Handout & Exercise from the Winter 2018 Writing Workshop


Jennifer Hodgson

“The students I teach, although very able literary critics, sometimes need reminding that the characters in the books that they are interpreting are not, in fact, real people. It’s very easily done. Even the most sophisticated reader, when faced with the vivid and oversized inhabitants of fictional worlds, can easily become ‘a gullible and superstitious clot,’…In the margins of my students’ essays I scribble the occasional reminder that characters are merely assemblages of words with human shape.

…nonetheless characters persist in exerting their peculiar affective power upon us. We cannot resist making moral judgments of them, identifying with them…Characters, then, cannot be real, but they most certainly can be ‘real’.

…Our study indicates that writers themselves share the illusion…many of the authors we interviewed spoke of the writing of characters not as a process of creating them but becoming acquainted with them through language. One writer detailed how she ‘writes into’ a character, likening the experience to ‘getting to know a friend’. Another spoke of their character as being ‘like someone you know well’, saying he is ‘conscious of them as real people’. They commented too on the importance of characters feeling alive and autonomous. The vast majority described the success of their characters as being dependent upon how ‘real’ they feel.

…Readers’ strange intimacies with fictional characters is not surprising. After all, through the novelistic depictions of their lives we come to know characters so well—better than we know one another, certainly, and perhaps better than we know ourselves. Novels have the special capacity to reveal what is impossible to know in real life: the unspoken perceptions, thoughts and feelings of another…In their recent book The Good of the Novel, Liam McIlvanney and Ray Ryan argue that ‘novelistic truth…has to do with character’ and ‘the novel’s key strength is the disclosures of interiority’.

…Novels invite their readers not just to imagine a world, but to imagine what it is like to experience it. In fiction, there is always someone through whom the world is perceived, someone who holds the point of view—although it’s worth reminding ourselves that this needn’t be the same as the person doing the narrating.

Our study indicates that a kind of empathic throwing of the imagination plays an important role in creating this lens through which a story is communicated. The majority of writers we interviewed said that they have the sense of inhabiting the interior world of their protagonists and ‘looking out through their eyes’. One writer commented that experiencing their character was like ‘wriggling down inside them’ and ‘thinking how would this feel?’ Another said of a particular character ‘she was not an external person that I could see, I would have a hard time describing her. I had a visual sense of absolutely everything else, the landscape, the other characters, but not her because I was inside her.’”

EXERCISE: This exercise is called "Someone in Shadow", and it is from Pat Schneider’s book "Writing Alone & with Others". Close your eyes and imagine someone in shadow. Keep your attention on the shadowed figure. See clearly what can be seen. The way I think about it is like a Polaroid developing. I am not in control of what comes forth. I am simply an observer. So, now you can open your eyes. And we are going to begin to write, with any words that come. I would like you to try to “be” that character, and find that character’s voice, through using it. Tell us what is going on inside you. Tell us what you are seeing. Tell us what your body feels like. Tell us what your story is. So it’s a soliloquy, more or less. Trust the image that you see. Be the character.

If you are having trouble coming up with a character, here are some: *This character is a woman in her late twenties, who is very foolish. She comes from a wealthy background, lives in the suburbs and tends to work too hard. *This character is a woman in her early thirties, who can be quite wise. She comes from a wealthy background, lives in a houseboat and tends to complain a lot. *This character is a man in his late thirties, who can be quite cruel. He comes from a comfortable background, lives in a social housing scheme and tends to a huge collection of pot plants. *This character is a man in his eighties, who can be quite mysterious. He comes from a poor background, lives in a rough neighbourhood and tends to be rather lazy.

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