“Sonder” — A Delightful Concept for Writers

sonder2

My son just exposed me to a new word, which now enchants me: sonder. According to the Dictionary of the Obscure, it is “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.”

I have always intuited this idea, but never put it to words like this. We are in this life together, but living it uniquely. It is brutish to expect that others will live their lives as we do, to have the same values and purpose as we have. How could they? Their experiences of life are distinctive to them. We must embrace this concept of individual perspective, in life and in our writing.

This concept will now more consciously inform my writing. I make it my habit to know my characters inside and out, as complete creations, not as cookie-cutter personae who simply do what I need them to do on the page. With this concept in mind, I will be more aware of how life experiences can be diametrically different for each person involved, depending on their perceptions.

In grad school, I  wrote something that I thought incredibly profound, but which my roommates and friends found remarkably inane. I think, perhaps, it was my version of “sonder”: I think everyone in the world is exactly as I am, except those who are different, warped versions of the universal type, which is me.

Okay, not quite as profound now as it seemed then. But therein lies truth. I stand by it.

 

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Generations: Know Your Characters’ Pasts

Old store in rural North Carolina

This is a post about generations, about how the lives of our parents were so much different from our own.

Visits to family roots are important, because it gives the younger generation a better understanding of where they have come from, who the folks were in  past generations. Many of us today take our advantages for granted: we have computers, smartphones, passports for travel, and the opportunity to move far beyond the confines of the city or town where we were born.

But it hasn’t always been that way. In the Middle Ages, people rarely left their villages, and there were no street signs pointing the way from village to village. If you left and went any great distance from home, you likely never found your way back. Those who traveled generally stayed wherever they landed.

It’s important to know your own family history if you are going to people your books with believable characters. Not that you have to include all of their history in the book, but that knowledge will help you to understand your character’s motivations.

My parents were poor, but they worked hard to give their children every opportunity for education and the social graces. We grew up not poor, on solid ground (I was unaware of how we struggled, thanks to Mom and Dad guarding us from that knowledge). And now, our children have grown up with the same opportunities and similar solid ground, but it’s important for them to know where the family started, and not that long ago. My father’s mother had to let two of her children leave the house and find their own ways as teenagers, because she couldn’t support four children on her own. She was married, but life circumstances forced her to raise the kids without her husband for a period in their life.

In turn, my father was the most devoted husband and father possible, even when life made separations inevitable, as it does when you’re in the U.S. Army. But his background made him who he is, and influenced my life and who I am, and my expectations of husband and family. I was molded by my parents’ lives and by the life they made for me as a child. I am who I am in large part because of them.

Look to your past. How were you raised? How were your parents raised? If you now live in the United States, there’s a real chance that your grandparents or great-grandparents emigrated to the United States. What were their lives like before and after? How did that affect who they became? Did that influence your parents’ lives, or yours?

None of us lives in isolation. We all come from somewhere, and we either embrace that past or run from it or try to ignore it. But the past exists, and it influences who we are. When you are creating your characters, keep that in mind. Let something in their past dictate who they are today. Use that knowledge to give substance to your main characters.

Know who the characters are now, but also be aware of their past, and of generations before them. This will enrich your characterizations, and give you unexpected food for story. Try not to simply create the characters you need, but allow them to become. Nourish their past, and you’ll see amazing results as you write.

Cockroaches and Science

I am a firm believer that more you read, the better your writing will be. One reason is that if you read good writing, it will somehow be “absorbed” into your psyche, and your inner voice will be accustomed to the rhythms and cadence of good writing, and the proper use of grammar and punctuation. Of course, by reading, I mean reading good writing…the classics, or even respected authors today, both in print and on the Web. It’s a matter of value in, value out, and garbage in, garbage out. It won’t do you any good to read many of the blogs on the net, where ideas are primary and writing is secondary. Oh, read for ideas, by all means, but don’t use these as guides for your own writing.

In that vein, I recommend reading for another reason: to broaden your horizons, which is vital for a writer. Read about people and places you have never experienced first-hand. This is valuable, not because you’ll likely write about those new people and places, but because they will now inhabit your stable of characters and locales, from which you can draw as needed when you write. I’ve just edited a book about memoir writing of Muslim women of the diaspora. Likely, I might never have encountered this subject on my own; I read voraciously, but this wouldn’t have been high on my list. But, as a result of editing the book, I opened my horizons and read on some of the subjects mentioned in the book. As a consequence, my stable of characters has new dwellers.

And then, there are the bizarre facts that you will learn, facts that can later be used to enhance your storyline,  or your characters’ backgrounds. Take this, for instance: cockroaches and science (watch the video at the bottom; fascinating). The subject matter initially repelled me, but I overcame my repulsion and read the article. I’m glad I did! What wonderful ideas now come to mind, for plot lines and interesting ideas for character background.

Read. You have no excuse not to. You may be overworked, but at some point, you must relax. Read. You may live out in the boonies, but if you’re reading this, you have Internet. Read. Prowl among the shelves in libraries and bookstores, pulling out books on topics you might never before have broached. Read. Broaden your horizons, and enrich your writing.

Colin Firth and Honesty

Last night, I watched “A Single Man,” starring Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, and Nicholas Hoult. I had no idea what the movie was about, but enjoyed it for what it was. Simple story, really. A man loses his partner of sixteen years, and decides that his life isn’t worth living. Then the people in his life show him otherwise.

Nothing super-dramatic; in fact, incredibly nuanced. I was intrigued by the director and cinematographer’s use of color tones and hues in the movie, as subtle devices to show the mindset of the main character (George). But what truly brought the movie to life was Colin Firth, whose portrayal of George, while understated, was absolutely honest. Firth outdid Firth on understatement in this movie. It was the eyes first. From the moment he receives the call about Jim’s death, when he sits stunned, and his eyes slowly fill with tears, Firth had me hooked. Tears in his eyes, with only spasms of grief twitching across his face, he  walks robotically around his house, before running to a friend’s house, where his despair and loss pour out. It was all so carefully underplayed. So honest.

From that point on, it didn’t matter what the storyline was, I believed Firth. And, most importantly, I cared about George.

In writing, as in acting, it is vital to make your characters believable. Once you accomplish that, and adhere to the straight and narrow road of honesty with your characters, your book will succeed. You will pull your reader into your writing and make them care what happens to your characters, good and evil though they may be. Once you’ve defined a character, you must be honest with both that character and the reader. Otherwise, your writing will fail.

You cannot create a character who acts like Gandhi in one scene, and then turns and  destroys a town in another. The only way that works (and I think it would make a great character), is if you write it so that others see the character as a Gandhi, but you, as the writer, give the reader the tiniest glimpse of the monster who lurks within. In that way, you have been true to the character and, thus, to the reader. But, thereafter, the reader will know the monster, and the character must abide by that truth. It won’t work if you have the character have a change of heart for a happy ending. Remember in “The Wizard of Oz,” the Wicked Witch of the West dies. There is no miraculous transformation as a result of her interaction with the purity of Dorothy and her friends (especially Toto). No, that could never be. She was evil, and evil she would remain until her death.

So it is with your characters. Once you have defined them, so they must remain. Of course, there is some character transformation that can take place, growth and change through atonement, for example, but the seeds of that growth and change must already lurk beneath the surface, and must have already been infinitesimally visible to the reader. In that way, you stay true to your characters, and honest with the readers.

Before you begin writing, know your characters, inside and out. And look for those little hints, the tiniest suggestions, of possible growth and change. These tidbits can surprise you as a writer, and delight your readers.

Put Away the Phone and People Watch

I’m headed for the airport in a couple of hours and am looking forward to the wait for my plane. Well, okay, that’s a bit of a stretch. Let’s just say that I will put that time to good use, by people watching.

As a writer, you must make time to people watch, to observe the pantheon of characters within your orbit, wherever you are. Keep a notebook handy and jot down little notes about the folks who drift past you on the tide of humanity. (If you don’t write these down, at least store them in your long-term memory until you have the chance to record them.)

Note clothing, postures, relationships, unspoken communication, facial expressions, accents, attitudes — all of which are elements to put into your characterization tool box. How do young lovers stand, walk, or sit by each other? How do middle-aged couples do the same? And the elderly? What do you see in the elderly that is also in the young couple in love? Why might those elements have lasted into old age? What do they tell you about the people, the relationships, the quality of love?

How do you get a sense of personality or mood from a person’s posture or gait? What assessment do you make of a woman who wears a lot of makeup? of a woman who wears little or none? Of a man who plucks his eyebrows? Now, think. WHY do you make those assessments? Write down your answer.

Listen for accents or turns of phrase, but be aware that writing in an accent is a challenge, both to the writer and to the reader. What you want is a “taste” of the accent, a saying or phrase that gives you the sense of “Other,” of foreignness or dialect.

My favorite are the eyes. I like to watch how people use their eyes, and what their eyes say about them. Wide open, half-cocked, drowsy, side-darting — all of these can say something about the person, beyond just physiognomy.

So, put away your phone, your iPad, and your other electronic devices and people watch. It’s what will make your fiction come alive!

What Makes a Character Tick?

During the class I recently finished teaching at UCSD Extension, I emphasized the fact that authors can’t simply have their characters act and react as the story and plot require, but that they must create the characters in such a way that the characters have no choice but to act or react as they do.

This was brought home to me by John Morgan Wilson when he reviewed a chapter of my book. (In fact, he was repeating something that Meg Gardiner had pointed out to me during one of her critiques.) Both said that I was having my main character react as I needed her to react to further the story, not as she might have reacted on her own. Okay, I know that sounds ridiculous, since I am the author and I can make my characters act any way I choose, but the truth was, I hadn’t given proper consideration to how she might have acted on her own. She simply reacted as I deemed necessary.

My students were confused by this idea, but eventually saw the logic, and how taking a character’s true reactions into consideration could quickly strengthen their writing. An example: one student had a conversation between two older adults who had reentered the dating scene, meeting after connecting on Match.com. During the dialogue, the man asks the woman if she is married. She says she is a widow, but was separated from her husband at the time of his death. The writer went on with the conversation, never stopping (as an author) to consider the ramifications of that statement. Why had she and her husband separated after so many years? What had finally caused her to walk away? Knowing that, the author has new cards to deal into the game…will she be wary of the same things in a new relationship? For instance, what if she had found out that her husband, while being a wonderful husband and father in all other ways, was a conniving bastard at work who had cheated his way to position and wealth? Wouldn’t she then be concerned about anyone else she chose to date…to make sure that they were honest and wouldn’t cheat at anything? Given that, what difficulties would that create for a man who wants to get close to her, to get to know her? Suddenly, there is plenty of fodder for the story that the author hadn’t considered, and all because the author listened to his characters, rather than just put words in their mouths and accepted them.

Motivation is vital. Not just the motivation of the author, the requirements for the story, but the inner promptings of the characters. Get to know your characters. Let them tell you who you are. They will surprise you, and greatly strengthen your writing. One of the characters I wrote was supposed to be a minor character, the wife of a murdered man. But Mamie came into the story with such gusto that she demanded a larger role, and the story benefited from her enlarged presence.

While you have to plan your story, be open to surprises from your characters. After all, you’ve created them. Let them grow as necessary.

The Interview Process: Open Yourself to Surprises

I gave an assignment this week that sent my students into a most unexpected spiral. Their task was to conduct character interviews, one with each of two characters they were creating. This turned out to be much more challenging for them than I had imagined. In the past, students have caught on quickly to the idea; not so this week.

The idea of the interview is for the author to get to know a character. When we create characters and decide who they are, what they look like, and what they will do in the story, we leave no room for surprise. We are dictating everything about the characters, and risk making those characters flat and predictable.

But through the process of interviewing our characters, we can open ourselves to surprise. We can learn things about our characters that might be useful in the story, facets that will add depth and color to our characters.

Interview your characters and make them answer your questions. You’ll know the answers, of course, but in the process of interviewing, you may come up with some questions about aspects of that character that you had never considered. Perhaps you have a character who is a photographer. She is a photographer because you need her to be so for the story. But after interviewing, you may find out that she became a photographer because she was cripplingly shy as a child and finally discovered, in high school, that she could participate in activities if she hid behind a camera, present but unseen. This insight might come in handy later in your story when this character has to step forward and make a stand (as you had already planned). It would give both you and the reader insight into the inner struggle before she acts, giving greater depth to the action and greater interest for the reader.

That is just one example of how sitting down and interviewing your characters can lead to bits of character knowledge that can strengthen your story and your writing. If you simply say that characters “just are,” you lose the chance to be surprised. Talk to your characters, and never let them off the hook with the difficult questions. You’ll grow as a writer and your characters will live.