Virginia Woolf said that a writer can't write about the flaws of others until she is ready to acknowledge the worst things about herself. That is, of course, a difficult task. On one level or another, you will be implicated in your work, or you will be seen to be avoiding something, leaving something out. To write from the deepest, most vulnerable part of the self is a struggle that most of us try to avoid — by sharpening pencils, checking the mail, answering the phone, going to the gym; or, in the writing, going for the easy laugh, stopping at the second or third level of self-awareness, and not really digging in to what Robert Olen Butler calls the white hot center of the unconscious. Part of this avoidance has to do with its potential discomfort, part with what might be revealed (to others and ourselves), and part with the intrusions of everyday life and our obligations to them. Eventually the writer has to confront hard truths. The success of your writing will depend significantly on how skillfully, how readily you are able to access those deepest, most vulnerable parts. This exercise is designed to enable you to skip past the inner censor and access the depths of your characters — their truest nature, truest voice, deepest fears, and most guarded secrets. In so doing, you will probably engage some of your own personal demons. Imagine you are an interviewer on assignment. Your point-of-view character (or a secondary character) is your subject. Before beginning the interview proper, provide some backstory for the character. Write one paragraph of setting (Where does the interview take place? I recommend setting it where your character lives, “now” or at the time of the story), one paragraph concerning conditions (What day is it? What is the weather like during the interview? Does the act of storytelling with data really add value?
What is around: pets, liquor bottles, etc? What is the subject wearing?), and one brief paragraph highlighting significant events or accomplishments in the character's life. Keep each paragraph short (five lines maximum). Then begin the interview with a series of questions designed to help your character relax, to trust you. Where do you live? Work? Where do you see yourself in five years? You ask the questions, the character answers. And in the answers, you'll hear your character speak. As the interview proceeds, make the questions increasingly tough: For you, what defines love? Is there anything your creator doesn't know about you? Is there a secret you're keeping from him? Is he preventing you from revealing that secret in the story? Is he being fair to you? If you could tell the story, what would be different? Take a look at the small-press publication The Paris Review. Find the “Craft of Fiction”/“Writers at Work” interview and study the format. Then use that format for the interview you conduct with your character. Besides helping you get to know your character better, to learn his secrets and his fears (and to confront, perhaps, some of your own), the interview exercise also enables you to step out of the anxiety of the perfect scene, the perfect sentence, and to allow your character to speak in his own voice — and for you to hear it. Students often tell me that this exercise unlocked the story for them. Give it at least thirty minutes, although you'll probably find that thirty minutes is nowhere near enough. The writer of Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Allan Gurganus, was troubled by a tic of speech the novel's narrator had, but he continued writing until he had about two hundred pages. Would storytelling in business be a likely mechanism for your company?
The narrator is a privileged woman from the antebellum South who, in the writing, uses the grammatically incorrect word ain't. Gurganus thought that it was odd for a woman of her position, and from that time, to use the word ain't, and when the habit bothered him enough, he stopped writing the book, took out a legal pad, and across the top page wrote the heading Why I Say Ain't. His answer — actually, her answer — became the 120-page section of the novel called “Why I Say Ain't.” Your interview is similar in intent to Gurganus's exercise. (This is not to say you'll wind up with 120 pages of useful fiction, but you might.) Your goal in characterization is not only to create a multidimensional character, but a believable one. How? The answer, once again, is Flannery O'Connor's assertion that you can do whatever you can get away with, but that you'll probably find you can't get away with very much. On the other hand, you might be surprised at what you can get away with. For instance, you might not think you could get away with a small-time boxing coach who reads Nietzsche, but with some readers, Thom Jones did (see The Pugilist at Rest). You might not think you could get away with an unbathed, rum-sodden alcoholic having a wild carnal affair with a vivacious young career woman, but with some readers, Frederick Exley did (see A Fan's Notes). Getting away with it means the reader stays with the story or the book without tossing it across the room or using it to level the kitchen table. It means that the character you've drawn is convincing enough for the reader to accept the character's actions as convincing, even inevitable, at the same time that they're surprising. Does storytelling for business really work?