workshop ’09 day 1: who?

Paperback Writer has got this workshop thing started with a huge bang. Her first post is about high concept, and it’s probably the clearest and most useful discussion of that difficult-to-define topic I’ve ever run into. Really. Also,  it’s chock full of linky goodness. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Lynn is one of the most generous people you’ll ever run into, and she’s giving away some incredible stuff in the course of her workshop including (but not limited to) a Sony Reader and a Neo (both things my geekish little heart dreams about).

I’m afraid I can’t match her largesse, but I will draw a name from all the comments to all the posts made during the course of the workshop. That person will get $100 Amazon gift certificate.

My workshop is far less detailed, but I hope it will be of use and interest.

People who live by rules, particularly people who consider themselves literary writers, like to say that character is everything. All writing should start with character and only the characters decide where the story is going.

As with any dictatorial rule, this doesn’t hold up very well if you look at it more closely. Sometimes you can’t start with character.

If you decide to write a novel about [[Ethel Rosenberg]]’s trial,  you first have to decide who’s going to tell the story: Ethel herself? Then you’ve got some work to do, learning about her life and trying to get into her head. A fictional lawyer? The fictional lawyer’s secretary? A private eye who is determined to see Ethel found guilty and executed, or one who is determined to get her off? A grandchild who never met her? (An aside: the best use of Ethel as a character in fiction goes to [[Angels in America]], (first a stage play, then a miniseries) in which she appears as a ghost who visits one of her prosecuting lawyers, the infamous Roy Cohn.)

The thing is, you already know how the trial turns out and about Ethel’s fate.  Unless you’re writing [[alternate history]], you have a set of facts that provide some structure for your story. What you don’t have is a primary conflict (see Lynn’s post). You’d have to start right there.

Many times people start with an event that provides the structure (a particular war, a famous accident or scandal, etc) and build a character who fits into that setting.

The other approach  — the one advocated by the litcriterati — is to build the character first. That means that you put the person together in your head and/or on paper, and as you are doing this, you come up with a concept and a conflict, and following from that, other characters. Here I’m using a very loose definition of ‘character.’  A  central character in your story might turn out to be a city, a river, a storm, or some other challenge small or large.

Building character from scratch is  a useful exercise, simply because it gets your mind working in a productive way. I have done this for myself on occasion and not found a use for the character. And here’s the thing: once created, if the character is strong enough, she’s not going anywhere, even if you don’t use her. I have a couple characters hanging around waiting for their names to be called, people who have been in my head for twenty years or more.

So that’s where we’ll start, but with a bit of a twist.

Write a couple paragraphs (no more than the approximate equilvalent of one double spaced page) about one of the adults in the photo below (your choice). Instead of creating a character isolated from her story, start with an event that provides structure, and here it is: last year’s Republican convention in Minneapolis.

Of course you have to provide  basic information and some insight into what makes this person tick. Interests, goals, secret desires, worse fears, all that good stuff. But you also have to decide how she relates to the convention. Is she a Minneapolis single mom with no interest in politics who is furious that her whole routine has been disrupted by closed streets and high traffic? In that case, what does the conventions symbolize for her? Is she a hard-left progressive lawyer who is there only because her firm insisted on sending her to be available to a big client, such as Dow Chemical? Maybe she owns a hotdog concession that is swamped during the convention. Maybe she stands outside the convention every day with a sign that says: YOU KILLED MY SON or FREE TIBET or SARAH WE LOVE YOU.

So there’s your start: an adult female, the Republican Convention in 2008.

If you don’t want to do the writing, that’s fine. You can just leave a comment to enter into the drawing. You may only have the ghost of an idea about one of these characters, and that’s fine too — tell us what comes to mind.  You can also comment on other people’s character conceptions, as long as your comment is constructive in its criticism.

Preschool Teachers
Creative Commons License photo credit: tiffanywashko

The other participants in the workshop extravaganza (copied from Lynn directly):

Other LB&LI Workshop Links — new links are being added every day, so keep checking the list for new workshops (due to different time zones, some of these will go live later in the day):
From Pantser To Plotter: How I Joined The Dark Side by Kait Nolan — Monday’s topic: Why The Pantser Fears Plotting

About eBooks by Midnight Spencer –- A basic understanding of what eBooks are and what types of readers and formats.

Epubs-wondering where to start? by Shiloh Walker — Info for those curious about epubs and where to start.

Killer Campaigns: Business Cards by Maria Zannini — Design your own business cards