Upon Reading Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott: Writing – Character

Yes, I’m still reading. And I’m still reading faster than I blog, of course, which is why I’m trying to write as soon as I finish a chapter (way to go!).

Character

“Knowledge of your characters also emerges the way a Polaroid develops: it takes time for you to know them.” ~p. 44

Really? So this really is about writing and writing and just figure out where this goes later, eh?

There was this one time when I thought that you ought to have thought of every thing–yes, EVERY THING–before you finally began to write. So I used to think about the plot first, making sure that there’s nothing I miss, scene by scene, and then characterization. How many characters would there be in my story? And then how would they behave in the story? Who would be the main character and what he/she would be like? Most of the time, of course, my main characters used to be a nice, sweet, if not old-fashioned, little girl who wanted to do nothing but goodness in this world. KISS-ly: she’s Cinderella. Or the prototype. Or her clone. Well, you get what I mean.

But as I write more and more, I found that I barely apply this method. Of course, I adore free writing more than anything. (Academic writing? Bleerrgh.) Before I got my short story published in 2009 (not in 2007, sorry, I was wrong in the previous post), I wrote another story. After I finished typing the story, I reread it again and then I found out that I hated the story. So I scrapped it, and then wrote a brand new story which I later sent and apparently got published (uh, yaaay).

Of course, the main characters in my stories later on began to have much more flaws. Then I found out that I became more and more fond of psychic characters. I mean, not literally psycho, cause they would totally freaking me out. But I soon found out that I like imperfect characters, with many flaws, much more than the plain, boring, sweet, perfect and lovely Cinderella.

Which is why (perhaps) I began to like Cynthia Kirkpatrick more towards the end of the story than the sweet, plain little Molly Gibson in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters.

“You are going to love some of your characters, because they are you or some facet of you, and you are going to hate some of your characters for the same reason.” ~p. 45

One of my close friend once said, “It is a truly remarkable gift for an author to be able to create a character with extreme characteristics which is totally different from the author himself.”

I remember now we were talking about Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita at that time. A friend of mine once recommended this book to me, and as soon as I got the book, I remember I was terrified by the main character. I was like, “Man, he’s a complete psycho!” And I remember I couldn’t help but feeling sick the more I read that book. Really, that guy creeps the hell outta me. But I really love the tense emotions that he created in the book, and I think I know now why he likes that book.

So I recommended this book to one of my close friend who later said that an author who could create such character is truly awesome. He didn’t manage to finish that book, though, too bad. But I agree with what he said.

Even if I don’t think I could do such a remarkable job right now.

To create a character with a complete different, and even extreme disposition, is–for me–a real challenge. And I think I still got a long, long journey ahead before I finally able to reach that stage, or put it in another way: master such skill.

Another challenge is how to make the reader love the character no mater what.

I remember back in Junior High, I wrote this cheesy teen romance about a girl named Louisa Andrews (the credit goes to my best friend, M, for giving me the name) who just got into High School and met this charming guy, named John something (forgot his last name, sorry). Now, this Louisa Andrews had a boyfriend already, named Chris something (yes, forgot his last name as well), but she was so much charmed by John that she finally broke up with Chris to hook up with John.

Cheesy, right? Yes, cheesy. But my friends and I used to love that story.

So what happened in the end? Well, Chris got hurt (a broken heart, to be exact), but Louisa never changed her mind and still stay with John. The end.

I remember a lot of my friends protested this. They hated the story as well as my main character. And they kept telling me that she shouldn’t behave so bad towards Chris just because she found this new guy.

Later I told them I would make a sequel to that story, and I got plenty of friends who told me that I ought to make Louisa broke up with John and started all over again with Chris.

Which of course I never did.

And that infuriated them even more. They hated the story (even though they managed to read the story and finish it, thank God), as well as the main character.

They were extremely annoyed when I put this scene where Louisa and John got into terrible fight and almost broke up, then she went to see Chris, to seek for consolation, and apparently thought that maybe Chris was the right guy for her, not John.

Then I stopped there for a moment, let my friends read the story first, and they got so excited and kept telling me that Louisa should broke up with John and get back to Chris.

Like I said, I didn’t do it.

Apparently, Chris decided that he still love Louisa, but more like a brotherly affection, and told her that John is the guy.

How did it end? Predictable. Louisa and John made up and there we got a happy ending.

Well, not really, for my friends never thought that it’s such a happy ending. One of my friend told me that Louisa left her with an impression of a girl who would hook up with every guy she met.

Ouch.

I guess that was the first time I ever made an imperfect character.

“Preoccupation with self is good, as is tendency toward procrastination, self-delusion, darkness, jealousy, groveling, greediness, addictiveness. They shouldn’t be too perfect; perfect means shallow and unreal and fatally uninteresting.” ~p. 50

Tell me that kind of stuff 10 years ago and I would totally disagree with you. Yes, even after I wrote the Louisa Andrews’ story.

Now? I love sick characters. I love flaws. Indeed, Anne Lamott, perfect means unreal.

Who the hell is perfect in this sick world, anyway?

Even Harry Potter–the chosen one–is not perfect. Fine, he’s smart, and brave, and… and such a sensation. But still, he’s actually emotional and… and imperfect (I actually wanted to use the term ‘damaged good’ here, but I’m not sure it’s the right word and term, especially after I checked the Urban Dictionary). He’s not this neat, nice guy who always said the right word in the right time. He screwed up. And I remember I used to hate him so much for he’s the reason why Sirius Black died. Well, some of you might argue, but I still blame him for Sirius’ death. Especially after this scene where he found the mirror given by Sirius. I was literally shouting, “Harry, you’re an idiot!”

But I think Lamott is right: apparently we’re gonna love and hate our own characters because they’ve been a part of us indeed.

I remember reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake and then realized that all good masterpieces are mostly started and based on the author’s historical background (or family background, I guess).

Well, of course the story The Namesake is not Lahiri’s autobiography, but still, it revolves around things that Lahiri is most familiar with.

“A writer paradoxically seeks the truth and tells lies every step of the way. It’s a lie if you make something up. But you make it up in the name of truth, and then you give your heart to expressing it clearly.” ~p. 52

Then it came to my mind, that the easiest way to do this is to write things that are most personal to you, because those are the stuffs that you’re most familiar with. The thing with fiction is that it could came up and adapted from reality, but fiction will remain fiction.

Or so I thought.

“Nothing is as important as a likable narrator. Nothing holds a story together better.” ~Ethan Canin, quoted in p. 49

And my mind jumped to Faber’s The Crimson Petal and The White right away.

Which probably is why I wrote my prologue in a similar way.

Well, not that similar. I’m not that good. At least not yet.

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Laksmi

An MA student at Waseda University, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyo, Japan. An avid reader. A language geek as well. And a book hoarder.

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