Friday, April 29, 2011

Getting to Know You

by Matt Sinclair

My wife is a saint. I suppose she'd have to be to put up with me—what with a writer's piles of papers and books, the frequent empty stares when my mind is off in some fictional setting with people who exist only in my imagination, and of course the hours spent pulling those people into the world of sentences, paragraphs, chapters....

That said, when I met the woman who became my wife, her saintliness was the furthest thing from my thoughts. Light years away.

Ideally, we learn who people are in the manner and time that makes the most sense. When we learn about them too soon, alarms tend to go off and books are closed never to be reopened.

In short: pace yourself.

I was reminded of this recently while working on a manuscript I thought was nearly finished. I'd been through the manuscript a couple dozen times, but at the suggestion of my critique partners I saw one of my characters in a new light. What I thought was a seemingly innocuous business trip by the wife of my main character became a launch pad for a whole new story line: a potential affair. The more I thought about the possibility, the more I recognized that this undercurrent had been in the manuscript all along, only I hadn't been watching for it. My shoelaces were untied. Seems I'm always the last to know!

So with a song in my heart, I considered having an affair with this woman, so to speak. Within a half hour, more than 1700 words were down. And it was a complete mess. Chalk up one more example to Anne Lamott's crappy first drafts. The conversation between my characters moved way too quickly. These were married people, after all. Married people are slow. Or maybe it's just me.

What mattered most is that it didn't ring true, and I knew it immediately because I know this woman. No, she's not based on anyone I know. But that doesn't matter. She is the woman I've been writing all these many months.

I know how she wears her hair, and I know what she thinks about during her commute to work. I know what she thinks of her family and her job. In my mind, I see her every day. I'm still in the midst of revisions, but I think I know how the potential affair will end. I've written dozens of scenes between her and her husband, many of which lie dormant in old computer files—waiting, perhaps, for a short story and a name change to protect the not always saintly.

Like my personal relationships, those I maintain with my characters are vitally important to me. These people aren't my best friends. I don't even like them all the time. But as an author, that doesn't bother me; they're human, and people stink sometimes. Some characters are prone to make selfish decisions, while others choose to forgo their personal pleasure for a greater good. Ultimately, I find that discovering who these people are both on and off the page is among the most rewarding aspects of writing fiction.

The key, it seems to me, is letting the characters come to a decision by themselves—in their own time and in their own way. That takes time. But it is time well spent.

What do you think? How long does it take to get to know your characters? How many scenes litter your 'cutting room' floor?

19 comments:

Darke Conteur said...

Oh I so hear that. I sometimes go through a whole revision and suddenly something pops and I'm like 0_o......*facepalm*

Lauracea said...

Yes, you're so right - and thanks to you, I've come to the conclusion that's exactly the thing wrong with my present WIP. But I was scared that readers would say they couldn't "connect" with the characters immediately. I think the best thing is to cut much of what I've done and feed it in, one interesting point at a time LOL.

RSMellette said...

Sometimes my changes are like Vermouth in a martini. I pour in too much, then have to pour it all out - but that little bit that clings to the story is just the right amount.

Matt Sinclair said...

Nicely said, RS. Of course, the other option is to pour in more gin and invite more friends.

Lauracea, I'm happy if I have helped. It can be tough to know which tidbits to trim out and which to reweave. There's a scene in my manuscript that I know is gone but I still see it, and I haven't decided whether it should go back in or not.

Matt Sinclair said...

Darke, I think I have permanent indentations on my forehead from the myriad face-smacks I've planted.

Kay Elam said...

Isn't it interesting where an innocent thought, observation or suggestion can lead? I look forward to seeing how this plays out.

Matt Sinclair said...

As am I, Kay :-)

Richard said...

Knowing your characters inside and out is vital. Sometimes it takes a while to realize who or what they are. I try to decide which personality type my main characters are within the context of the enneagram: their dominate characteristics. I find it helps a lot to know their psychological makeup. When you take this approach, you begin seeing what these characters are capable of, which feeds your plot. It works for me.

Justin Holley said...

Nice post Matt! And it's the pacing itself that always gets me in the end. I work so hard to develop my characters gradually. And then when I go back and re-write, I'm continuously finding themes that dead-ended and need to either be withdrawn or completed. Madness.

dr3am3r said...

I love the way you wrote this post. Characters really do become friends. I like that you look into all of this.

Rebecca Dupree said...

I loved this post! I get close to my characters, sometimes it is hard to say goodbye!

Jemi Fraser said...

I get close to my characters too. I almost always find that when I'm struggling moving the draft forward, it's because I stopped listening to them along the way. I've tried to force them, and we know THAT doesn't work! :)

Eeleen Lee said...

Sometimes you don't know your characters at all! Even after being involved from the start, but this unknown potential keeps your writing fresh

Ruth said...

Earlier in the week, I came to answer questions for a post and now keep returning for the quality of reflection and the depth of knowledge I find as I read over new and old posts.

What a great blog!

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks everyone! @Richard, I'm unfamiliar with the term "enneagram." Can you elaborate, either here or via Facebook?

@'s Justin, dr3am3r, Rebecca, Jemi, and Eeleen: thanks so much for your comments. It's reassuring to hear that I'm not the only one who thinks that way, though I suppose I'm not too surprised. We're writers, after all.

@Ruth: I'm rather fond of this blog too, as you might imagine. Thanks for coming back and I hope we keep encouraging you to return!

Richard said...

The Enneagram is a personality-type matrix that designates nine basic personality types: the helper, the status seeker, the artist, the thinker, the loyalist, the generalist, the leader, the peacemaker, and the reformer. The names vary somewhat in different systems. Every person, deep down inside, fits one of these types, although there are variations of them. Each one has their 'good' form, 'so-so' form, and 'bad' form. I use 'Personality Types' by Don Richard Riso. It's a very useful system.

Matt Sinclair said...

Ah, now I understand. I'm more familiar with the Myers-Briggs personality types. But I'll look further into "enneagrams." Those types of things can be very helpful when constructing characters, as you suggest.

Caroline Hagood said...

I do love the idea of letting the characters tell/show you who they are and what they do.

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, Caroline. It's amazing what even a sloppily designed character can say if you're listening.