We’ve all heard it before. “Your character’s flat. You need to make him three-dimensional.”
Sure, great. But what exactly does that mean?
We all know we live in a three dimensional world. We learn it in grade school: a line, a plane, a cube… But how do you make a character three dimensional? Do you make him really fat? Do you give him a limp so he wobbles when he walks, thereby taking up more space?
Believe it or not, I’ve tried both, and no, that’s not what it means. Three-dimensional means you have to dig deeper.
Take that character with the limp, for example. It’s fine to describe him walking, every struggle to get his footing, every attempt to hide his frailty and vulnerability. Ah! There’s the hint that I need… his vulnerability. There’s where I begin to ask: why is he vulnerable? How does he feel about his limp? And, even more pressing, how did he get the limp in the first place?
It was only when I start asking these questions that the concept of three-dimensionality begins to come clear.
For me, it often starts with the physical. I was a dancer, once upon a time, and an actress after that. I’m pretty sensitive to subtle inflections of voice and shifts of movement – how they can reveal what a character is feeling. I often get up and act out what my characters are doing in a particular scene. Still, the physical is just the start. It’s getting beyond the external to the why’s, the how’s; for my poor man with the limp, it’s the who-does-he-think-of-every-time-he-takes-a-step, the source of dread that haunts his soul every time he trips or stumbles. Answering those questions gives me a character, not with a flaw, but with a life.
But not everyone feels comfortable getting up and acting out their scenes. How can you develop a 3D character without feeling like an utter fool in the privacy of your writing room?
The answer came to me about a month ago when Michelle Cameron and I were teaching a workshop on Creating Character. I had come armed with a few simple physical exercises for the writers at hand, but sensed in their awkward giggles that I wouldn’t get much beyond giving them some key details and letting them walk around in a circle for a couple of minutes “in someone else’s skin”. It worked well enough. But I realized I had to break it down.
I was jotting notes while Michelle asked the group, “What makes a character three-dimensional?”
“They’re quirky…. Idiosyncratic…. They have a heart…. A sense of humor…. A purpose for being…. They’re relatable…. Unpredictable…. They have room to grow.”
All the while, I’d been thinking about time – how time forms us and forces us to take actions, sometimes ones we never would have planned, that change the course of everything. And about how time slowly nips away at us until the “I” who once was is unrecognizable to the “I” that is now.
“To make a character three-dimensional,” I popped up, “is simple. All they need is a past, present and future.”
I’d drawn a little diagram, nothing special, but it illustrated the point.
“We are formed by our past. Everything we are comes from those first experiences, those memories: the hug we never got, or the helicopter mom, the fire we escaped, or the first love that cannot be matched or compared. And we all have a future – our wants, our needs, our expectations, our plans. Everything we do today – we as people and as characters – is propelled toward our future but shaped by our past, so that the choices we make are rooted in a complete and authentic reality and the desires we attempt to achieve are bolstered or thwarted by everything we drag behind. It’s simple!”
OK, it’s not simple. And I doubt I said it as articulately at the time, but I saw it in my head. It was an epiphany formed instantaneously there in that class. And suddenly I knew that all those years I’d spent in acting classes, sitting in the back of the theater jotting down pages of character notes – their background, parents, old relationships, losses and loves – I was doing what we all need to be doing every day as we get to know our characters.
And, just like in those acting days, we should do it “off-page”. Not in the context of the beautiful words you are drafting for your elegantly crafted scenes, but messy, in a notebook or a bullet-pointed list, so you don’t have to worry if it sounds right or makes any sense at all to anyone but you.
You only have to explore, imagine, and decide, “Yes, he fell out of a tree when he was five. He broke his leg in three places. But he was in the woods. Too far to be heard. Crying… Crying and no one heard him. Finally in the dark, they came with flashlights and shadowed scowls. But the skin was cut. Infection had set in. The bones never set quite right, and since then, all the running, climbing, exploring. No more. And then in school…”
And suddenly the character has gained the inherent mass of a loss, fear, struggle and sadness. Limping forward, all he wants in all the world is to climb and run again.
Taking criticism is never easy, no matter how expert, apropos, or kind. We can feel our bodies seizing up, our hearts palpitating, our minds starting to whirl with refusals, excuses, explanations, denials. Of course, my original is perfect! They just don’t understand! But if we chose our readers wisely, usually we find they’re right. Maybe the solution isn’t exactly as they suggest, but there’s a kernel of truth in their issues and insights that we would all be wise to examine.
I confronted this working on my latest revisions. My good friend Marina had given my manuscript a thorough, thoughtful once-over and we’d spent hours discussing her comments and suggestions. I spent another couple of weeks reviewing everything and organizing my thoughts. I had a plan, typed up in an orderly 17-page outline. Then I charged ahead, ready to put the plan into action.
Everything she’d suggested made absolute sense. She’d asked to know certain details about my characters, stakes, and cultural setting sooner. So often, we discover things as we go along. It’s a natural result of the exploratory writing process. But upon revision, we sometimes forget to question what the reader knows when. It just feels right to leave things where we originally conceived them. But if you’d been born with one arm sticking out of your waist instead of your shoulder – just a few inches down, really! – wouldn’t you want it moved?
I concentrated on my opening chapters, rearranging chronology and tucking in bits of back-story that had been threaded into the plot too late.
A couple of weeks later, I sent the revisions to another dear friend-reader, Karen, who’d seen earlier versions. She wasn’t a “cold reader”, which turned out to be invaluable. When she emailed me back, I sensed careful anxiety in her words: “I hate to say it, but I think the earlier version was better.”
OUCH! It had taken me a great deal of time and emotional fortitude to untangle and re-craft what I’d so carefully honed. Now would I really have to go back – AGAIN? After a little break, long enough to heal my punch-in-the-gut disappointment, I re-read what I’d done, saw exactly what Karen meant and, honestly, I agreed.
I was utterly grateful. I needed someone to be honest, and both my readers had been. The truth was somewhere in between. Some of the new version I really liked, but I had dampened the initial “magic” of my opening. How could I deconstruct my reconstruction without losing what was good, without destroying even more of what I’d already messed up?
So I took my painstaking but unsuccessful attempt, saved it in my “old versions” folder, and tried again. What I discovered was that Marina was right, but that I’d taken her too literally. Yes, there were pieces missing or that came in too late, but I didn’t need to deal with them all at once, and I didn’t need to move everything all around. My approach had to be subtler, like tying tiny, invisible threads, not applying Frankenstein-like bolts and ungainly stitches.
Another couple of weeks and I sent my new effort. Karen loved it. WHEW! Though I haven’t sent it to Marina yet. I’m trying to move on, a few more chapters before I turn to her again. Because there’s more to come. I don’t want to exhaust either of my readers. I need them fresh enough to give me a broad overview of what I’ve done, not comments on particular lines, paragraphs or even scenes. I need the whole arc….
And, yes, this is my fifth draft. I swear it’ll be my last, but don’t hold me to anything.
I had a dream last night that my house was crumbling. The front stairway, made of concrete, was so precarious it broke beneath my feet as I tried to mount. The porch displayed its gray, rotted wood in the cloud-light, and the front door was hanging on its hinges.
Into this wreck, I entered optimistically, skipping when the stairs collapsed, my hammer hanging from my work-pants like a decoration. I felt certain that everything around me could be spruced up to perfection. I already had a plan to center the stairs (they were dangling far off to the right) and to tear off the front railings so the porch would stand breezy, open and welcoming.
When I awoke, at first I panicked, thinking that this really was my house. But after a moment’s reorientation, I realized this dream house was my novel. Indeed, this dream was laced with apprehension, but also a sense of determination, empowerment and purpose. I would rebuild this crumbling chaos into something embracing and beautiful.
Yesterday I finished reviewing my editor’s manuscript notes. There’s a lot of work to do, though somehow it all feels doable. Perhaps that is the message of this dream, that even before a daunting task (one I thought I could avoid… hoped I could anyway) I am optimistic and even energized; that the goal of my efforts is worth all the sweat and dust of tearing apart and reconfiguring, dovetailing and pegging. I can see it in my mind. Now it’s just a matter of making it happen.
I expect to spend most of this week reviewing my review of my editor’s review, typing up my notes, and going through the hard-copy manuscript. I expect to add more slashes and arrows, more inserts that slip onto the back sides of pages, and more cut and paste. Really, I’m thinking of using scissors and scotch tape!
All of this, in preparation for one final push that had better NOT be just one among many.
Even for the most accomplished writers, it’s never, ever easy. And there are no guarantees in this changing world of publishing. I’m as nervous as anyone that my efforts will prove futile and I’ll never see these hard-sweated-over words in print, even digital print, anytime soon. But I have no control over any of that. In a recent webinar hosted by Digital Book World*, an editor from a major house attempted to reassure listeners, “The job of the writer really hasn’t changed. Write a good story as well as you possibly can.”
So I take my fortitude in hand like a hammer and hop-skip those crumbling stairs two at a time; and I hold my breath as I take my first swing and knock down that wall. It won’t be long before I’ve reassembled my dream house. That’s the kind of energy, determination and clarity of vision that’s required to be a writer.
* The webinar was “The Digital Author: New Challenges, Opportunities, Partners.” Sorry, access to the archives requires membership, which is not exactly cheap. But you can sign up to receive notice of upcoming events that are frequently free.
As many of you know, historical novelist Stephanie Cowell and I go way back. We met in a workshop taught by Madeleine L’Engle more than twenty years ago and worked together in a writers group in NYC for over ten years. She’s the “Stephanie” I mention in my usual first class essay – the Stephanie of whom we were all a little bit green when she published her first novel Nicholas Cooke back in 1993. We’ve shared a lot – hopes, frustrations, disappointments, more than a bucket of tears apiece, and finally the joy of seeing her previous novel, Marrying Mozart and my first not only published, but represented by the same agent and edited by the same editor. I’m honored that she’s guest blogging today to celebrate the launch of her latest, Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet.
How long does it take to write a novel? Writing, rewriting and rewriting and…
Sometimes people ask me, “How long does it take to write a novel?” I am never quite sure what to answer! It depends on the novel, the life circumstance, the writer. Three months? Fifty years? The journey can vary considerably. There was an article about this in the New York Times some years ago. A certain novelist confidently promised his editor, “Two more weeks and you’ll have my final draft!” Four years later he was still writing, likely having changed his address, disconnected his phone, and claimed to be missing.
“Still writing that novel?” someone will ask you. “My kid’s in high school. Didn’t you start it when she was just learning how to read?” Argh! Or, “What! You just started your new book last year and already you’ve done? I bet your next one will take even less time!” Well, not necessarily. Novels, like individual children, grow in their own way.
Writing novels can be like wandering in a great forest: the path is straight or crooked. Take a wrong turn and end up two years out of your way. Or it can be like walking across a desert where the wind blows the sand and you have no idea where you came from or where you are going. You run around in circles, shouting for rescue, a little out of your mind.
Of the several novels I have completed, two have each taken only nine months of writing but the story which is showing up April 6th in bookstores – Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet – ran away from completion for nearly five years. My poor husband lived through every draft. Why did it take so long? It was a big story which combined the young Monet’s development as a painter, his great love for Camille, and the birth of impressionism. And all that had to travel along a rising plot line, which it finally did. But that is not my longest creative effort. I have several unfinished novels which I have worked on for a long time. There is one that has eluded completion for 21 years but I keep getting closer every time I go back to working on it. I think one day it will get there.
I guess the only thing to do is enjoy the journey. And maybe buy a t-shirt I once saw for sale and have regretted always not buying. In big black letters across the front it said, “Just working on my novel.”
Stephanie will be here for two local events:
May 1 at 1:00 PM
54 Fairfield St., Montclair, NJ
WORDS of Maplewood
May 13th at 7:30 PM
179 Maplewood Avenue, Maplewood NJ
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it forever, there’s no right way to write a book. I had it comfirmed for me many years ago with my oft’ repeated story of my dear friend Stephanie Cowell (whose new novel, Claude and Camille about Claude Monet, is coming out in April 2010). Years ago before either of us was published, I sat amazed listening to her tell how she put together her first novel by laying all the scenes on her bed and putting them in order!
I could never, ever do anything like that. I’m a chronological writer. I start at the beginning and I write to the end. I’ve tried it other ways, but there are always so many threads that I’m trying to hold on to that the moment I turn in another direction, I lose half of them and everything gets tangled. It’s frustrating, but I’ve always been a plodding, meticulous person. I suppose this is part of my curse – or my blessing.
In this terrific article from the Wall Street Journal (thanks, Stuart), How to Write a Great Novel, my personal observations are played out on a grand scale with the many different methods of some of today’s greatest writers.
Aside from the grandiose title (If anyone can really explain how to write a great novel, or even a mediocre one, please let me know!), it is a terrific collection of the true randomness and idiosyncrasy of this strange thing called writing that we do. Each author has his or her own process that does the trick. It’s up to each of us to figure out what works for us, too.
As I read this piece, I found myself thinking of many of the writers in our circle. Birgit, you’ve got to try Dan Chaon’s color-coded index cards. It’s a brilliant way to keep track of all your characters and story-lines. Stephanie, you take a drive; Hilary Mantel takes a shower (me, too!). Pam, I love how Dan Chaon (again) starts by simply jotting down imagery. Maybe you will find your plot in the same random way.
Some of us are morning writers; some are 2:00 in the morning writers. Some use voice-recognition software; some write by hand. I particularly appreciate how many of these successful authors admit to throwing out hundreds of pages or sometimes whole books. It happens. Take my word for it. We all shed a pool of tears and move on. But it’s part of the process, as unavoidable as the blank page.
So, if you haven’t found your method yet, here are a bunch of new approaches to try. Meanwhile, I’m sitting pretty this evening having finished a large section of revision (more like a complete overhaul, but one never knows what one must do until one reads one’s own work from beginning to end.)
Now, I’m off to the shower for some Hilary Mantel-style inspiration!