A Matter of Character – guest blog from WOTR faculty Craig Englishby admin Guest Blog. Posted on April 5, 2014.
Write On The River is pleased to have a guest blog from Craig English, one of the fabulous workshop presenters at this year’s Conference on May 16, 17 and 18.
Last week, writing the climactic chapter in a novel, I got stuck. Our hero and heroine have tracked down the villain who plans to destroy the world economy. The villain outfoxes them and proceeds to take over the scene. He’s a wily, flamboyant character and it was a lot of fun finally unleashing him. But there the scene ground to a halt. I watched the dust settle and thought . . . now what?
Since my muse seemed to be taking a break, I decided to do the same thing and review how I arrived at this stalemate. I checked my outline. Does the action lead logically to this dramatic moment? Yes. So, the plot is working. Besides, my gut is telling me that the problem lies with my characters, that what I’m missing is the hero and heroine’s drive, their wanting, their motivation.
That takes me back a ways. Back to early college days (the Paleozoic era) when I was studying Constantin Stanislavski’s systematic approach to training actors. I liked old Constantin because he was thorough, covering all the tools of the trade (concentration, voice, physical skills, emotional memory, dramatic analysis), but also because he made good horse sense. To understand a character, he asked simple questions: What are the circumstances of the scene (Stanislavski called this the “magic if”—as in, what if I were there)? What is the character’s motivation? What is her or his objective?
First, I imagined the circumstances of the scene, the magic if. I immediately felt the hero’s injured left arm. Then I recalled that the heroine is carrying several interesting and useful objects in her purse. I felt their fear, exhaustion, and determination.
Secondly, I dug for motivation. Both characters despise injustice and would not see people harmed for one man’s greed. For the hero, there is something else—through the course of the novel he has been discovering an old and powerful instinct to hunt down men like the villain.
Objective? That one was easy. Stop the villain’s dastardly plan.
Once I got clear about my characters’ motivations, the dam broke and the writing flowed.
One more thing about Stanislavski. Even though he developed a systematic approach for creating character, he said of his system: “Create your own method. Don’t depend slavishly on mine. Make up something that will work for you! But keep breaking traditions, I beg you.”
I believe that doing writing exercises with our characters (motivation, biography, habits, dress, speech, physical traits, secrets, family) are indispensable . . . right up until the moment we throw them away, embody the character, and do the writing.
I’ll be teaching Dr. Frankenstein’s Character Laboratory at Write On The River. It’s a smorgasbord laid out on the slab—a little brain, a bit of heart—techniques for creating character. They are useful and often necessary, but ultimately they are nothing more than the apparatus in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. The electrical current is your willingness to step inside your characters, to slip on their skin, to feel their love, hate and desire. When you have done that, your characters will rise on their own two legs and walk into the world.
Author of The Anvil of Navarre (available wherever eBooks are sold) A swashbuckling adventure story … with a twist
Black Swan (on its way!) A tale of wall street greed, dragons, and one mild-mannered Shakespeare professor
Anxious to Please: 7 Revolutionary Practices for the Chronically Nice (available in paper, eBook, and audio) A self-help book https://www.facebook.com/CraigEnglishBooks www.anxioustoplease.com