Creating Character Depth Through Confounding

The other day, I had lunch with a colleague, and he described an idea. He wanted to write a book with his wife, but with a fun twist. He would write one chapter, his wife would write the next, and so on, back and forth. Neither would get to see what the other wrote until it was his/her turn to take over the book.

Beautiful sugar skull woman illustration. Day of dead vector illustration.That got us talking about the genre of the progressive novel. If you haven’t heard of things like round robin writing and the exquisite corpse (see left for what I picture when I say that), well, they’re essentially vehicles for people to collaborate on a story or work of art.

Check them out. They’re fun, and as I’m seeing, they can be useful projects to use as inspiration in solo writing later. But first, creative writing class.

Confound It!

Our lunch conversation led to me remember one of my creative writing workshops. This one was called “Confound It!” or something like that. I might just be making that up. Whatever. If I am, I’m doing a good job because it sounds cool.

It was a collaborative writing exercise in which everyone would write a paragraph, pair up with someone, and switch papers. You would read your partner’s paragraph and write their next one. Except you weren’t supposed to be nice. Your goal was to confound your partner. You were to give them a paragraph that utterly changed the course of what they were writing and forced them to try to recover from whatever disasters you created.

So in “Confound It!,” paragraph one goes like this:

A young man sits and has a heart-to-heart with his estranged, dying father. They hash out old demons from the young man’s childhood. The son finally had the courage to tell his father he had felt abandoned by the old man his whole life.

Paragraph two goes like this:

Not far from the hospital, the abominable snowman, like the young man, was tired of a lifetime of rejection. So, using methods not described in this paragraph, he procured a cache of enriched uranium, and now we’re in the midst of a nuclear winter only he–and for some unspecified scientific reason, also flamingos–could survive.

Paragraph three goes like this:

Dude, come on.

Or maybe it goes like this:

Even the flamingos rejected the abominable snowman, and he learned that extracting revenge through violence was never going to fix the pain he felt inside. The young man at least died, albeit in a mushroom cloud, with a clear conscious after attempting to reconcile through conversation.

This is also kind of the plot of Frankenstein. See, I’m not a very good creative writer even when I’m plagiarizing.

But Confounding Yourself…

The last few Pulitzer-journey books that have graced my bedside table have reminded me of this exercise. These authors’ technique isn’t collaborative in nature, though. Thier goal seems to be to confound themselves. They carefully set up character development in one chapter and then completely undo their work in the next. But this isn’t bad writing. Or rather, it’s bad writing like a fox. (I’m not very good with simile, either.)

The first book that reveals this technique is Olive Kitteridge. In chapter one, we see a harpy wife nagging her sweet, mild mannered husband, berating him in front of guests and drowning him in a sea of “I cook for you, I clean for you, and what thanks do I get?” Olive is extremely unlikeable in this chapter. But in the very next chapter, author Strout undoes all that hard character work–or rather, she complicates it. Olive is a strong woman who knows exactly when people are in trouble. There’s a man in a truck who’s contemplating suicide, and Olive sees him and invites herself into the car. Even though he’s largely silent, she perceives what’s going on. What’s more, she deals with it in just the right way. She’s solemn and strong and doesn’t sugarcoat things. There are few words exchanged, but her curt observations about the world and his family were exactly what he needed to hear to feel less alone. We see that Olive has a soul, and it’s a soul capable of reaching out to others in a deep way. We can also sense that Olive has scars herself.

The author keeps this up. Olive vacillates between being awful and understandable and human and cruel, depending on the chapter. And, the way Strout does it, you don’t feel like it’s that the character isn’t well formed. As I said in my overview on the book, it seems like she’s known every character in the book for years.*

I’m reading the 2008 winner now, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s happening here, too. Oscar and Lola’s mother, Beli, is pure evil in the second chapter. She’s abusive and manipulative in ways that turn your stomach. And when Lola understands she’ll never be perfect enough to make her mother’s abuse stop–and, besides, she doesn’t have the energy to try–the house gets dangerously hostile. Lola has to run. Junot Diaz, the author, has clearly made this character the villain of the book.

Just kidding! He doubles back on chapter two’s character work in the very next chapter. There, we meet Beli as a child, and we understand that she’s a broken little orphan, shattered by the world and with the same impulses we saw in her daughter in chapter two–the need to run. In fact, the author uses the unusual technique of calling her “our” Beli, burdening the reader with responsibility for who she becomes, forcing kinship with her in an insidious way.

When I think of what the authors are doing here, it could very easily backfire. The characters could appear inconsistent, confusing, ungraspable. But when handled right, this act of confounding themselves helps authors use each twist to turn the screw deeper into the wall, anchoring the character as an individual with complexities that reflect real humans. It’s a fascinating technique.

 

*Guys. Guys. I thought of the best pickup line for Elizabeth Strout. I forgot to put it in my overview post.

Setting: Bar
Me: Hey girl. Are you Zeus, because your characters spring from your head fully formed
Strout: ~Asks bartender for the check, excuses herself~

I’m not good at pickup lines, either.

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