Tuesday, July 14, 2009

In Praise of Bad Decisions

or, "The Taming of the Shrewd"

We all know them: good people, friends even, who seem hell-bent on living their lives from one train wreck to another. We look at the choices they make and shake our heads in disbelief, wondering Is it just the writer in me that sees this for the tragedy it really is?

I find it fascinating that some people willingly choose to put themselves in real-life situations that I would hesitate to inflict upon my characters. And every time I wonder why on earth a real person committed to some clearly ill-advised course of action, I realize that I do the characters that exist only in my imagination no favors if I allow them to lead stable, comfortable lives.

This thought struck me last night as I re-watched "The Taming of the Shrew," one of four solidly interesting re-imaginings of the Shakespearean cannon in the BBC's Shakespeare Retold. In real life, I tend to wish more people would make shrewd, solid, logical decisions that would enrich their lives and enhance their stability. However, in my reading and movie-watching, I prefer Those Who Choose Badly. They make far better entertainment.

Now, I am not suggesting for a moment that a writer should look to befriend the sorriest people imaginable in order to shamelessly plagiarize and then publicize their unfortunate decision-making. I am, however, advocating, taking a hard look at characters and imbuing them with complicated, complex, and -- at times -- downright contrary motivations.

Tonight, the Novel Writing Practicum is going to focus on Character Development. Participants are to bring a chapter or segment of writing no more than 10 pages long, and we will workshop it with regards to the characters involved.

Some of the questions I encourage my students to ask when analyzing a character include:

• What drives this character? How is it evidenced?
• What distinguishes this character from everyone else?
• What makes this character interesting? How can this be improved?
• What makes this character worthwhile? How can this be strengthened?
• What makes this character complex? How can this be made more interesting?
• What are this character’s flaws? How can they pose even more challenges?
• How can the character be more proactive?
• What is this character’s passion? How can this be better focused?
• Why does the character behave this way?

I then suggest a list of questions to apply to the character in action in a particular sequence, scene, or chapter. One of them is:

What else could happen here that would take this character further out of his or her comfort zone and make things even more interesting?

I have to admit, though I hate it when the real people that I love and care about make deplorable decisions, it's kind of fun to play God and see what sorts of situations I can inflict upon those who are at the whim of my words...