Monday, December 30, 2013

The Philosophy of Writing: The Autonomous Character

Last week I began a new series dealing with the philosophy of writing. The first step was considering the motivation for ourselves writing a story. We analyzed the structure of a story as being a tool used by people to advocate a particular view of the world. It is important to know and understand why we tell our stories. Ultimately, our goal is to extricate ourselves from our stories as much as possible, starting with the plot and followed by the characters.

Who a character is, what their motivation is, what they believe, these questions illustrate the fundamental hurdle all amateur story-tellers must overcome. When writers start out, they often craft their characters as stand-ins informed by their own personal experiences. Myself, for instance, wrote two stories when I was very young. One story featured characters from existing narratives. The other was wholly original, but drew heavily on my own personality. Each character was a construction of my desires and what I truly wanted at that particular period of my life. It is natural to write like this when starting out. Fan-fiction, that reprehensible art form, derives from these fledgling experiences. And while such beginnings are safe and welcoming for the novice writer, to stay at this place is a horrible thing.

So, where do we go then, now that we understand our first instinct when writing characters?

We know characters are good when they are original, when they act autonomously, or do things that we don't suspect. In essence, a good character is self-contained. How much of this is formula, and how much of this is art, is not necessarily the question. Where we must start is understand what a character is. Characters are people when it comes down to it. A person has emotions and feelings, so does a character. A person has motivations and aspirations, so does a character. A good character emulates a raw person, one that is wholly different from what we want. Christian writing is often party to shoddy and cliched characters, particularly because the authors are creating characters to fit a particular mold or expectation of the publisher or potential buyer. But is this really an okay thing to do? I would hope that Christian stories, which fundamentally deal with people who have real problems and concerns, cultivate worlds conducive to our own. Our world can tend to be a dirty and rotten place. So why are we making characters that don't mirror the conceptual environments that they supposedly emerge from?

One tip that I have found helpful, at least, for creating an original character I will share before we exeunt is a rule that I recently developed for the final draft of my book. If you take the voice of a celebrity, or film actor, and imagine your character speaking in that particular voice, it helps to distinguish the personalities of the characters operating in the scene. This is not the same as writing "fan-fiction" at all, because the emphasis here is not copying what the celebrity does, or what they are. Here we are taking a distinct voice and supplying that voice with words. The voice of a gruff and disturbed fellow would not be conducive to a comely woman, etc.

In the next week I want you all to consider taking up an assignment. Write two character outlines and pick a hobby that you do not relate to whatsoever. Integrate these characters into their respective hobbies and have their motivations and desires align with their pursuits. This will train you to get outside yourself, and let your character act autonomously. Also, you might learn something interesting. Go for it!


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