Characters with Psychological Depth
What's nice about everything that we're doing so far, we'll kinda continue to do, is that everything's building on top of one another, so we'll kinda have like one kind of cohesive literary worldview by the time we get to the end of the day. You're gonna see like all these different facets are working together for the ultimate goal of you having active character driven stories, character driven essays, you know, like I said, most of these transcend any genre divisions, it's just a matter of buying in and dialing in this idea that the image needs to be what we're showcasing. Listen to how boring this sentence is gonna be. There was a Russian formalist named Shklovsky. Oh my God, I just full asleep, why did I say that? But we have to talk about Shklovsky just for a second before we can talk about some more cool stuff. And Shklovsky was working in the 19-teens, the 1920s, and he had this idea that he likes to call defamiliarization. What Shklovsky was getting at was that we've interacted ...
with so many images so many times over the duration of our life that when we see one of them, we're not actually having an emotional response to that one example of the image, we're seeing all of them kind of compressed into this uber image. So, if you go to a playhouse and you're sitting there, and all of a sudden a casket is wheeled onto the center of the stage, Shklovsky would argue that you're not having a reaction to that one casket, it's all of the caskets, it's your aunt, you know, it's your dog, it's whatever it is, and all these things sort of kind of compile themselves. Same deal if you're sitting in the playhouse and a woman walks to the center of the stage wearing a wedding dress. Shklovsky says it's not that one wedding dress, it's every wedding dress that you've ever seen. Getting out of just prioritizing the foreground, so maybe someone is wearing a wedding dress, and maybe there is a casket on stage, but it's us taking the time as storytellers to search the periphery of the frame, finding that one detail that we wanna fetishize, and use that to carry the heft, that can be the stand in for the wedding dress, that can be the stand in for the casket. So, this is another thing for you to kinda be asking yourself when you're generating scenes, am I just looking in the center of the frame, right? Am I only sort of concerned here about the casket or the wedding dress paradigm, or am I pushing myself to see maybe there's another element that could work, like maybe there's a few drops of mud on the bottom of the wedding dress, and that's the story. It's not the wedding dress itself, it's that detail, that detail from the periphery, and we find a way to use that and give that heft rather than just the big, you know, capital M, meaningful stuff. We're gonna make the slivers of things, the minutia on the periphery of the frame, make them stand, make them matter. Does that make sense what I'm saying so far? You know, it pushes us to like we wanna get past the obvious, we wanna get past cliches, you know, we were talking about unpacking abstractions earlier, and if somebody's sad, I don't wanna see her eating Chinese food takeout watching Sex in the City reruns, you know? Like I've seen that before, it's a matter of like finessing that. It might be that same exact scene, but maybe there's something on the periphery of the frame that will make it exciting again. Changing the angle, changing the vantage point in which you're informing that moment, bring it to life in a new and a sophisticated and an elegant way. So, this is a question that I often ask myself when I'm starting to put scenes together: have I made the familiar unfamiliar? Because we're all talking about the same stuff. There's only a finite number of emotions on the emotional palette. So, storytellers for thousands of years have been talking about the same set of emotions. How do we do it in interesting ways? How do we do it in a way that we're like or the reader's like oh, here we go again, that person's angry and there's another hole in the wall. How do we make it just a little bit different? I don't think it's necessarily interesting scene on the page if a father gives a son a black eye. That might seem like it's just there for shock value, and I've seen it before. But what I do think might be interesting is instead of rendering that moment of violence which happens, obviously, but it's not gonna be rendered on the page. So, instead of seeing the actual, you know, knuckle to cheek, we're in the next morning, and we're seeing a son sit at a breakfast table with a shiner, and we're seeing a father whip up a frittata and fresh squeezed orange juice, and make organic blueberry pancakes, or whatever he's trying to do to kind of like overcompensate for this sort of burst of violence. Was it a one off? Is it something that sort of populates their relationship or their house? We're still writing about violence, we're still writing about child abuse, but we're not talking about the center of the frame. We've found a more sophisticated way to render that for our reader to have the opportunity to inhabit. And notice, it's also writing into the complication. Like, we're seeing him try to right the wrong, like we know from the outside that that's impossible, there are certain things you can't undo, hurting a kid is one of them. Like you do that, that's who you are. But from his standpoint, and again, what we're trying to accomplish is authentically inhabit that person's point of view. You can write about whoever you wanna write about, but you have to make sure that you're willing to be situated in that person's heart, situated in that person's consciousness and authentically be him. Whipping up that frittata, it's the perfect amount of goat cheese, right? Slowly, slowly, and finely dicing some basil, he's being meticulous, he's making the perfect frittata. You think the son cares about that? Of course not, but we're seeing him care about that. And the reader kind of stands back and there's an action, the violence. There was a reaction, the overcompensation by making this sort of lavish breakfast. And maybe the father's saying things like breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I really try to do this, I don't get a chance to do this as often as I would like to do, but I really try to like take care of my son, it's really important to me to feel like I'm putting him a situation to succeed. So, he's telling us that he's got some precise motives for doing what he's doing, but as the audience, we know things about him that he probably wouldn't be able to articulate about himself, because we know about the violence, we know why he's doing this. It has nothing to do with setting the kid up to succeed for the day, he's saying I'm sorry. I'm sorry about this week, I'm sorry about last week, I'm sorry about three months ago, I wish I was a better person but I'm not, here's a frittata. Writing into the complication, so it isn't just violence in the center of the frame, 'cause the violence is an easy thing to get a beat on, right? You can't hit kids, it's a deal breaker. But if we approach it from a different angle, maybe we can write into the complexities of what it is to be in a family, what it is to be a son, what it is to be a father, a daughter, a mother, so on and so forth. So, I think that's one of the things that I want us to be thinking about is the dissonance between what a character says is motivating her to do something, and what we from our perch can clearly see as the real motivation. Right, so we're seeing the actions and the reactions, we're hearing the motive, and that character says I'm doing this because of X. And we say no, that is unequivocally because of Z. I call this the wobble, it's that they don't quite line up, the character's set of perceptions and the reader's set of perceptions. And this is a very, very powerful tool for us to think about how to use these things to our advantage. So, what's wobbling is what they're articulating about their motives, and what we as sort of the neutral observer are seeing as the true motives, or our version of their true motives. Does that make sense what I'm saying so far? All of this is going toward the greater good of establishing something that I like to call narrative Stockholm syndrome. So, here is an inchoate, and probably an incorrect synopsis of Stockholm syndrome. Stockholm syndrome is when somebody has been abducted or kidnapped, and while they're in the presence of their captor, they start to sympathize, you know, they start to see oh, they're not so bad, they brought me some toast three days ago, that was nice. And then you get released and maybe you even defend them. There's this captor-captee affinity, some sort of odd camaraderie that develops in the grips of something so harrowing, or something so devastating. And for our purposes here, what I'm talking about with narrative Stockholm syndrome is how to we take advantage of the captor-captee relationship between a reader and a main character? Because your reader is incarcerated in the protagonist's set of perceptions. We are locked in what I like to call brain jail. We're seeing things from their brainwaves, we're seeing things from their heartbeats, we're seeing their particular side of things, and that can be a liability if we don't do it right, or it can be a really humongous asset for us, taking advantage of that captor-captee relationship in which we say, and again, falling back to this idea of relatability, like I wouldn't behave that way, I wouldn't do that. But because I'm privy to the logic system, because I'm privy to the decision making mechanism of this sovereign being, I'm seeing how she's deciding to do what she's doing. And because I understand so clearly what's motivating her, I understand it. I wouldn't do it, I wouldn't hit my kid and make him an organic blueberry pancake the next day, but in the contorted and sick logic of this one father, I understand the causal relationship between that burst of violence and trying to dote on somebody to say I'm sorry. I'm not just sorry about hitting you, I'm sorry about who I am, and I can say that out loud, but here's some fresh fruit that I just cut up. So, there's this cool thing that we have at our disposal, right? We're trying to have a reader occupy a foreign set of perceptions, the brain jail, the heart jail, however you wanna think about it, how do we use that as an asset? Well, I think the first thing that I would do is I would kind of consider the logic system of the main character to almost be like a stream. So, I would not try to like convince my reader about like this drop of water and this drop of water from this stream, and I'm pulling out these drops of water and trying to show you my wet hands. I would just let my reader fall on this stream as though she's a leaf, and just sort of let her ride the rhythm of that particular brain, of that particular consciousness. So, she's just eavesdropping, right? She's just seeing how the brain works, she's seeing how the brain handles actions, she's seeing how the brain handles reactions, and the last one is interactions, scenes with a lot of dialogue where we're talking with other people. But I think with interactions there's a bit of a subdivision too, there's the interactions that our character has externally with other people, but there's also the interactions our character has with herself. I don't know about you, but given enough time, I can convince myself of just about anything. You know, when there's nobody left to lie to and you're alone in your apartment, you're staring up at the ceiling, trying to go to sleep, how honest are you with yourself? Is it 100 percent honesty? Is it sort of honesty? Are we bending and warping some things to make ourselves feel better about some things? And again, none of these are right or wrong, 'cause every character's gonna be handled a little bit differently, but I think it's important for you as the writer to be able to know how this person talks to herself, this person who, in the throes of a certain setting, might be talking to us with that rationalization prowess that we were talking about earlier. This is what I'm doing, and I'm right about this, and I'm so right, I know I'm doing the right thing, but does she still think that eight hours later? You know, when you're staring up at the ceiling like oh my God, what have I done? What have I done, and how am I gonna extract myself from this sheer mess I've made of my immediate circumstance here? So, really ponder the power of the rationalization, and ponder the idea of sort of self interrogation. How does she talk to herself when nobody else is around? The levels of truthfulness, the levels of kindness. And what's the tricky thing about being alive is sometimes what I think on Tuesday isn't the same thing I think on Thursday. And that's crazy, even with writing, like I could read a paragraph I wrote on Monday and be like I'm gonna win the Pulitzer, obviously, this is the most amazing paragraph anybody's ever written. And then I'll read the same paragraph on Tuesday and be like I am such an extraordinary hack, this is the worst series of sentences that anybody has put together. I mean, the truth is I was obviously somewhere in the middle, but I think we can use these things to our advantage on the page to have a complicated and comprehensive character. Characters need to be consistently inconsistent, that's the only thing we're probably good at all the time, being consistently inconsistent, and allowing that to populate the scenes, and don't feel like oh no, I'm just trying to sell this version of Terry, and they're only gonna see this version of Terry, they gotta see it all, they gotta see the whole ball of wax. And the interaction part can be a really fun way to learn more about your characters, too. Like, oftentimes under the name of my due diligence, I'll just do some monologue writing, stuff I know will never make the book, but how does this person feel about their mother? How do they feel about their younger brother? What's the thing in their life that they're the most proud of? What's the thing in their life that they're most ashamed of? And you'll never put it in the story, you know, but you have to know that stuff. Then when you do start cherry picking kind of the juiciest bits and curate that for the end reader, everything's there for a desired effect. The other cool thing about narrative Stockholm syndrome too is it gets back to this idea of activity level for your audience, where we're just hearing what they're thinking about stuff. So, it isn't just thought process, it's what they're thinking about what they're thinking. And we sort of wade through that soup, you know, that confusing business of being alive right now, and try to use those things for assets on the page. You know, decision making is something where we learn a lot about who a person is. Give your character some problems. You know, oftentimes I think about it's about putting yourself in extreme circumstances in some of these exercises, there's a great short story by a woman named Melanie Rae Thon, the story's called First, Body, First comma Body, it's a great story. I'm gonna ruin it for you, but I just wanted you to know that it's a really great story, it was written a long time ago, so I feel like I can ruin it and I'm not doing anything wrong. I just gave a lecture last week, and I was like you know at the end of Thelma and Louise, and a woman was like don't tell me about it. I was like that was 20 years ago? If you were gonna see Thelma and Louise, you would've seen it by now. Anyways, at the climactic point of this story, this man does something that is impossible. He works in a morgue and he needs to move a 400 pound body from this table over here to this table over here. And whatever the principles are, whatever the motivating factors are of his private life, he feels like this is something that he needs to do by himself. And we know he's gonna fail, but God we want him to succeed. God we want him to make it, and when he lifts the body up over here, makes it about here, hears the crunch and the pop in his knee, and he falls, and the body falls, and he's screaming for somebody to help him and nobody can hear him, it makes perfect sense why he did it in the reality of the story, 'cause the writer has made the audience privy to the decision making mechanism. I understand why he needs to do the impossible, and your characters might be not to that extreme, maybe not to such a hyperbolic example, but your characters are doing the same thing, your characters are making decisions or problem solving in their own sophisticated and myopic way, as we all do. That's an asset for us, to really let your reader understand what's motivating them, why they're doing what they're doing, what is the logic behind these things? You know, is there some piety? Is there some morality? Is there family of origin stuff? Probably all of these things are conflated into one kind of grandiose commodity that's propelling him or her to do whatever it is she's trying to accomplish in this scene. That's narrative Stockholm syndrome, us understanding why she's doing what she's doing at every moment because we're locked in, we're so privy to the mechanizations of that consciousness that its been brought to life for us. Does that make sense, what I'm saying? This one's a little arcane, so lemme know if any questions are popping up. The other thing I think we can use this to our advantage too is to then say how can I use my secondary characters, we haven't talked a lot about secondary characters yet, but if we've created a very rich inner life for our characters in their consciousness, in their hearts, we also wanna be able to contrast that by how other people are interacting with him or her. Like if someone's like in their heart I'm such a ladies man, I'm such a ladies man, I'm such a ladies man, and then we see him interact with a woman, and we think to ourselves yeah, no, maybe you're not such a ladies man. That's real useful for us, what he's saying does not quite line up with what we're witnessing, and we can use those dissonances to our advantage. So, there's the kind of self interaction, but then there's also those external interactions and how those pieces can be working synergistically as a cohesive whole, and then there's also how those two things can be fighting with each other, tussling a little bit, creating that necessary dissonance and anxiety in your audience where she's like oh, well who's right? Is he a ladies man, isn't he a ladies man? We're gonna go to the next scene so we can really try to see how some of this stuff lines up. In terms of trying to capitalize on this, it's more a matter of I want you for this next exercise, I would like you to sort of forget about your external responsibilities. I want you to sort of kind of throw the blinkers on so you're only concerning yourself with how this person talks to herself, that process of self interrogation. So, the prompt is you're gonna write a monologue where a character talks to herself about the brick she launched through her ex-partner's windshield. Now, let's say this person is walking home from the bar, she's having fun, she's having fun, she sees a Mustang, she stands back and ponders it, and just says to us I just feel like smashing some stuff, I'm just feeling a little uppity, I'm gonna smash some stuff. And she grabs a brick, throws it through the windshield, and the scene ends. And then the next scene is a flashback, her riding in that Mustang, her being broken up with in that Mustang, her detesting that Mustang as some sort of ecosystem that embodies the failure of this affinity. So, she's telling us I just wanted to smash some stuff. And we're saying I don't buy it. I don't think that's true, because I know what had happened in that Mustang previously, I know that this wasn't just like what a coincidence, isn't that amazing that you just felt like smashing some stuff and here's Tyler's Mustang? Oh wow. So, let's play a little bit with this idea of the wobble, what a character is telling in her heart, these are the reasons that are motivating me, there are the things that are propelling me into action, but via some exterior context, we know things aren't quite as easy or pat as they're making it sound in their head. Does that make sense what we're doing here? So again, just try to think about how this person talks to themselves, and maybe you're not even gonna use complete sentences, 'cause oftentimes in thought process it's a phrase here, a phrase here, you know, a lot of non sequiturs, a lot of kind of stream of consciousness. Like don't feel wedded to grammar, and when we're doing these internal stuff like mimic the mind, like put us in the way that this person's thought process pops from this point to this point. There's probably apocryphal story about Proust, I don't even care if it's apocryphal 'cause it's like such a great story, and Proust, you know, is famous for writing these really long and ornate sentences, and a critic asked Proust is this sentence grammatically correct? And Proust was puffing a cigarette and says what is grammar? And I think what's helpful for us in that anecdote is that let the grammar be dictated by the piece, the reality of the story, rather than you being like I learned all these rules in high school English class and this is how you use a semi colon, this is how you use a double dash, and I'm never gonna break the rules. For creative writers, grammar doesn't exist. I think you should know all the rules, but I think you should break all the rules when it behooves that particular story, when it behooves that particular character. So, maybe this is a good example for you to kind of turn yourself loose to really futz with the lines and the thought process so it feels more organic, it feels more choppy, it doesn't have to be so flowy from one sentence to the next, so on and so forth. Does it make sense what we're doing here? All right, we'll do about eight minutes, happy writing. Well, why don't you snag those microphones? This has so far been kind of the most difficult technique that it is to sort of articulate that we've talked about so far, like this is a more kind of encoded concept, so if you didn't have any questions when we were kind of talking in the abstract, did any questions sort of dawn on you when you were kind of working on your exercise? Or did it make sense, this idea of the discrepancy between the self interaction and what the reader's seeing? What does that nod mean? Can we hand her the microphone? Great, thanks.
I just related to the fact that, you know, you tell yourself stories in your head and you make stuff up to justify things all of the time. And the evolution of my story, it was interesting, 'cause the evolution of the story was she was talking about him, and then she started talking to him. So, it made sense to me.
Right, well I think what's interesting too especially with siblings where you've had this kind of like shared memories, but you can have like wildly different versions of the facts. Like, I threw one of my sisters in a lake one time and she totally deserved it, so don't judge me, but both of my sisters think it was them, 'cause they've heard that story so many times, like every Thanksgiving we have an argument about that. You threw me in the lake, no you threw me in the lake, I mean, obviously I know, but I'm never gonna spoil the fun, 'cause it's great to watch them bandy about. But we all went through the same thing, and yet one of them has usurped this as like her property, something that she owns, or has experience, I think that stuff is absolutely fascinating how the stories that we tell ourselves fray over the years, gain embellishments, like we tell the story, and a detail gets like a sort of laugh, and then you tell it again, and that gets a better laugh, and then suddenly that's what happened. And it starts to change, and it starts to change, and then if we actually had a photographic memory, or if there was like evidence as to what actually happened, I think our memories probably don't ever map up precisely to what we've experienced, and again, that's what we're trying to do, we wanna play with those discrepancies, or work in there. So, did you start inside and then work your way out? Is that how the scene?
I started thinking about what she was thinking about him, and that he was like this, and what he was saying, and what he thought about her, and then she got angry about that, and so she just switched and started being angry at him.
Now, that's a really interesting thing for us to ponder as well is this idea that mood is never fixed in real life, so why do we have kind of mood fixed in scene? If we can kind of allow for these organic undulations, or these modulations in mood where maybe somebody's sort of resigned at the beginning of a scene, but then based on kind of what happens, they're livid by the end of it, or they start off mad, and somehow they are deflated by the time we get out of it, or happy and then we're not happy, so kick around how you can use those things to your advantage too, like when is my mood too fixed? When should I allow myself to play with how things kind of naturally and organically change in our day to day life when we're interacting with the outside world? Were you gonna say something?
I had kind of an odd experience in the midst of this, I'm not sure if I got it exactly, but I finished way, way early and I was like oh, that's done. And then I went now I gotta fill up the time, so then I wrote the three lines and I highlighted in red because I'm not really sure it fit, because I was happy with where it sat before, but then 'cause there was more time, I started filling in stuff that just like yeah, that's not where I really, no, I don't think that really belongs there. So, if it'd be okay, I'd just like to read it and see if anybody thinks I got somewhere in the realm of this, 'cause I don't think there was a twist. I don't think it's too long. It goes jeez, what did I just do? And didn't it feel great? Oh no it didn't, oh yes it did, I feel awesome, I just showed that two-timing low down dirt hole drifter what he can do when he cheats on me. He deserved it, getting her pregnant in the backseat. And you know he did, he just did, look at me, ain't I proof of that? I got proofs of that all in the backseat of that little green Mustang. I always wished it was a convertible, now it is, sort of.
Yeah, no, I think what we're trying to foster, or the strength that we're trying to play toward is that she's using the particulars of her life. Like sometimes we think about backstory as being like 15 years ago, 25 years ago, but backstory's also last week. And that probably falls under the rubric of kind of contextual information, or ways for us to understand the particulars of their status quo or what the rules are here, and here we have a couple that might be under some upheaval, a lot of kids, a lot of resentment, and oops, he stepped out and knocked somebody else up, uh oh. And that's what we're trying to write toward, that would be like the beginning of the story, you know, and then we would wanna build on those things to some sort of climactic action by the time we get to the apex. But yeah, no, I think that was exactly what we were trying to work on, being privy to how she talks to herself, but how she talks to herself is being informed based on everything that's happening around her, good job. Oh cool, yeah, would you like to read that too?
I had 'em in between the backseat of the green Mustang and the I always wish it was a convertible, so I stuck it in there, I went and then it got kind of this despair tone. Now what am I gonna do? Where am I gonna hide, hide from him this time? Not too many places to hide from a big burly truck driver that takes to the open road, the long road, whenever things just don't go his way.
I like the cadence there, but I could also see how you would maybe wanna move that til a later bit later so as not being too particular up front, we're allowing it to sort of take off, you know? 'Cause at the beginning of the story, the reader's having to pick these things up on the fly, so we don't wanna inundate them with too many particular pieces of information or we risk that she might miss some essential components, so we wanna make sure that we sort of dole those out in a fashion where she can retain three here, she can retain three here, she can retain three here, but she would not be able to retain nine at once right up front, so yeah, I think that would make sense to kind of keep it but maybe push it a little bit back in the narrative.
And I think that sort of the big learning of it is that just 'cause you have eight minutes doesn't mean you need eight minutes. That was my learning, it's like okay, I'm done at four minutes, and there's nothing more I wanna say right now, I shouldn't clutter it up, and avoid that temptation, over painting.
Yeah, that's the whole Kerouac idea, right? First idea, right idea.
Actually, I had a quick question, this particular topic it was hard for me to connect to, and I feel like a lot of the time when you're doing some sort of, well, any writing really, like it requires it to have sort of like a natural voice that's incipiently there, but then I feel like I couldn't ascertain that with this. Like, do you have any advice in terms of like okay, I have to write about this topic, but I don't feel like there's a voice behind it?
Well, that's a great idea, I mean, I think 'cause we were talking earlier about people who kind of generate content from outlines and people who just sort of like plot by the seat of their pants in the early drafts until they start to figure out what it's going to look like. And what I think is important for you as an apprentice writer is to be test driving as many different models as you possibly can. 'Cause we don't always know what works, but we do know what doesn't work. So, if you come across a certain exercise and you're like oh, that one doesn't feel right, so you might not be the sort of writer who's gonna start with thought process. You might be the sort of writer who starts on the outside and then works your way in. 'Cause you use the word voice, and I think if you polled 20 writers you would get 20 various definitions of what the word voice means, but in my world when I use the word voice, I use it as a synonym for personality. It's the personality type on the page. And sometimes, you'll hear it right away, and sometimes it just takes a while to kind of get into their true cadences, you know, to get into the way that they wanna be interacting with the audience on the line level. So, sometimes it comes easier, and sometimes it makes you work at it. So, if the prompt feels weird, I would say to myself I didn't enjoy this one as much, why? Maybe I'll try it a couple other times this week, this month, and if it doesn't get any easier, then maybe you're not the writer who's gonna start with that. Maybe the interior stuff is gonna come a little bit later. 'Cause that's the thing, right, there's no one size fits all answer here. Every artist should be playing to the strengths of her particular brain's biorhythm, you know? If anybody tells you there's one way to write a story, run the other direction, 'cause they're trying to sell you something. You know, we're not trying to sell you anything today, we're talking about principles to kind of let your imagination feel limber and free and how to kind of use your life experiences to your advantage, so yeah, if it feels a little weird, try it a couple more times, and if it feels weird after that, I'd go in a different direction.