Mol (mollyringle) wrote,

Writing lesson of the day: have tea with your characters

Some 13 years ago, my teacher for a college creative writing course gave me memorable advice on a short story. I don't remember my character's name anymore--let's call him Dave--but I remember what she wrote on my last page about him.

"You need to cuddle up to Dave, have a cup of tea with him, get to know him and love him. Right now you're just getting him drunk and then spreading his secrets around town."

Dave, you see, wasn't entirely lovable; he was scruffy and rude and tough, a stereotypical working-class dude who fought with his wife a lot. But my teacher was still right. Writing isn't (usually) any good if the characters are stereotypes with no interesting layers, if they're people created only for the author to kick around.

This lesson came back to me today while I was working on the long process of revising an old novel, one I wrote many years ago. (It's the one previously called Tourist Attractions and e-published for a time; it's undergoing big changes now.) I realized that many of my characters, even some of the major ones, were like ol' Dave: stereotypes of some kind, people I made up to make fun of, not people I had sat down to talk to and get to know.

I can even guess why this happened. First, I was younger and didn't give as much thought to character depth. But, second, when I wrote that book I was under the influence of an internet friend whose entire outlook on life (as far as I could tell from a web-defined distance) was to sum actual, live people up in a few derisive words of stereotype, and make fun of them without any serious attempt to know and like them. If you're wondering why I was even this guy's friend, let alone under his influence, well, I felt ever so special for being the one he confided in, the one he made exceptions for! (Oh yes, I was naive. Because, oh yes, as it turned out, he was spreading my secrets around town too, just like an amateur author.)

I want to write more honestly now, and with more true-to-life complexity, so I'm having tea with some of my characters. I'm taking the paintbrush and adding shades and tints and highlights. I'm giving them layers and human qualities. I'm learning to respect them even if they wouldn't all be my friends in real life.

We could save the world if everyone looked at everyone else this way. But that's never going to happen, so all I can do is take it on in my writing. And in my real life too. Yes, even to that friend who muddied up my waters for a time there. Forgiveness and tea and human weakness, it's all on the table today.
Tags: writing

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