Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Letting Your Characters Have Their Say

This is the last post in our series on journaling. The series was inspired by my interview with Karen Romano Young, author of Doodlebug: A Novel in Doodles--a book about a girl who combines doodling and writing together in her journal. The novel is, in essence, one character's journal.

Like Mary Ann, I've kept journals and diaries since I was a girl. However, it wasn't until graduate school that I stumbled on the idea of keeping a journal from a character's point of view. While working on the first draft of my novel, Rosa, Sola, I was also reading Finding Your Writer's Voice by Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall. I decided to try completing the writing exercises in the book from Rosa's point of view. I hoped the process would help me find Rosa's voice, and it did.
Rosa's Journal

Later, when I decided the novel would work better with a third-person-limited viewpoint, "Rosa's journal" became an important tool for keeping close to my character. Whenever the writing became distant, I would take out the journal and turn to a fresh page. At the top, I would write a question for Rosa. Here are a few examples:
  • Rosa, how did you feel the first time you saw AnnaMaria's baby brother?
  • Rosa, do you believe your father loves you?
  • Rosa, what do you really want?
After writing the question, I shut my eyes and imagined what it must have felt like to be Rosa, a ten-year-old only child of Italian immigrants living on the north side of Chicago in the 1960s. I opened my eyes and pretended I was Rosa as I wrote a first-person answer to the question at the top of the page.

I learned a great deal about Rosa via her journal. To my surprise, I was also able to use it to solve plot problems. For example, when I was stuck in a scene, I'd turn to the journal and ask Rosa, "What happened next?" To my amazement, she answered!  

I was in the midst of revising the novel when I was reading another craft book: Judy Reeves' A Writer's Book of Days, which includes, among other things, a writing prompt for every day of the year. One of the prompts was: "She doesn't know . . . " At the time, I was having problems with the character of Rosa's father. So I decided to use the journal to let Rosa's father respond to the prompt. That's when I discovered that Rosa didn't know the motives behind her father's behavior. She also didn't know that, despite his actions, he really did love her. The insights from that journal entry helped me make him a more rounded, and more sympathetic, character.

Writing Workout

Create a journal where your characters can have their say.
  • I prefer using a paper journal that I write in with a pen. Something about physically pushing the pen across the page allows me to connect with my characters in a different way than typing on a keyboard.
  • The journal doesn't have to be expensive. It can be a simple spiral notebook or composition book. (These are on sale now for back-to-school!) 
  • I also like personalizing the journal's cover. I typically paste a photograph that represents something important to the character, or that is an image of the character herself. 
  • Use the journal to ask your character questions: What are her likes/dislikes? What is his biggest problem or fear? What does she REALLY want? and/or
  • Let your characters respond to writing prompts from their points of view. You can do this for both your main character and important secondary characters. (See the Blogosphere Buzz below for more on finding writing prompts.) 
Blogosphere Buzz
Happy writing!


Karen Romano Young said...

Great post, Carmela! I love any novel written in this way, and memoirs, too. As a kid I used to go through the library looking for books whose "chapters" were actually days. Writing a journal for a character is a terrific writing exercise. The very idea has me reaching for my pen.

Sallie Wolf said...

I too enjoyed this post, which I linked to through Facebook. Thanks for posting about it. I'm terrible about following (and writing) blogs, but this entry is definitely worth a visit. Now to find the Doodlebug book. Also Finding Your writer's Voice.

Thanks, Carmela

Carmela Martino said...

Thanks, Ladies. Enjoy your journaling!