Class Notes Fiction Writing: Getting Started
There are lots of ways to begin a course, like talking about setting a time to write and keeping that time like an appointment. We didn’t do that!
In this class, we talked about what we need to consider when writing our characters because, bottom line, our story is about characters, who they are and who they might end up becoming.
A. So, here are three ways to look at and develop our characters, whether we are talking about the main character or any characters necessary to the story telling process.
- What does your character look like on the outside? And will your readers know what the characters look like from what you write?
It is helpful to keep a notebook or white board with a thumbnail description of your key characters.
That said, NO, don’t spend a paragraph telling your reader that the character is a heavy-set fifty year-old who hurt his leg in a car accident, he works as a mill wright in a factory, and he is volunteer fire-fighter on the side.
Show the reader.
Bob Brennan heard the siren even deep in the plant and listened for the number of blasts that would tell where the fire was. But there was no variance in the blasts this time, no two short and one long or three shorts or anything like that. Only one very long blast, not normal long. Something else. Then another protracted long. He pulled his eye protecting goggles off and then the asbestos gloves shielding his fingers from the hot wire. Turning the machine off, he headed toward the door noticing two young guys running ahead of him, but his knee slowed him down. And he wondered what he and his volunteer firefighter brothers were getting into this time.
Do you get the idea? Your readers don’t have to know exactly what the character looks like but enough so that they can see him in their minds.
- Then, what does he look like inside? Psychologically. Give him a background to account for some of his choices. What does he like and maybe more importantly, what does he/ she not like or hate? What faith or religious group do they identify with; what are his/her dreams, regrets, fears, doubts and biases? Think about what goes on inside that impacts what happens outside
- Finally, how did your character get here? Think education or lack thereof. Think socio-economic background. Consider your character’s circle: family, friends, employer or co-workers, those who impact his/her choices.
Go back and read the sample paragraph and see what questions are answered in that paragraph.
B. Setting or Place. Can your reader see what you see at least the most important elements in the scene? Again, show it, don’t tell it, but weave it into the narrative. Read the following paragraph and think through what you can see. What did you learn without being told?
Carol heard the fire siren and rushing to the window searched the valley below where the small town that organized her life lay spread out below her. No smoke, she thought. Maybe this is the warning that the communists are coming. She thought that through for a moment. No, that’s dumb. The communists aren’t here now really, and a shiver passed through her, but they might be sending one of their bombs.
C. Dialogue. You can communicate or show a great deal through the medium of well-written dialogue. Look at the dialogue below and make a list of what you learn.
“What is it? What is it?” yelled Susan, pushing Carol away from the window. Then, “I don’t see anything.”
“No, there’s nothing to see. At least I don’t see anything. But maybe we should go down to the cellar.”
“No, it’s dark and dirty, and why would anybody want to go down there?”
Carol thought through how she could convince her little sister that it might be safer down there without scaring the daylights out of her and wishing like mad her mother was there. “Well,” Carol thought as she formulated a plan, “we could have an adventure. We could pretend we are in a ship and we are hiding and we are …”
Susan interrupted her, “That’s stupid. I hate it down there. You can’t make me go down there.”
Thinking fast, Carol raised her voice ever so slightly, “Yeah, but what if it really was the safe place? What if it was where Mom and Dad would want us to go with that crazy siren going off like that? And we could take some blankets and some books.” She paused. “Well, you could take your Barbies. There is a lot to eat down there, cherries and applesauce and pickles, other stuff mom canned. And I’ll get the cookie jar,” certain that the cookie jar would seal the deal.
Finally won over, Susan added, “We’ll need some flashlights and candles ‘cause it is pretty dark even with the light at the top of the steps. And maybe the lights could go out. I know where Mama keeps her big candles, and you can get the matches. I can’t reach the matches.”
So now what have you learned from the additional dialogue?
Your assignment is to pay attention to the people around you. Listen to them so that you might even use some of that in the dialogue you will be writing. Think through what might have made the people you see the way they are – the kind of things that are not physically written on their person but might as well have by the way the interact and look.
Assignment: Write one to two pages, or more, this week, of a narrative or story built around a key character. This could be something you are already writing or something new. Be prepared to read it aloud in class. So what must you do before you read it in class?
Read it out loud so that you can hear what it sounds like. This will enable you to pick up errors you might otherwise miss.
And remember the recipe for critique work in our class: something you liked, something that might be improved and how, and finish with an encouraging word. And, if when you are called on, you feel you have nothing to add, just say “Pass.”
If you are having trouble getting started, look again at the class prompts.
Thanks for being with us. I think we got off to a great start.