Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pen Pals, A Door to Characterization

Step outside the box to stimulate story ideas.

The advent of electronic media (email) has drastically decreased original letter writing in content and frequency. Techonology has contributed to the demise of this form of art, but this need not be so. I suggest you hone your writing skills by developing pen pal relationships.

There are several benefits to this exercise. It helps to develop characterization in many ways. For example, when communicating with someone you don't know, you are compelled to ask leading questions leading to characterization and vicarious experiences. For example, I write to several inmates (using my p.o. box address, of course). I find it interesting to discover a new world of people with a variety of different experiences. These are people I would not likely meet in my world, however, there is a tremendous mutual benefit involved. Many inmates are lonely and communicative.

I chose to write to first time offenders who were convicted for petty theft because - at the time I began - I was working on a story about a group of thieves. I honestly shared my research interest as to not take advantage of them. Obviously, I do not use their names and personal information in my writing, however, I do capitalize on their experiences. Consequently, I also correspond with their counselors which opens up a brand new window of creative opportunities. For example, a good corrections counselor became an invaluable resource to me in terms of providing background to the frame of mind of people who commit particular types of crimes. This relationship further helped me to create a profile realistic to particular criminal behavior dynamics. For example, a thief must first judge its prospective victim, criticize the victim and find fault before s/he can move forward with a plan to steal.

Here is one way a writer might develop psychological characterization of a thief, taken from a story I am writing:

He felt the lady totally ignored him. He walked by her in the grocery store. He spoke to her, twice. You'd think she would have the decency to nod her head, half-smile or in some way acknowledge him. She did not. That's why he made his play; after all, he knew where she lived. He had a plan for her.

Notice how this passive creates suspense and characterization in a single paragraph. You'll need to step outside of yourself to effectuate the psychological profile. In other words, you do not want to think like normal, law abiding citizens. Get inside the character's head. Great writers like James Patterson, Thurber, and Dickinson are masters of this technique. Read them. They tend to pull us so deeply inside the character's thoughts that it becomes frightening.

I will add more examples and ideas in future post. Until then, write.

Creating Unforgetable Characters (Essential Writing Skills)