Guest Post, Kendall Pack: The Find

The Find: Discovering what characters care about

Christmas Eve means Silverado. It has since I was twelve and it will until I’m dead. For the rest of my siblings, the tradition of watching this (to be honest, average) Western late on Christmas Eve night has gone into the bin with all the other trappings of childhood. I’m twenty-eight, well past the days when it was reasonable for me to entertain extended bouts of childhood fancy, and yet I still go into every Christmas season, slogging through White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life and all the vast catalogue of classic Christmas films, all while keeping my heart turned fully toward Scott Glenn, Danny Glover, and the Kevins, Costner and Kline, shooting it out Magnificent Seven-style with some bad ranchers in the hours between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.

There’s a line in that film that sticks out to me. Kevin Kline’s character Paden is sitting in a saloon while his friends are preparing to take the fight to the ranchers. The woman running the saloon knows Paden should be out there too but something is holding him back. She says, “There’s no telling what you’re gonna care about.” Paden throws her a glance that says it’s her. That if he steps out of the saloon, her life is in danger. Of course, it all works out and Paden gets to shoot a few bad guys along with everyone else. But the important thing is that idea of the things characters care about, especially when common sense says they shouldn’t.

This is a concept I’ve called The Find. It’s called a bunch of other things, but I call it The Find (for trademark purposes, because this is my retirement plan). I teach it in improv classes and in composition classes and in creative writing workshops as a way of establishing characters or, in the case of college essays, honing the thesis. It has become equally useful as a way to flesh out characters and discover landmarks in a plot. The basic idea is this: find one thing, the more seemingly innocuous the better, and then walk each character in front of it and write about their response.

What you’ll discover is that, while one character may see the item or event as meaningless, another might recognize it as the key to their success. Take for example the mosquito in amber, discovered at the beginning of Jurassic Park. We see a mosquito and we may have a variety of responses, but it is rare that we would see one and think: $$$. Richard Hammond sees that mosquito and thinks: dinosaur park. Had the team found, instead of a mosquito, a living breathing T-rex, the responses would have been too limited. It’s the wide range of possibilities that something as seemingly insignificant as a mosquito presents that makes it a great entry point to the film.

In our writing, we have to discover what makes a character react, especially disproportionately to other characters. Everyone reacts in the expected way when they see the Zapruder film or a YouTube compilation of puppies yawning. But imagine if your character, watching the Zapruder film, could only think of the irreparable damage done to the upholstery of the car, or if your character could only focus on the teeth of those puppies. These are things the common person wouldn’t care about, and the common reaction has no place in literature. We want people who act outside the norm, who see the world through a lens that they’ve developed through unique experiences. It’s hard to develop a character from scratch, one that feels lived-in and real. But by discovering how that character reacts to given stimuli, we can find motivations that we never knew our characters had.

I’m writing a novella that started as a joke. At first it was a series of fake book covers using stock photos of bearded men on motorcycles, and then I started to write blurbs for the back cover, and now I’ve written over twenty pages of the thing. It all broke loose when I got fixated on the motorcycle and asked myself, “What if someone stole the motorcycle?” Now I have the beginning of a less-than-serious novel about a man on a desperate search for his bike as he’s hunted by several shadowy figures and subprime government agencies looking for the same bike, all for different reasons. The bike made the story explode from a two-dimensional image to a full story. It isn’t destined to be a classic, but I’m having more fun writing this than I have many of the stories I’ve come up with in the last year.

That’s the most important thing The Find can do, get the writer invested in the writing. We want to know how far this impetus can take us. If a mosquito can be the start of the resurgence of dinosaurs (and a film franchise that has made its participants millions), then what can a typically overlooked object that appears in your character’s line of sight do to expand the scope of your story? A character must have something to react to, and their reactions will show what makes them unique. Rather than create a character by cobbling together a bunch of unique attributes that have become cliched by their overuse (looking at you, sexual deviancy and sons fearing they’ll never be as cool as their dads), discover your characters by having them react to the world around them in honest ways.

I’m still not sure why I’m the one who can’t stop watching Silverado on Christmas Eve while the rest of my siblings seem less and less enthused with each passing year, but I pursue that desire because it reminds me that each character has unique responses to the things they experience. If I let those things fall away, the characters lose the spark that makes them worth writing about. And that, like Kevin Kline missing the chance to shoot it out with a bunch of bad guys, would be a real tragedy.

Kendall Pack's family in front of the Christmas tree.
The author and his family. Kendall is the one on the back right, refusing to smile.

Guest Blog Post, Kendall Pack: Character in Documents

Kendall PackI’m weak when it comes to graphs, receipts, emails, and notes. I think they have more to say than we allow them to. We write in summary and scene, we develop stories through the passage of time, we want to move along to the next idea. But I want to stop and make note of the milestones in the story, the documents that define the characters and their relationships.

Rather than summarize a character’s previous relationships or drag readers through a long series of scenes about them, we have the opportunity to create the pivotal moments of those relationships through the documentation we present. Documentation adds a layer of effect in its ability to transform meaning as we understand more about the story and the characters involved. Plus it makes for some decidedly unliterary writing, a nice break from all the imagery and symbolism expected of us (though documents themselves become symbolic of their cause).

In a recent story, rather than write “Daniel’s addicted to fantasy” I wrote:

You and the Stranger both like Roleplay

Say hi!

Stranger: Hello

You: hi

Stranger: asl

You: 24 m TX

Stranger has disconnected

Start a new conversation?

You and the Stranger both like Roleplay

Say hi!

Stranger: Hi

You: hi

Stranger: M or F?

You: M

Stranger has disconnected

Start a new conversation?

I do this, I believe, because I want to understand manifestation over malady. If a character is a righteous man, a priest maybe, how does he react in any given situation? Don’t tell me, just put him in a crackhouse with a pipe in hand and write. That is what fascinates me.

As a writer of short fiction, it can be enticing to summarize, summarize, summarize. But the benefits of documenting behavior far outweigh the costs in page length. Besides, our short stories get lost with too much plot, too many strings left unfollowed, too many questions unanswered or useless to the reader. We want to understand man, so we create a man. We want him to fish, so he’s a fisherman. We want to understand poverty, so he’s a homeless fisherman. We want to rent drug addiction for 2000 words, so we put cocaine in his nostrils. We think our life is too real, so we make him fly or know the future or raise the dead. But all this is too much for a writer to develop in the short story. The story must be the exploration of a single fault or characteristic with hints towards others instead of enticing threads leading nowhere because we’ve overstayed our welcome, gone far past our page length.

I’m in the middle of exploring directionlessness in the mid-twentysomething. This came about while watching a terrible indie romantic comedy. I asked the question, “What happens to the quirky sidekick five years later when they’ve lost touch?” Rather than answer, “He becomes a private investigator on a whim,” I answer:

Congratulations, JOHN G.

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Plymouth Career Institute

I think it says more about a character to see their keepsakes in detail. Too often in fiction we have to ask, “Why is the main character acting this way?” By documenting them rather than summarizing them, we gain insight into that question. The last letter a character wrote to his mother before she died may reveal much about a character, so the epistolary style maintains its efficacy. But what about a receipt following a bad day at work? If we say the character is an alcoholic, then he must be such as long as we can be trusted. But if we show the receipt from the liquor store with the exact amount of the character’s Christmas bonus spent on alcohol (and only the cheapest kind), we show much more.

For those who think documentation is a terrible way to write, I won’t argue with you. I get as many (if not more) critiques as I do compliments. But the point of all this isn’t to say there’s one great way to write and we should all do it. The purpose is that characters need to be in clearer focus. We can’t stand back with a wide-angle lens and try to capture all the little details that make up our protagonists then zoom in for a telephoto close-up on each fragment, exploring each until it is concluded. For me, at least, the job of the writer is to unpack one idea, one quirk, one trait, and let everything orbit that. All moments should be a reference back to that character, looking at how the character is affected by a given set of circumstances, then another.

I perform improvisational comedy with a group in Logan, Utah. We like to think we’re pretty funny. A huge boost for us was the introduction of the comedy manual, Truth in Comedy. One of the most important points in the book is that we should never say, “no.” We should never argue that a character “wouldn’t do that.” The great thing about improv is that any character will do anything. Often that’s what holds us back in our writing. We think that our character just wouldn’t buy all that alcohol or go to a bordello or be seen in a church service, but fiction should serve as a documentation of disruption. A character changes over the course of the story and the best way to note that change is through a series of circumstances, both normal and out of the ordinary, for the character to respond to.

Whether we utilize documentation or toss it aside for summary and scene, we need focus in short fiction to better explore the depths of character over the widths.