Just don’t pretend you know more about your characters than they do, because you don’t. Stay open to them. It’s teatime and all the dolls are at the table. Listen. It’s that simple. (Bird by Bird, p.53)
Characters come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time. They reflect us, and the people we know, and the people we want to know, and the people we don’t want to know but know anyway, and the people we’ve watched walking down the street and eavesdropped on while catching the bus. Character building is more complicated than self-consciously grabbing a bunch of things that you’ve found and quickly finding some kind of glue to stick them together, and then attaching strings so you can put on a puppet show.
Character building is more about character uncovering, because characters are mysterious. They leap up from some murky subconscious place. As you write them, you gradually find out new things about them, and they wander off and do things that you didn’t expect them to do, and say things you didn’t expect them to say. Getting to know them is also getting to know ourselves. You probably won’t know them until you’ve spent a lot of time writing their stories.
Lamott tells us not to worry if we don’t know everything straight away. We can test out the details, we can set situations up and see what our characters do. It’s best to let them make mistakes, to find their flaws, to make sure that there are important things at stake. Sometimes a character turns out not to be the person we first assumed they were, but someone far more interesting. And yeah. You can’t flick a switch and have everything light up. Like everything, it’s all about patience:
We start out with stock characters, and our unconscious provides us with real, flesh-and-blood, believable people. My friend Carpenter talks about the unconscious as the cellar where the little boy sits who creates the characters, and he hands them up to you through the cellar door. He might as well be cutting out paper dolls. He’s peaceful; he’s just playing.
You can’t will yourself into being receptive to what the little boy has to offer, and you can’t buy a key that will let you into the cellar. You have to relax, and wool-gather, and get rid of the critics, and sit there in some sort of self-hypnosis, and then you have to practice. I mean, you can’t just sit there at your desk drooling. You have to move your hand across the paper or the keyboard. You may do it badly for a while, but you keep on doing it. Try to remember that to some extent, you’re just the typist. A good typist listens. (pp. 71-72)
And what’s the best way to find out more about our characters? Dialogue. There is no better way to reveal characters, for both our readers and ourselves:
You need to trust yourself to hear what they are saying over what you are saying. At least give each of them a shot at expression: sometimes what they are saying and how they are saying it will finally show you who they are and what is really happening. Whoa – they’re not going to get married after all! She’s gay! And you had no idea! (p.66)
I can’t even begin to describe how much I relate to this passage. My characters always have a habit of mentioning things in passing that are actually Huge Important Things That Change The Whole Damn Story. I think they sometimes forget that I don’t already know.
Dialogue is the way to nail character, so you have to work on getting the voice right. You don’t want to sit there, though, trying to put the right words in their mouths. I don’t think the right words exist already in your head, any more than the characters do. They exist somewhere else. What we have in our heads are fragments and thoughts and things we’ve heard and memorised, and we take our little ragbag and reach into it and throw some stuff down and then our unconscious kicks in. (pp.67-68)
Lamott also talks about characters being engaging and likable and reliable, people who make for compelling company, who aren’t trying to lie or manipulate us. Sure, this might be fiction, but when it comes to characters, it’s all about truth:
A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of the truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly. You make up your characters, partly from experience, partly out of the thin air of the subconscious, and you need to feel committed to telling the exact truth about them, even though you are making them up. (pp.52-53)
I did a couple of writing papers at university, and seriously, I think if you presented this idea to one of my writing classes, they would probably have argued it down and then beaten it with sticks and then argued it down some more. There’s the whole movement of writing where fiction is all conscious about itself being fiction, and there’s lots of messing around with truth and what truth means, if anything. And this absolutely endless obsession with unreliable narrators. Nothing in the world is shifty and postmodern like an unreliable narrator. And there’s definitely lots of fascinating territory to explore in that sort of thinking*.
But that stuff has never been my territory. I like my characters honest even when they’re trying to hide; I like closeness and intimacy. I’ll never forget the summer when Amber and I became best friends, or the weeks after I first fell in love with Josh. When you find someone who is a true kindred spirit, in the full Anne of Green Gables sense of the phrase, there are always so many things to tell each other, so many confessions to make. You learn the other person piece by piece. And the more you learn, the more you realise there is to learn. That’s how I like things to be with characters. I love the gradual unfolding, and my god, I love falling in love with them.
And that’s why I’ve reread Anne Lamott’s writing on characters so many times. For me, it describes the frustration and joy of getting to know my characters perfectly.
*Janet Frame did it wonderfully, for one. Go read Living in the Maniototo!