The outer limits of inner lifeBringing Characters to Life by Looking WithinDavid Corbett, Instructor
The Examined Life: “Everything I learned about human nature I learned from me.” --Anton Chekhov
The Examined Life Re-Imagined “Write what you don’t know about what you know.” --Eudora Welty
Writers possess only four tools: • Research • Experience • Empathy • Imagination Fortunately, whole worlds can be built from them. Simply ask: What if …?
Goal: Expand our powers of “personalization:” Using our own experience to expand our empathy so we can build an intuitive bond with the character.
Intuition We need an understanding that’s INTUITIVE: • expresses itself in vivid, affecting imagery • builds a sense of a psychic bond • forms an imaginative and emotional link between our own inner life and the inner life of the character.
IMPORTANT: Personal experience is necessary but not sufficient. Research and imagination help form a bridge between our world and the story world.
HOWEVER: We shouldn’t—and frankly, can’t—leave behind our own emotional life when we explore the unfamiliar.
Empathy and Experience Experience and empathy reinforce each other. Experience permits our understanding of ourselves to enhance our understanding of others. Empathy permits our engagement with others to deepen our self-understanding.
The Examined Life, Redux A deeper understanding of our own experience serves three key purposes: • It helps form an intuitive bond with the character. • It provides us with the one genuinely unique element we can bring to our stories. • It mitigates the tendency to be writerly instead of open and honest.
Exploring Emotionally compelling moments In the exploration of emotionally significant moments that follows, don’t suffer over the superlatives—“greatest,” “most,” et cetera. Allow the moments that suggest themselves to emerge fully, whether there is one or several—or dozens.
Exploring Emotionally compelling moments Explore these moments honestly and without judgment. Be specific, down to what you were wearing, what everyone else was wearing, where you were, what time of day. The devil, as they say, is in the details, except in this instance the devil is your friend.
Exploring Emotionally compelling moments The most important emotional incidents to explore in a character’s life, and therefore your own, are moments of helplessness. Why? They expose us.
EXploring emotionally compelling moments The mask of the ego drops, if only for an instant. Stripped of any pretense of control or power, we’re forced to confront a side of ourselves we routinely avoid or actively keep hidden.
EXploring emotionally compelling moments How we handle that helplessness: • How profoundly we’re undone. • How quickly we regain our composure. • Whether we run or fight or bargain our way back to normal. Says more about us than we often care to admit.
Exploring Emotionally compelling moments What are the most useful moments of helpless to explore?
Desire Motivates the pursuit of the outer objective in the story: save the miners, find the killer, find the antidote, marry the beloved, etc. Desire: Puts the character in motion. Places the character in conflict.
Yearning The deeper unresolved craving which, left unfulfilled, renders the character’s life meaningless. (Usually, as the story begins, the character is unaware of his true yearning.) Yearning defines the stakes.
The relationship betweendesire & yearning The conflict encountered in pursuing the desire awakens the character to his yearning. Otherwise, after so much struggle and failure, the character might simply say: Why go on? It’s recognition of the yearning – the realization that, if it remains unfulfilled, life will feel squandered, misbegotten, or empty – that motivates the character to continue in his quest despite the odds.
Personal Yearning In a previous Write Brain, Page Lambert noted that to understand the character’s yearning, you have to understand your own yearning in wanting to write the story.
Personal Yearning I’d take that one step further: What is the fundamental yearning in your life? What makes your life meaningful? Is your yearning unfulfilled? Why?
Yearning as symbol Sometimes it’s difficult if not impossible to put a single word to your yearning. Sometimes it’s better to imagine it imagistically or symbolically: Picture the world, way of life, or state of grace that you believe would fulfill you.
Personal desire Identify a goal you pursued with particular intensity: • finishing your novel • getting your degree • courting your loved one • getting revenge against an enemy • buying your first home. How did the pursuit of that desire reflect the yearning you just identified?
death • First experience with death. • Most shattering experience with death. • Most recent experience with death. • Most devastating loss other than death.