AWP 2012: Character Matters

Posted on 18 March 2012

My AWP posts continue to trickle in. I have maybe two more after this one, so I should be done this week and will then move on to other matters. On a housekeeping note, I’ve had some bizarre problem with WordPress and have been unable to leave comments on other blogs under my usual name. I hope to figure out what’s going on soon and be back to commenting as usual.

Now on to the AWP session “Character Matters.” I’m a big fan of Caitlin Horrocks, author of This Is Not Your City, and was pleasantly surprised to see she was on this panel. (Can you tell I wasn’t very organized with my session planning?) Some of her advice referenced characters in her collection, so I guess you might have to pick up a copy of This Is Not Your City to get all the references. See how sneaky I am with my book recommendations?

Here’s a quick rundown of some of her comments that resonated most with me:

  • Let your characters be less than their best selves.
  • You must be willing to let your characters come to harm, and deliver it.
  • We have rules in our lives – you have to break those rules to have plot.
  • In person, you might not forgive people – but in fiction, you do. Who acts like this? The weak one. The one who wants to be part of a crowd, who is merciless with herself. You have an obligation to her.
  • Even as you ask, “Who is the person who would do this?” [when a character acts atrociously] you answer it with love.
  • Thou shalt kill and thou shalt not bear false witness with your characters.

I’ll end with what Horrocks had to say concerning how writers often feel about the self-imposed pressure to work: “Every moment we’re not writing, we’re failing ourselves.” I am well acquainted with that guilty feeling.

Are you delivering the harm?

Photo: Meredith_Farmer

You must be willing to let your characters come to harm, and deliver it.

Let your characters be less than their best selves.

We have rules in our lives – you have to break those rules to have plot.

Even as you ask, “Who is the person who would do this?” you answer it with love.

In person, you might not forgive people – but in fiction, yes. Who acts like this? The weak one. The one who wants to be part of a crowd, who then is merciless with herself. You have an obligation to her.

Thou shalt kill and thou shalt not bear false witness with your characters.


13 responses to AWP 2012: Character Matters

  • Sarah W says:

    Thou shalt kill and thou shalt not bear false witness with your characters.

    I love this. I’m trying to deliver harm . . . I probably need to go back and inflict a bit more . . .

    Thanks, Laura!

  • Paul says:

    “. . . failing ourselves.” I feel that way all the time (even when I’m asleep).

  • This sounds like an incredibly helpful session–I’m taking notes from your notes!

  • Averil says:

    “Let your characters be less than their best selves.”

    Finally. Something I’m doing right.

  • Teri says:

    I tell you what, amongst all of us spreading out across AWP, I feel like I was 4 or 5 people attending so many sessions!!! Love it.

    This character thing is interesting — thanks for the notes. And it goes for narrative nonfiction writers too. It’s often easy to fall into the trap of writing real people as one-dimensional.

    • Agreed. This is definitely the way to do it. It also cuts down on my guilt from not planning my schedule well enough and missing some great stuff — I have people like you and Lyra, etc., to report back for me!

  • Lyra says:

    Laura,
    If you remember, could you speak to the third one, “We have rules in our lives…”. I don’t quite get it.

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