How does a writer—of memoir or fiction—develop authentic characters and deepen characterization? How do we write characters, real or imagined, in the fullness of their being?
About this central aspect of writing story, some say we can never write from inside a character we are not: that is, we cannot write from a man’s point of view if we are a woman, or from a black character’s perspective if we are Asian; basically, that we cannot write any character whose specific group identity we do not share in a categorical way. But these rules wipe out most of people’s heritage and history, and do not begin to approach the ways in which people understand their own identities. Nor can we second-guess the new information that will surface by happenstance or by hard search for many people as to who they really are. While there are real barbed-wire fences and concrete walls between people, seemingly impassable boundaries of ignorance and insensitivity, fear and self-interest, exploitation and guilt, there are also countless instances of the blurring of such boundaries between human beings, in the forms of absolute love and alliance and sacrifice and connection. These crossings may have been born from an act of informed imagination, that very ability to imagine oneself into the world of another.
Poet and teacher Fred Marchant said to me once, “We desperately need the imaginative embrace that does not appropriate.”
Often we are fascinated by a certain character not because of a deep absence of their qualities within our own being, or a sense of the “foreignness” of their experience, but because of a deep connection, sometimes by a kind of oppositional process; for example, we have never owned land or felt at home—they have always “owned” land—though in our story, they will lose it. Not just an opposition, therefore, but a string from gut to gut, from self to character and back, made of desire and loss, memory and yearning, that bears exploration.
Writing authentic characters comes from a process that walks a line between deep reverence and respect for others and deep disobedience and absolute internal freedom, a line between opening the self to its profound aches and yearnings, to what moves it, and allowing what moves us to push forward and connect in a subterranean way to what moves others.
What about this need for disobedience?
Certainly many of us would never write a word if we had not located that ability to be more than disagreeable but rather to solidly refuse to obey—to toe the line—to be parrot—to nod in silence or in language.
In the essay “Stepping off the Path: Disobedience and Story-Making in ‘Little Red-Cap’” (from To Speak or Be Silent: The Paradox of Disobedience in the Lives of Women, ed. Lena B. Ross), author Jeanie Watson says,
“Making one’s own story necessitates a move from what is to what might be, that is, a move from the known into the unknown. Without movement, without the ongoing creative process of ‘making,’ without an act of the imagination, the individual self stagnates and dies. Moving beyond the limits of the known, moving into an imagined space, constitutes an act of disobedience. Therefore, disobedience must be at the core of any ‘making.’ Little Red-Cap [or Little Red Riding Hood, as many of us know her] steps off the path and, by her act of disobedience, succeeds in making her own story.”
Stepping off the path seems a crucial aspect of the work of writing memoir, of writing one’s own story, since many internal boundaries can keep us from accessing our true selves and stories. But this potent disobedience seems a crucial point as well in the development of “fictional” characters. We might, with all the courage and labor it takes to write a character that seems far away from us, do an honest but inadequate job. Still, the character or story we write might help make a space for others to come forward and fill that space with their truths. Our writing characters who seem experientially far from us might just open discussion, and we might have to take the heat, the criticism, and learn from others’ responses to our work. In this diverse world of flight and exile of many kinds, we are not on solid ground in knowing those we are connected to, but rather live on unknown terrain that is constantly and rapidly shifting. All borders are such, by their nature, whether barriers of physical wall or unjust law or long hatreds or economic and structural apartheid or cultural or geographic isolation. We have work to do to cross those borders.
I am convinced that the usual idea of the “back story” of a character, that which has happened in the character’s past, is a fundamentally important but also incomplete concept. Much of what moves a person is not that which has happened, but that which has never happened: that which she or he yearns for, that which she or he has never been able to do, or create, or see, or learn, or accomplish. Part of what we yearn for is to accomplish our real mission in life, to create something beautiful and powerful that fulfills us, and yet so many of us are thwarted in this by poverty, overwork, illness, abuse, exploitation, displacement, and wars both big and small.
How, then, do you enter your character’s world? This is the work of crossing borders, the work of compassion, of “feeling with” another, with its source neither in pity nor in romanticizing or exoticizing, but in deep connection—whether by shared experience or by a longing to know another or a mysterious cord that links us. At the border is conflict and challenge, but without the crossing, there is no knowledge of others.
How does one enter another’s world—a fictional world or, for writers of creative nonfiction, a remembered world—with reverence and respect, with knowledge and with openness to its truths, with compassion, with a way into its possibilities? How does one transcend boundaries, get into the world of another, and let its truths speak?
Doing the work of crossing borders and the work of compassion is what poet William Greenway does in “Pit Pony.” Visiting an old mine in Wales, the speaker learns the story of the pit ponies, who were born in the mines and died in the mines. The speaker asks questions about the very last pit pony, taken above ground: “…when it / dies in the hills, not quite blind, the mines /
closed forever….Will it / wonder dimly why it was exiled from the rest / of its race, from the dark flanks of the soft / mother, what these timbers are that hold up / nothing but blue? If this is the beginning / of death, this wind, these stars?”
So, perhaps the first step in creating full and authentic characters, or in working deeply with real people we know, is to take a cue from the speaker of “Pit Pony” and wonder.
Here, then, is a writing exploration:
- Wonder (internally or in writing), with compassion, about the character you want to know more fully. Get an image of the border between you and the person you yearn to know or need to know. Freewrite this image of the border by writing exactly what you see in your mind’s eye, or simply freewrite an answer to this question: What is between you?
- Cross the border to enter this new world, and make the leap (again, internally or in writing) to speak from that place.
- Without making any assumptions of knowledge about this character, wonder what she or he wonders about. Locate the character in a specific moment in which they’re entering a new situation or leaving an old one, or trying to sleep before they go into dreams after a particularly rough day, or finding themselves in a difficult situation, as in a doctor’s office waiting for a diagnosis, or thinking about a powerful event.
- Then write freely, freewrite, freewrite, allowing yourself to wonder what this character may be wondering about at this particular moment. Ask the questions they may be asking, whether in your own voice or in the voice that seems to emerge as their own— whether in 3rd person or, if it happens, in 1st person.
- As you wonder, follow the turns and flow of the character’s consciousness at this particular moment of shift or challenge or pleasure or loss or fear or confusion, and keep writing, as you wonder with them, as you wonder what they may be wondering about. Race to stay close to their spirit, to their body, to what they see, hear, smell, touch, taste.
What a powerful step across a border of one kind or another into an opening up of your knowledge of a particular character! There are no limits as to what may happen when the fullness of your being connects with the being of another.
Want more of Anya’s brilliance? Register for her upcoming webinar, “Unlocking Narration: The Power of Your Narrator’s Personality and Point-of-View” HERE. Even if you can’t attend “live” (Wed., April 18, 7:00–8:30 PM Eastern / 4:00–5:30 PM Pacific), you’ll receive the video recording.
Anya Achtenberg is an award-winning writer whose publications include Blue Earth (novel); The Stories of Devil-Girl (novella); two poetry collections,The Stone of Language and I Know What the Small Girl Knew; and recent poetry and prose in Tupelo Quarterly, Malpaís Review, Gargoyle, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, Hinchas de Poesía, Poet Lore, and Taos Journal of Poetry and Art. She’s received prizes and distinctions from Southern Poetry Review,Another Chicago Magazine, Francis Ford Coppola’s Zoetrope: All-Story, New Letters, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and others. The anthology How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Writing Discourse (2017) includes her essay on identity and the inadequate instruction to “write from a sense of place.” Anya’s almost-completed novel, History Artist, centers on a Cambodian woman born the moment the U.S. bombing of Cambodia begins. She recently completed a poetry chapbook, Advice to Travelers. Nonfiction work includes essays on writing craft and creative nonfiction on Cuba, where she conducts arts-focused and multicultural journeys. Anya teaches creative writing workshops nationally, as well as online internationally for Udemy.com, Writers.com, and the Transformative Language Arts Network, a Goddard affiliate, and consults with writers individually. In-person and online workshops include Writing for Social Change: Re-Dream a Just World Workshops and The Disobedient Writer Workshop Series. www.thedisobedientwriter.com