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Friday
Jun032016

character work

More from the Iowa MOOC:

An excerpt from Chitra Divakaruni 's article in the New York Times' Writers on Writing series, "New Insights Into the Novel? Try Reading 300."

The successful novel, on the other hand, has a shape much like a bell. We begin at the top of the bell, its tight curve. Every detail has purpose here: the way a woman tilts her head, the slant of light as one exits the subway, the repetition of a phrase. As soon as we have gained our bearings, we notice things beginning to open up, flaring outward the way a bell does.

John Gardner rightly insisted that a good novel must be a "vivid, continuous dream." To this I would add that there must be in it a sense of expansion. This may be through the development of new and layered narrative voices; it may be through a fuller realization of a stylistic device introduced earlier; through metaphor or symbol or a series of ironic juxtapositions; or through methods as yet unthought of.

The characters are layered, too. At any moment an incident might tug the top layer from person and reveal an astonishment of traits below. Lists, recipes, letters, e-mail, found poetry, excerpts from other writers, real and imaginary: any or all of these begin to add depth and texture, to create a pattern. The pattern may not be obvious or conventionally symmetrical. It may be held in tense balance, aesthetics battling with a desire to push the boundaries of the acceptable. It stirs us, maybe even disturbs us.

Still, we feel confident that the author has an overall design in mind, a large and generous design, the way the first bell maker must have had: a three-dimensional design, with enough space inside it to create resonance and allow its melody (perhaps a cacophonic melody) to echo in the reader the way, it is said, that the tolling of a perfectly made bell creates a corresponding vibration inside the chest of each listener.

It is this resonance, finally, that separates the successful novel from the others. The cast of major characters may be small or large, clowns or kings. The backdrop may be modest (a room) or ambitious (a continent). The vocabulary may be simple or flamboyant, literary or colloquial. The melody may be created by a single flute, or performed by an entire orchestra. But through it all, there's a sense that what we're seeing is not all that this is about.

How Writers Write Fiction MOOC food for thought:

After reading Divakaruni's excerpt, look back at her discussion of characters in a successful novel:

The characters are layered, too. At any moment an incident might tug the top layer from person and reveal an astonishment of traits below. Lists, recipes, letters, e-mail, found poetry, excerpts from other writers, real and imaginary: any or all of these begin to add depth and texture, to create a pattern. The pattern may not be obvious or conventionally symmetrical. It may be held in tense balance, aesthetics battling with a desire to push the boundaries of the acceptable. It stirs us, maybe even disturbs us.

Begin thinking about characters you might like to include in your writing for this class, especially as we inch closer to the opening class session on character! Take one of the forms Divakaruni mentions--lists, recipes, emails, excerpts from other writers--and, in your notebook that you started (or continued) on WW Day 1, write a scene where your character interacts with one of these written modes. Perhaps write a few lists from your character's perspective. Write an email from your character to another. Perhaps your character searches through a recipe catalog--which recipes catch his eye?

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