“This book is for the timid, forlorn, and clueless,” Carolyn See says in her introduction to Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and other Dreamers (2002). It’s good stuff. See writes in a down-to-earth way peppered with examples from great writers and her own writing experience and pitched to the wannabe beginner – “the Out Crowd,” as she calls her audience. Her take on how to create rich characters is particularly useful.
Begin, See says, by quickly drawing up two lists of people. Don’t think too long or hard about it. For this exercise, Allen Ginsburg’s line “first thought, best thought” works well.
The first is a list of the ten most “important” people in your life. Her guidance for this list:
Whom do you love? Who betrayed you? Whom did you betray? Who drives you nuts? Who’s out of your reach? Who’s your role model? Who’s your benchmark for insanity?
The second list should consist of “the other kind of ‘important’ people you knew,… The ones who gave you the willies. Who creep you out and you don’t know why.”
Once you’re got your two lists, you have the major characters for your stories. See is not saying to write autobiographically about these people or to tell their stories but to use them as building blocks for characters in fiction. Why does this technique work? See says:
You want to write about people you care about. You can dress them up any way you see fit. You can slam them together in composites or put knee britches on them and let them fight in the Revolutionary War, but your characters ought to be some of the ten most important people in your life, or the six most creepy, or you’ll bore the socks off your readers, and yourself as well.
I’d have to agree, and I like this system for several other reasons. First, because it mirrors my own stumbling methods of creating characters – the concept of “casting” people you know in the role of characters in your fiction. See’s method systematizes something I’ve been doing for a long time, a trick I felt guilty about, in fact. Wouldn’t a real writer be better at imagining characters, making them up out of air? In short, why can’t I be more like Dickens or Shakespeare or Tolstoy?
See will have none of that. For her, this is the unstated method that pretty much all the great writers have used. The unattainable Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby? For See, all you have to do is dig a little into the wavering relationship of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his southern-belle wife Zelda, daughter of a small-town judge who forbade her to marry the young Fitzgerald because he had insufficient money, to see where Daisy came from.
The essence of See’s approach, the real rule of good writing, is: ”Don’t write what you know; write about what you care about.” By concentrating on ten VIPs and six creeps, See forces you to cut through to what I call your “juice” – the things you can write about, almost effortlessly, because you have a deep passion for them.
In a post on the estimable blog OnFiction, which delves into the psychological roots of storytelling, Rebecca Wells Jopling summarizes how recent research would seem to validate See’s approach to character. It is very common, psychologists have found, for authors to experience “the illusion of independent agency.” This is the sense that the characters whom they are making up are thinking and feeling on the own. A logical impossibility, of course, but also exactly what many writers say happens when they are writing well. The actual people you know intimately and care about in a profound way are more likely to give you a good foundation for generating this aura.
Jopling also ties See’s technique to studies by the evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar on the number of human beings with whom we are capable of maintaining close emotional ties. Dunbar has found that when subjects are asked to name people whose death would devastate them, people consistently come up with 11 or 12 names. Similarly, when asked to list people they contact once a month, most people’s list has 10 to 15 names.
“Very close coordination of behavior of characters,” Jopling suggests, “would seem also to be required for the writer creating and concatenating a series of discrete emotional episodes that will move the reader. Those 10-16 people on ‘the list’ are likely the most, in their guise as characters, with whom the writer could maintain an intimate imaginary emotional life for a sustained period of time.”
I tried See’s ten-and-six exercises for myself, and the results were illuminating. It turns out, that I’ve already featured five of my VIPs as major characters and one of the creeps in a truly creepy role worthy of the Evil Queen in Snow White. The flip side is that See shows me that I still have a lot of great unused material in the form of juicy characters I’d forgotten I’ve known. I’ve barely tapped the willies-givers, for instance; what a store of villains I have to turn loose upon the world.
In another part of the book See mentions a third category of character I find useful. These are the folks who were late cuts from my ten-and-six lists. She calls them the aunts and uncles, though I’d also include cousins, in-laws-by-marriage, kids-you-sat-next-to-in-grade-school, and assorted other stragglers. Many of this crowd have considerable juice for me. As See suggests, they’ll be the character actors in my stock company, the Ruth Hussey’s, Elisha Cook Jr.’s, and Edward Everett Horton’s of my stories.
What I like best about Carolyn See’s approach to character is that it’s based on a deep truth for writers, one that’s sometimes hard to remember. All you’ve got as a writer is your life. Or as Ms. See puts it:
God’s present to me is my own self. It’s not D.H. Lawrence’s or Tolstoy’s or Virginia Woolf’s – much as I might like it to be. And, whoever is reading this, your life is your present, your dowry, your donnee. No one on earth is going to have the same list of Most Important Characters as you.
Note: this is the last in a series of sabbatical replay posts for me. I’ll be back in the saddle with fresh posts on Thursday.