Monday, September 28, 2009

Choices, Choices

I've said before that I believe that your choices define who you are. I see it time and again with the students I work with, the people around me, and in my own life. I'm a pretty black and white person and I think that the word math is pretty easy:

Choose to act mean + Act mean = people will think you're a mean person.

It doesn't matter if you're really not a mean person. It doesn't matter if you acted out of anger, or frustration or whatever. The math remains true. Your choices define who you are.

So how does this apply to writing? I think it's ingrained in the characterization of the people we write about. We all want to create compelling characters that tug at the hearts of our readers. We want our characters to be unique, likeable, struggling, desperate, dispicable, evil, kind, or whatever.

So how do you do that? You can't just say, "He was kind." or "She was mean." That's the whole Show, Don't Tell rule.

I think you have to make your characters make choices. What they choose to do, will define what kind of person they are. Their choices will characterize them for you. You have to decide what kind of person your character is, not just what they do. Don't confuse who your character is with the hobbies they enjoy. This is a fine line that may be blurry for lots of us. I know it is for me. But I don't think it's enough to just give your character "stuff" that they "do" to make them different. I think it has to be done on a deeper level. You have to bring out who they are, and that will influence their choices--including the ones where they decide which hobbies they enjoy.

Ask yourself questions like these:
1. Does Kate just like to run? Or is she a runner?
2. Is cooking something Adam does? Or is he a chef? (Cuz I cook, but dude, I'm no chef.)
3. What's the real reason Vi breaks so many Rules? (Ha! Yes, that's from my book. And it's not because Rule-breaking is something she likes to do. It's because of who she is.) ((I like this question a lot. I think you should be asking yourself this as you write: "What's the real reason Super Awesome Character does This or That or The Other?" And I think the answer should always come down to them choosing why they do something because of who they are.))

I think it's okay to have "stuff your character does". Don't get me wrong about that. Everyone has hobbies that put them in certain social groups. But really, I don't care if someone can cook or set a new swimming record. I want to know them on a more personal level. When something uber-hard comes at them (which in fiction, is the basis of the book, right?) how do they act? What choices do they make? And are those in line with who they are?

If not, what you've given your characters as "personality traits" might just be hobbies. You'll have to decide.

And now I'm going to go all blasphemous on you. Well, maybe not. But I've heard people say that they are writers. It's who they are. Ready for the shocking part? *whispers* I don't feel that way.

I love writing. I enjoy how I feel when I write. I adore creating people and watching their journey. I really really love it. But writing is not who I am. It's something I really love to do. It's something that helps me find the person I really am. It allows me to help other people find out who they really are. By choosing to write, I discover who I am--and who I am not.

Because I know myself, I can make the choice to write, persist through rejection, drive myself to do better. And the point of hobbies, I think, is to develop those qualities that define us (like hard work, determination, perseverance, etc.). Now, can hobbies become deeper, become who we are?

Honestly, I think so, but it takes a long time. And by then, we've learned so many things about ourselves, that we can become anything we choose.

What do you guys think?


Christine Fonseca said...

I think we are definitely a product of the choices we've made. And I hate to break it to you, but *whispers and ducks* my opinion, you are a writer.

Abby Annis said...

I agree that our choices define who we are, and with a little perseverance we can all become whoever we want to be, at least on some level. But I think that we all have certain qualities that come naturally that others may have to struggle with or consciously choose to put forth, and of course that's the same in the reverse.

For example, Linda Lou over here may have no problem dealing with rejection and take it with grace and um, some other word that goes with grace. My brain's broken this morning. And then Mary Lou over there may take that same rejection and turn into a raving lunatic for a bit before she consciously chooses to accept it for what it is and maybe uses it to make her writing better or something else productive.

Am I making any sense? It's way too early on a Monday morning to be getting all deep and philisophical.

Great post! :) And I agree with Christine, you are a writer, whether you're willing to claim it or not. ;)

Unknown said...

This is an excellent addition to the show vs. tell information out there on the web. I think I tend to consider show v. tell when describing scenes and background information, but certainly I need to apply it more to characters, particular inasmuch as their choices.

Melanie Hooyenga said...

I love this post. I'm at a climactic scene in my wip right now and one character's reasons for doing everything will be laid out on the table. I'm still figuring out what exactly those reasons are (first draft and all...) and this post gave me some ideas. Thanks!

Tana said...

I agree we should expound from our own tough experiences and bring those passionate details into our work.

Annie Louden said...

Nice post, Elana! I often try to come up with a laundry list of descriptions and interests of my characters, in an effort to know them better, but that's not really telling me much about them after all. I will try to keep the real questions and motivations in mind.

Scott said...

Our choices define us, just as the choices our characters make define them.

Every action has a reaction (and/or consequence) whether we (or our characters) realize that at the time of the choice. I always try to play out the reprecussions of each action as I write, and often have the characters struggling with the ultimate choice, knowing it's not so simple as just choosing to do this one thing, because that one thing has the potential of affecting other characters.

I love to write, so, therefore, I'm a writer. I also love to cook, so, therefore I'm a cook. I'm definitely not a chef. Writing and cooking are just two aspects of my life, but neither truly define me, they're just some of what defines me as a person.

So, writer, cook, snarky individual, margarita drinker, animal lover, soapbox ranter . . . and so many other things are what truly define me. Not. Just. One. Thing!

Judith Mercado said...

Your post is insightful as always. We can get lazy and simply *list hobbies* as a shortcut to describing and building character. On the other hand, there may be hobbies sufficiently unique that say something powerful about a character. For example, I once met a woman who collected exotic marbles. She built a social life around collecting them and went to conferences to meet other people who collected exotic marbles. Decades later, I can still see her across the dining table from me, but can’t remember her name. I still remember her, though, as the lady who collected exotic marbles.

Tere Kirkland said...

Thanks, Elana, for reminding us to dig a little deeper for characterization. We are the choices we make, that's what my old daddy always says. Our actions speak for us real human beings, and the same should go for fictional characters.

And we as real humans could always use a reminder that people perceive us based on our actions, even when our actions are out of character. A good lesson to remember next time I feel like taking out my frustrations on someone innocent.

Tess said...

Lately I've been thinking about what our characters don't do and don't say and how that can be revealing as well. You know, what are they hiding?

Windy said...

Okay, seriously George, you're all full of insightfulness lately.

Those are great questions to ask about yourself & your characters. But I ultimately think there is a level of the chicken or the egg here and we all have choices.

Do you act mean because you are mean or are you mean because you act mean?

We could totally talk this to death and still be running in circles...

Thanks for the insightful questions, though!

P.S. My husband still talks about buts eating other buts.

L. T. Host said...

This post helps me feel vindicated that maybe I'm not just spewing out crap in my first draft right now, haha. I just had two very similar characters have two very different reactions to a proferred handshake, and it's aaaaaaall about who they are.

ali cross said...

I think you're rockin' awesome. That's what I think.

I whole-heartedly agree. And as an aside, I see synchronicity working in my life right now as your blog totally backs up what I just read in an ANWA newsletter.

Anyhooo ... I also think that a hobby (like writing, or singing) can become so embedded in a personality that it begins to be less of what they DO and more of WHO THEY ARE.

For instance, when a writer becomes so in sync with their craft that every action the writer performs in their regular life becomes fodder for what they DO. Like on Saturday I went to The Killers in concert. I found I spent far more of my time watching the other people around me, observing them, noting them, considering how they might be used in my story. Then the hobby, or thing that I DO became more of WHO I am because there was effectively no distinction between Ali the writer and Ali. KWIM?

Cindy R. Wilson said...

I agree with you about the questions, particularly number three. That's something I am learning more and more as I dive into queries and synopses and manuscripts. Who are the characters and why do they do what they do? Their motivations need to help drive the story and at the same time it will help draw readers to the characters.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, thought provoking post.

I believe that all people are faceted and that those facets can become ingrained behavior (through choice, of course). Writing is a part of who I am because, at this point, it's difficult for it not to pervade every area of my life. However, an equestrian is also who I am. Having ridden horses for all of my life (including time in the womb), I feel a deep kinship and oneness with them. Just another facet. It's not all of me, but a side of me.

As for choice and action in characters--ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL. At UVU, Jeff Savage talked about creating character bibles as a method of tracking this very behavior. Is your character acting in the manner of their true nature and do all of their actions indicate those deep seated motivations? That's something I'm trying to pay close attention to in my own work.

Heck, is this long enough? Says a lot about your post's intensity, huh?

Danyelle L. said...

Elana, you are all shades of wonderful! This is an amazing post! Definitely choices we make define who we are. I love the point you made about writing--that it's not who you are, but that it allows you to discover who you are. Wow on so many levels!

I'm an evil author that enjoys making my characters make really hard choices. I think that the struggle that ensues draws me closer to them, whether they're mine or someone elses. :D Awesome post!

Hilabeans said...

I agree. You're "rockin' awesome."

Let's break this down. I like to drive fast. As a result, rules of the road are broken. That doesn't make me a reckless speeder with a penchant for anarchy, right?

Great blog as always.


Sherrie Petersen said...

My husband and I were just talking about this over the weekend. He doesn't want to let his job define who he is, but to make choices outside of work that define him as a person.

Sometimes it's harder than it sounds.

lisa and laura said...

Oh, I want to be a writer!!! I want it to define who I am. It's the only job I love enough to actually want that to happen.

Jessica Nelson said...

Great post! I've just been thinking about a post on character consistency, which really comes down to why they act they way they do, and knowing the reasons.

I also think it's interesting to see what and how people write. Their plots, their characters, I think they say a lot about the writer herself.

Janice Campbell of NAIWE said...

"Be vs. do" is always an interesting balance. I love to travel, but am I a traveler? Not sure. A writer, definitely-- you don't spend 40+ years doing something without having it ingrained in your soul.

The real question may be, "Which comes first, the 'be' or the 'do'"? They often end up mingled. Either way, it was a thought-provoking post. Thanks for sharing!

Elizabeth Bradley said...

Who I am changes with the season of my life. The only consistency has been my penchant for writing my thoughts on paper.

* said...

I like your points about choices defining who we are and in many ways, the characters we write about. For me, hobbies come and go but passions (like writing and chocolate) are daily plunges I take and enjoy the anticipation, the thrill each time.

B.J. Anderson said...

Whoa, that's so deep. And my brain is mush tonight. :D Great post and so thought provoking! No I need to go take some aspirin.

Unknown said...


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