We Notice, Therefore We Are

2012 Debutante Molly BackesLike most writers, I don’t know where characters begin. A moment in passing, a stranger on the train, a half-remembered story, a what if — characters begin as whispers and shadows, best seen peripherally. Time passes, and you do your best to show up every day, hang out for a few minutes or a few hours, and begin to tease out their stories. I don’t know of any way to do this part other than dreaming and listening and writing. I don’t think there’s a shortcut.

Once you have them on the page, though, pinned down in sentences and paragraphs, you can begin to think analytically about who you’re working with. (My students taught me the concept of a “zero draft” — such an early draft that it hardly counts, so it doesn’t matter if you make huge mistakes or go off on wild tangents or get distracted by unimportant details or subplots — and now my whole workshop has adopted the idea.)

I’ve written before about making sure characters have wants and needs, and this is where I start when I’m moving from zero to first draft. What does my character want? What is her goal? What does she desire? And what’s her big flaw, her psychic and emotional blindspot, the thing that (we hope) will improve at least slightly as she moves toward achieving her goal? How is she feeling as she gets closer to or farther from her goal? How will she deal when people challenge her or get in her way?

And once I know all that, everything else is character building.

Every character comes from somewhere, and every character has a prism of assumptions — cultural, regional, religious, political, familial, social — and emotions through which she views the world. Her assumptions shape the way she sees, how she makes her metaphors, how she speaks, how she reacts, what (and who) she admires, what she loves. Her emotions determine the things she notices and how she processes.

For instance, take two women at a small-town fair. One is in her late seventies, and she’s there because she wants to revisit the place she met her late husband. Her joints hurt, she’s a little cranky, and she grew up in a time when children were taught to be seen and not heard. The way she describes the fair will be filtered through her prism: it is loud and garish, it’s not what it used to be, it’s shabby and small where it used to be magnificent, it’s too hot, it’s vulgar, it’s lonely. Everything she describes, every interaction she has, and every emotional reaction she has reveals her character, because everything she says and notices is filtered through her unique worldview.

The other woman is fourteen, just a girl, who’s spent the summer between eighth and ninth grade selling produce at a roadside farmstand. She’s tan and strong and friendly, with enough cash in her pocket to ride every single ride. For her, the fair is full of possibility: it’s the social scene of the summer, the one time all summer that the teens of the town are all in the same place at the same time. She’s changed, and she can’t wait to see if anyone notices. To her, the hum of the crowd is intoxicating, and in it she hears all the conversations she might have, with newly-interesting boys who never noticed her before. The rides look thrilling and the lights enticing. And because she’s spent the summer hauling produce, she compares the unfamiliar colors and shapes of the fair to the familiar ones of the vegetables. The funhouse is the purplish black of a ripe Black Bell eggplant, and the sweaty tendrils of her hair stick to her face like corn silk.

Everything they notice, everything they say, the way they move and how they interact with the setting — it all reveals character.

With each draft, we have to pay close attention to these details, because often they reveal more about our characters than we know ourselves. And if done well, all these tiny details, many of which will go virtually unnoticed by readers, add up to a greater whole — a living, breathing, complicated person with a history and a future, someone who will live on in your reader’s mind long after he finishes your book.

14 thoughts on “We Notice, Therefore We Are

  1. I love how you write so consciously, Molly. This makes so much sense! I always feel like I learn something from your posts – I agree with Linda: you must be a great in-person teacher, because you always teach us here!

  2. What you say is so true–thanks for the reminder! Alot of it is about a character’s worldview. A weary and resigned character is probably going to notice the rust on a decrepit ferris wheel. A young romantic will notice all the couples walking hand-in-hand. I love this stuff!

    • Exactly! You can learn a ton about a character just based on how she describes a setting. There’s a beautiful passage in SING THEM HOME by Stephanie Kallos where she’s just describing how the character hears the birds on the prairie, but you can infer almost everything about the character just by analyzing the way she describes them. So fabulous, when done well.

  3. Beautiful, beautiful analysis. And I love the “zero draft,” because I find if I try to get all those details in too early, it doesn’t work. I get bogged down and stuck because I don’t yet know enough about my characters to make every detail real. As I go from zero to first, second, third… I learn who my characters really are, and all those little details become not things I feel like I’m adding, but pieces that were always there — I just had to tease them out by spending enough time with the people I’ve created.

    • Thanks, Elise! And yes, I’m in love with the zero draft — you don’t have to get all caught up in perfectionism and worries about what will or will not be wasted, because you’re just exploring & none of it counts (even if half of it actually ends up in the final draft! But don’t tell yourself that!).

  4. Molly, I feel silly saying what everyone else said but I really love your fair example — Joanne puts it so well when she says you “write consciously.” I too was reading this post thinking “no wonder she’s a teacher!”

    I have to ask, of course, did you just think of this example this second for this post? Or is these go-to characters for your classes? To think of all those totally dead on details off the cuff is totally foreign to me (though this is awesome either way.)

    • Nope, I made them up as I was writing. You could do it, Rachel! It’s all about trying to step into someone else’s shoes & try on their worldview for a while.

      I’ve been watching Downton Abbey & it’s actually a great example of this: what does each of the characters see when they look at the beautiful dining table in the giant manor? Maybe Lady Grantham sees what she’ll lose if her husband dies, while the servants see the guests barely touching dishes the cook slaved over, while the butler notices subtle tarnishes in the silver or dust on an ornate frame, and the young man just back from war sees a bittersweet dreamworld that’s so different from the horror of the Western Front…

      etc! (And obviously, I’m a little obsessed with Downton right now! Sorry, Erika!)

  5. Ha! It’s fine–I’m known for being oppositional to current trends just because, so I’ve no doubt DT Abbey is great fun!

    I too love this idea of a zero draft–and I love your examples of how characters reveal themselves through their experiences/environments and how we the writers need to observe them in those places to understand them as the reader would. So, so true.

  6. So what does it mean to me to build a character? Am I talking about that character’s physical look, her emotional core, her history? I’m really talking about all of it. As we know, it’s a package.

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