Writing Exercise: Engineering Your Character by Khanh Ho
Welcome to new guest columnist Khanh Ho, associate English professor. In this article, he offers useful tools and techniques for creating stronger characters.
I know my boyfriend is downloading internet porn with our rent money. I’m afraid that my mother-in-law thinks I’m low class because she suspects her son is not the real father. How can I tell my best friend that she needs to pay her fair share when we go out?
Who hasn’t had a delicate question that burned to be asked? Who hasn’t been ashamed to do so? For many years, Dear Abby was at the center of American consciousness and she fielded all sorts of questions—from etiquette to morality to good taste—that baffled us in this modern American world that was constantly changing, morphing, evolving.
This exercise forces you to think of character and, through the back door, moves you into plot. It’s simple, really. All you need to do is think about a burning question that your character—major or minor—needs to ask. What embarrasses them? What causes their lives to feel empty—unfulfilled? What do they want revenge for? What are they too afraid to ask of their lovers, friends, family?
You got it? If you haven’t been thinking of these things, than you’re probably not thinking very deeply about your character. This exercise, then, is an exercise of engineering; it’s putting all the stuff into the character that will allow him to appear fully realized.
Now, here’s the kicker. Write a letter to Dear Abby. You know the form of the Dear Abby letter—short and sweet and direct—explaining the problem and seeking advice. Try to see if you can get the voice of the character in a missive that paradoxically is supposed to be cut and dry (i.e. boring) and also interesting. Kind of hard!
Here: I’ll give you an example. I’m writing a mystery novel about a guy who’s a deliveryman in the garment industry of LA. He’s kind of a loser—an alcoholic who graduated Columbia University—who has been paralyzed by his addiction, ever since his own sister was murdered five years previously. The novel opens up with the murder of a girl—a one night stand—who works in one of the design studios he makes deliveries to. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that there’s a serial killer out there, mutilating the beautiful young things who work in LA’s fashion industry. Now, Robert is compelled to find the killer in memory of the girl he once had sex with and the girl he loved and will never forget—his sister.
Ever since my sister died, I’ve been wanting to get revenge on the world and been taking it out on myself. I know that this is unhealthy. And this alcoholism thing has been damaging my liver but I can’t see my way out. Part of me says I should try to get into therapy but the other part says that I’m not really hurting anyone. Is it okay if I’m not hurting anyone?
Counting Empties in Los Angeles County
The final thing that you should realize about writing this small exercise is that engineering character also leads to engineering action. If you write this—it’s short so write it good!—you should begin to divine the main conflicts. You’ll also see the crisis. And you’re gonna get a front row seat for the major plot points. So, get your pen out and get ready to spill your guts.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Khanh Ho spent many years living in a small town in rural Iowa, teaching Creative Writing at Grinnell College—a small liberal arts college, nestled in a windswept prairie whose distinguishing feature is the presence of a Super Walmart. But then he had a light bulb epiphany: he’ll never produce writing if he persists in teaching it. So, now he is happily pounding away at the keyboard, knocking out not only his first mystery novel but, also, the first mystery novel featuring the first Vietnamese American detective. Why? Because, yes, he’ll be the first; yes, it’ll be a power trip; and yes, because he can! Follow him on his great adventure at www.losangelesmystery.com.