Tuesday, March 4, 2014

RMIT YA Teaching - Week 2

Last week in writing class ...

We looked at character. The homework was to think about your own MC and ask the following questions:
1) Who is your main character?
2)What does he/she want?
3)Why is he/she telling the story?
4) Think of a phrase - something your character always says.*

People found #3 the most difficult. And I think this makes perfect sense, especially if you think about the idea that a novel (or any art) is an answer to a question. I think in writing the story, the answer will be found. This reminds me of my favourite Ken Kesey writing thing:

Sometimes a Great Notion begins and ends with the image of Henry Stamper’s amputated arm with its middle finger extended. Did you structure the book around this image?
The image of the amputated arm came to me before I knew whose arm it was. Writing the book was the way to figure out who belonged to the arm and why. In writing the book I figured out what the symbol meant. First, I thought that Stamper was the hero, fighting the union’s attempt to control the family. But in retrospect, the river is the controlling force the family is battling. The Stamper brothers, Hank and Lee, are matching wills and egos over Vivian. When Vivian leaves at the end, she leaves the people she loves for a dark future, but one in which she isn’t controlled. Mother Nature throws off the forces that try to control her. Old feminism, women’s lib, had something to do with that, but I didn’t know it at the time.

See the whole Paris Review interview here

We talked about how you can create a character that kids want to read about. This article here by Chuck Wendig about YA fiction in general has a great thing about what young people want to read about. (Themselves, essentially.)

We talked about the difference between character and characterisation. You can use character generators like this one - but what you end up with is not a character, it's a set of characteristics. (Hair: dark, eyes: green, unique trait: is in love with someone)  Characterisation is outward appearance, character is what we are. When a character is forced to act under pressure their true character is revealed.

This article by Robert McKee talks about the fundamental need for pressure to reveal character.

"Pressure is essential. Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little. If a character chooses to tell the truth in a situation where telling a lie would gain him nothing, the choice is trivial, the moment expresses nothing. But if the same character insists on telling the truth when a lie would save his life, then we sense that honesty is at the core of his nature."

(Further reading: Story by Robert McKee)

For a writing exercise I handed around a couple of character questionnaires - sourced here (I am devoted to the Proust questionnaire!)

And we looked at some points made by agent Cheryl Klein in this great essay about outsiders in fiction.

We also read Charles Willeford's funny, brusque essay, "Characteristics of Gadgetry" (1959) -

"To sum up: gadgets are an effective means of getting realism into fiction, and their use should not be overlooked in the preparation of biographical data for your characters."

This essay appears in Writing & Other Blood Sports, which is a helluva title.

 I noted my growing irritation at the preponderance characters with birthmarks shaped like countries.

8. We read the first few pages of Mark Haddon's brilliant The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time - in a few pages what can you tell about a character? (This is something worth investigating with most books - the signs of a memorable character are there from the get-go.)

*I got this one from Antoni Jach's masterclass - years ago when Girl Defective was just a 3000 word scene set at St Kilda Market, I had to think of Sky's phrase. It was then, and remained, "Bullshit."

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