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Writing Lecture/Objective Thirteen
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Defining Characters

As your instructor, I feel comfortable as long as the subject deals with the science of writing.  However, when it comes to explaining the art, I am in deep kimchee.  This is not only my problem but one for anyone who tries to explain the art of anything.  I have a pile of references.  When I get in trouble, I use these to help me focus, but you know what?  Writing about the art of defining characters is like sticking jello to the wall. 

I use the example of my watercolor teacher showing me how to paint a leaf.  It was a process for which there was no real explanation. She could do it and demonstrated it before my eyes. I simply couldn't approach her skill even though I tried to over and over again. However, my leaf painting did improve somewhat. So, I guess that hope springs eternal.

Now the point I'm trying to make is all writers know something about character development. I could sit here and intellectualize the process, and all I would accomplish is convince my readers that I'm a fraud.  I have concluded it is beyond the scope of the human mind to intellectually give birth to a character any more than it's possible to think a baby into existence.  When the time comes, they will emerge. The best you can hope for is to be ready to catch them, and give them a little nurture.  They are the unborn children of your spirit filled with darkness and light and destined to never actually walk the pathways of this dimension.  They are sometimes mean spirited and sometimes sublime.  Without the chains you bind them with, they soon return to the nether world, from whence they came.
So, brothers and sisters, fellow writers, let them boldly rise up from your soul and walk the corridors of your mind.  Make them resonate with authenticity yet stand taller than life.  Let their darkness fill your story or their purity glisten like the dew.  Let them stretch and yawn briefly taking note of your presence as they stare with awe about the world of your imagination.  Catch them while you can in the key strokes of your fingers and grant them immortality in your words.

Don't make them an intellectual exercise.  Start with something generic from your past and coax them from the dark world of fancy into the bright light of day.  Take note of who they represent and what they stand for. As their faces begin to emerge from past experiences, use their plastic visage as the batter in your cupcake pan.  Give them the flesh of authenticity and embellish them in robes of grandeur.  Let them behave plausibly but fill the mold to overflowing.  They need to germinate as a transient seed and slowly grow bigger than life. Begin with a memory or a stereotype and push them to the limits of believability.

Don't get caught up in trying to figure out what comes first, the chicken or the egg, trying to decide if the story line begets the character or if the character begets the story.  It happens both ways.  You get an idea for a story and like a casting director you go out in search of the actors.  Or you can have this interesting character. You get them to talking and they tell you the story.  Or you can get both working concurrently and let them feed off each other as both mature before your very eyes.

In this class, I'm telling you to write a vignette between 1K and 3K words.  Then in the prompt I throw in half a dozen things I want you to include.  Then I turn you loose.  The catch is you have to come up with something by the following week and the subsequent vignettes share the same characters and story line.  In this process you must eventually settle on who the Central Character will be.  Now I won't tell you how often writers identify a central character who is anything but central, or how often a supporting character upstages the central character.

What is important is to show who they are and what they stand for and the changes that take place in this critical juncture of their lives.  It begins by showing them doing something and ends as they emerge a new person.

Percy Goodfellow - Workshop Instructor
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