Stories have arcs. Characters have arcs. Writers have arcs. We write, we get better at our craft. We read, we get better at our craft. We interact with other writers and our readers, we get better at our craft. Whether you are a professional writer or just starting out. Hobby or career. We are all in this together. Welcome.

Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

The Interview with Author Jack Remick -- Part II

Your characters are very complicated, something most writers struggle with, what advice do you have (or what techniques do you use) to create characters with substance?
I’ll give you a list of what I look for when I’m working. I think that the character with substance is always vulnerable and wounded. The deeper the wound the more complex the character. A wound, coupled with character flaw, gives you a human character. The more obvious the wound, the more likely the reader is to identify with the character.

Pain, shame, guilt, and betrayal. Getting to know the character’s shame and guilt leads you to the essential element of dramatic conflict that all stories must have in order to engage the reader.

I read a novel a while back called The Pilot’s Wife. In that novel the Pilot is guilty of adultery, fathering a child out of wedlock, lying to his wife, betraying his daughter and wife, cheating, stealing, and concealing it all (his humungous Secret). His is a dense packet of drama waiting to be revealed.
Because the Pilot has betrayed his wife, and because she discovers his betrayal, she lives in anguish. A sympathetic or rich character has a history of anguish. If in your writing about the writing you find out what causes your character’s anguish and then ask what makes her happy you get a simple polarity of character emotions that spins out into an array of traits and possibilities.

If you write about your character in the past and then in the present and then the future, you deepen character and you introduce aspects of plotting.  What will become of her? Will she find happiness? Defeat? Plotting a future for your character gives you a handle on the narrative present.
Betrayal: How many times has your character been betrayed? How deep is the betrayal? Who? When? Why? How deep is the wound?
Shame: What is she ashamed of?
Want, Need, Can’t:
  • Want. What does your character want?
  • Need. What does she need?
  • Can’t. What can’t she have?
Thwarting Desire and Plot: Because human beings react to being thwarted, Desire always leads to Action. Action is what characters do to achieve their wants, to satisfy their needs. Plot can be defined as what your characters do to get control of what they want. How does your character react when she finds out she can’t have what she wants?

Denial: Denial leads to action. Action leads to pain. Who gets hurt?

Need merging into Obsession:  What does your character need? A hundred thousand bucks a year?  New wardrobe every six months? A new house? How strong is that need? Is it strong enough to become an obsession? When need becomes an obsession, need melds into drive. Need is the deep, inner aspect of character that cannot be ignored.

The Driven Character: How driven is your character? What will she do to get what she wants?  Murder? Steal? Cheat? Betray her husband? lover? children? mother?  What will she do when her drive is deflected or even betrayed?

Joining Need to Want and Can’t: When your characters have needs and wants but can’t gratify or satisfy them, you have an equation that screams for Action. Action is what your character does to meet her needs, to get what she wants. Does your character want to be wanted? Are there layers of want? Why does your character need to be wanted? Deepen need and want and can’t with shame, guilt and betrayal and you have character traits that will engage your reader.

Doubt, the Forgotten Element. What does your character doubt? Her abilities? Her sexuality? Her intelligence? Doubt always leads to hesitation—that moment before she pulls the trigger, slashes off her hair, slices her wrist. Doubt is the powerful inhibitor of action. Because the character doubts his physical prowess, he fails to engage the villain in combat. Failing combat, she loses the battle. Losing the battle leads her to the brink of death. Doubt is serious business in fiction.

Childhood and Buried Need: How deeply buried in the character’s childhood is your character’s need? Can we see the buried need erupting in her present life?  What caused that need? Who buried it? Why was it buried?

Summary:  The coupling of want, need, can’t, guilt, shame, betrayal, and doubt lets you explore action, psychology, and plot. How does plot hook to need and want and can’t? Plot is what characters do when need and want become obsessions.

Character and Plot. Plot means story, story means competition for a resource base. Resource Base means what characters want  or –what they don’t want the others to have.

What is your internal editor most likely to say to you as you work though a first draft? What do you do to either silence him, or make him work for you?
Before I answer your question about the internal editor, let me say that in the computer age, I’m not sure what a first draft is so let me ask you a couple of questions—is the first draft your first cut at a piece still with the vernix on it—raw, untamed, slippery, breathing and maybe alive? Is it the first beginning-to-end run through with mistakes and lousy writing and sentences that don’t work? Is it the first readable piece that you give to a beta reader for suggestions?  In the computer age with word processors and editors, story software, final draft software, outline software, Don’t Kill the Cat thinking you can change a piece with search and replace, move stuff around, delete whole chapters. And you have grammar/spell checks, so what is the first draft? In my writing world, a first draft—the one I hand to a reader—might be the fifteenth working of the story.

Your readers probably have never struggled with a typewriter, carbons, worn out ribbons, white-out, erasers, scissors and glue. Those were the tools of the pre-computer age writer. If you had to make revisions, you often had to retype an entire page. You could cut and paste and then retype but clean hard copy was hard to come by if you were a hunt and peck typist and it was all hard copy. Often the weight of the white-out corrections added half a pound to the bulk of a novel. In the typewriter world, the first draft was a real thing that had already walked through fire, had mud slung at it, been tinkered with leaving the fewest number of words it took to tell the story.

Now on to the internal editor—she never talks to me because I put her to sleep using a timed writing technique. Timed writing—writing for a set period of time using a kitchen timer, pen to paper. I let the internal editor doze while the clock ticks and I tune into the matrix where all the good stuff hides. I pull it out of the unconscious mind already loaded with archetypes and archetypal patterns. I tell her that discipline is the writer’s obligation to the gift, and my discipline is in the timed writing with these principles—I’d call them rules, but there are very few rules in writing, the main one of which is Make it Sing—Keep the hand moving; don’t cross out anything; take what comes; go deep; go crazy on the page; shoot the moon in every writing; leave nothing in the well (that from Annie Dillard); don’t listen to the screech of Monkey Mind (that from Natalie Goldberg); forget good grammar; let the language bleed through the end of the pen; write what you don’t know; take risks and chances; write wicked shit in fragments without thought and know this—no matter what, you will never be in this place again. Timed writing is a river and you can never stand in the same river twice. That’s what I tell the internal editor. Once the story has a shape, she takes a vacation and the discipline takes over. Remember that discipline is the writer’s obligation to the gift.

What are you working on now?
After answering the first five questions, I should give you the expected answer—another novel. A long novel. A novel within a novel. But as a literary novelist working in the shadow of Zombieism and Vampirism, as a writer working outside the standard genres—mystery, romance, time travel, adventure and all the gazillion sub-genres—I’ve come to an impasse and I’m tired of the standard stuff. The formulas of the age have worn me down—three acts, fifty scenes, character arcs, snappy dialogue, do this-do that, try this-this is the way to, scenes stop time, narration compresses or amplifies it…Writing a novel is not a cake mix. Writing is far too important to be turned into a recipe. Let me go back to Question Two where I talked about films rewiring our brains for certain expectations. That has left us in the grasp of the Reader who says give me what I want or I’ll put your book down and never finish it. Readers, as victims of film’s success, ask novelists to perform like trained seals and if we don’t do that, we have no readers. So where do we end up? Back to the educational vision of the novel—all experience is valid, no one has anything new to say, all the stories have been told, we’re on the verge of extinction so we repeat and repeat and tell the same story over and over. And believe me, Fifty Shades of Gray is already contained in Les cent-vingt journées de Sodom from the pen of the Marquis de Sade.

Last year I met a novelist named Dennis Must. He’s the author of Hush Now, Don’t Explain, and The World’s Smallest Bible.  Dennis doesn’t break all the rules, but he writes glorious prose and the prose in his novels set me to thinking that what I want to do is work out a new definition of fiction. 

(Note from Elena: Check back in March for my Spotlight interview with Dennis!)

Earlier I said that fiction is the artful infusion of the past into the narrative present. I said write about the writing. I said create the complex character, I said…

What if you reject the Dictatorship of the Reader? What if you reject all the Do Thises? Literary fiction is dead, so what do I have to lose by falling over the edge and leaving the safety net behind? What would post-filmic fiction look like? What would it do? How would you do it? Would it be readable? You can't go back to Dickens or Austen. You can’t go back to Fennimore Cooper. They are the refuge of the disillusioned, victims themselves of the anti-fuckism dictates of the culture police and the language suppressors so you have to go on, go forward, you have to search out the language for another way to achieve story. And that means you have to redefine fiction.

So, I’m writing a novel with the working title of Desire. Within Desire there is a novel called Citadel. Within Citadel, there is a novella called Women in Captivity. Am I simply wrapping three three act novels into one and calling it new? No. The question in all of fiction is two –fold: Point of View and Time. Who tells the story and what happens to time. Time is structure. If you use time instead of Plot Points (the marks of the three-act play) to anchor the novel then the three novels are released into some kind of non-linear development and each can develop its own impulse. Has it been done before? Some of it. But then everything has already been done and that gets me to the question of Story Limitation and the ability of the human brain to devise anything new. Yep. Redefining fiction is going to take a lot of work. But then, as I found when I abandoned rime and meter in poetry—there is a way.

Final Words of Wisdom
Practice timed writing; give up your computer; put your pen to paper; get in touch with the paper; talk to your characters, make them talk to you. People will think you’re crazy, but you know that you are because you’re already making up shit. A story can be true without being factual. Write what you don’t know. If you write only what you know, you’ve already limited yourself. Go where the characters take you. This advice is as old as writing.

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