Friday, 1 September 2017

Creative Pulse - Week 9 - How Do Your Characters Inhabit Their World

By Sunny Singh, via Catriona Troth

When you start to learn about writing the ‘Other’, one of the first things you are encouraged to think about is how different people inhabit the same space. A woman walking into a bar on her own and ordering a drink does not experience that bar in the same way that a man on his own does. A young gay couple walking down the street hand in hand does not experience that street in the same way an elderly straight couple does. And so on.

But how do you get deep enough inside the skin of another person to begin to understand that different experience well enough to translate it onto the page? Conversely, how do you gain enough objectivity about a character who is like you to understand the way they see the world in a fresh way and not simply as the ‘default’?

Sunny Singh is a Creative Writing tutor at London Metropolitan University. If you follow her on Twitter you will know that a lot of the work she does with her diverse student body is to make them aware of the way they inhabit the world and to allow that to inform their character building. I had the immense privilege of winning a one-to-one workshop with Sunny as part of the charity auction #authorsforgrenfell – which raised money for the victims of the terrible fire in Grenfell Tower earlier this summer.

I came away from the workshop feeling that my mind had been stretched in at least five dimensions – and that I had a huge amount of work ahead of me, but that I’d been energised to tackle it. With Sunny’s permission, I am sharing some of that work with you here.

First of all, for Sunny, it is important to pin a character down in a specific time and place (be that real or imaginary). The more specific you can be, the more detailed you can be about the factors that built their character in you story’s present.

So let us begin with a character who is like me. A white, middle-class, educated British woman in her late fifties. Sunny insisted I pin down exactly how old she was. What year was she born? Where? Who were her parents? When were they born? Did they become adults before or after the end of the War? What was the first political event that impinged on her? What was her impression of it? Describe how she looked on her first day at university? What are the first things she notices that day with her five senses? And so on.

The aim was to create a timeline of significant events in her life, and to think of those events in terms of the family, community and national and global events around her at those times. So not enough to say, ‘What is her favourite book?’ You need to find out when she first read it, what was happening around her at the time, why it became her favourite, what it means to her now given all that has happened to her since...

Of course, very little of what you find out will make its way into your finished work, but the fact that you know your character that well – that you have, in effect, lived for a while in their lives before they even enter your story – will mean that every decision you make about what they do in the story will be grounded in believable reality.

As Sunny says – there is no escaping the need for craft.

So now you have thought about your character’s life. You have done your research to understand the context of those lives (the music they listened to growing up, the political events that shaped the way they think...) Sunny now gave me three exercises to do. Two of them involve changing something fundamental about the character so you see them afresh (a bit like looking at a photograph in the negative to spot features you miss in the original). And the third involves seeing your character as others see them.

EXERCISE 1 Gender: Flip the gender of your character for key moments on their timeline. How does it change way they inhabit their world? What were you not noticing about the way the character originally inhabited it?

EXERCISE 2 Spatial Identity: Walk someone through your character’s home for the first time. (Even better if you have two characters, each in each other’s homes.) They don’t need a reason to be there. Just let them move through the space, poke their nose into every corner. What do they notice? What’s on the walls? In the fridge?

EXERCISE 3 Sexuality: What does your character find desirable in another person? Now flip the both the gender of the person they find desirable and the sexuality of the character (e.g. instead of a straight man fancying a woman, describe a gay man fancying another man). How does that change their focus? Remember, other things about this character (age, place of birth, education...) remain the same.

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