I’ve been absent from the blog while working toward my MFA at Lesley University, and it’s good to come back for a quick reflection. When Katie and I chat, which we do with semi-regularity, we often discuss the latest thing I’m learning in my program. There’s always a lot to talk about.
During my recent residency in Boston, one of the faculty asked us to be truthful about our writing weaknesses. A task such as this is always easier said than done. Of course, we all have weaknesses. (Mine is dark chocolate sea salt caramels. Isn’t yours?) Prior to this seminar, I would have said revision was my biggest weakness. But if our weaknesses should be our top priority when it comes to revision, as this faculty person said, then revision itself couldn’t be my weakness. Besides, revision isn’t a craft technique. It’s the process of reworking the mechanics (read: craft techniques) of a piece. So I couldn’t play it safe with “revision.” But what I discovered at first unnerved me.
In general, my characters are deemed likable or relatable. At the same time, they trend toward being one-dimensional, lacking backstory, or blurring with other characters. In the case of my current WIP, I’d been thinking about these characters for over three years—I was convinced I knew them well. But when my chapters were workshopped at residency, there were questions about my characters I couldn’t answer. Here are just a few:
What was Sage doing when she found out her father had died?
What did she think when her mother first told her they were moving out of the country?
What did AJ think when he met his adoptive parents for the first time?
Why did Leighanne resist going to Nepal all those years?
Did Tenzin ever resent having a nun for a mother?
What fascinating questions! And what I wouldn’t give to know the answers to them.
It’s incredible to grasp how much I can not know my characters. Right now, they live only in my head. At some point, I hope they will live in your head as well, but until that day, I’m all they’ve got. To tell their stories, I would have to get to know them better. I’d discovered a weakness, and a pretty significant one at that. What to do?
My advisor for this semester, Sara Zarr, recommended daily writing prompts by Sarah Selecky. (You can access it here.) Using these prompts, I write scenes with various characters from my WIP. A recent favorite involved an unnamed baby. In writing this scene, I discovered more about the dynamic between my protagonist’s parents. And while their relationship is somewhat critical to the backstory, I honestly hadn’t given them much thought.
Now, uncovering the details about my characters is a top priority, and the daily prompts are a big part in this process. Since I don’t know the answer (and arguably there is no right answer) of who my characters are, I can simply experience the joy of discovering new things about them. And my characters are so much more interesting than I ever would have imagined. I don’t foresee being able to use these scenes directly in my WIP, but I’ve only been doing them a few weeks, and already I feel more in touch with my characters. I’m hooked.
At first I was scared to confront the idea that I didn’t know my characters. Now I see that even within weakness there is opportunity. This is true beyond writing as well. Whether your weakness is defining characters or asking for help or speaking in front of large groups, be brave and embrace it fully. Who knows what will come of it.