I spent the last few months as an adjunct professor in Fresno State’s MFA program–teaching a graduate fiction workshop and meeting the next generation of emerging writers. It’s been an edifying experience on many dimensions. But first, I had to go in with my own pedagogy as it pertains to successful workshop.
For the most part, my approach centered around being craft-focused.
Successful content is based on craft execution. What you want to write is up to you–whether you pick something difficult/ challenging/
seriously fucked up/ controversial (e.g., writing outside your own race) or something familiar, you better make that content sing. So we focused on craft in workshop. For instance, characters.
The character you never want in your real life is the best kind of character to have in your stories. Not everyone can be a good guy. Not everyone can be intelligent or make kind choices. Your bad neighbor is essential to your story.
Character is something strong and original and deep in a person’s nature. Generosity is revered in workshop. As is kindness. As is honesty. How do you tell someone they have a booger in their nose? Do you even tell someone? Which is the more generous, kind, and honest approach? There is a difference between pointing and laughing at a booger versus telling them hey, you have a booger versus saying man people with boogers have hygiene problems–by the way you have a booger versus not saying anything at all, thus allowing that person to continue to navigate the world with a booger hanging out of their nose.
The best of course, is to also hand the person a facial tissue. Help out.
Yes. Character is important in workshop. Characters are important in writing. Character and characters can and should be developed.
Character can be a letter or symbol. You can name them whatever you want. They can symbolize so much. We all do.
There is a cast of characters in my novel. Each has a story. Each achieves something in the narrative. Have purpose. Come to workshop with purpose.
Cast also means to throw with force. The cast of characters are cast into a traumatic world. I put them there. And then they keep themselves there, and then they each, one by one, climb out. And as writers, we must not keep them in their cast–the characters at some point come to life, and we must listen to their needs and desires. We cannot be tyrants. What is it they want? What prevents them from that desire?
When my daughter was a toddler, she did not remember the name of the movie she watched, but did remember its characters. Frozen became “Elsa,” and How To Train Your Dragon became “Hiccup and Toothless” and Finding Nemo is simply “Nemo.” And Madagascar is “Move it Move it”–that’s a craft lesson of a different kind, focused on themes. Themes are also important, but that is not what I’m addressing here.
If you want someone to read 200 pages of your writing, your characters must be memorable, must be endearing. Why else would we read all seven of the Harry Potter books? We want to know what happens to Neville and Hermione and Ron and Harry and Sirius and Luna and even Snape. Especially Snape. Remember–the character you never want in your real life, is what you want in your stories. That person is Snape.
Furthermore, your character must be strong. The voice of your story is also what keeps your reader enthralled. Listen to your characters. And so will your readers.