In secondary school I knew a boy who routinely read Sherlock Holmes for fun, along with other tales of mystery and horror. A fan of science fiction and romance myself, I had little dealings with Holmes until much later, when I fell into Agatha Christie’s Mrs. Marple, and Ruth Rendell. And although now, I do enjoy a good mystery, I often wonder whether my reasoning skills would have been more prolific if I had picked up on the need to be an observer from early on.
This is something every writer will have to learn as they progress in the field and try to create more believable characters. In fact, this idea clicked more with me, when I was reading an interview given by Audra McDonald, a six time Tony Award winning actress for the Academy of Achievement as a Broadway Stage Sensation. Asked about her role in Porgy and Bess, and more specifically if she had approached anything differently in the character of Bess. She responded that her goal wasn’t to approach anything differently, or do anything differently. Rather she wanted to understand Bess and to do that she went back to the place where the character was first drawn by DuBose Hayward, because that was the only way to get deep inside the character.
As writers, I wonder, how many of us dig deep to discover the gem that is our main character or group of characters. How many of us actually pay attention to what is going on around us, so that when we find parts of them in someone else, we can take it down; like a kid at the foot of a great magician, trying to decipher the code.
I believe a character is built up, slowly over time. It unfolds like a flower, opening to take in sunlight. In the same way, every day you get a glimpse of it. Every day you get an opportunity to see something new. Although the note-taking, of the people around you and their actions, doesn’t have to be too obvious. But capture the small nuggets, the little pieces of information or character traits, that will become any one of your characters. Work it into the story, little by little. Conduct character interviews, like the one described by Lajos Egri in The Art of Dramatic Writing.
In her interview McDonald says how as creative people often we have to walk in a lot of different shoes. Something that for actors and performers means playing a lot of different roles. Characters, people that they may or may not agree with on many different levels: be it social, political or religious. Likewise, writers have to get to know their characters, so that what they convey to their readers, is as truthful and accurate as they can make it.
Which is not to say that I possess a super-brain that records everything. For example, where I go, what I eat or even wear; but sometimes, I get an inkling of something that suggests: write this down, it’s important. This is one of those reasons why we keep a notepad at the side of the bed. We let the camera in our brain record, or we grab something and write, plot idea. Or possible story lead. And then later when we have some free time, we try to piece them together. Other times though we file and save it for posterity, to use it some time in the future.
Or as McDonald suggests, we do things to replenish the well, because the process of creation can be exhausting. She talks about going to a show to see a great singer like Ray LaMontagne at Carnegie Hall… “I can fill up that way, but I’m still observing as a student as well. My mind’s still at work, and processing, processing and learning and learning and learning…I am very aware of the fact that my mind and my soul, or whatever, are processing all of this, and storing it to then be used at a later date when I get out there.”
This is why being observant is necessary. Why we have to pay attention to things that are happening around us. Or as she say, “be aware of the moment.” The present moment. Not yesterday or the day before that. With all of our electronic gadgets, it is a must that we unplug and unwind when we write, because what we are creating on some level is primal. And urgent. And necessary.
Remember that writing is about revealing truth, and when a writer is honest in their approach to the work it shines through, if you’ve ever read Bastard out of Carolina, The Color Purple or Paradise, you know what I mean. I remember reading the novel, Wrecked (by E.R. Frank) a few years back and finding some similarities between the female lead and her relationship with her father. As a result, I started to see things in my own family circle from a different point of view. Perspective. Good writing will do that, it will help you to see things more clearly.
Later in the week, I will talk some more about the art of observation, but until then keep your eyes open and your ears pealed for the sights and sounds of life.