Friday, January 30, 2009

The History of Objects

Objects have a life of their own, and this holds true in fiction as well as life. As a writer, I think it helps me to take advantage of this, to use this to enrich a story and enrich a character.

I've been thinking about this a bit since Wanu brought up characterization in the last thread. And characterization is one of the biggies, ain't it? A lot of what you do in a story will live and die with how well you develop a character (and a character arc). So I thought I'd put out a couple of ideas on characterization that I have floating around in my head (before I forget them). And, too, I find a sort of clarity by writing something down, a certain cohesion. Write it down and you have something to build on later...

So, the oldie but goodie aspect first: the five senses. The first thing I (almost) always try to do is to filter the story through the senses of a character. This provides immediacy, but it also provides, I think, the beginnings of individuality. My goal is to try and filter it through a particular character's senses. That is, not just generic sights, sounds, and smells, but details specific to an individual character. Are they visually oriented? I know I am, so as a writer I have to make sure to add other sensory details as well. I like touch... nothing is more immediate than touch. What are the sensory details that character would notice? Are they visual observers, or are they highly keyed towards audio? So, show the world through a character, and show what's meaningful to them.

Now we get to particular things, the actual objects of the world these characters experience. Again, my goal is to find particularity rather than generality. Objects have their own personalities. It's not just a refrigerator, it's a new fridge or an old one. Expensive or cheap? Shiny or dull? So this way I have a particular character experiencing a particular object.

What's the history of the object? What does it mean to the character? In one of my stories I have a woman with a new fridge. A new home, and a shiny high-tech new fridge. It's unmarked, gleaming, the brushed steel offering a distorted image... it's something she doesn't like, something her husband purchased as a sort of status symbol to show how he was rising in the world, to show what he had achieved. And yet his wife sits in her big new home isolated and alone, with only a gleaming fridge for company.

The history of the object has allowed an inanimate thing to take on a certain life, becoming almost a character, something for the MC to play off and reveal something of herself. After this you can then broaden the history. We now have a connection between a character and an object, in this case a fridge... but what about other fridges? Does her memory connect this fridge with any other? The character then makes a connection in her memory, a connection to her mother's fridge, a very different one than her own. White, a little dull, a little old and battered, and yet also loved, strewn as it is with grocery lists, photographs and the wobbly art of children. Now we have a disparity between two objects, two different histories, and these differences become relevant. The woman is childless, and the disparity highlights her sense of loss and isolation.

The simple object now works in the story almost as metahpor and symbol. It's active rather than passive, and this activity is really an embodiment of the character, of the tensions and conflicts inside them. A simple fridge has allowed the story to reflect two different histories, two different aspects of the character, as well as reflect the tension/conflict that forms one of the key dynamics of the story.

For me, this is a very useful technique, largely because it mirrors consciousness, and the revelation of a particular consciousness is the revelation of character. It allows the creation of a three dimensional character operating within their own unique world. It's a reflection of memory, really, a recognition of the subjective value of things rather than the merely objective. It's not a fridge, it's her fridge. It's not just an object, it's a part of a particular world, one piece of an interconnected tapestry of fictionalized memories.

So, objects and characterization... what's important to you when developing characters? Are there any craft tricks you like? Do you start with an image or a voice? Or something else entirely? Lay it on me...


Wanu said...

My favourite character technique is the first person unreliable narrator, describing a world through tainted vision such that the reader can 'get it' that there's a difference between reality and what they're being told, but learn about the MC at the same time.

It can be a great humour device, and I like sprinkling clues about what's really happening, and then providing the outright misinterpretation so that the two come into collision.

Otherwise, I'm a little ambivalent about character techniques. Not my favourite area, at all, as you know.

There are character development exercises that I quite like:

1) The 'ten minute conversation'. You imagine the character sitting next to you, and you interview them for ten minutes, taking your intuitive response of what their answer is/would be as their responses - first time answers only. You write the conversation down as you go along, and stop after ten minutes. It's not a device for generating useful prose, but it is an interesting way to solidify a character.

2) Writing a eulogy for the MC, from the perspective of their partner/parents/kids. That can throw up a lot about how you would want the MC to be remembered, and even generate hobbies and personality traits that weren't so clear before.

I don't like all the charts and stuff that I've come across in some 'how to write' books. I struggle with the 'clarifying in prose' part of character work, but I have a pretty strong belief in handling characters intuitively.

Interestingly, perhaps, it's when I deny my characters their natural inclinations that a story can start to unravel.

You know the sort of thing: when you know, for sure, that the MC would explode, or run off, or do something else that you really don't want them to. When I suppress the character, or decide to alter them so that they conform to the storyline I've got planned, that's when I start to lose sight of them. After a point like that I tend to handle them with a lighter touch, and the story comes out with a shortfall in the character work.

It's weird, sometimes it's a bit like 'working with' them, as much as it is about committing them to prose.

Ink said...

Ooh, yeah, I like unreliable narrators... at least when they're done well. They definitely take some craft to pull off.

And I'm not big on those character charts and question sheets either, probably because I'm pretty organic about character creation. I want my characters to kind of show me what's important to them as I go along, and so I think those character sheets would be limiting. So, instead of letting something come to me that would perfectly suit the situation in the story, I'd just be picking up my character sheet and going down to hobbies to see what they do. In my new book, a lot of things came to me very naturally as I wrote the first draft, and many of these things ended up being pretty important to the novel. I think I would have lost that if I'd preplanned all the character details beforehand. It's like it would close the character off from the stimulus of the story...

I suppose that's a bit like denying the characters their inclinations. I try to avoid that... to me, my plot outline is a tenuous thing, more a suggestion than a necessity. If I know what I want the story to do I figure I'll be able to find a way to bring it back there in a natural way. I have faith that something will come to me (and sometimes those demands are what spur great bits of creativity). But if you violate the nature of the character... well, you can't really fix that. And usually that's something the readers notice. When you think you've done that with a character... do critters usually peg something wrong in those spots? I'd be interested to hear if your instinct about your characters matches the reader response. Interesting topic, really.

I think when you push a character outside of their own behaviour they lose that sense of autonomy... and without that autonomy they lose that sense of reality and uniqueness which makes the fiction come alive. It's like you suddenly see the author standing behind the character, pulling the strings. You suddenly feel the artificiality of the story more clearly.

That reminds me of a technique I've read about in a couple of places. Now, I never use it directly, in a consciouis sort of way... but I think it's absorbed into my subconscious, and always sort of active as I write. The technique was simply to take the important characters in each scene and plot their goals - what is it they want? And then you make sure that these wants and goals are at cross-purposes, and thus bring the characters into conflict. The idea is that this assures tension in your scenes... but I also think it helps characterization because characters have their own motives and look to satisfy their own needs and goals. They have autonomy. This guy wants this, this other guy wants that... a third guy comes in and wants to take something from one of the others. You have people, instead of blank forms moving along a plotline. Again, I don't even do it consciously, but its lurking in the back of my head as I'm hitting the keys.

Bookworm1605 said...

I think we all struggle with characterization issues to some degree so it's always cool to get new angles to work. Great example with the refrigerator. Made me want to go give mine a hug.

We are such a materialistic species that it just makes tons of sense that relationships with our 'things' would give insight into the way we tick.

I kind of like the ten minute conversation idea, too. But I guess I need to know a great deal about the character before I try to have our little talk.

Recently I came across a good article about character conflict that kind of goes along with some of you guys' comments. In a nutshell the article says all of your major characters should have two drives. One is an external motivation. (John is trying to find his missing wife.) The other is internal. (John worries that he is not good enough for his wife.) Then, of course, at least one of your other major characters has a motivation that is in direct conflict with the other. (Mary would rather John didn't find his wife because she's deadly certain they are meant to be together--no matter what.) Then to make the conflict as tangible as possible, make sure your characters external and internal motivations are in conflict also.

Ink said...

I think it's easy to forget about secondary characters, sometimes. We spend so much attention on making our MCs "real", that we forget to do the same for the other characters, who are left to serve plot functions rather than pursue their own personal goals. It's like you get that feeling that you have one real person walking through a land of cardboard cutouts...

Hey, anyone see the movie Patton? It had that effect for me. George C. Scott plays this utterly vivid and vibrant General Patton... and yet everyone else in the movie seemed sort of flat, sort of stock. It kind of deadened the movie for me, despite the interesting central performance, as it was almost as if the world wasn't properly resonding to the character. I think of this sometimes and it helps me to remember that secondary characters have to be carefully developed as well.

Ms Kitty said...

I'm not sure how this went from 'the history of objects' to characterization, but I like it.

Objects as characters brings to mind my 'haunted motorcycle' with it's ghosts. The other character's reactions to the machine, and their reactions to the spirits attached to the machine make for an interesting contrast.

One sees it as a 'helpless wounded beast', while to the other it is a 'cold hulking monster.' It is interesting to put opposite spins on the same object.

There are 'sleek glittering lines', a 'throaty song' and 'waves of cold, cob-web sticky, energy that tracked through her house like mud.'

I think working with something as personal as a motorcycle does show more of who the characters are. It is an object of longing, a symbol and a betrayal all rolled into one.

For him repairing this bike is his quest. This is what he covets, above all things. This is the source of all the conflict in the story. All his problems will be solved if he just gives up this one thing.

It's a challenge to write.

To create something that is worth the emotional attachment, but to make the price so high that the character will struggle with paying that price.

Then to have it shown from a different POV. This creepy cold, smelly serpent. A hulking monster waiting to pounce. A dangerous seduction that stands for all things evil and deadly.

(Rubbing hands together chortling.) I can see objects as characters, as vehicles for plot. (Pun intended.) It's getting it all on paper, all the nuances and inner conflicts. That's the work of writing.