Tuesday, June 12, 2012

WHAT? Writers Must Be 3 Amigos At Once?


I'm reading "Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint" by Nancy Kress, and I'm lovin' it. Will it become my new obsession, like Plot & Structure? Time will tell! But I'll be sharing some of the cool tidbits from this book.

Nancy Kress points out that the most important aspect of creating great characters, even more important than craft, is that "...you must learn to be three people at once: writer, character, and reader."

Hmmm. Sounds intimidating at first, but the more I think about it, the more it makes sense. I've done a bit of this naturally, but it was great to be reminded of why we need to switch sombreros.

(1) Writer

Obvious, right? We're thinking about pacing, word choice, mood, and dialogue. We're referring to our plot notes (if you're a plotter) or capturing ideas as they come to you (if you're a pantser). We want to be sure our spelling and grammar are correct.

We might even be thinking ahead to markets, and what our agent or editor will think of our story. This is our Writer sombrero, and it's totally important that we wear it. Cuz you know, otherwise stuff won't get written.

(2) Character

Here's where we step into our character's skin. We draw from past experiences so we can add depth and authenticity. Like, when our character is embarrassed, and we remember our most shameful moment, and our neck burns. We're inside our character's head and imagining what she'd say.

Even with our villains, there's that little evil side of ourselves who comes out to play when we're setting up failure for our MC. Happiness, frustration, shame, fear...we've experienced these emotions ourselves, and we empathize, and hopefully succeed in transferring emotions to the page.

During these moments, we are the character. This is our Character sombrero, and it's important that we wear this one, too. It makes our characters real.

(3) Reader

Ahh, this is where we step back and view our work as an outsider would. The reader doesn't know all the details we've worked out in our heads. She doesn't know that we've drawn upon real experiences to add authenticity. She isn't aware of the steps we've taken to foreshadow future events. She doesn't even care. All she cares about is what's on the page.


Kress points this out in her book, and it was a lightbulb moment for me. It doesn't matter if I think my character is the most lovable person in the world, and that everyone should root for her. If I didn't build that up properly, it's my bad. But if we step back and read like a reader, and not the writer who already knows every intimate detail of the story, we make progress. This is our Reader sombrero, and as avid readers ourselves, we can relate to how important this step is.

Are you worried about switching sombreros and remembering to do it all? Me too. But Kress reminds us: "Your ability to inhabit all three mind-sets grows with practice. Experienced writers do this without ever thinking about it. Even beginners do it part of the time."


And why go through all this trouble? Kress says: "...by focusing on character, by making craft choices that build character, by becoming that character, and then by ensuring that all your choices and emotion actually have been translated to the page--by doing all that, you give readers what they want."


And that's what it's all about, right?

Have you ever heard of the three mind-set? Do you do this naturally, or do you force yourself to stop and switch sombreros? I'd love to hear how about your process.


photo credit

27 comments:

  1. Never thought of it that way, but it's true. I think I find character the most difficult though.

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  2. I never thought of the three mind-set, but I can see it clearly now. (light bulb!!) Great post. Thanks for sharing.

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  3. Wow, what an amazing post, Julie. When I read, "...you must learn to be three people at once: writer, character, and reader,"
    I could have stopped right there because I was completely blown away (or had a light bulb moment as Loree said).

    But, yes, that is what makes writing so hard...having to play three roles at once.

    Thanks for the post. :)

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  4. I love the way the three sombreros are teased out in your post. I always wear my character sombrero in a first draft. Through subsequent revisions I am continually rotating hats.

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  5. Great stuff...you're right that most of us probably already do this to some extent, but it's good to have the image of the "hats" to remind us.

    Also, I find reading my stuff out loud helps with flow, yes, but also helps me put on the "reader" hat a little more effectively.

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  6. This post is a great light-bulb moment for me, as well. I think I do a fairly good job of thinking as my character, at least I try to. Reading as a reader who doesn't know all the ins and outs in my head -- that's a step I need to work on. Thanks, Julie!

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  7. Great post, I will be checking out this book.

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  8. That's really cool! I hadn't thought about it that way before, but it's so true. I think I'm at the point now where I use all three sombreros pretty regularly, though some take precedence at times. (For example, when plotting, when sketching out a scene, when playing with dialogue, when revising.)

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  9. I hadn't thought of it that way before either - very cool. I'm still working at wearing that reader sombrero more confidently - but I'm working at it!

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  10. OOOH, I thought you meant US when I saw the three amigos. LOL! Just kidding! I like this theory. But I also think it's kind of instinctive for the most part. Very non-commital of me isn't it?

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  11. I think it totally makes sense & I believe I do it naturally, though the reader hat is likely the most difficult to wear since, as the writer, I am extraordinarily close to my characters.

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  12. I'd never heard of this, but the way you've explained it is extremely helpful. I sometimes over- or under-explain character motivation, and with mysteries I'm never sure if I've provided too many clues or not enough for the reader, so clearly I need more practice wearing my reader hat! Something good to think about.

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  13. I'll tell you why I love this...because it's something I already do and I didn't even realize I was doing something right! Yay for stumbling into good habits without trying. Love it when that happens! Mostly because it rarely does and I'm doing other things wrong. You always have the best info, Julie. This is why you are one of my must-read blogs:) ((hugs))

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  14. Guys, thanks so much for adding your two cents. I tell ya, it's nice to be reminded of these little writing techniques. I'll be thinking about this much more in the future!

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  15. I may really have to go out and by three different sombreros now. Honestly. :)

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  16. That is interesting thought. I'm the writer as I outline and plot. I'm more into character as I write. Then as I story edit, I'm the reader. I find all the holes and the "buts..." Then I convert back to the writer for the grammar and punctuation... etc.

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  17. I definitely need to focus on point 3 (reader). I sometimes forget to take a step back and look at my ms from another person's point of view.

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  18. I think reader is the hardest part. It's so hard for me to be objective about my own work.

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  19. I think being a reader is hard for all of us writers. It's hard to put aside our work and see it for what it is, but it's an important hat to wear.

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  20. Great info. Thanks for sharing this.

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  21. Thanks, guys. I'm practicing right now with my reader sombrero. Hopefully it'll help!

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  22. Great post on the three mind sets... it's easy to forget about all of them sometimes...

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  23. I loved that movie! :) Cracks me up.

    And I really liked Characters, viewpoint and Emotion too. I haven't read it in a few years but probably should again!

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  24. A great way to enter into the writing process. I'm still into Plot and Structure that you so generously gifted me with. It has so much to offer writers.

    Thanks for this post, Julie.

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  25. A wonderful post! Never watched that movie, but I do love the 3 mind set approach to writing!
    Nutschell
    www.thewritingnut.com

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  26. Great advice. I find it hardest to read my own work as a reader.

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