” Joey Franklin. (An Imagiste Approach to the Lyric Essay.)

Oh boy…

Flash Fiction: Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you

Your Downstairs Neighbour doesn’t like you. Why? Can you hear the stereo? Mine? No, because I can hear your bloody Gameboy. Games, boy. Over and over that damn theme song, it’s not really song is it though? A loop of bass and rhythm but without any rhythm eh? Do you want to be an american idiot? Caught up in the daily routine of work to pay rent to play your games at night? And get pizza delivered? Every fucking night? So when you die, or about to die because you’re unhappy and unhealthy and yes, I’m judging you and I’m okay with that, but when you’re up there with that god of yours are you going to say, man I reached level five, can you believe it, I mean, oh god, it was great the lights blinked twice and then that was it, you got me, was that it? I’d wanted to get to the next level and the pizza, the big one with pepperoni was on its way and who’s going to pay for it? What a waste, oh god, what a waste. And god says, yes, it was. And then me, that neighbour downstairs who listens to your creaking chair and the repeated theme track for that bloody Gameboy will eat your pizza even though I don’t like pepperoni but the dogs do and this music on my stereo breaks my heart so maybe it’s a good thing to get pissed off with you and your bloody Gameboy, games, boy. It breaks my heart.

 

(An excerpt from the collection of prose, poems, and portraits, Clean up on Aisle 23.)

Writer’s Craft: On Fiction and Character Development

On Fiction: Knowing your characters is key to a writing an insightful novel or short story. 

It’s true, the more we know the protagonist, the side characters, everyone mentioned, the fuller the sense of story we take the reader into. We’re less like to have pawns, stereotypes, and more likely to have believable people reacting to the world we’ve stuck them into.

Alexander Chee came to VCFA in 2017 and talked to us in the MFA program about developing his own characters and how much research he would invest in each one. He inspired much of this list, some are his ideas and others are mine that came from the inspiration of listening to him talk.

The list is in no specific order. It’s a collection of random questions and suggestions that help me when I’m writing fiction. It helps me in revision too, I can go back to each character once the story is finished in my case, and look more carefully into their backgrounds and make sure it rings true or if more information is needed for the reader to understand their actions and reactions.
It helps me. I hope it helps some of you too.

  • Trust the magic
  • Let the story out
  • Trust the characters
  • Write everyday
  • Get it out, remember?
  • Drop in deep
  • Fall into the spell
  • Trust your intuition
  • What’s the reason for living that lfie?
  • Who’s in control in the story? The protagonist’s life?
  • Ask questions of your characters
  • Follow those questions in each chapter
  • Access the urgency
  • Create a playlist
  • What do you have to say?
  • See the world through their eyes
  • Trust intuitive structure
  • Write what you should write, what you know
  • Don’t worry about externals
  • Don’t be in good taste
  • Let the characters act true to themselves
  • Don’t censor them
  • Or yourself!
  • Find the details that are so telling, a gesture, word, action
  • Poignancy, find it in each character
  • The story is its own editor
  • Do you know enough to tell this story?
  • Commit to writing two hours per day
  • Dive in, swim, float, paddle in that story every day
  • Write out all the sories and later work on how it fits together
  • What are you interested in?
  • Who do you want to hang out? You’ll be spending a lot of time with these characters
  • Research the context, era
  • Find those odd details
  • Clothes, politics, food, houses, music, transport, hairstyles, shoes
  • Don’t control the voice of each character, they are unique
  • What is the social place your character lives in? class, access, education, goals, lifestyles
  • What is the story that can only happen to them?
  • Know them so well that you can deeply know the motivations at all times
  • Find the intimacy of character details, the gestures, walk, look specific to that person
  • How do they rationalise their actions to themselves? To others?

If you have more ideas, then add to the comments below and we can share the info. Thanks again. Be well. Be creative.

Book Review: The Collected Works of Billy The Kid by Michael Ondaatje

What is it about this book that is so timeless? The Collected Works of Billy The Kid takes us inside the life, thoughts, desires, rationalisations and memories of this iconic character from the American West on the 1880s.

It’s called a novel on the cover but Ondaatje plays with structure by mixing poetry, prose, photographs and historical accounts. Ondaatje flows between forms to create an in-depth collection. Ondaatje does this so easily, so beautifully that I kept turning pages, and on my second cup of coffee, I was still in bed reading while it rained outside.

Ondaatje researched The Collected Works of Billy The Kid, turned to photographs, dime novels, contemporary newspapers and accounts from all those who came across him. What he gives us is a narrative, a memoir in a sense, one that shifts perspectives and forms, interior and exterior worlds, and all in a concise precise lyrical language. It’s amazing. I loved how each page took me to a new experience or incidence. Part myth, fiction, history and storytelling, The Collected Works of Billy The Kid is restrained but energetic.

He captures the language of the 1880s in the syntax and choice of words. Poems are often short and immersive.

MMMMMMMM mm thinking

moving across the world on horses

body split at the edge of their necks

neck sweat eating at my jeans

moving across the world on horses

 

Each poem or prose stands alone on the page. There is a lot of white space. They are tidily written, aligned at the top and left. He adds photographs. The style of a dime novel. Newspaper cuttings. He plays within the poems, one echoes nicely from the first stanza to the last one that is written in reverse of the first and is as stirring in both.

Garrett was “the ideal assassin. Public figure, the mind of a Doctor, his hands hairy, scarred, burned by rope” and “everything equiped to be that rare thing” Ondaatje finished the two page portrait the writing sane assassin five times with no punctuation and ending with sane.

Is it possible to understand the violence of Billy the Kid, one so young, and where did the need or ability to kill come from. “A motive? some reasoning we can give to explain all this violence. Was there a source for all this? yup – ” Billy and Brewer watched a friend murdered horrifically from a nearby hillside, one that stuck with the boy of eighteen.

Or so says Billy half way into the collection.

With the gentle yet graphic build up of Billy’s story in part written from his perspective and at other times from the women and friends around, I’m there. I trust Ondaatje completely. He writes with such empathy and the internal worlds are fascinating and lyrical. It’s an addictive journey. I couldn’t put the book down. The pauses between moments build up the tension and the desire to know more kept me there. The bite-sized stories, the form, isn’t just a recent invention, which is what I’d thought, it’s timeless. This book is from 1970. So what is it that carries so well? Ondaatje plays with form to suit the needs of each piece. It makes sense to write in broken and disjointed poems for Billy’s emotions as when he takes a woman to bed in the middle of a storm, or to write a simple shorter prose piece about the setting of the barn at the Chissums’ while waiting out a fever with the farm animals and rats.

What am I left with? As with all these reviews of mine, they are more of a personal response. Think of me as a hungry reader and writer looking for permission to write as my instinct demands, always reading as much as possible to find others who have played and experimented in ways, tones, forms and language. This book then is perfect for me right now. Why?

The Collected Works of Billy The Kid is immersive. The language is lyrical, poetic, and detailed and not just for understanding that era. Mixing up structure and form gives an added depth to the content and is not just for show. The emotional strength of the poetry is fed by those changes in form, rhythms and syntax. The combination of styles here works so well that the story affected me deeply. Ondaatje is such a master with words. There is no doubting him. The Collected Works of Billy The Kid kept me turning pages, taking notes, pausing to breathe in an image. I was invested, engaged, and curious. At times I had to put the book down and stare out the window. What more could I ask for as a writer or reader?

 The Collected Works of Billy The Kid

Michael Ondaatje

(Vintage Books, 1970. $11)

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Writer’s Craft: Revision

A few suggestions for revision. It’s the biggest challenge to me, or rather it has been. This last year though, I’ve found the process less overwhelming. Breaking it down into parts, into giving myself a different focus each run-through takes the pressure off and makes it more enjoyable. What do I mean? I’ll pick one of these points in the list below, and look for that idea alone. Read the essay looking at verbs specifically, what did I overuse? Which verbs could be more dynamic?

Or for settings, I’ll read the novel chapter by chapter focusing solely on the settings, the physical descriptions of rooms, landscapes, homes, streets or towns. I’ll look for ways to capture the sense of the place, the sight, sound, textures and influences on that space.
I’m working one aspect at a time, there’s less pressure and it’s easier for me to find the details lacking or needed. This list is my way of approaching revision. I hope it helps you too.

  • First line: what does it do? Cut it, try again
  • Physical descriptions of people, the narrator, everyone, give the visuals as soon as possible even if indirectly to let the reader imagine what you see.
  • Context and physical settings: let the reader know where the story is set.
  • When, where, why, who: give information so the reader trusts you and then they’ll go with you anywhere.
  • Risks: raise the stakes constantly
  • Choices: give the characters choices and unpredictable responses
  • Find the magical moments of change, shifts, ideas, memories, actions
  • Go with your instincts
  • Generate new ideas when in a good mood
  • Edit when cranky
  • Verbs: highlight your verbs for a page or two and you’ll see which ones could be made more active, interesting, unusual – within reason though. Said/ thought etc are needed, a simple identifying verb also has its own place.
  • What is the story within the story? (the situation and the plot with the plot being the process or goals or development of the protagonist)
  • What secrets are lingering underneath the spoken?
  • What will she sacrifice to reach her own goals?
  • Will she give up her own dreams for another?
  • What’s the fear?
  • Active choices: stay engaged and less at the mercy of life, let her take action
  • Stay physical, keep the characters doing, acting on their worlds, moving, changing, shifting on the physical realm
  • Senses: address them all
  • Backstory: understand each character’s back story whether it’s mentioned or not
  • Motivations, drive, goals, intentions: ask what each one wants and why
  • Trust the story to tell itself, especially on the first draft, write it out, let it out
  • Contrast the mundane with the mad
  • Remember your stuff: when she mentioned a favourite shirt, or a mug, or a person, come back to those details, use them later on.
  • Go deeper into the psyche of each character
  • Rhythms and musicality, repetitions, refrains, use the language to set up a movement with your words and not only the storyline
  • Surface tension: what’s going on behind the main conversation?
  • Uneasy pairings: actions and unexpected emotions eg a nice swim and screaming fit at the public pool.
  • Chronic and acute situations: Chronic is the ongoing longer lasting situation and the acute is what drives the action in that very specific moment
  • Specificity: if you refer to a bus, call it by number or route name
  • Expectations: set up point of view, characters, setting etc quickly
  • Scene: mess with the predictable and those expectations
  • Stain: what then lingers from that scene or interaction?
  • Escalation: character driven, keep building the tension or drama with how your characters work or avoid their own stories
  • Dialogue: each voice has its own syntax, words, rhythms
  • Names: full names give authority and weight
  • Movement: find the grand movement forward as well as the little whirls and loops within
  • Set designer: write as if you are directing the playhouse, the stage, and moves of each one who steps on your stage. Claim it and enjoy the details.
  • Tenses: check consistency
  • Is the reader in the story or being told a story?
  • Use music to influence your rhythms when writing, create a musical playlist for the era or culture you’re writing about. Immerse yourself in those sounds
  • Research the slang, politics, news, weather, culture of the time period
  • Tension: drives the story without it, oh well, who cares, right?
  • Storyboards: write up what happens and when, see what can be moved, or to check the flow of actions, steps, tension, what’s missing?
  • Breathe in, hold it, hold it, hold it, release = Act One, Two, and Three
  • Sentances: vary length, tone, rhythms, paragraphs, white space.
  • Physicality of characters: who do they move in their own bodies? In their clothes?
  • Faces, bodies: be specific, really see each character, the shine of skin, greasy hair, frizzy or dried with split ends? Get into those details
  • Backstory: be juicy and play with their backgrounds
  • What if: add absurd ideas, fabulist, magiacl, trippy. Play with it
  • Threads and throughlines: feel them, create them, follow them
  • Wordplay: it’s your language so mix and match your images to suit your sense of play
  • Bird’s eye view: what’s going on around the main characters?
  • Add more weirdness.
  • Oh, and ENJOY YOURSELF!

Review: Baby Geisha by Trinie Dalton

“Underwear has nothing to do with sociological barriers,” says the narrator in the opening chapter in Baby Geisha, a collection of stories and monologues told with Dalton’s usual wordplay, vivid language, and unexpected images. Readers will fall deeply into these sketches of charmingly messed up characters inhabiting often ignored subcultures and dreams.

Trinie Dalton has created another evocative world all of her own. As described on the cover, it’s like a travelogue with each chapter being set in completely different states and countries and yet the collection hangs together with skill and whimsy. Each story has a unique narrators voice and setting that reflects the narrator’s interior monologue, so convincing it’s blurs the sense of fiction and biography. We wonder. In Wet Look, Iggy has gone looking for a spiritual awakening, Be Here Now, but unfortunately only makes it from California to Missouri. He talks to himself not to judge even as he’s busy judging, speaking outloud even though “he realized this was an unpopular view.” He finds himself at a firework display in the Ozarks, and “he caught himself making assumptions and aimed to halt this.” This is the narrator who struggles in his tent to put on clean boxers before going out because his dad taught him to be prepared for a possible trip to the hospital. The contrasts of what he’s looking for and how he experiences this trip is revealing, funny, and poignant.

Dalton has a unique way with words as we expect after publishing five other books. She adds such unexpected details and in one story the old cheese “has a doll head flavor,” and we all know what she means. The language is often sensual, sexual and wonderfully silly so that the tales come across as charming, light, whimsical, and you almost don’t notice how she writes about loss, loneliness, grief and even death. The mix of magical and mundane made me laugh outloud repeatedly as I read the collection. “It was moronic instead of ironic,” she writes at one point and I nod, knowing the feeling.

Her world is bizarre, a fantasy made of grounded descriptions within ridiculous settings and with memorable characters: Pandora. Zane. The Perverted Hobo. A Husky called Bob. And Rita.

The first lines nearly always stand out, grabbing my attention, and I want to read more. “Sloths, I’m in.” “I’m the kind of snowflake who likes to be the last one clinging.” And, “The trail to the escalator is lined with pigeon entrails, from diseased city birds that were gutted by Bengali tigers.” Well, of course. What else would I expect from Dalton?

The last lines work a similar magic for me. In context this line becomes something more poignant, sad even, “But will I always be a dog eating kibble?” ends the tale of a shell-shocked father back from Vietnam.

In Word Salad, the unexpected once again says hello, popping up at times to make me grin, laugh, and carry on reading. Delighted, I was constantly delighted by the mischievous in the sensual, the different actions told with such a straight face. A road ends in a lake for one narrator searching for wildflowers. There was “nowhere to go but in. I plunge, my engine dies,” and then climbs out as if it’s the most natural response to drive into the pond.
Trinie Dalton’s flights of imagination are simply beautiful, extraordinary, sexual and sensual in ways that kept me reading and left me wanting to sit down and talk with her over a cuppa tea. The funny lines, the language, a careful study of people and tender insights fill these pages: I’m inspired.

Reading Baby Geisha is like hearing a familiar voice in a crowded pub. You have to listen for more. You linger, you pay attention, and yes, you will laugh. Pure mischief.

trinie

photo by Blake Z Rong 2017

BABY GEISHA (stories) by Trinie Dalton

Two Dollar Radio

$16 trade paper (146p)

ISBN 978-0-9832471-0-4