This term, guest instructor Scott O'Connor is offering a seminar on characterization for WWLA, which will be held in Los Feliz on April 30 and May 7. (You can sign up here!) We asked Scott some questions about his seminar and what he thinks about getting to the heart of your characters.
WWLA: In your course description, you wrote that the seminar "will help new characters come alive on the page and turn existing (and potentially difficult) characters into compelling players." What makes a character compelling and what makes a character difficult?
SO: I think the most compelling characters are often the most difficult to bring to life. They can seem complicated, uncooperative, secretive (which are also the qualities that make real people so compelling). But there are ways to approach these difficult characters, to help them open on the page in all of their unique complexity. I’ve learned that when I have a difficult character who—despite my frustration—I just can’t stop thinking about, then I might be onto something. They just require a different approach.
WWLA: Your novels Untouchable and Half World both have memorable and well developed characters, and there are quite a few players in Half World. What was a challenging character issue you've encountered and how did you solve it?
SO: Many of the characters in Half World do pretty terrible things. But I wanted to understand why they made these choices—I wanted them to be as human and relatable as characters we might think of as heroic. “Evil” characters leave me flat. There’s no humanity there.
WWLA: People often think of characterization as an element of fiction, but characters are clearly important in nonfiction as well, from journalism to memoir. What might nonfiction writers learn from your seminar?
SO: No matter what field we’re working in—fiction, nonfiction, memoir, screenplays—writers try to bring people to life on the page. The techniques for getting there—for revealing vibrant, complex characters—are the same regardless of whether those people are from our imagination, or history, or the world outside. Even if those characters are ourselves—who would argue that Joan Didion isn’t one of the most compelling literary figures we have—both on and off the page.
WWLA: Who are some of the characters that have stayed with you long after you finished reading about them?
SO: I’m always fascinated by characters who—no matter how fully drawn—retain some mystery I’ll never unlock, some secrets I’ll never discover. Don Delillo’s version of Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra, Almásy in The English Patient, Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, Elizabeth Jennings in The Americans…no matter how many times I encounter these characters, I always want to know more.
WWLA: In addition to developing their own characters, students in the seminar will also read some examples of effective character portraits. Which writers will you be using for models?
SO: Zadie Smith, Charles Portis, Rachel Harper, August Wilson, Joan Didion, Mary Ruefle . . . we’ll be in good company.
Scott O’Connor is the author of the forthcoming book of stories Thalassa, the novels Untouchable and Half World, and the novella Among Wolves. He has been awarded the Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award, and his stories have been shortlisted for the Sunday Times/EFG Story Prize and cited as Distinguished in Best American Short Stories. He has written for FOX, Universal Television, The New York Times Magazine, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.
There are only a few spots left in Scott's seminar. Don't miss out!