Today’s article is written by regular contributor Susan Bearman.
There are two kinds of people in the world, and I have been all of them. Infantile and wise. Majestic and wretched. Crestfallen and elated. Gracious and a horse’s ass. I have been these people and many, many more.
As a writer, this duplicity or plurality of being is important on many levels. For me personally, it’s the name of my blog—Two Kinds of People (or 2KoP). I find that it’s a perfect vantage point from which to explore a whole variety of subjects in my writing—a sort of literary springboard.
I’m a self-admitted public radio (NPR) junkie, and two recent interviews have generated some writerly “ah-ha” moments that have made me understand that my interest in “Two Kinds of People” has something to offer all writers.
George Saunders, author of the skyrocketing short-story collection Tenth of December, began his recent book tour in Chicago, my home and the home of his youth. In an interview on our local NPR station, one of the things he talked about was how to navigate stories without sounding clichéd or preachy.
It’s All About Revision
Revision was Saunders self-admitted “boring” answer.
“The first draft will often be incredibly preachy,” he said. “The process of not preaching, interestingly, involves being more truthful… The way you do it is by line-to-line adjustments. You look at your own heart and say ‘have I ever been that woman?’ and the answer is always ‘yes.’ You have always been everybody. So then you sit in her head for a while and try to be as honest and kind of friendly to her as you can, and then you run around the table and inhabit the other woman and do the same trick.”
You have always been everybody. This is the perfect definition of Two Kinds of People. Understanding this concept is almost certainly the path to becoming a more compassionate human being. For writers, it may just be the way to up the ante in your work.
Saunders is also a 2006 recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the Genuis Grant, so maybe we should let a little bit of his genius rub off on us. When he says “it’s all about revision,” that’s not a cliché. Saunders says he does hundreds of revisions. Not two. Not ten. Hundreds. And those revisions slowly take him to a “more fair, less-preachy place. It’s one of the wonderful mysteries of writing that it really does let your better instincts come to the surface.”
How many revisions do you do? Are you giving yourself enough time to really get to know your characters—to be them?
Most writers are comfortable standing in the shoes of their protagonists. We hear their voices, feel their feelings, and look out at the world through their eyes. But are we as willing or able to sit inside our other characters, to be “honest and friendly” to the thoughts and intentions of our antagonists or villains?
When you take the time to get to know all your characters as well as you know your main character, then your better story-telling instincts can truly rise to the top. You don’t have to like your villain, but you do have to understand him or her as completely as possible. You don’t have to explain a minor character’s entire life story to your reader, but you have to know it so you can write that character as a whole person, even if we, as readers, only meet him a few times.
How Do You Get to Know Smaller Characters?
In another public radio interview, actor Stephen Tobolowsky talked about creating memorable character parts when only a few lines are written in the script. “Smaller roles should ideally have a through-line to their day,” he said, “but character actors have to do that creative work outside of the script.” To do this, Tobolowsky says he always asks himself two questions:
- What is the character’s greatest hope?
- What is the character’s greatest fear?
“These two questions will form a tightrope upon which almost any other question in the script can be answered,” said Tobolowsky. He went on to talk about playing villains, saying that outside of a James Bond film, no one really ever sees himself as a villain. “Everybody kind of sees himself as a good guy doing what they’re doing. They see themselves a kind of hero.”
In other words, villains are heroes with an agenda that is in opposition to the main character’s agenda. This is brilliant advice for writing your villain or antagonist. When you sit in your villain’s head and really listen to her, you’ll begin to understand how she sees herself in the mirror and the role she needs to play. You’ll write a villain who is believable—a real person, not a cliché.
Writers can use those same two questions for every character to find answers for every question in a manuscript.
Nourish the Writer in You
There are two kinds of people in the world: writers and everybody else. One of the ways I’ve come to understand that I’m a “real” writer is that everything I see, hear, and do feeds the writer in me. Each day’s experiences nourish both my desire and ability to write more and write better. I’m grateful to George Saunders and Stephen Tobolowsky (and their interviewers) for their work and for sharing a few morsels with me. Here’s more information if you’d like the complete meal:
- Hear to the entire interview between George Saunders and Tony Serabia of WBEZ Chicago. Saunder’s latest book is Tenth of December.
- Hear the entire interview between Stephen Tobolowsky and Dave Davies of NPRs Fresh Air. Tobolowsky’s memoir about his life and career as a character actor is entitled The Dangerous Animals Club.