Sunday, May 18, 2008

Getting Inside Your Character

In all of my classes at the moment, we are workshopping (critiquing). This means I am reading and commenting on around 52 lots of pages over 3-4 weeks, ranging from short stories to picture books to novels, which includes fantasy, crime, literary, humorous, YA and little kid's stories. For many students, this is their first experience of getting multiple comments on their work, from people who may not read the same genre or have done any past critiquing of other's writing. It's a lesson in diplomacy, tact, encouragement and helpful feedback.

The one thing that comes through for me is the lack of depth in characterisation and point of view. It's totally understandable - you come to class, you spend a lot of time reading, writing, discussing - and then suddenly you have to produce something. It's been hard enough taking in all the information and how-to stuff. To put it all into practice at once is a big ask. But my main feedback in 90% of what I am commenting on is: you are not deep enough into knowing your viewpoint character and seeing the world through their eyes, speaking with their voice, acting with their impulses and motivations.

My new book Tracey Binns is Trouble is just starting to get reviews (brilliant one in the Sunday Age today - very exciting!), and as part of my own publicity efforts, I created a Tracey Binns website. What was fantastic about this (apart from the fact that I had a lot of fun with it) was the way in which it really helped me get even further inside the character of Tracey. I had to stop being me (old, boring writer) and become Tracey (12 year-old smartypants with lots of energy and kid humour). I imagined what the site would look like and sound like if I turned it over to her, what kinds of stuff she'd put on it, what she'd say about things like Teacher's Notes that the publisher kindly gave me to add in.

Tracey is not polite. She likes to say what she thinks, she has some weird likes and dislikes, but she also is good at sharing - so she shares her favourite recipe with you. As I am writing another book about her, creating this site became part of getting back inside her head and hearing her voice and what she says about the world around her. She'd love you to visit!

Very few people are going to create a website for their character, especially when the book isn't even finished, let alone published. But it's that kind of character development and work that helps to create a strong voice in the work, and also goes a long way towards the reader feeling that this is a real person, with a story that is interesting and engaging. In class, we start with character templates and timelines, but that's just the beginning. There are other methods that help - free writing, drawing pictures, imagining dreams and daydreams, interviewing the character, writing other stories about them - and all of them help the writer move more deeply into their head and heart. I think it's an essential part of what brings a story alive, and worth the hard background work.


Unknown said...

That sounds brilliant. I'm doing online subjects this year and it is the biggest thing I miss, interaction with others...immediate feedback. i love the idea of interviewing the character and the website is a brilliant idea. It gives me the idea of doing a blog for my character and seeing what happens.
I really enjoy your blog
best regards

Sherryl said...

Carmel, I try to respond to most student posts on the online Discussion Board within a day or two. And in one subject we tried a Chat session which was fun and helped everyone to feel more part of a class. You're right, it's not the same, but it does allow shy students to "speak up" more, I find.
When teaching online, I've learned that a really important part of it is trying to build that sense of community and getting to know each other. It makes it more fun and more engaging for everyone, including me!

Anonymous said...

Nice job on the website, Sherryl. It was great to read an excerpt. Ms. Binns is a pistol. You have to love a character that knows when to apply a headlock! Not to jinx, but I predict thumbs-up on the reviews.

Kristi Holl said...

Loved your first Tracey book, so I'm not surprised the reviews are great! Your website really captures the voice of your main character. I think your post today is exactly right--and I'm guilty of it myself in starting to write too soon. A good reminder!

Anonymous said...

Hi Sherryl, sorry for the double comment, but I was re-reading your post this morning and wondering what sorts of things you include in your character template. Right now I use categories like physical appearance, motivations, secret desires and "things hidden under the bed."

Sherryl said...

That's a good question, Kate. Rather than answer here, I will post on it (knowing how I can go on and on, I need more space, I think!).