Thursday, June 20, 2013

Guest Post: Jan Morrill on "Make Us Love Your Characters"

I'm pleased today to host award-winning writer Jan Morrill to Donna's Book Pub.

Jan was born and (mostly) raised in California. Her mother, a Buddhist Japanese American, was an internee during World War II. Her father, a Southern Baptist redhead of Irish descent, retired from the Air Force.

Her novel, The Red Kimono, (University of Arkansas Press, January 2013), as well as many of her short stories, reflect memories of growing up in a multicultural, multi-religious, multi-political environment.

I love the cover of Jan's book and look forward to reading it.

Her award-winning short stories and memoir essays have been published in Chicken Soup for the Soul books and several anthologies. Recently, she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize for her short story “Xs and Os,” which appeared in the Voices Anthology.

An artist as well as a writer, she is currently working on the sequel to The Red Kimono.

Jan is a gracious and generous author who shares her talent with others in the writing community. She served as past president of OWL and past conference chair of OWFI. Today, Jan shares with us her tips and strategies on how to:
 
Make Us Love Your Characters

What is it that draws you into a novel? Makes you turn the page? For me, it’s the characters. I want to read about characters I can relate to, that I care about and with whom I can sympathize. I even want to read about those I might hate. In other words, I need to feel something about them, or the story doesn’t matter to me.

Most writers have heard the rule, “Show, don’t tell.” To me, that means tell the story through the character, using not only his senses, but his voice.

So how can a writer make his characters fuller, richer? I have several methods I use and I’ve listed my two favorites below. These exercises have also helped me break through periods of writer’s block:

1)      Interview your characters.

2)      Write a letter to your character, or better yet, write a letter from one of your characters to another one of your characters.

These methods have drawn out new personality traits, new story lines, even secrets that I hadn’t known before. I laugh when I talk to audiences about these techniques. Confessing that my characters have “told me secrets” when before, I’d stared at a blank page, feels a little crazy. But crazy or not, it works.

Interviewing Your Characters

I begin by compiling a list of questions. These are simple questions I’d like to know about any acquaintance, or even a stranger. I’ve created a list of over twenty questions such as:

·         What or who are you afraid of?
·         Tell me a secret, either about yourself or someone else.
·         Which of your physical characteristics do you wish you could change?
·         Tell me about a time someone teased you as a child.

Here’s what I suggest to make the interview most effective:

1)      Close your eyes and imagine sitting with the character. Imagine the setting – sights, sounds, smells.
2)      Carry on a conversation in your mind and write it down, recording the conversation without lifting the pen from the page or your fingers from the keyboard. Don’t censor and don’t edit.
3)      Pay attention to your character’s “voice” in both the dialogue and internalization.

In my experience, often this interview becomes a short story on its own. To read an interview I conducted with one of my characters, see my blog post, “Happy Hour with Nobu.”

Write a Letter to Your Character

 In another of my blog posts, “Sachi’s Letter to Nobu,” I wrote a letter from Sachi to Nobu when I was stumped with a scene in The Red Kimono.  There are a variety of ways you can use this technique. I’ve listed them in order of which I’ve found to be most effective:

1)      Write a letter from one character to another. In the voice of the character writing the letter, tell the receiving character about what is going on in his/her life, just as you would write a letter to a “real-life” friend. This will often prompt ideas, when before, you stared at a blank page.

2)      Have your character write a letter to you. Start with your character telling YOU how frustrated he is that you can’t seem to understand what he’s trying to tell you. He can ask YOU questions such as:

·         Why are you writing this book anyway?
·         What did you expect me to do/say after I (insert something that happened in the book.)
·         (Insert another character) doesn’t want me to tell you this, but (what first comes to mind?)

3)      YOU write a letter to your character. Tell him how frustrated you are that he’s hiding from you. Ask him why he won’t talk to you? What’s he hiding?

 You may be surprised at what you learn about your characters and your story using these techniques. Best of all, it will deepen your knowledge of your character. If you can transfer that new knowledge onto a page and into your story, it will draw your readers to want to know even more. And isn’t that what makes a page-turner?
 
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 It's not often to be able to gain such insight into how a successful author creates compelling characters.

Thanks, Jan, for sharing your time and talent with us today.  I especially like the idea of writing a letter from one character to another.
 
And good luck with the sequel to The Red Kimono.

32 comments:

  1. Donna - Thank you for sharing this post. I am really struggling with a memoir I am working on, a short essay on the life of my great-grandmother. A vibrant and tenacious woman, I have beautiful memories of her. Sadly, my time with her was limited because of distance and her departure. I am struggling to find her voice as I write. I think I will try this interview technique and see if this gets me over the hump. Great post. Thanks again! Karen

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    1. Karen, it may be a little different when you're writing a non-fiction, because your story will be based on fact. But as for finding her voice, I'm almost sure if you "interview" her, it'll bring up a lot of things you may have forgotten, and will help you tell the story. -- Jan

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  2. What great advice! I have my autographed copy of The Red Kimono on my nightstand and can't wait to get started reading. Thanks, Jan, and thanks to Donna!

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    1. Thanks, Dianna! I hope you enjoy the book, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts! -- Jan

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  3. I love the title of this book...so inviting to me. I have put it on my amazon wish list today!

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    1. Thank you, Bookie. I hope you enjoy The Red Kimono! -- Jan

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  4. Excellent article, Jan. I always intend to do some of this character work before I get very far into a manuscript, and also manage to put it off until the end. It makes my revision process interesting, that's for sure.

    Just went to amazon to read the synopsis of The Red Kimono and it's now on my list to order. These slices of history we didn't learn much about back when I was a kid (in school just after WWII) are fascinating to explore and try to understand now.

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    1. Thank you, Patricia. Sometimes I enjoy the revision work as much as the writing, because it allows me to polish and deepen the characters and story.

      And thanks for adding The Red Kimono to your list! You're right, there are many things about our history that we learned little about, and that's why I enjoy historical fiction. Sometimes, when historical facts frame characters we care about, we remember it better. -- Jan

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  5. Jan--Your book is definitely one I am going to put on my "must read" list.

    I also appreciated your suggestions on how to make our characters more well-rounded. I'm in the middle of writing a fictional story, and will put your advice to good use. Thank you.

    Donna--thanks for this post.

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    1. Sioux, I'd love to hear how the techniques work for you. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at what you learn about your characters! -- Jan

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  6. Thx Donna and Jan. These are techniques that I can really use. Very much appreciated.

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    1. Hi Marcia! I hope you discover all kinds of new secrets with these techniques! -- Jan

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  7. It's always interesting to read about another writer's work process. I, too, found the letter writing exercise to be a good suggestion.

    Pat
    Critter Alley

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    1. K9friend, that's one of my favorite processes, too. I find it interesting that though it's still the same brain the new story ideas derive from as the one that stared at a blank screen, there must be something about taking a different path that unleashes new ideas.--Jan

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  8. I requested this book to be bought by the St. Louis County Library--Jan has such good advice and an interesting book!

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    1. Thank you for requesting The Red Kimono at the St. Louis Country Library, Margo! Someday soon, I hope to come to St. Louis for a book signing. -- Jan

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  9. Love the cover. And the advice. I don't write much fiction. When I try, I imagine my characters conversing with each other, and I get too involved in the backstory. Which might be a hint that my story needs to start somewhere else.

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    1. Thanks, Val! I know what you mean about the backstory. It's hard to know where to draw the line, because the backstory is so important to who our characters are.--Jan

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  10. Donna, Thanks so much for sharing!

    Jan, Thanks for the Guest Post! Just wondering about the University of Arkansas Press, January 2013. I live in Little Rock, Arkansas. Is this a Publishing Company associated with the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville?

    I hope you both have a good weekend!

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    1. Hi Leslie. Yes, this press is associated with the University of Arkansas, and the office is located in Fayetteville. If you visit www.uapress.com and click on "Contacts" you'll find several people you can contact if you have questions or would like to make a submission. They're a great group of people to work with. (Also, as a side note, the red kimono on the catalog cover is my mother's kimono.) -- Jan

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  11. What great writing advice and fun approach to getting inside the heads of all our characters! Thank you, Donna, for hosting Jan on your blog.

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    1. It is SO much fun, Clara. Give it a try--you'll be surprised at what you learn. :) -- Jan

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  12. Great advice. I've used the interview technique before, but I think I'll try the letter-writing next time I get stuck. Thanks!

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    1. I think you'll like the letter-writing technique. Let us know what secrets you learn. -- Jan

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  13. Hi Everyone,
    Thanks for stopping by and leaving Jan a comment or question.

    And thanks again Jan for sharing your sage advice.

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    1. Donna, thanks so much for inviting me. You have some great followers and I'd love to hear from some of them on how these techniques worked!

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  14. Pleasure to meet you, Jan. Great advice and suggestions here.

    Donna, thanks for hosting her.

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    1. Hi Carol! I hope you'll give a few of these a try. You may be surprised at what you find out. :) -- Jan

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  15. I've heard wonderful things about this book - can't wait to read it. Love the practical and imaginative suggestions!

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    1. Hi Tammy--I used a few of these techniques in developing my characters for The Red Kimono. Hope you like it! -- Jan

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  16. It's taking me a while to get here... but thank both of you for this post. I will definitely put this on my reading list and I just LOVE the idea of writing a letter to your characters. Queen of letter writing, I don't know why I didn't think of that! Ha.

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    1. Hi Lynn! I've been out of town for almost three weeks, so I'm a little slow getting caught up with things myself!

      I hope you try writing a letter to your characters. Even better have one of your characters write a letter to another character. It's a fun and helpful exercise.

      Hope you like The Red Kimono!--Jan

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