Working Review: Archetypal Acrobatics, Pt. 1

I had every intention of doing a second exercise from Brian Kiteley’s The 3 A.M. Epiphany. But when I tried to start, I realized that I had planned to use one from the POV chapter again and I could not bear the redundancy of it. I will likely return to Kiteley at some point; there is a ton of material there. I would especially like to try his suggestion of combo exercises, preferably as far removed from one another as possible. But not this week.

And now for something completely different: Breathing Life into Your Characters, by Rachel Ballon, Ph.D. Ballon is a psychotherapist and a writing consultant, a workshop teacher, and author of several other books on writing. I have fond memories of this book. During my first year of college, I would walk between classes with this book in front of my face. I read it in the dining hall. I read it in the park. I read it in the lecture halls. Yes, I’m one of those types. Come to think of it, I might mean “vaguely awkward and embarrassing” instead of “fond.” And, in my typical fashion, I never did a single exercise.

Where 3 A.M. was largely concerned with fiction as it appears on the page, Breathing Life is more about deep background. The exercises will not usually generate fiction scenes. They give you lists and free writing and vignettes from inside your characters heads. This is the raw stuff of character and as such should never get dumped directly into a story.

But I struggle in character development. I don’t understand human motivation as well as I would like (or as well as I imagine). I fall into the habit of making characters do things because I need them to drive the story forward, even when the direction is all wrong for them. And I especially hate it when I create characters who feel too much like me, who seem to speak with my own voice and hold all my own beliefs.

So I gravitated to chapter four, Less of You: creating characters different from yourself. It’s not precisely about removing yourself from your fiction. It’s about honing in on the small, specific details of your experiences, rather than the broad sweeps, and putting them into your characters. It’s about feelings, rather than events.

This reminded me of what Holly Lisle has taught writers about creating compelling characters. It’s taking the feeling of failing on a history test and turning it into failing your initiation ritual and being cast out of your tribe. (Check out Holly’s “Create a Character” and “Using Your Life” articles for more on this.)

At the moment, I am working furiously on the character development for House of Cats. And I can see that once again, I’ve created a female lead who feels too much like myself. I thought of doing an exercise for the male lead; I find his character daunting in its strangeness. But that’s just it. He’s very different from me and so feels real, even if I’m a bit freaked out to write him. But Heather, as I am tentatively calling my fMC, despite the background I’ve been giving her, still seems to fade from view every time I look at her too hard.

So I’m going to run her through the archetype exercise, but I’m going to expand it. Ballon discusses Jungian archetypes and how they appear both in the author and in the author’s characters. The exercise consists of little more than thinking about the archetypes you can identify in yourself and then putting them into various characters in various combinations. I’m going to make a short list of archetypes that I can identify in myself, sticking just to the ones Ballon lists. Then I’m going to make archetypal!Heather go through a scene, again and again. And that’s all the rules I’m going to make for myself. We’ll see what we get.

End Part 1 :: Continue to Part 2

Published by Joyce Sully

Joyce Sully believes in magic and dragons and ghosts, but is not convinced her next-door neighbors are real. So she writes stories. Really, what else could she do?