Monday, January 17, 2011

First Post, and "Hand Puppet" Characters.

First, I would like to welcome you to my blog on fiction writing. While currently working on my novel, casually searching for an MFA program, and offering advice to other people in my writing group, I've often found myself musing or ranting on certain aspects of writing fiction. This is why I have created this blog--to write down my thoughts and experiences on the subject, and get it in a (somewhat!) organized state to someday teach it.

Today I would like to address the subject of what I call "hand puppet" characters. The hand puppet character is often what happens when the writer gets either lazy or too concerned with moving the plot. The hand puppet is often mistakenly referred to as a "talking head", a character that has no other purpose than provide exposition, or the "mini-me" which is self-explanatory. While all three character types have useful applications which may come up in later posts, they are something you should strive to avoid.

To understand what the hand puppet is, picture yourself putting on a puppet show at the last minute with a three hour long script (which was also written at the last minute). At first the puppets seem interesting--they may have a deep voice, or curly red hair. They may be wearing an antique pocket watch from WWII, or have lit sparklers for eyes (not recommended, by the way). But after awhile, while the characters may have different purposes, or even opinions, they end up all sounding, speaking, and moving the same exact way (especially if you burned your hand on the sparklers). This tendency, my friend, lends itself all to easily to writing.

A mini-me character is often easier to fix than a hand puppet because unlike the mini-me, the hand puppet makes or has different choices and opinions than the writer. A difference in action, however, only makes the character a little less flat and homogeneous than all the others based on their creator. Granted, you don't need to describe the eating or nose-picking habits of every extra on the scene (that's why they're extras), but for anyone who will be making an impression, or even a secondary appearance, it is crucial that you give them at least some semblance of an identity.

Photo by Merwig
One of the easiest methods I've found for solving the hand puppet problem is finding a person you know to base the character off of. I don't mean just making the character look like this person, I mean you need to study this person. One point I will bring up often in this blog is to not skimp out on your research. Think about this person, what gestures does he often use while speaking? What mannerisms does he display when they feel a certain way? What are some phrases he uses often? Does he have an accent and how does it relate to his experience or upbringing? Why do they respond in such manners? Observe and keep questioning. Imagine how a conversation would go with one of your other characters and this person. Are there any disgusting and quirky habits? Take note of these and incorporate them into the actions and dialogue of this character. This is only an exercise and not every character is going to have a perfect match to someone you know (in fact, it's often better that way), but this is only a start.

You can also try going to a bar, a coffee shop, a book store (heck, even the waiting room at the doctor's office) and people watching. Pick out any person or group and create characters in your mind--take note of how they relate to each other, imagine what they are thinking, question why they're doing that weird thing with their ears, create a background based off their appearances. Become an observer in human behavior and the possibilities for fleshed out characters will be endless.

These are only a few suggestions to get started and feel free to comment on these or your own methods. In the meantime, happy writing!

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