This week I was discussing a short story assignment with a student. She’d shared her story with a writing group and found that they took issue to her not telling whether or not a character was male or female. She stated that it was her goal to keep this hidden from readers so there would be surprise at the end when the readers realized the sex of the character.
The whole discussion led me to how Stephen King opened his lecture at Wichita State University last week. He started with a “dumb joke” only we never got to hear the punch line because when reading the joke online, he’d gotten stuck. The joke starts, “Two jumper cables walk into a bar”. How does one visualize this? How exactly do jumper cables “walk into a bar”? I thought of this because when reading my student’s story, I was stuck in trying to visual a character that was not described in any sense or ever referred to using “he” or “she”. (And we all know how annoying it can be to constantly read a character’s name over and over again instead of the usual substituting of a pronoun.)
My advice to her was that as readers, we need to visualize what we’re reading. We need to see the characters, or in Stephen King’s case, the jumper cables. If hiding the character’s gender is really important to the story, she has to find another way to help the reader see that character, to know that character.
As with all advice, we have to be able to take it ourselves. Last week I got an email from my agent discussing how a character in my new YA novel needs to be fleshed out more. In my mind, I had intentionally made this character somewhat vague because the main protagonist doesn’t want to know her. Told in the first person, the protagonist has lost everyone she loves, so she guards herself against getting to know or love this new person.
But then there are the readers– the people we write for. What if they want to know the character more? What if they want to fall in love with her? What if they want more than superficial descriptions? What if they want to know everything about her?
Then to my horror, I realized that I don’t know everything about her. I had grown so close to my protagonist, I had refused to get to know this character as well.
As a writer, I had to ask myself why it was that I’d kept my character at arms length and most importantly, I had to knock it off!
Every writer has their own way of dealing with character development. For me, it’s sitting down at the keyboard and basically conducting an interview. I plan on doing just that this afternoon. Since I used to be a therapist, I might even imagine my character sitting on a sofa in my old office as I try to delve deep into what makes her tick, what her fears are, and her aspirations. And then at some point, I might need to stretch out on the sofa myself, and ponder what it is about this character that makes me hesitant to know her too well.
Stephen King said that it’s impossible to keep ourselves completely out of our stories. I think Sigmund Freud would agree. If there’s something that keeps us from revealing our characters to our readers, or to ourselves, we might want to do a little self reflection.
In the end, we owe it to our readers to know our characters, and in getting to know our characters, we might just get to know ourselves a little bit better.