Friday, January 29, 2010

Quite a Character: Making Them Memorable

Here's the latest in a series of dialogues between writers — this time with short story writer and novelist Connie Keller of A Merry Heart.

CK: Something in your postcard sparked thoughts about place/setting. I've read to treat place as a character. I understand what's meant by that, but I wasn't sure how to translate it to the page for a murder mystery without slowing the pace. And, of course, I want those place/setting phrases to serve a double function within the novel to create layering.

Then it occurred to me that one way to create place and develop character is to use the different responses of the characters to place so as to define it and create contrast between characters. For example, my main character, who's new to the South, finds it confining and claustrophobic. Another character finds the heat empowering—it fuels her.

AA: You can show the response of two characters to where they live through an occasion where they are naturally together, and through dialogue and scene show how they react to where they are and each other. One obvious way to deal with setting is weather, but there are lots of nuances to southern living, especially for a transplant. Even more interesting is the prospect of a role reversal, if it's organic, where the transplant finds the weather empowering (sick of the cold) and the native finds it a downer (looking for change). The same could occur with other aspects of southern living. The transplant thinks everybody's cordial; the native finds them superficial.

CK: Yes, I think if we really want to show place as a character and still develop our characters that's the way to go. Then place becomes as contradictory and complex as a character. And we can use it to show growth and change in characters as their relationships change. I did a bit of this in the novel (in a subtle way), and I'm really excited to do more and be a bit bolder about it.

As I was thinking about editing this novel and working on the sense of place, I read something by Flannery O'Connor. She has very little pure "place" writing. There are a few "red clay soil" phrases, but not many. Mostly, she establishes a sense of place by character attitudes and writing Southern idiom, which I wouldn't attempt. But there are other techniques, like characterization, I can use to create place. Or even through action and plot. For example, what would a Southerner do/say when a "bad guy" is murdered? That gives me an opportunity to combine plot/dialogue/place (even characterization) all in one sentence.

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