Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Character Autobiographies - By Eileen Heyes

Eileen Heyes

A friend and former Los Angeles Times reporter recently asked me for tips on starting a novel. His first step, I advised, should be to write autobiographies for his major characters. Not short profiles or sketchy notes in the third person (which my friend had already done), but autobiographies. Start with “My name is….” Mentally become the character, and then just let it rip.

To my surprise, this concept came as complete news to my journalist friend. But he gave it a try and quickly found it to be a “very interesting and liberating experience.” Suddenly, what had been fuzzy notions started sharpening into rich, emotion-packed scenes.

Here’s how he describes the discoveries he made through his initial stream-of-consciousness character autobiographies:

“I’d had vague ideas about some sort of confrontation involving my protagonist and the friend who later disappears. Well, now it’s a fairly well-shaped episode involving a group of young guys set in the basement of an abandoned, broken down farmhouse in the gone-to-seed orange grove that was behind my house until I was about 11 years old.

 Abandoned basement by PVignau

“My protagonist’s dead mother, meanwhile, explained how she, as a school board member, inspired the ‘watch list’ for suspected perverts and sexual deviants, which becomes a key element of the story. Out of nowhere, she also told me a funny story about her encounter with John Wayne and how he came on to her. She’s a very attractive, strong-willed and somewhat vain woman. (One of her practices is to flirt with school personnel she suspects are ‘deviants,’ and if they seem unaffected, they come under suspicion.) She is a minor political figure with dreams of more, until things go horribly wrong.”

The autobiography is how you pack each character’s baggage –the baggage that the character will lug around and not let go of for an instant throughout your story. What belongs in a character autobiography?

From Emotional Baggage Story - Susan P. Cooper 

·      Start with the basics: Name, age, family situation, relationships within the family, other aspects of the character’s environment that the character does not control.
·      Think about choices the character makes: Work, clothing, home decorations, neatness/clutter, the face he shows to others and the secrets he keeps.
·      Consider the character’s likes, dislikes, attitudes and experiences: Music, food, sports or hobbies; faith, and its place in her family; economic situation, and the character’s feelings about that; best/worst things that have ever happened to her.
·      Most important: What does the character want?

Cookies.  Who doesn't want cookies?  

 These are just guidelines. Once you get started, let the character tell you what needs to be included. Writing a character’s backstory in first person makes a huge difference. You’ll get a feel for each character’s voice and how he expresses himself, an intimate sense of her fears and priorities. Those deep feelings and longings are what must drive the story. Rich, complex, consistent characters with full lives will draw readers in and keep them reading.

Eileen Heyes teaching at Millbrook Elementary School as an artist educator

Journalist and author Eileen Heyes lives in Raleigh, NC, with her marvelous husband, one of her two brilliant and interesting sons, and a goofy boxer who is not brilliant, but makes up for it with sweetness.

Happy Writing!

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