Okay, writers! Here's a short video with a few tips on character creation.
Rodney was at a time so odious that an agent told me to rewrite him to be "more likable." And that's what I did. Because I agreed - I needed to show his humanity, his redeeming qualities. Because that is the truth of life; everyone has likable characteristics, even if you have to dig deeply to find them. Spend enough time with a person, and you will find ways to empathize, sympathize, and understand them. This is the complication of writing a dislikable character. Hatred happens when we refuse to see someone for their entire selves; we fear that if we see more than the qualities we hate, we will become them or worse, allow them to enter our hearts. Rodney is ignorant, and despite the fact that he is disconnected from the culture he is in, he feels entitled to changing it, questioning it, taking from it, romping through it for the sake of "experience". His journey in Without Shame is one where he meets contradictions and challenges to his complacent worldview. He comes from a background of racial, ethnic, and economic privilege, and this is something that has shaped his optimism, ideas of how to prosper, and confidence in those 1960s American ideals. At the start of the novel, he does not possess enough knowledge or wisdom to recognize what ignorance looks like, but readers will. I've tossed a ball high in the air for readers, and we will see where it lands. I do not make definitive conclusions. I do not state what my personal beliefs are. I created Rodney and other characters to reflect viewpoints and actions that I've observed from Westerners. "Play where it lies."
Sajib is an amalgam of the best teachers I've admired in my life: true to himself, deft with words, passionately committed to personal values and beliefs, rooted in personal understanding of life's purpose and meaning. Not exclusively "eastern," these are traits I admire in others and strive to possess; they are my vision of what a teacher and committed political activist should be, and that is why they belong to Sajib. While he is a teacher, he is not the quintessential "wise man"; he has flaws and discontent, as all characters should. He is clouded by his passion at times, to the point where he cannot see what his niece Sariyah needs and he speaks as if he is the only voice. He has been broken down and forced to rebuild many times. He speaks as if he doesn't have cares, but when his guard is down, it shows he is deeply restless and disconcerted by the position of his country.
For the longest while, I viewed time as a ball of dough -- if I needed more, I believed it would rise for me, make more room for all the things I want, need to do, all the people I wish to say yes to. Now that I have drowned in all my yes's and I can's and I will's, that dough has baked to one round loaf that needs to be divvied up with sound discretion. When I do this, I have no moments of rest or time to slow my mind and reflect. It's exhausting and tormenting, because I want to give all that I am to everything I care about and commit to. Work, volunteering, maintaining the important relationships in my life, taking care of myself, following through, writing that thank-you note, calling that insurance company, setting up that doctor appointment, and on and on and on.
I think it boils down to one thing: I want to make a positive imprint on this world and quickly, since once you see death so closely you realize it never forgets about us, and if I slow down long enough, I will begin to question what that all means.
I am struggling with the self-promotion part of being an author. There are so many voices in this world, so many fascinating perspectives and important issues to consider, so I'm usually playing the role of listener. Aren't writers supposed to help make sense of all those voices, rather than compete with them? I continuously feel pressed to make up my mind about myriad topics, vast and myopic, based on information I take in all day long -- is it unethical to buy quinoa from certain distributors? What information do I need to form a stance on fracking, and whose stats can I trust? Should I take my friend seriously when he proclaims to be a men's rights activist? Should I read that David Sedaris book on my desk first or On Human Nature - which will benefit me more as a person and writer? More info on Syria, click. An op-ed on machoism in the movie industry, click. An analysis of gun violence in the U.S., click. An inspirational piece about a man who tried to helicopter around the Arctic Circle, click. "10 Ways to Reduce and ReUse," click. Sign our petition to end solitary confinement of pregnant inmates!, click.
With so many voices, I find I am increasingly distracted. Writing is an act of centering myself, of returning to my own voice and locating my perspective in the midst of everyone else's. Publishing is an act of promoting this expression, which is where I have found some discomfort. There is a constant debate of whether we have raised or lowered the bar for all writers by making publishing so accessible; on one hand, the competition is fiercer and one would hope that the best will rise to the top naturally (a capitalistic view?), but on the other hand, it offers a soap box for ideas not fully formulated, for more noise to block out what we all need to hear. Writing should be a modest endeavor, but publishing is inherently not, no matter how much you believe in what you are saying. That is why I am always on edge about posting blog posts and participating in Twitter and Facebook, i.e. Writer Promotion 101. Am I adding to the noise? Am I saying what has already been said? Will people benefit from what I say? While I'm chattering, what am I missing?
Writers always have to balance this desire to listen but also be heard. We might wrestle with this sense of perfectionism in what we put out there, as well as a yearning for quietude against a need to stay relevant by weighing in.
The question is, When do you weigh in? At what point have you gathered enough information where you have a place to publish on a given topic? And at what point do you know that what you are saying hasn't already been said in some way? I think the answer is we must create our own space wisely; we must accept that we can only write to the extent that we understand, and that has limits. I think as long as I write as honestly as possible and to the best of my ability at that moment, I can be proud of what it is and accept wherever it may end up - or if it will not be read at all.
Such a philosophy can be problematic. Squeaky wheel gets the oil, right? I am learning how to strike a balance between maintaining quality in what I put out there and committing hefty time to "catching a break" by being a louder voice in the crowd. This involves breaking out of my comfort zone and talking about my writing more through different outlets. It also involves trying to making myself recognizable to readers who are looking for something specific.
It is good for every writer to find a niche. Stephen King fans know where to turn when they're craving horror or supernatural fiction. He has perfected his focus area to a degree, and that is how he markets so well. When I read big authors like Barbara Kingsolver, Chimamanda Adichie, Junot Diaz, Cara Black, or Margaret Atwood, I know pretty much what I am getting because their style and genre are consistent. This type of recognition and branding makes their voice louder.
At the same time, I don't want to be pigeonholed. I've written all over the place and don't feel like I want to settle just yet; I want to keep digging for new methods of expression so that maybe what I put out there will be different and newer than whatever else is available at that moment, without being avant garde. I want to keep learning, deciding, changing. I guess self-promotion makes it feel as though I've settled on that marketable voice, or that I am speaking out of turn when I would rather just focus on the craft. Gradually, I'm working through the crowd.
You have an idea, maybe even an outline, maybe even the first few chapters, but that initial enthusiasm for writing your novel has worn off. Hear from author Katherine Russell on how to develop a mindset that will get you to the finish line.
Katherine Russell is an author, poet, activist, and freelancer from Buffalo, NY.