WRITING AND TEACHING THE COMPLEX CHARACTER
Columbia College Chicago (UNITED STATES)
As a writer of fiction and a teacher of creative writing, I understand the importance of exploring character’s lives that reach past the narrow purview of my own experience. Dynamic storytelling that is representative of life is all-encompassing; these stories, if they are to ring true and authentic, will reflect value systems and personalities that are not always mirrors of ourselves, as human beings, but rather, dramatic figures—sometimes flawed, sometimes noble, often times a perplexing mix of human frailty and virtues—that engage us as readers, frustrate us, make us question and awaken us, all at the same time. These are the characters that wrestle with our subconscious for our attention, even when we’ve retired our novel reading for the evening; they seduce us into the story, and will not set us free until the last page is turned, the final paragraph read, until we expel the very last sigh and close the book. These characters, when they are strong, and appear to breathe on the very pages, are what make us marvel at the writer’s capability of capturing the human soul and folding it into the chapters of his novel.
The art of character development is craftsmanship in progress for the writer. He must learn how to dismiss his own bias and be open to endless discoveries. This aspect of the journey in writing requires a deeply felt “knowing” of your character’s personalities, wants, secrets, insecurities and strengths. It has no room for the limitations entrenched by the writer’s own history. This begs the question then, how do we authenticate characters we do not know from daily experience? How do we avoid the pitfalls of the clichéd and predictable?
This is an area wherein most young writers flounder. Too often, they narrow their creative scope by limiting character development to the projection of their own personalities, likes, dislikes, and sometimes their physicality, onto their story page. While this approach has its place in creative writing, and can be delivered successfully, the potential is a practice that may be engaged to the exclusion of examining the exhaustive possibilities: other points of views being represented, other life experiences being revealed. Or, should the young writer venture outside the boundaries of what is most familiar and “safe” in his creative writing, he may compose characters that are “flat,” lacking in dimension, in human terms.
The purpose of the essay presentation is to speak to my own struggles and successes, as a fiction writer, in creating believable characters that are not necessarily “lovable,” but are compelling; and given that my pedagogical practices are informed by my own creative endeavors, I will discuss “The Opposites” exercise (as part of the Story Workshop® approach to creative writing), that is designed to aid in the discovery of characters that are lively, multi-dimensional, compelling and complex.
Steps to implementing the Opposites exercise will be chronicled, revealing a workshop process that can be conducted, whole or in part, in any creative writing class. Young writers are taught to understand that characters don’t have to be altogether “good” or “bad,” they just need to be interesting enough to keep us reading. The end result in a workshop context is stronger writing, an increase in the student’s willingness to experiment, and to explore more deeply the dramatic possibilities that a well-rounded character brings to the story.