The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Nuf Said?

By Craig Terlson

This week I had the honour of writing an intro to my friend's syndicated comic strip, Spot the Frog. It fascinates me how comics, the best ones, are able to create characters that we want to visit every day. We visit them not just because we hope they will say something funny (and sometimes they don't), but more so because we wonder what the characters have been up to. In my intro, I compared this to Hemingway's iceberg theory -- how the 1/8 of the told story is supported by the 7/8 of the story that remains hidden in the water. The "underneath" is not what the authors tell us, but it is what they know.

This is a huge challenge for me as I try to write characters that live and breathe and eat, characters that have full time occupations, loves, desires and addictions, people that have to go to the bathroom or don't feel well when they drink too much red wine. I think a way of doing this is to let someone loose on the page and follow them for awhile, they're bound to do something, and in the process show us what they are about.

Mark Twain has been quoted on this, to paraphrase: it's how if you just let the characters loose, they will write the story for you. That way you won't have to use any of your own valuable ideas.
I also like a few other writer's quotes on this:

"First, find out what your hero wants. Then just follow him." 
Ray Bradbury

"Characters take on life sometimes by luck, but I suspect it is when you can write more entirely out of yourself, inside the skin, heart, mind, and soul of a person who is not yourself, that a character becomes in his own right another human being on the page."
Eudora Welty

This leads me into the other overall impression I had while writing the intro. It is about compassion. My friend cares for all his characters, quite deeply, and that alone breathes life into them, it forms the rest of the iceberg even if it hasn't be said, or written, out loud.

What you do with this compassion is up to you. I like what Stephen King says:
"I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose."

Or Twain when he talks about what happens if that compassion is missing.
"The test of any good fiction is that you should care something for the characters; the good to succeed, the bad to fail. The trouble with most fiction is that you want them all to land in hell, together, as quickly as possible." 

I am left pondering, as I often do, about the challenge of creating life out of alphabetic characters on a page, truth in fiction, I guess. How to not just imply there is a rich life behind the characters I write about, but to somehow KNOW that there is a rich life, and there is so much more that I could say, but choose to leave unsaid.

It's not easy, in fact it's damn hard. And I think that's the way it should be.

"The role of the writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say."
Anais Nin

Nuf said? For sure.


Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Someone on Zoetrope posted a link to a Missouri Review interview with Annie Proulx in which she said, "I have never fallen in love with one of my characters. The notion is repugnant. Characters are made to carry a particular story; that is their work. The only reason one shapes a character to look as he or she does, behave and speak in a certain way, suffer particular events, is to move the story forward in a particular direction. I do not indulge characters nor give them their heads and 'see where they go,' and I don't understand writers who drift downriver in company with unformed characters." She and Mark Twain obviously do not agree. Different we used to say.

For myself, I tend to follow Proulx but my characters can change as the story progresses and I realize that my original plan for them doesn't work.

Thanks, Craig.

Sun Oct 15, 06:04:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Patricia said...

I really like this Craig and feel that it's spot on, really, and it's also interesting to read Tricia's comments, very different approaches for different writers, I think sometimes I care tooo much about my characters and then I try and protect them and as you say in your last line, I am not as easily able to say what one doesn't you know??? thanks Craig, nicely done.

Mon Oct 16, 12:51:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Wow, I can't imagine thinking of characters as mere chess-pieces, as it seems Proulx does. I'm intensely character-driven. I don't always know where my folks are going to end up; who they are evolves as the story evolves. But I'm finding, with the novel, my characters are more 'constructed.' This is true of my screenplay characters, also. But my short story peeps just sort of unravel before me, during the first draft. Once I know them, I adjust accordingly, both story and character.

Interesting stuff, Craig. How'd the into turn out?

Mon Oct 16, 03:39:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Interesting post. I seem to write the same character over and over again: myself, no matter how hard I try to create a unique pov different my own. I guess it's the only one I have.

Wed Oct 18, 03:01:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger craig said...

Appreciate everyone's thoughts on this - the relationship we have with our characters is a fascinating one. Love them , hate them, follow them or don't - but we do create them.

The intro went well (the usual numerous edits) but it should appear on shelves, with the rest of the book of course, in a few months.

Wed Oct 18, 12:38:00 pm GMT-4  

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