Thursday, February 11, 2016

Unpacking Boxes + Developing Characters

Last month, I moved into a new apartment. Moving made me appreciate many things anew, such as how each room its own unique space with its own special function and purpose -- and yet, the individual rooms meld wonderfully into a whole space. A home. To me, this parallels the way a successful story or novel melds individual elements -- characters, place, theme, tone -- into a wonderfully whole, cohesive piece.

I have been dreaming about this move for a while. It is a big new leap for me, and an exciting step forward in my relationship. I am “living in an atmosphere of growth” -- one of the main keys to happiness that researcher Gretchen Rubin writes about in her book The Happiness Project. Every day when I come home and fit my key into the lock, a tiny thrill passes through me to realize: I live here now.

And then I open my front door. And I remember that, as exciting and beautiful and necessary as moving forward is, it is also messy. Moving is hard work. Moving is boxes and boxes and boxes to unpack and sort through and put away. Changing, growing, building means re-examining every single one of those things we are carrying through this life with us and asking ourselves whether it still serves us. Whether it is worth holding onto. Or whether it is perhaps time to let go. 

Yes, in order to fully embrace all the bright potential of the future, we must loosen our grip on the past. On the way things have always been done. On our preconceived notions and expectations. Change, even positive change, is chaotic and uncomfortable and a little bit scary. The best way to overcome our fears is to embrace them. How do we embrace change? By being creatively open to new ideas.

From one of my many boxes, I unearthed notes I had jotted down during the AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) Conference two years ago. These notes are from a session about developing the emotional lives of our characters.

Character questions: 
- What does this character love more than anything else in the world? 
- What would hurt this character more than anything else in the world? 

You need to believe that the story can surprise you. Think about what you know about the story and go in the opposite direction. If you can surprise yourself, then you can surprise the reader. If you do the work of place and character, then the story can surprise you.

I love this idea of being surprised by the story, and not by a cheap gimmick or trying to play a trick on the reader; rather, being surprised by the story because you have done the real work of developing your characters and walking around spaces with them. In other words, you have unpacked their boxes. And there might be a box or two way over in the corner, or hidden in the back of their closet, that will surprise you in a genuine, authentic way. That is the type of discovery I aim for in my writing.

In his masterful book Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership Toward Liberation the Creative Soul, author David Castro spends a whole chapter delving into human emotional motivation. Not only is this insightful information for us as people existing in a complex society, it is also very helpful to think about when developing characters:

"Emotion deeply informs motivation; strong emotional intensity provides the energy for action. Weak intensity manifests as low energy, producing ineffective or meaningless responses. Individuals and teams may learn to mask their emotions, expressing feeling only through movement toward what they desire and away from what they detest. In some cultures, direct displays of emotion are not common and may be viewed as wasted opportunities for action. Expressions such as 'Don't get mad, get even' and 'Still waters run deep' exemplify this recognition that powerful emotional responses may remain hidden while they animate action from beneath the surface." -- pgs. 155-156
What great questions to ask yourself -- and to ask of your characters! I'll add them to my jotted-down list from above:

Character questions: 
- What does this character love more than anything else in the world? 
- What would hurt this character more than anything else in the world? 
- What hidden emotions animate or amplify this character's actions?
- On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being a robot and 10 being dramatic fireworks) what is the baseline emotional intensity of your character?

By asking these questions, we get to know our characters on a deeper level. We have a blueprint for them as individuals that we can carry throughout our journey with them. When we develop the emotional lives of our characters, they become whole, flawed, nuanced, authentic human beings. In short, they become REAL.

Now... time for me to head back to unpacking. Like so many worthwhile activities in life, moving is hard work -- but it is good work, too. The only way for us to deepen and expand as people -- and the only way for us to grow as writers -- is to keep moving forward. To keep unpacking our boxes. To keep using our creative imaginations to explore the rooms in this diverse, lovingly rooted, marvelous world we share together.