Forays into Fiction III: Building Character is Hard Labour

“A Character who we care for acts to fulfil his desire with important consequences.”
—– Philip Gerard, Creative Nonfiction.

With this definition of a ‘Story’ in mind, I started a series of Fiction Writing workshops with Kalam’s regular group of youth on Sunday, April 22. Attendance was low (only 6 youth), but the group was focused and serious about writing in a new mode.

We started with a basic analysis of the line quoted above. It was once again understood that we needed to think up a character and give her/him a life if we have to write a good story. The group took a while to think of characters they could write about. They were feeling the pressure of the possible narrative, which is bound to happen to self-conscious writers: “Oh this character must have a terrific story to tell, or to act in… so it can’t just be any random person. He or she must stand out!” Whereas, what we really need think of is just any random person, without the self-evident promise of a thrilling narrative. That is the only way we can avoid falling into the trap of clichéd self-driven narratives. Once everyone had someone to write about in their minds, it was time for a detailed physical description. I stressed that these things may not form a part of the final story, but it is important to create a complete picture of the character in one’s mind. And it is important to write it down as well so that, if needed, the writer can paint a most perfectly detailed picture of the character for the reader. The fact that this was a new medium for the poets became evident when they read out their descriptions. Most were glaringly sparse in details. And some were too metaphoric, dwelling on how they eyes of a young girl smelled of matchsticks and monsoon clouds! But the group was receptive to criticism, and vowed to include the most excruciating details when they write. It was then time to describe action. As an exercise, they had to describe (in as much detail as possible) something really commonplace that their character does. The participants were now coming into form, getting to understand the medium of prose and how it works. This time the descriptions were richer, and some included interesting glimpses into the personality of the character. After all, it is important to slowly reach the inner core of the character, identify and understand the desires in her or him that will take the story further. This inner reality of the character will be explored in next day’s workshop, scheduled for May 13.

It was a challenging workshop for the participants. Some complained it was too much work, and required too much thinking. Some claimed that they were used to writing poems which did not demand such ‘boring’, ‘tedious’ details. One can really pick and choose to describe the most desirable things in a poem, and the poem still reads fine, because a poem is not necessarily about painting a clear and complete picture. The other complaint the participants had was that they were not writing about themselves. Their poems (especially those out of the Kalam workshops) are all about aspects of their own lives: they are more clear-cut works of self-expression. Where is the ‘self’ in the story if it is about another character? I said that the story is not about just any character, it is about a character ‘we care for’: ‘WE care for’. There is identification in that. There is sympathy. Besides, what the character chooses to do in the story will also depend on our choices. The character’s desires would, in some covert way, mirror our own desires. A story is, hence, a very potent vehicle of self-expression: it’s just that the self-expression is perhaps less obvious and more complex and layered. And that is precisely why writing a story is very hard labour. And the labour shall continue.

Posted by Bishan Samaddar

3 Responses to “Forays into Fiction III: Building Character is Hard Labour”


  1. 1 Sahar April 26, 2007 at 5:24 am

    Bishan,
    I think this is a wonderful step for Kalam. And I look forward to the fruits of this labor. I can just imagine the young writers and “uffs” on amount of “chinta” they have to engage in. But thats what happens even when we started writing our first poems, no?

    This is a new paradigm of thought for them to engage in, and I’m excited to see what untapped stories will flourish for them through this genre.

    Looking forward to hearing more,
    Sahar

  2. 2 Bishan April 27, 2007 at 4:07 am

    Hi Sahas:
    Yes, you’re right. I do remember the reluctance of the participants towards thinking and writing poetry in the beginning. But then, they espoused poetry with such happiness. I am hoping it would be the same with prose.
    Bishan.

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