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Grub Street Seminar: Getting to Know Your Characters, Taught by Erika Dreifus

Last night, I took a seminar at Grub Street, Boston's independent creative writing center. Yes, I know that I'm an instructor there, but instructors are encouraged to take classes too, to see what we can learn from our colleagues.

The class was Getting to Know Your Characters, taught by Erika Dreifus. Dreifus has an impressive background; she was born in Brooklyn, earned three degrees from Harvard and an MFA from Queens University of Charlotte, and has published numerous short stories, essays, articles, and e-books. She knows a lot about writing, and she's willing to share her knowledge with others.

Dreifus maintains a website, The Practicing Writer, filled with lots of good advice about writing. She links to various resources for people who are practicing writers, and she also keeps the Practicing Writing blog. As she herself says about the blog, "Here fictionists, poets, and creative nonfiction writers find updates on writing and publishing opportunities (especially handy between issues of our monthly newsletter). Plus, the blog holds this practicing writer's occasional observations on happenings in the literary world, book reviews, and news about her own work." (For those of you on LiveJournal, the blog is syndicated at LJ:pracwriteblog.)

I'd met her before, so when I heard she was teaching this seminar, I decided it would be a good opportunity to learn something more about characterization. It can be hard to get a handle on character, especially when you're writing science fiction, because often the characters become subservient to the idea.

The seminar lasted for three hours. Over the course of the evening, Dreifus took us through three writing exercises to help us get to know our characters better. I chose to explore the main character of my unfinished NaNoWriMo novel, a twentysomething named Danny Liu who works for the federal government as a lawyer. The exercises Dreifus assigned us to do were all very clever and worked toward helping us envision our characters as real flesh-and-blood humans. I'm particularly proud of the second exercise I did about Danny. One of Dreifus's suggestions was to write about the oldest relative the character remembered, from the point of view of the character. So, in Danny's voice, I wrote a page describing the one time he met his grandfather. Danny was only four or five, and he didn't understand a lot about the meeting, although he definitely felt the rejection from his grandfather. I put a lot in that scene, and I'm actually quite pleased by it. (I may consider posting it here under Friends-lock, if enough people want to read it.)

After having taken this seminar, not only do I have better handle on the character of Danny Liu, but I also have a whole new set of tools with which to flesh out the rest of my characters.

If you're in the Boston area and at all interested in taking a writing class, I continue to recommend Grub Street, and not just because I teach there myself. And if Erika Dreifus teaches another seminar, I highly recommend taking it.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein


I would love to read what you wrote at the seminar. I'm always interested to see how other writers flesh out their characters. :)
I'd like to read it, please.
especially when you're writing science fiction, because often the characters become subservient to the idea.

Hm, this comment caught my attention. I've always felt the opposite about fantasy and sci fi. Because the premise is fantastic, the characters have to be really believable and engaging to produce the effect of realism for the reader. Realistic fiction can get away with flatter characters because the reader isn't already fighting for their suspension of disbelief.
I think it really depends on the writer (though in my experience, fantasy has had stronger characters than science fiction). There is one Very Famous Writer whose work I cannot read because the characters are generally cardboard cutouts, in place only to give the writer a way to convey his Grand Idea. I've encountered similar (lack-of-)characterization in other science fiction works.

One breakdown I've seen is ...
- fiction is about the characters
- fantasy is about the characters and the setting
- science fiction is about the ideas

This isn't a rule and it isn't universal, but it does map to tendencies I've noticed.
Fascinating that you should say that. As michelel72 noted, SF tends to be the genre that gets criticized for not having good characterization.
I think SF gets criticized in part because the task of producing the effect of good characterization is much harder. That's not to say that some SF writers don't skimp on the non-intellectual qualities of their writing, but rather that the SF writers who do have effective characterization had to work hard for it.
I suppose I'm saying that when SF characters do "feel good" or "work" for the reader, they have been finely crafted. It is easier for the author to lull you into a false sense of decent characterization in other genres.
"It is easier for the author to lull you into a false sense of decent characterization in other genres."

You know, I think that ought to be quoted, and as often as possible.
I would like to read your piece, if you remain willing to post it.
*raises hand*

And wish I was in the Boston area so I could consider a class. I think they have something similar in NY, but I'm iffy about getting to it, and don't have a local friend who can reassure me that it's worthwhile.

Thanks for posting the website, I'll take a look!
Hi Michael

What a fascinating writing exercise. (I found your site via Erika Dreifus' blog.)

I teach at Grub too! I think we may have met briefly at an instructor's meeting or something. Anyways, I liked your website and blog.

Glad to hear you had a great trip to NYC--I'm looking forward to two trips there in the next few months.

Hi Grace! Did Erika link from her blog to here? If so, I missed it.

We probably did meet at an instructor's meeting, although I have a hard time remembering everyone I've met...

December 2016

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