how do you move a story without being in it?
April 3, 2007 5:38 AM   Subscribe

fiction writers: how do you move a story without being in it?

When writing through the eyes of a character that's me, making up dialogues and events comes easily, fueled by what's going on, or not, in my life (heck, at least my characters get to say what I didn't).

How do I do that without a me-character being in there?
posted by mirileh to Writing & Language (28 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
I always imagine being the character. It's like The Method, only for writing.
posted by DU at 5:44 AM on April 3, 2007


Yeah, you've got to see it through their eyes.

Two big tips I have are:

1. Everyone is their own hero. Nobody thinks they are a bad person. Everyone thinks their own agenda is the right one.

2. Subtext. There are two things going on in every piece of dialog. What the words say, and what the words really say. If they are the same, your dialog is dead.

Example: when a character says "I love you", and means it, it's really fucking boring.

When a character says "I love you" and means "I am obsessed with you and will kill you if you turn me down" it is much more interesting. Ditto if they say "I love you" and don't mean it.

Overall, don't worry about the 'me' ness. Work on having a fully imagined world and specific, highly differentiated, characters with conflicting agendas.

Often the best characters come from letting different parts of your personality speak through thim. Character A is your inner asshole, Character B is your extrovert, Character C is you inner geek, whatever.
posted by unSane at 5:55 AM on April 3, 2007 [9 favorites]


One of the better books on writing I have read is Immediate Fiction by Jerry Cleaver. He talks mostly about the mechanics of plot, which was for some reason never mentioned in any of the many writing classes I took.

Cleaver describes plot as "conflict + action + resolution," where conflict is "want + obstacle." So plot is "want + obstacle + action + resolution."

I once saw a short story exercise that was simple but effective:

1. Name a character and his age.
2. Name another character and his age.
3. Name something character #1 wants
4. Describe how character # 2 is stopping him from getting it.
5. Describe whether character 1 or character two prevails

And that's a short story.

I know this hasn't yet addressed your specific question about character. All I can say about that is that when I have done exercises like the one above, the characters tend to take care of themselves. Michelle, 28, wants a glass of water. Steve, 32, insists that the sink is on his side of the house but points out that the garden hose is on Michelle's side.

On the other hand, I know what you mean. I have an easier time writing in first person. I once wrote a short story in first person and then just went through changing all the instances of "I" to "he," and so on. That didn't turn out so badly. Or at least, the reason it was bad was due to my fooling with point of view.

I don't think any of these exercises will win us the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, but it's something to get us rolling.
posted by JamesToast at 6:13 AM on April 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Like unSane said, you have to imagine yourself as each character, or at least each of the main characters. There may be aspects of each character that aren't like you at all, but at the same time, there will be at least a few aspects that you have in common. And if you can relate to that character -- really get in their head and feel things as they do -- not only will the writing come easier, but the story and the characters will be stronger.

An example... I was working on a story about four main characters. One of the characters was closest to my age & demographic, and she was easy. One was a teenage girl, different from me in many ways, but I could remember being a teenager well enough to relate to her frustration and disappointment, her early cynicism, and the giddy teenage feeling of love. Then there's a small boy: I've never been a small boy and don't know much about it, but I focused on the aspects of his personality that reflected my own... being imaginative, being caught up in his own world, disconnecting with the real world to make up little fantasy stories. And then there is an adult male character, who does a bad thing that hurts everyone in the story, but I made myself relate to a certain part of his personality: wanting to get away from everything, just wash your hands and leave and start over... because I think we've all felt like that.

The funny thing about this is that the characters which are most unlike you actually end up being the most interesting. It becomes "too easy" to write characters that are "you" - or there's not enough tension, because you don't see them clearly enough, you don't see the alternative motives.

So, yeah. Every character in your story should be "you" in some way, and also not you in other ways.

Good luck!
posted by crackingdes at 6:20 AM on April 3, 2007


What others have said. Succinctly: You don't know what to write next because you don't know what your characters want. Establish this and return to your story.
posted by dobbs at 6:42 AM on April 3, 2007


Or at least, the reason it was bad was NOT due to my fooling with point of view.
posted by JamesToast at 6:50 AM on April 3, 2007


Oh, and others may disagree, but: if your characters don't want anything you don't have a story.
posted by dobbs at 6:51 AM on April 3, 2007


Acting Theory (originally developed by Stanislavsky) is useful for writers. I highly recommend "A Practical Handbook for the Actor" (it's a very quick read). It's not about movement or how-to-use-your-voice; it's about how to break down a script in terms of character motivation. Writers can use it "in reverse," since they have to build up a scene in terms of character motivation.

In a scene, the characters have goals (a.k.a objectives). They may or may not be consciously aware of these goals, but they have them all the same.

For instance, Fred's goal might be To Seduce Linda. Conflict comes into place when there's an obstacle (or multiple obstacles) to Fred achieving his goal. (If there are no obstacles, Fred will instantly achieve his goal and the scene will be over.)

Obstacles can be any of the following types:

1. External, coming from another character. E.g. Linda is in love with Harry.

2. External, coming from "an act of God." E.g. Fred is extremely unattractive.

3. Internal, coming from the goal-seeking character's own psyche. E.g. Fred is painfully shy.

(In genre novels -- e.g. melodramas -- the goals are usually external. In "character" novels, the goals are usually a mixture of internal and external, but biased towards internal.)

Characters engage in Tactics, which are attempts to overcome Obstacles so that they can achieve their Goals. As a writer, you can use yourself by putting yourself in a character's shoes: "What would I do if I wanted to seduce Linda, but I was faced with these specific obstacles...?"

When doing this, always remember the character's given circumstances. For instance, YOU might openly declare your love, but you're not shy like Fred. What would you do if you weren't allowed to use some of your ordinary tactics due to certain restrictions? Remember that culture imposes further restrictions. Sure, you might offer to marry Linda, but Fred is only a junior servant. How would you seduce Linda if it was 1843 and you weren't allowed to marry her?

Remember that characters aren't all-knowing. Most don't take stock of their situation and say, "let's see... this is my goal and these are the obstacles." Instead, they try to fight of one obstacle, and once they win, they are faced with a new one (sometimes a by-product of their earlier "win", as when medicines have nasty side-effects.)

The fun thing about fiction is that multiple characters are all doing this at once, and their various goals and tactics are conflicting with each other and creating obstacles for each other. (I once heard a fascinating interview with Ang Lee in which he broke down a car chase via Acting Theory. A particular char's goal was to get from point A to point B, but another car's goal was to cut the first car off before it got to point B...)

Note that characters don't always meet their goals. Sometimes they lose. Also, sometimes an event happens that makes characters change their goals mid-story. (The classic example of this is the Disaster Story. Fred is a jewel thief on the Titanic. His goal is to steal Lady Phillida's pearls. But everything changes when the ship hits an iceberg...)

One final piece of acting theory is the Superobjective. This is a character's objective for the whole story. (He doesn't necessarily achieve it.) All his scene objectives are his way of working towards this major objective. As a writer, you may choose to come up with a Superobjective first, and they break the story down into scenes within which there are scene objectives. Or you may not know your character's Superobjective at first. You may find it useful to start with scene objectives and gradually work out what, in general, your character is striving for.

In any case, there's a wonderful book about Subperobjectives (the part of Acting Theory that most actors don't understand), called "Working on the Play and the Role." The authors phrase Superobjects in socially, in terms of how a character wants to be viewed by others: Fred wants to be seen as a Great Lover; Mary wants people to think she's brilliant; Arnold wants people to accept him as the Alpha Male...

People sometimes complain that this system is too schematic. "People don't act in such neat, predictable ways!" But you should remember that (a) the system is as chaotic, complex and messy as you want to make it. It depends on how many goals, tactics and obstacles are going on at once. (b) And characters don't generally understand this system. It's the cogs and wheels that make them spin. The try to achieve their goals (sometimes without even knowing this is what they are trying to do), they don't think about the existence of goal.)

Finally, I recommend Eric Berne's books, particularly "Games People Play." Berne is the father of Transactional Analysis. It's a n offshoot of Freudian psychoanalysis that is similar to Acting Theory. (People play "games" in which they use tactics to achieve goals.) It's not in vogue, and I think it's an oversimplified view of psychology, but while this limits its use as a talking cure, it's great for writers who are, after all, trying to create a simplified model of human interaction.

1. Everyone is their own hero. Nobody thinks they are a bad person.

Not true. I'm never my own hero, and I often worry that I'm a bad person. This "low self esteem" is an (internal) obstacle to many of my personal goals.
posted by grumblebee at 7:03 AM on April 3, 2007 [4 favorites]


All your characters are you, to some extent. You made them up, after all. They're sewn out of your cloth. They're the piety you can imagine; they're the evil you can fathom, so live vicariously. It's the only time you can do whatever you want, without limit, and without shame. So, figure out what part of you they are and go with it.

(Even if it scares you. Especially if it scares you.)
posted by headspace at 7:38 AM on April 3, 2007


Seconding this: Often the best characters come from letting different parts of your personality speak through them.

Also: your character should have something to gain and something to lose-- i.e., what's at stake?

Your character should also be capable of surprising the reader but in a believable way. Your character should:
--think interesting thoughts.
--be good at something.
--be Active, not Passive.

Good luck!
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 7:42 AM on April 3, 2007


1. Everyone is their own hero. Nobody thinks they are a bad person. Everyone thinks their own agenda is the right one.

Just a point of contention: This is neither true in life nor in fiction, and characters who are wrestling with their own sense of being in the wrong, or evil, can be quite interesting. Springing to ming immediately is the protagonist in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, who is a Catholic and is has committed a moral sin, and is therefor convinced that he is going to hell no matter what he does. His sense of absolute damnation, and that doing good no longer matters for him, propels the story.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:27 AM on April 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Everyone is their own hero. Nobody thinks they are a bad person. Everyone thinks their own agenda is the right one.

Meh... not really.

True, you don't have a world where good people sit around thinking "Hey! I'm good!" and evil people think "Hey! I'm evil!" unless you live in an Austin Powers movie or something.

The question is really one of confidence, which is seperate from external judgments. But you certainly can see yourself as wrong and evil; we generally call this "depression", "social anxiety", "being suicidal"
posted by dagnyscott at 8:49 AM on April 3, 2007


catching on something unSane said -

"Work on having a fully imagined world and specific, highly differentiated, characters with conflicting agendas."

I'm starting to suspect that I don't know how to exercise my imagination that far. I've never built a whole imagined world with different characters.

How do I exercise doing that?
posted by mirileh at 9:03 AM on April 3, 2007


I'm starting to suspect that I don't know how to exercise my imagination that far. I've never built a whole imagined world with different characters.

How do I exercise doing that?


It sounds like you might need to make up some hard-and-fast rules to stick to for a while. Certainly, you know how to make up a story (everybody can do that), you're just not letting yourself.

Don't allow any character in your next story represent you. Make your protagonist the opposite sex from you. Then give them something they need to do very badly. If you can't come up with a story idea, pull one from the newspaper. Find a sad story and pick someone in it and try to imagine what it must have felt like to do X.

Also, no snark intended, but perhaps you're a memoirist instead of a fiction-writer. There's nothing wrong with that.
posted by Bookhouse at 9:27 AM on April 3, 2007


Bookhouse, thanks for the suggestion!

I agree that there's nothing wrong with non-fiction writers (I love good non-fiction). thing is, when I'm fact checking a real story, I find myself imagining it differently and end up disappointed with the real version (so I guess that at heart I'm not a truth seeker).
posted by mirileh at 9:49 AM on April 3, 2007


"Work on having a fully imagined world and specific, highly differentiated, characters with conflicting agendas."

I'm starting to suspect that I don't know how to exercise my imagination that far. I've never built a whole imagined world with different characters.


You needn't be that ambitious when you start. Imagining a whole world is hard. Imagining slight variations on your world is easier.

What if you had two bathrooms in your house instead of one? Yes, that's a mundane example, but it gives you stuff to think about. What would you use the other bathroom for? Would you keep different stuff in it? Would you let it get a little nasty, because it's a pain to clean two bathrooms?

What if you were you, but you had a totally different job?

What would it be like if someone else -- someone different from you -- did your job? You're probably a good copy editor? What if instead of you editing the current manuscript, it was someone else less competent?

Not everyone needs to write "Lord of the Rings" or "Lonesome Dove." You can start with a slightly fictionalized version of your world.

Some writers do this (successfully) for their entire careers: Jonathan Ames, Woody Allen, Anne Tyler, Marcel Proust... Some start by doing this and then gradually get bolder in their creations.

People who create full-out fantasy worlds, historical fiction, or even contemporary stories set in foreign lands only do so after they have "lived" in their worlds. I'm not a Tolkien fan, but someone here can tell you how many years he spent sketching out his world. He created whole languages for it! Historical novelists immerse themselves in research. It really is true that you can only write what you know. So you can either write about a world that this similar to your own -- because you know your world -- or you can get to know another world and then write about it.
posted by grumblebee at 10:31 AM on April 3, 2007


I have had some of the same difficulty over time. I used to write everything in the first person. As such, I found my fiction was more of a monologue than a story, and that needed to change. I was relying too much on "voice" and not providing enough plot and action.

Recently I've been doing everything in 3rd person. You can easily begin by writing a 3rd person story about 1 character. You follow them around, you're more or less in their head looking out, but you use "he" and "she" instead of "I." This is 3rd person limited and is not far from 1st person. You just don't get to slap the reader on the back and charm them with your wit. You have to move the character around.

Next comes 3rd person omniscient, where you're doing some balance of this between multiple characters. I find this really hard but if you think about it, it's incredibly powerful. You still get to be inside the characters' heads. You can still adapt your narrative voice to give whichever one you're focusing on some style. And you can go anywhere. You can go deep on some characters and only briefly look over the shoulder of others. It's infinitely adjustable.

Try building up in this progression. Making your 3rd person limited character the opposite sex is a good idea. It will force some distance and imagination.

But it's up to you to come up with the motivations, timing, action, the STORY! Take a good hard look at the first person stuff you've been writing and examine whether you've been writing stories at all. It's easy not to with 1st person.
posted by scarabic at 10:31 AM on April 3, 2007


I think a lot of this advice is strange if not just wrong-headed. I would recommend sticking with your me-character by writing in the first person. Readers pick up on falseness--write from a position of confidence and interest. In other words, explore your me-character more, not less. Need a road map? Please do not look to websites of people who give writing advice. Read great first-person novels (like Catcher in the Rye, the Moviegoer, Huckleberry Finn, many Faulkner novels--and newer works like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Everything is Illuminated) and short stories (too many to mention; go to that thing called a "library" and have fun finding them).

As an exercise, you might want to try writing a story in the first person and then, when you have revised it enough to make it good, rewriting it in the third. Did it make it better?

Good luck finding something interesting or new to say or reveal, because it is very hard to do so--but worth it. Don't get caught up in these generic recipes for a good story, they will only lead you to regurgitate the same tired narratives. Writing is hard work no matter the size of your ambitions. If you only anticipate what is expected, you may become proficient at producing standard (i.e. mediocre) stories, but you will probably bore yourself to death before you get there.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 10:33 AM on April 3, 2007


I read in interview with Jeffrey Eugenides, who had the audacity to write a first-person novel, told from the point-of-view of a transsexual. The interviewer asked him how he was able to pull this off. He said that he trusted that people were basically alike, and he asked himself what he would do if he was a transsexual.
posted by grumblebee at 10:37 AM on April 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


I think a lot of this advice is strange if not just wrong-headed. I would recommend sticking with your me-character by writing in the first person.

This isn't bad advice, but it's sort of like saying "stick with a PC" when someone posts a question asking for advice abou switching from a PC to a Mac.


Good luck finding something interesting or new to say or reveal


Don't try.

Trying to "be new" or "be interesting" or "be creative" is deadly. Newness is a by-product. Just try to tell a story truthfully. It WILL be new, because your truth is different from my truth. If you try to "be new", you'll do foolish things. For instance, you'll realize that it makes sense for you character to be in a fraternity, but you'll decide that's not interesting enough, so you'll come up with some "more creative" environment that is totally false within your story.
posted by grumblebee at 10:43 AM on April 3, 2007


But , sirmissalot, it isn't first person that's the problem -- it seems to me that the OP is asking how to make certain that all of her characters aren't exactly the same. Surely you realize that Mark Twain wasn't a teenage boy when he wrote Huck Finn? And that Faulkner wasn't retarded? The OP is asking how to construct characters, and the advice to attempt the third-person is a tool to help do that.
posted by Bookhouse at 10:50 AM on April 3, 2007


Trying to "be new" or "be interesting" or "be creative" is deadly. Newness is a by-product. Just try to tell a story truthfully. It WILL be new, because your truth is different from my truth. If you try to "be new", you'll do foolish things. For instance, you'll realize that it makes sense for you character to be in a fraternity, but you'll decide that's not interesting enough, so you'll come up with some "more creative" environment that is totally false within your story.

Of course you're right--I think you misunderstood my point. My advice is only to cultivate the original and not the mundane, which seems in the case of the poster to sit somewhere internal, not in plot devices or settings or a cast of characters.

The OP is asking how to construct characters, and the advice to attempt the third-person is a tool to help do that.

I don't know--it seems to me they are saying that dialogue and situation flow easily when writing through their own fictional eyes. I want to encourage them to see this as a strength instead of a weakness. If you want to write a screenplay or a sci-fi novel that fulfills some sort of preordained structure, there is software that will pretty much do it for you. But that is not the writing I'm thinking of. Imagine if we have a young Proust on our hands here!
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 11:30 AM on April 3, 2007



Of course you're right--I think you misunderstood my point. My advice is only to cultivate the original and not the mundane


I disagree with that point, too.

I don't think you should "cultivate the original," and I don't think it's possible to do so, even if I'm wrong and you should do it. You can't make yourself be original.

The closest you can get is to avoid cliche, which all writers should do. But even that, I think, is the wrong stress. Rather than trying to avoid cliche, one should, when writing...

1) figure out the truth, and
2) convey that truth as sensually as possible.

Cliches are bad because they're so worn that they don't make me, the reader, have an experience. I'v heard "smart as a whip" so many times that I don't even think about what it means. I don't get any image, other than some vague notion of "very smart."

If you start with a mundane truth and then make me really feel, see, touch, smell or taste it, your writing -- original or not -- will be stirring.

(Everyone has tasted something terrible -- it's a mundane experience -- but I almost gagged when I read Orwell's description of biting into a rancid sausage: "bombs of filth exploded in my mouth.")
posted by grumblebee at 11:47 AM on April 3, 2007


When I said 'everyone is their own hero' I didn't mean that 'everyone thinks they are heroic'. When I said 'nobody thinks they are evil', I didn't mean 'nobody struggles with the morality of what they are doing'.

Everyone is their own hero in the sense that we are all our own protagonists. The same is true in a story. Even minor characters need to be protagonistic from their own point of view. IE they act on desires, make plans, resist, and so on. They have egos.

Nobody, I submit, unless they are George Costanza in an episode of Seinfeld, thinks "This is a really BAD course of action; I'll do it". They may think "This is a terrible thing to do, but I have no choice", or "I know I shouldn't do this but I can't resist". Most people strive to 'do the right thing' in their own terms, which may mean 'the wrong thing' in everybody elses. For example, a sociopath may pursue their own fucked-up desires at everybody else's expense because that's what's right to them.

It is often helpful, when struggling with characters, to write a paragraph of dialog expressing exactly what they are feeling for no other reason than to find out. For example:
"I'm this schmuck who has a closet full of suits and a big fat car; I don't talk to my wife; I have chest pains every now and then and I'm starting to worry about death. This isn't who I am and this isn't what I wanted. I can't talk to anyone about it. What the hell am I going to do?"
If you do this for each of your characters it becomes much clearer how the game is going to play out... then it is time to release them into the wild and watch what happens.
posted by unSane at 1:06 PM on April 3, 2007


unSane, I know what you mean, and I agree with you in spirit. I don't think we've quite reached an accurate description, and I think it's worth picking some nits, because it's so apropos to this thread.

What does it mean to say that we are all our own protagonists? I disagree that we never say, "this is a really BAD course of action; I'll do it." (Note, though, that I'm a New York Jew, sadly perhaps, and I see a lot of personal truth in George Costanza.) In fact, I don't see much difference between your examples: "This is a really BAD course of action; I'll do it" and "I know I shouldn't do this but I can't resist."

The protagonist is usually the character with which you most sympathize. You don't necessarily like him, but you understand him and either excuse his faults or, if you don't, feel like "there but for the grace of God go I." (I'm sure people could come up with exceptions, but I suspect this is because "protagonist" is a fuzzy term, which can mean a heroic hero, a main character, or the one who gets the bulk of our sympathy. Often, these three are one-and-the-same, but not always.)

I can think -- and sometimes do -- think of myself as a bad, bad person who does terrible things. But I can't stop sympathizing with myself. I can, at my worst, most misanthropic moments, stop sympathizing with other people. When they do bad things, they are like machines. They don't seem to have any psychology. They are just evil because someone turned on the evil switch.

If I am ever evil, I'm not a machine. Even if I feel that I deserve the worst sort of punishment, I can't help feeling sorry for myself as I'm cast into hell.

THIS is a worthwhile goal to strive for with all characters. You don't need to excuse them, but you need to understand them and sympathize with them. I have an exercise where I do this when I hear about a horrible person. Child molesters, etc.

I don't mean I excuse them. I mean that I try to imagine how I'd write something from their point of view. Now, it's impossible for me to imagine a child molester who has no negative feelings about his actions...

...well, I take that back, a little. I don't have bad feelings about myself if I abuse a rock. So -- this would be a stretch -- but I MIGHT be able to write the abuser as someone who sees kids as objects. Someone totally unable to connect with his humanity.

But I'd be more likely to write a molester who HATES himself for molesting kids but can't stop himself. Thankfully, I've never had that problem, but I have been unable to stop myself from eating too many pieces of pie. Very different, in a way, but it's enough. I understand what it's like to give into temptation and feel terrible for doing so.

I've heard that Anthony Burgess played a similar "game" when he wrote "A Clockwork Orange." He had been assaulted, wanted to write about it, and decided to write from the point-of-view of his assailant.
posted by grumblebee at 1:44 PM on April 3, 2007


Damn.. This is a good thread!

However, as I understand the original question, "how do you move a story without being in it?" The difference here is in perspective.

If you're 'in the head' of one of your characters, and you're telling that story from that person's perspective, the narrative will be in First Person.

I am John and I am talking to Jane about the picnic this Saturday and she wants me to talk to Charlie about joining us but I hesitate to agree with her because Charlie is Jane's psychotic invisible rabbit friend and I don't really get along with him very well. Not sure why, exactly. I just don't. Maybe it's because I question whether or not he's even real.

Now if after awhile, the storyline progresses to a point where I have to convey events to the reader that John could not possibly see, it will make it very difficult without completely jarring the reader. Shifting from first person limited to third person omniscient is really distracting. Whereas if you started from a third person omniscient standpoint, in which your narrative is from an objective godlike position, you would never find yourself writing something like this:

Charlie went back in time several years to before I was born and had sex with my great auntie Verna. This didn't adversely affect my genetic make up personally, but it did mean my cousins were mostly invisible, causing no end of complications during family reunions. Needless to say I am completely oblivious to this fact and Charlie repeatedly takes great pleasure in that, with annoying pranks and other mischief while I have no idea anything at all is going on.

THIRD-PERSON OMNISCIENT: It does a story good.
posted by ZachsMind at 4:33 PM on April 3, 2007


THIRD-PERSON OMNISCIENT: It does a story good.
posted by ZachsMind at 4:33 PM on April 3 [+] [!]


I'm gonna Devil's Advocate that: it is great discipline to learn to tell a story from a single point of view. For example, to write a screenplay in which the protagonist appears in every scene.

There are simple ways around the problems that ZachsMind describes; namely you construct a scene where the protagonist discovers what Charlie did, discovers that s/he is the subject of pranks and so on.

This is good for other reasons because a protagonist who never discovers the truth about things that are going on is very annoying.
posted by unSane at 7:12 PM on April 3, 2007


By the way, that last paragraph in ZachsMind's post is a fantastic opening for a novel.
posted by unSane at 7:19 PM on April 3, 2007


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