On characters alone

The Practice of Creative Writing by Heather Sellers is an excellent introduction to Creative Writing across genres. It includes the following advice: “When you write about one person who is alone, you tend to rely on thoughts. It’s harder to create tension with a character alone on stage, lost in thought – difficult but not impossible . . . As a rule, however, a character alone with their thoughts is boring” (255). This is a good principle. One of the weaknesses in one of my projects lately is time a character spends alone, specifically while driving across much of the country. I’ve been thinking about how to revise to add tension to that journey.

At the same time, I’ve just started rereading Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, the first of her MaddAddam trilogy. Atwood’s Snowman/Jimmy is very alone in a postapocalyptic cli-fi setting. Atwood’s text suggests a character who is alone can spend lots of time thinking about an interesting past that is full of other characters (these include for Snowman/Jimmy, his father, mother, father’s lover, teachers, a male friend, a female friend, at least one crush, and others). He is comfortable commenting on his own time thinking about his past (he generally doesn’t like it) and is comfortable guessing about the thoughts and feelings of people from his past. Most importantly, while much of the book takes place in Snowman/Jimmy’s past, the contrasts between his past, our near future (in which the book is set), and his present gives the narrative real tension.

I’m not sure how that set of three sources of tension could work in my project, but another strategy Atwood uses, that you’ve already probably noticed, is that her character gives himself a different name. He thinks of himself as a different person as a result of an event in the story. Before, he was Jimmy. Now, he is Snowman. Another source of tension or interest for me as a reader is discovering the details of this change. Why the change? Why Snowman?

That’s something I can use as my character drives and it might add tension or at least help characterize him. Before a big event he saw the world one way. After he sees it another. He might rename himself as a result. He’ll definitely think of himself differently in ways I can make explicit.

Are there ways Atwood’s strategies might apply to something your working on?

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