by: Steven Barnes
An important question for any artist is: How can I built a career and simultaneously be true to myself? It’s an important question, and during the twenty years I’ve taught writing, hundreds of students have expressed the belief that success and personal integrity are mutually exclusive.
The Lifewriting™ approach to fiction suggests that not only do these two qualities overlap, but that the safest, surest, most satisfying path to discovering your true voice, your deepest creative flow, and ultimately crafting the most satisfying career, is to be true to yourself. It suggests that Aristotle’s famous debate concerning the relative merits of plot and character is a trick: Plot and character are actually two sides of the same coin. Character is best revealed through action. And plot is merely what happens when a given character engages with a specific situation. It is not only possible, but advisable, to shift back and forth between those perspectives, seeking to create a seamless whole.
How do you, personally, define character? You MUST have some theory or feeling for the human condition, or you’ll have nothing to write about. The best and simplest way to learn characterization is to study psychology. And the best psychological study is yourself. Why? Because you have more information about what makes you you than you will ever have about what makes anyone else tick.
What this path demands is the honesty and courage to look deeply into your own life, and some model to organize the different aspects of your personality and emotional history. Then you need some mechanism to help you apply your discoveries to your writing.
The very finest model of the human condition is the 6,000 year old model from India, the “chakras” of yoga. Supposedly seven energy centers within and around the human body, they mirror Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Both yogis and psychologists suggest that until the “lower” more basic needs are met, one cannot move to the next level of life.
The Chakras represent survival, sexuality, power, emotion, communication, intellect, and spirit. Let’s take a peek into the way each of these “levels” can be used to connect your inner emotional world, and your writing.
1) Survival. What are your deepest fears? Remember that fear underlies most anger, and fear turned inside-out inspires most comedy. What comic or horrific use can you make of your own most secret fears? Create characters with the same concern and needs. I promise you: plenty of your readers will have the same problems. Die Hard and a hundred other movies a year punch this button. We fear dying, disfigurement, abandonment, old age, and disease—all survival values. All superb story sources.
2) Sexuality. What turns you on? Sexuality can be an important aspect of your character’s lives . What was you r first experience? Best? Worst/ Most recent? Least ethical? At what point do you feel you began to have mature sexual relationships? When do you think that sexuality is appropriate or inappropriate? What people in your experience have been uplifted, healed, damaged or debased in their sexual interactions? Every one of them is a character, and an opportunity for you to express your opinions and philosophies. The movie A History of Violence used sex brilliantly to help us understand the powerful bond between the leads.
3) Power. What is your physical condition? What does it say about your actions, values, and priorities? Craft characters with distinct physical attributes, and allow their life history to express itself in their movement and appearance. Rocky or Million Dollar Baby utilize dynamic training and fight scenes to express depths of passion and desperation. While physical power is the most basic form, this evolves into financial and political power—any form of control over self, family, or others. Explore your own attitudes toward these kinds of power, and begin to craft characters who breathe.
4) Love. What is love? Mature affection as opposed to immature “puppy love”? Love for one’s children and family. Love for country? For all mankind? What is the difference between love and sexual attraction? What is the price you see people paying for their heart space connections? What are the greatest advantages and disadvantages of human contact? Forrest Gump is about a man with a beautiful loving heart…and the mind of a child. His life is better than almost anyone he ever meets, despite their advantages.
5) Communication. What is your belief about education and perception? What is our obligation to communicate with clarity and honesty? What kind of mischief is caused by miscommunication? Is verbal communication better, more immediate and more honest than nonverbal? In Billy Budd, an inarticulate character strikes a man dead, largely due to frustrated communication.
6) Intellect. What are your intellectual strengths? Weaknesses? When have you had to modify your world view because reality didn’t match your theories and beliefs? Creator with Peter O’Toole tells of a brilliant scientist locked in an intellectual prison, unable to deal with the death of his beautiful wife. ago. He must either change his map of the world, or his heart will die.
7) Spirit. What are your spiritual beliefs? Are you an atheist? Agnostic? Buddhist? Christian? What do you see as the spiritual and philosophical differences? If you didn’t use the specific labels, could you create characters of each type, and demonstrate the differences? If so, why? If not, why not? Have you ever had a crisis in faith? Ever felt a prayer was answered? Did it happen in a way you expected, or otherwise? Ghandi dealt with a man of great spiritual commitment who found the strength to loosen the grip of the greatest empire the world has ever seen.
Once you have thought through each of these levels as they apply to your own life, you are now able to create characters of uncommon complexity and depth. And you have taken a huge step toward releasing your true writing potential…whether your intent is artistic, commercial, or, most wisely, both.