Why Your Characters Need Weirdness

by tara on March 6, 2010

Strange habits and traits give your characters specificity

We’re all a little strange.  All of us.  Even your friends who you think are really quite normal.  They’re hiding things.  They have habits, desires, peccadilloes that if you knew of them would really sound quite odd.  I know someone who closes his his eyes when he turns out the light.  He doesn’t know why he does this, he just does.  My mother saves answering machine messages from me and my sister in case anything should happen to us.  She hasn’t admitted this (the reason behind saving them) but I know her well enough to know that’s why she does it.  Someone else I know can’t stand to see one of her long hairs on the bathroom counter.  She has to stop everything she’s doing and throw it away. Another friend can’t stand the sound of brushing his own teeth.

Your characters should be like this too.  They should have things that are particular only to them.  And I’m not saying they should be good dancers, though you can certainly add that to their repertoire of personality traits, I’m saying give them something unusual, something well, a bit weird.  Now think about the whys of this oddness. If you are stuck with your novel, or work in progress this weirdness may galvanize you.

Examples:

Sredni Vashtar, by Saki:

“Every Thursday, in the dim and musty silence of the tool-shed, he worshipped with mystic and elaborate ceremonial before the wooden hutch where dwelt Sredni Vashtar, the great ferret. Red flowers in their season and scarlet berries in the winter-time were offered at his shrine, for he was a god who laid some special stress on the fierce impatient side of things, as opposed to the Woman’s religion, which, as far as Conradin could observe, went to great lengths in the contrary direction.”

This peculiar habit, giving offerings to a hen provides a form of respite for Conradin.  So frustrated and thwarted by his aunt is he that he creates his own brand of religion in which the hen has mystical powers to thwart Conradin’s aunt.  Why does he do this? Because the ritual brings him comfort.

“The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien:

“First Leuitenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending. He would imagine romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps, knowing her tongue had been there.”

We learn so much about Jimmy Cross in these first few lines.  The zinger though for me and what really sticks, is this image of him licking the envelope flaps.  It speaks to his desperation, his sadness, his longing.  And it does it almost instantly.

I tried this recently in my story Sugar Packets.  One of my characters writes on sugar packets.  He writes little messages on them and leaves them behind in coffee shops, hoping someone will find them.  I think it’s his way of reaching out, of trying to connect, like a modern day version of sending a message in a bottle.

Give this a try, especially one you’re having trouble with and give that character something unique and slightly odd about them.  See where it takes you.

Post to Twitter

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

Location, Location, Location

by tara on March 4, 2010

When working at home isn't working, it's time to go somewhere else.

Location matters.  I’m not talking about the setting of your novel or work in progress;  I’m talking about the place in which you write.  I’ve come to realize that home is not it.  Not by a long shot.  I can set aside a “special” place to write.  I can devote an entire room to it.  I have a spare room that is actually a study, yet I never sit in it.  I find it impossible to write my novel home.  And yet.  I keep trying.

So today I fled home for the library.  And magically I wrote.  What I’ve realized is that I associate home with work – kids, cooking, housework, the grind.  I can carve out whatever space I want at home, it’s still home.  The strange thing is I seem to have no trouble writing short stories from home, especially when there is a deadline involved.  I have three stories out to literary magazines at the moment, all the result of a deadline.  The novel though just won’t be written at home.  I don’t know why this is exactly.  Perhaps it’s too expansive or unformed or maybe I just need to shoot the thing. I’m not sure.  But one thing is clear, I’m not getting any closer at home.

The other problem with home is the siren song of the internet.  When stuck with a piece of writing, I suddenly need to pay bills that aren’t even due with bill pay.   Suddenly it’s critically important I find a reason to research tulip bulbs, though I have little interest in gardening.  I once spent an entire day researching the Wizard of Oz because I was writing a story set during the filming.  I used research as an excuse not to write.  My friend Ellen Sussman, a great writer who has a new novel coming out with Ballantine, says that instead of wasting writing time on research she just skips over whatever needs research and simply writes in parenthesis: (research).  She knows she needs to go back to it later, but when she’s on a roll, she won’t let herself get derailed by the rabbit hole that is the internet.  That was a lot of mixed metaphors I think, but you get the idea.

So be honest with yourself.  Is home a problem either because of the distractions or the internet?  If it is, try somewhere else.  Even better, try somewhere with no internet.

Post to Twitter

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

The Power of Writing Contests

March 1, 2010

* Heard of a contest? Running a contest you’d like writers to know about? Email me and I’ll put it up! taratara at killthe muse dot com. Or tweet me!
Sunday morning, I got an email in my in box from NPR.  Part of a story I had submitted for NPR’s Three-Minute [...]

Read the full article →

Prompt: Unusual Deaths

February 27, 2010

I’m not exactly sure where to put this category wise, but I think it’s a prompt.  I feel like there are stories in here, mounds of them.  Strange, eerie, sad ones perhaps, but then a lot of fiction isn’t terribly cheerful.
They say truth is stranger than fiction, and this list proves it.  The list starts [...]

Read the full article →

The Story Generator

February 26, 2010

I learned this technique once in a short story class.  It’s a bit like Mad Libs and really works when you are stuck as hell.

Take five 3×5 note cards and on each write an occupation:  maybe firefighter, sword swallower, lawyer or drug dealer.
Take another five cards and write a behavior, the stranger the better since [...]

Read the full article →

First Lines: Start in the Middle

February 26, 2010

I wrote a post the other day about beginning at the end.  When you’re stuck and don’t know where to start, sometimes it’s helpful to figure out where you’re going to end up.  Beginnings are daunting, probably much more so than endings.
In this post, I’ll talk about first lines.  We tend to do a lot [...]

Read the full article →

3 Minute Fiction Contest (Due midnight Feb 28!)

February 25, 2010

Fiction contests are a great motivator.  Contests can earn you a little money and prestige, give you some publishing credits (often contest winners are published) and even bring agent interest.  In a contest judged by Joyce Carol Oates once, I was named a runner up.  No money or publishing credit, but my story was passed [...]

Read the full article →

Note Card Your Way to a Novel

February 25, 2010

Recently it was revealed that Nabokov had written an entire novel (unpublished in his lifetime) on 138 note cards.  A WHOLE novel.  Sometimes I wonder if the reason I struggle is because I try to come at the novel as a whole.  And in trying to remember everything I need to do, all the scenes [...]

Read the full article →

Daily Challenge: Raise the Stakes with Location

February 24, 2010

It seems characters are always talking and discussing things in restaurants.  This is true in real life of course too. But for the most part it’s fairly boring scene setting, at least when it’s done over and over again.  And by putting your characters somewhere mundane and expected, you lose a big opportunity.  What if [...]

Read the full article →

Stockpile when it’s working

February 24, 2010

We all have writing days that are so amazingly productive that we wonder what the other days are all about.  Hey, this isn’t so bad you think.  At the end of your 5 pages, or your 500 words or your blog post, you think, man that was easy.  Every day should be this good.  Only [...]

Read the full article →