"The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible." -Vladimir Nobokov

Sunday, March 25, 2012

How to Use your Friends in your Writing

After lots of internet searching about characterization, I've found that there seems to be somewhat of a consensus about basing character traits off of people you know. I'm sure most writers have done this at some point. (I mean, what better way to make your characters real than by giving them actual human traits from people you know?) But, for some reason I never thought that this applied to friends. Maybe I felt like friends were forbidden territory, that somehow I would drive them away if they ever knew that *gasp!* their habit of twirling their hair around their finger had suddenly been transplanted onto a fictional character that is nothing like them. "How," I imagined them asking, "could you take my little habit and attach it to that evil character?" or worse, "Is that character supposed to be me? I can't believe you think I'm that horrible!" Suddenly my brilliant resourcefulness as a writer would be demoted to backstabbing and shaming my friends. So for a while, friends were off limits for me as far as characterization went.  

But, why should they be? In many places I've read that writers write characters they would want to be friends with in real life, so why not use my own friends as inspiration? It was silly of me to think that they would stop being friends with me because of a minuscule reference to them in my writing, but I understand that my fears were not completely unrealistic. When drawing traits from people who are close to you, it's important to know when you are crossing boundaries that shouldn't be crossed. The following tips will (hopefully) help you learn to use your friends as a source for inspiration, without damaging your relationship.

  • Don't just transplant your friend into your story. Chances are, trying to put your friend (all his/her idiosyncrasies, strengths, weaknesses, and moods) into one character will not turn out as well as you planned. While incorporating human traits is important, if fictional characters were quite as complex (and moody, and indecisive) as real people, they would actually be less relatable for the reader.
  • Do pick and choose traits. By using only a few of your friend's traits and incorporating them with other traits, fictional or otherwise, your character will most likely better fit the story you are trying to tell and be less obvious to your friend that they were your inspiration.
  • Be careful about directly pointing out friend inspired characters..to your friends. While you may love your character to death, your friend may not see it that way. In fact, they may only notice the traits you added that aren't like them. Only you can be the judge of how your friend will react, and if you do decide to tell them, make sure you are clear about how characterization works.
  • Use good traits. As a general rule of thumb it's better to show off your friend's good side through your characters, rather than bashing them with a character riddled with their weaknesses. Sure, maybe they won't notice. But if they do...well, then you're in trouble.
  • Make sure you have a good match. This may seem obvious, but don't try to use other people as inspiration unless they actually fit the character. For instance, don't put your friend's tendency to rescue animals in need with your antagonist, unless that trait fits his character type/personality. 
  • Use your better judgement. In the end it mostly comes down to common sense. If your friend were to discover this trait in one of your characters, would he or she be angry, or honored? In the end you are the only one who knows your characters as well as you know your friends, and you have to decide how both will benefit from your burst of inspiration.
I hope this was helpful! I may not be the most experienced person on this subject, so if you have anything to add, or if  your think I missed the mark completely, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

From a Writer's Notebook: Personal Histories

Yesterday my dad brought home this little booklet from the Texas State Historical Association Conference, and it got me thinking. First I thought about my own history- all the big events: trips, awards, deaths, births, and the little things: the way the light streams through our sunroom window every morning, the rich flavor of the Chai Tea lattes at my favorite coffee shop, all the times my stomach hurt from laughing so much. Over the years I've tried to record both kind of events. I have two journals that chronicle my life (sporadically) since the 6th grade. And while my journal writing has decreased significantly, especially once high school started, at least I have something, which more than a lot of people can say. 

A journal is a good thing for a writer to have. Our first assignment in our Creative Writing class this year was to write a personal essay. Our teacher said it was because we had to know how to tell a story from our own life before we could tell someone else's. I think this holds especially true in today's world, where everyone expects instant gratification, and some new writers think they can jump into a character's fictional world before taking a long look at their own. Journaling allows us to go back to our best and worst moments, and makes us wonder how we could have been so worried about something that was really pretty small in the grand scheme of things. All of this puts our earlier thoughts and actions into perspective, and allows us to pull better ideas from our own lives.

Despite popular belief, I think that blogging is not the same as journaling. A blog is sort of like a journal, but unless it's extremely personal (in which case maybe you should reconsider posting it on the internet), it doesn't quite compare to holding a journal in your hands and seeing pages filled with your handwriting. Maybe that's just me being old fashioned. As much as I love blogging, I also long for the feel paper under my pen. So I write journal entries and letters to pen pals and occasionally type on typewriters. There is something wonderfully tactile about it that a blank screen just can't compete with. 

So, I encourage you to go out and find a journal (Yay! Notebook shopping!) and take a few minutes to write something about your day. It could be what you had for breakfast this morning. It could be a description of your best friend. It could be the nagging thing at the back of your mind thats been worrying you for weeks. Whatever it is, write it down. It may seem trivial now, even boring. But years from now, when you are reading over your old entries, it will feel like a life well lived.

ps. I'm not sure if this really fits into the "From a Writer's Notebook" category, but it seems to me as good a place to start as any. More from this series to come!