When I read Dan Levinson’s Fires of Man, I was so impressed at the depth at which he got into his characters. The story is told from multiple points of view. Now at first glance this might seem extremely disorienting. I was concerned that this would make me lose interest in the book. To the contrary, each time a new character was introduced, I was drawn into that person’s life and thoughts; even the bad guys. And this pulled me even deeper into the plot.
I wanted to find out how Dan did this. So, of course, I asked him.
Supposedly, the war between Calchis and Orion ended decades ago. But upon reporting to an isolated Orion army base for basic training, Private Stockton Finn learns the war still rages, only the weapons have changed--most disturbingly of all, Finn has been selected to become one of those weapons.
Across the border, young Calchan farm boy Aaron Waverly learns all too well just how determined his country is to win the war when he is abducted from his family's property by a sinister government operative known only as Agent. Finding himself trapped in dreary new surroundings, learning deadly skills he's never before imagined, Aaron struggles to reconcile his ephemeral faith with his harsh new reality.
As the two nations hurtle toward a resurgence of open hostilities, Finn and Aaron, along with their new friends and mentors, must rush to prepare themselves for the inevitable clash. All the while, a new archaeological find in the frozen tundra far to the north hints that the brewing conflict may only be the first of their worries...
AMM: Welcome Dan
DL: Thanks for having me, Ann Marie. Now to get into one of my favorite topics.
Digging Deep into Character
I had occasion recently to take a workshop with the extraordinary editor Tom Jenks. Among our required reading was Aristotle’s Poetics. I’d last read Poetics in college, as a drama major, studying it through the lens of the theater. As I reviewed it again, I was astounded to discover the following line: “The soul of tragedy is the plot, and second in importance is character.” I balked at this, ready to denounce Aristotle in class, and it was to my utmost relief when, the next day, Tom himself affirmed that in today’s literary sphere, character is foremost, and plot, second.
Ask yourselves: What do you remember most about your favorite novels? When I think of Harry Potter, for example, what first springs to mind are not Horcruxes, nor the Triwizard Tournament, nor any of the other twists and turns and machinations of the plot. I think of brave Harry himself, and of the malevolent Lord Voldemort; of wise Dumbledore and sinister Snape; of steadfast Ron, brilliant Hermione, snide Draco Malfoy.
I think of characters!
It was my screenwriting mentor Jake Krueger who first taught me to conceive a story not from plot, but from character. To let the characters live and breathe on the page, to give them freedom to move the story by their own wills, rather than forcing their movements upon them to satisfy a preplanned plot. This is not to say I don’t determine any aspects of plot in advance. In fact, therein lies the secret to how I develop my characters.
Plot is a framework, within which the characters can be allowed to act and react. By placing characters inside the necessary situations, you create an opportunity for yourself, as a writer, to observe them, to see how they connect the dots from A to Z. Each character will make different choices, depending on their histories, their anxieties, preconceptions, traumas, and if you absolutely must get a character to a certain point, let the character him or herself show you how. There’s no need to make a blueprint predetermining every step, only the destination (and sometimes, depending on the story, even this is malleable).
It’s integral, especially in the first draft, to grant yourself the liberty of exploring these people as real human beings, free from the tight constraints of plot. Loosen up the narrative, if necessary; you can always contract it again in a later draft. In the meantime it is more important to get to know these people. And that’s what I find it comes down to, for me. Getting to know my characters by writing about them. This is not to say one shouldn’t set down a character’s backstory, but the extent and detail to which one does so before beginning a draft is largely up to the writer.
I found, as an actor, that backstory was but foundation, and that the success of any given scene or role was determined more through the rehearsal process. The backstory was something that existed in my subconscious; most of the time, I didn’t have to overtly ask myself, “Because of my character’s past, how would he react in this moment? Or this one?” If there ever came a time when something wasn’t working, that was when I would ask those questions, but mostly I was able to trust that I understood the backstory, understood my character. I could trust that my choices would emerge naturally from that inherent understanding, rather than having to return to my character’s history for every single line I spoke, every beat in the scene.
My writing process is very much the same. I begin oftentimes with a sketch of the character’s backstory, which is then relegated to mere background noise as I write about the character moving forward through the story. This sketch, in turn, as I proceed, becomes more and more distinct—a complete picture—over many drafts. Often I’ll discover new things: experiences, memories, moments in that character’s life which were previously undefined. I say “discover” because with it always comes a certain sense of “rightness,” as if I’ve always subconsciously known this, and it thus illuminates all the previous action and behavior I have put on the page.
I cannot emphasize enough that I never begin with any character fully realized. It’s through the writing that they become truly flesh and blood. I will also say that each writer must discover his or her own process, and this is simply what has worked for me. And it is enjoyable. There’s a profound pleasure to be derived from seeing characters come slowly but surely into focus, until at last they leap off the page of their own volition, dancing circles, making choices, learning, living, loving with all the fervor of any breathing person. One thing, however, I think is an imperative for all fiction writers . . .
Character first. Sorry, Aristotle.
Dan Levinson is a New York-based fiction writer, screenwriter, and librettist.
His debut novel, the sci-fi war epic FIRES OF MAN (#1 in the PSIONIC EARTH series), is due out June 17, 2014 from Jolly Fish Press.
Dan has studied with authors Irini Spanidou and John Reed, playwright Daniel Goldfarb, and screenwriter Jacob Krueger, among others. He is a sometimes-member of the Paragraph NY writer's workspace, and can frequently be seen attending their monthly events. He graduated from NYU with a BFA in 2007.
He currently resides on Long Island.