Creating Multi-Dimensional Characters: The Synergy of Fact and Fiction

 

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In The Creative Habit, Twyla Tharp suggests that hard work and discipline leads to creativity. But where do the two seemingly opposite disciplines interplay? What allows pragmatic, left-brained reasoning to synergize with freethinking, right-brained artistry?

One answer might be found in writing, and in the creation of characters.   

Writing often begins with data collection. When writing, surface waters of inquiry spread far, gushing over ground that includes—for my recent manuscript—an understanding of issues that make up young adult life, the culture of football, the physicality and mentality of fighting, all in the backdrop of a particular type of town, school, and parental upbringing. This information is gleaned from books, newspapers, interviews, personal experience—research. But data collection is not enough.

At some point the writer must stop researching and drill deep. At this point—when the auger spins through the surface—the writer creates the unique internal topography of her character. 

Let’s say you decide to include a football player in your story, like I have. Let’s say you attend a local game to do your research. You pick two jersey numbers on the sidelines to study. Both are getting ready to jog out, let’s say, on defense.

One player is pacing, his fists are clenched, his eyes look wild and unfocused. He’s muttering. If he’s my son, he’s foaming at the mouth (his recollection, not mine).

Next to this player stands his teammate, quiet and nearly still. His eyes are locked on the jerseys across the field—his opponent.

Two comparably talented players are on the same sideline in the same game playing for the same team…yet they are clearly different.  

This is where the fun starts. Is this a first varsity game for one of these players? Is either player masking an injury? Who does the coach favor? What role does the father play in the young man’s life? Is the player uncertain of his ability? Or afraid of being hit? 

In other words: What internal issues does the player bring to his game? What external forces are working on him? And how do these manifest themselves in his behavior?

By mining deep, and not stopping until you know exactly how your player is going to act and react to the events on the field—and how his actions and reactions are different his teammate’s—we go beyond static, single-dimension characters and snap our players to life on the page.

 

Tharp, Twyla, and Mark Reiter. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life: a Practical Guide. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006. Print.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Creating Multi-Dimensional Characters: The Synergy of Fact and Fiction

  1. Yep, that intersection where you stop the research and infuse your knowledge of the game with the character you’re creating is the pivot point. You can always return to your knowledge of the game, but at some point you jump into the character and see the game through his eyes, experience his response through his heart.

  2. Excellent analysis. So love this post. I particularly loved this: “At some point the writer must stop researching and drill deep. At this point—when the auger spins through the surface—the writer creates the unique internal topography of her character.” So very true. The hardest thing about character exploration (for me, that is) is knowing when the character is speaking or reacting and when you the writer are. I have a tendency to sound “writerly,” to go for what sounds beautiful or makes me sound “deep,” but isn’t very true to my characters. “Mining deep” as you mention, is so crucial, especially when the temptation to fall back on stereotypes rears its ugly head.

  3. Great post! I like the questions you pose above asking what internal issues and external forces are working on your characters so that you can develop a deeper understanding of those characters. The result, of course, will be a deeper story. Thank you for the inspiration.

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