What I'm reading: Sudden Prey, by John Sandford
Continuing my SleuthFest recap:
This year, the conference expanded from a strictly panel format to include a workshop track, where a single presenter addressed a specific topic. S.J. Rozan spoke about characters, and since for me, what's a book without characters you care about, it was my choice for that slot.
She began by pointing out that of all the creative media, writers deal with content, not impressions. She lives in New York, and was (like most of us, but perhaps more so because of it) impacted by 9-11. Whereas an artist can paint or a musician can compose a piece of music to explore their emotions, writers have to tell a story.
Writing, she went on to say, opens a portal between the conscious and subconscious minds. Characters are a part of the author; they're bits and pieces of the author's subconscious peeking through. And, she made clear that characterization is not character. It's not a description of his wavy brown hair, his muscular physique, his size twelve shoes. It's not what the character does, it's why he does it. Character is revealed in a character's actions, behavior, activity and dialogue.
You're driving down the road. You see an accident. There's an unconscious man lying next to his car. Other cars speed on by. One stops. A man gets out and rushes to the victim, kneeling beside him. What's your impression of his character? He's offering first aid, so he's a good person, right? But what if he takes the man's wallet and then walks away?
She used another example that's been used at so many conference workshops: The DaVinci Code, one of the few books where plot was more important than character. In that book many of the characters were cartoons, but the leads were cardboard. Why? Because there was no internal conflict. A character must want something, however trivial, on every page. She asked us whether we're ever completely content, and if so, for how long?
After that, she put us to work. We were given four minutes to write a description of a room using all five senses, from a specific character's POV. (Why don't pens come with cut and paste?) After that, we had another four minutes to write the same character, same room, but this time the character was going to steal something. The last exercise was the same, but this time, the character had just said good-bye to someone he or she loved.
Much as I dread having to create at someone's command, the exercises do help to remind us that when we're writing, it's vital to make sure it's our character on the page, and that we remain in the background.