Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Car Crash Characterization

Sol Stein, in his book Solutions for Writers: Practical Craft Techniques for Fiction and Non Fiction (St Martin's Press, 1995), writes "we need to know the people in the car before we see the car crash." And so, in fleshing out (ha ha) my characters in my Scrivener binder, I am imagining them hurtling, head-long, into a brick wall and asking myself who these people are.

The added complexity for this project is that, in my first draft I mainly wrote from life so the key to this project is to amplify the story, and release it from real life events. But there are some elements of the characterization which I portrayed in this mainly autobiographical first draft which I can't bear to cut out. For example, my old head teacher - a mean and authoritarian man - had a scorpion suspended in a glass paperweight on his desk. I can remember fixating on it and wondering if I broke it, would it still sting? Somehow this fear of the paperweight translated into my fear of him, but, as this scorpion was suspended in glass I too felt that I was untouchable, and confronted him about a school rule which I, and others, objected to. I hope this small detail makes the final cut. The scorpion speaks loudly.

Many 'How To' books extol the virtues of getting to know your characters well before launching into writing. My first stab at a full-length novel ended in disaster when, on my way back from a daily commute to and from work through several fields, I lay on the grass and shouted to the heavens: 'WHERE ARE YOU?' There was no response. Not long after that episode, I binned the project; although I had researched the setting and themes thoroughly (New York, Venice and dyslexia, respectively) I had no idea who was going to inhabit that book, and those characters never arose from my subconscious, let alone crashed a car. This is not something I wish to repeat. And so, I am getting to know my characters; if I keep talking to myself, it is not necessary to reach for the straight jacket.

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