Sunday, December 11, 2016

John Gardner on creating vivid characters

John Gardner in On Becoming a Novelist emphasizes the need to understand a wide variety of characters. He says, “To be psychologically suited for membership in what I have called the highest class of novelists, the writer must be not only capable of understanding people different from himself but fascinated by such people.”

The Smoke Game

Gardner recommends playing a game with your characters, saying, “Perhaps the best exercise for heightening one’s gift for discovering such equivalencies is the game called ‘Smoke.’”

Here’s how it goes:

One person thinks of someone living or dead and gives his fellow players a starting clue … living American, dead European … or whatever.

Each player in turn then asks a question in the form of …
What kind of (blank) are you? For example … what kind of smoke, vegetable, weather, animal, building, body part, car, and so on.

Of course, for a writer, the point of the game is not to win, but to see your characters in a different, more metaphorical way.

For instance, I’ve had a character show up in two separate books and he’s still a challenge so I’m going to play the game right here, right now, with myself.

I first wrote the words down and then closed my eyes and let the first answer that came to my mind be the answer.

Who is 15 year-old Jesse Sanchez?
Smoke … thick, swirling, white
Vegetable …  sweet potato
Weather … chilly, damp, slight breeze
Animal … hamster, skittish, trying to store all the nuts in his jaws
Building … tent, fragile, lacking stability in harsh weather
Body part …  arm and hand
Car … small, 4WD SUV
What does this tell me? Jesse hasn’t emerged yet as a fully developed person. He’s growing underground into a person who will bring nourishment into the world. He is sweet but we have to find the sweetness. He is shrouded by smoke so that we can’t see him and his warmth hasn’t broken through his exterior chilliness.

Jesse is fearful of not getting enough or losing what he’s been given and tries to hold on too long to what’s in front of him. He does not feel secure in his life as it could blow away with a harsh wind.
Jesse needs to hold onto things and he touches and feels things to make sure they’re real. He only truly understands things when he touches them.

He is practical and wants to be able to go anywhere, go off the beaten path, be safe in his adventures. He definitely wants to have adventures but also wants to get back safely.

While this game told me that Jesse is still unfolding, it also gave me metaphors that help reveal flashes of his character.

Gardner adds: “The writer with a truly accurate eye (and ear, nose, sense of touch, etc.) has an advantage over the writer who does not, in that, among other things, he can tell his story in concrete terms, not just feeble abstractions.”

What we do as writers, Gardner says, is set off a dream in the reader’s mind. Concrete metaphors set off vivid dreams.

“Show don’t tell” is a standard refrain. Gardner modifies that saying, “Good writers may ‘tell’ about almost anything in fiction except the characters’ feelings. … Characters’ feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events — action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting. Detail is the lifeblood of fiction.”