Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The most interesting fictional characters ever

While writing my last post on creating interesting fictional characters, I attempted to find a drawing (sans copyright restrictions) to illustrate it. In doing so, I realized I wasn't sure which character from fiction I would most like to use. Miss Havisham? (What characteristic made her interesting, exactly, beyond her bitterness?) Elizabeth Bennett? Jay Gatsby?

I found no unrestricted line drawings of great fictional characters, just photos of the actors who had played them, so I gave up. But along the way, I found several lists of most interesting characters, put up by media sites and fan sites. Here are a few:

• 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900 (from NPR, 2002). Number one: Jay Gatsby

• The 100 favourite fictional characters... as chosen by 100 literary luminaries (listed in London's Independent newspaper, March 2005)

• The 100 Greatest Fictional Characters of All Time (Fandomania). Number one: Batman (as voted by their readers).

• And, finally, this: on Yahoo! Answers, in answer to the question, Who's the best fictional character of all time?, the answer that garnered the most votes was "Shaggy (from scooby doo). Need I say more?"

Extra: for comic relief (and to see how a character can be summed up in a business card) check out Cracked's 29 Business Cards of Famous Fictional Characters (OK, I confess, I didn't get some of these...)

Note: I don't think Mr. Darcy is the most interesting fictional character ever... I just like looking at Colin Firth with sideburns.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Writing interesting characters

In Issue 55 of Writers Ask, Bret Anthony Johnston suggests making characters more likable by giving them at least one annoying habit ("We can't identify, not completely, with perfect characters, so as readers we resist and retreat from protagonists with flawless skin..."). OK, got it—I found this a fun and uninhibited task. My characters began tapping their feet nervously, clearing their throats, or clutching their steering wheels in heavy traffic until their knuckles turned white.

To make them more fully realized and interesting, Johnston also suggests answering a series of questions about each character you're creating. His list of questions included: "What does your character most want?" (some people have said that the answer to this question is the basis itself of a short story), and "What does your character most regret?" But the question I found easiest to answer was this: "What is in your character's wallet/purse?" Unfortunately, every character I have created since reading this has now carries an unusual purse or has an overstuffed wallet—a trait I rarely pay much attention to in real life. It became the first thing I wanted to describe about them when I got around to putting them down on paper.

I'm sure Johnston meant these few questions as a launching point, to inspire writers to pay more attention to detail, and to avoid writing about themselves. To simplify this exercise, you could make a list of intended/planned characters and assign each an outstanding characteristic. Or create some kind of rotating list of questions to answer about your fictional characters (which I will attempt in another post).

The problem for me with all these exercises is that most of my fictional characters don't begin as a visual presence but a voice. They start talking to me as invisible companions that accompany me during the day—like an ongoing internal seance. Perhaps I should try to see what they look like as they speak to me, or ask them what they really want, or what's in their wallets. Yet I'm afraid if I question them, at least while they're still trying to introduce themselves to me, they might vanish. It's probably better for me to write down the conversations (as much as I can remember them), then go back and embellish and add descriptions and stated desires after they've had a sufficient chance to confess their souls.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Writers Ask

I am planning a couple of posts about the newsletter, Writers Ask (WA), published by Glimmer Train Press. I am describing it a little, in this initial post, so I won't have to keep referencing it.

WA continually offers something I had wanted to do on this blog (going beyond my occasional interviews with individual/creative people)—it asks multiple writers about the particulars of their craft. For example, the most recent issue,  Issue 58, asks 13 writers (including T.C. Boyle and Ann Patchett) questions on "Theme."

It's a little pricey—$22 for four issues a year.  I'd thought I wouldn't renew it in the New Year, to save some money. But in that recent Theme section, writer Aaron Gwyn said: "Show me a list of the masterpieces of world literature and I'll show you a list of trouble." He goes on to prove it by describing several novels succinctly in this way, e.g., Ullysses: "you're the only Jewish guy in Dublin and someone is dating your wife and doing a very fine job of it." Just with that little bit of text I realized what is wrong with the fiction I've been writing recently—no trouble, no conflict, no plot.

It was also through WA that I made my way to Michael Cunningham. I had resisted him, for some reason, after watching the movie version of "The Hours." But in Issue 57 (Fall 2012), under the theme "Place and Setting," he was asked about the futuristic, drone-filled world he had created in his novella "Like Beauty." Intrigued, I checked out the audio book for Specimen Days (the novella is part of its trilogy), read by Alan Cummings. The ending of its first novella, "In The Machine," was so good I found myself wanting to get out of the car to stand up and applaud.

The newsletter is maddeningly (at least to this former librarian) unorganized. I wish there was some kind of paper index or online metafilter for the topics and authors that have appeared on its pages thus far (I've asked the editors if they would consider doing that someday). Until then, I'll read every page, and take notes, looking forward to it as a wonderful surprise that arrives in my mailbox every three months.