Learning Is Cool and Good. You Should Do It. 

May 18, 2015

This past Saturday I took a writing class at the Loft Literary Center. The Loft is an incredible resource for the literary community in the Twin Cities, one which I discussed a bit in my summary of why Minneapolis and St. Paul are a good place to be for writers.

Though the class itself was short — just three hours on a single morning — it’s hard to imagine a better bang for my buck usage of time. I say this not just because it will help me improve as a writer, but because spending a few hours learning is simply a really good way to spend some time. I needed to be reminded of that.

When Your Characters Are Engulfed in Flames

This is the technique we used for setting our characters on fire.

This is the technique we used for setting our characters on fire.

The class was called “Creating Flammable Characters” and was taught by Eleanor Brown, author of The Weird Sisters.* The premise of the class was that great characters have something “flammable” about them, some aspect of their personalities that cannot help but find trouble, conflict or difficulty. These characteristics can manifest externally like, say, a character who is brash and disrespectful toward authority figures. Or it can work when the crisis is more internal such as when dealing with issues like depression or insecurity.

In a way this sounds obvious, right? Of course great characters have attributes that get them into some kind of trouble. That’s how you get stories, after all. The class’s value was not in presenting a wholly unfamiliar concept. It was in helping us see it with fresh eyes, to show us how we might be unwittingly undervaluing a critical aspect of storytelling. Even though I’m sure everyone in that room knew their characters out to have “flammable” qualities, in practice it’s pretty easy for writers — especially novices like me — to write a protagonist with no obvious flaws or at least ones that are so milquetoast as to fail to drive the story.

The class presented us with a number of useful tips and tricks for identifying what makes for memorable characters as well how to construct our own. We looked at how we can use the strengths and flaws of our characters to make plotting choices, how understanding what your story is REALLY about influences character, and talked about different personality theories (enneagram types seem particularly dope for figuring out characters).

We did all this and more! It was great! Eleanor Brown was a fantastic instructor. Fun and encouraging, acknowledging of writerly neuroses while pushing us through them. My favorite line went roughly something like this. “Your idea will not be new. I’m doing you a huge favor telling you this. You no longer need to worry about being a special snowflake.” Much like the premise of the course itself, this is the kind of thing writers know but still need to be told. We’re all like teenagers who think “I AM THE FIRST PERSON TO EVER HAVE THIS PROBLEM IN THE HISTORY OF TIME.”

In sum, consider this a satisfied customer testimonial.

This Is the Part Where Everybody Hugs and Jumps Up and Down

So the class was good, yes. And I learned some really useful stuff. Also true. In particular, I’ve got some new tools that I think might help me get unstuck with my novel draft, and that’s super exciting.***

But the most important thing I took away from this class was how good it felt to be in that sort of environment. It’s just plain fun to be learning, to be exposed to new ideas from other people and share your own as well. I haven’t done it in some time, and I think that’s a mistake. After all, it was taking a sketch comedy writing class at the Brave New Workshop that set me on this journey and forced me to reckon with my love of writing.

Be curious, like this guy. Also there have been no doggies in my posts lately, and that's a shame.

Be curious, like this guy! Also there have been no doggies in my posts lately, and that’s a shame.

I should be doing this kind of thing more often, and you should too, probably. Maybe you do lots of stuff that encourages you to grow in whatever your interests are, but I bet not. “Life” in its broadest, most generic, scare quotes kind of way makes it really easy to not do this kind of thing. There’s powerful inertia behind our obligations. Taking care of children, managing a job, and making sure all the bills are paid on time. This stuff takes money, time and energy. I get that, and if you really cannot find the time to take a class, go to some workshop, see a speaker or whatever, then I’m not going to tell you to do something that puts you over the edge.

But, hot damn, I think you oughta try. Every time I do something like this, I’m glad I did even in the cases where I don’t learn much or end up not enjoying the subject matter. Just the act of doing it in the first place makes it worthwhile.

This is dipping its toes in some cheeseball sentimentality here. Be your whole self. Follow your bliss. Whatever. I don’t care. I spent a lot of time telling myself my interests were a waste of time, that they were things other people did, and I ended up frustrated and miserable for far too much of my time.

If this sounds like you at all, stop right now. Go trawl the internet for something, anything that gets you out of your comfort zone. My goodness, there is so much good free stuff out there your commitment can be nothing but a few minutes of your time. If it sucks, then it sucks. Try again. Eventually you’ll find the right thing, and who knows where that might lead?

Wouldn’t it be nice to find out?

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*Full course description here.

**Examples of these kinds of “flaws” are kinda similar to those cliched job interview answers to the “what’s your biggest weakness?” question. Answering “I care too much and I work too hard” tells a potential employer nothing. It can also tell readers nothing if your characters have “flaws” that can be more easily twisted into strengths. The flip side can be an antagonist who is evil for the sake of evil. That’s just as boring most of the time.

***The biggest takeaway for me was that I don’t think my characters are the problem, but it feels like I’m probably not giving them quite the right stuff to do. That jives with what I’ve been feeling, and it was something of a relief to feel like I had at least diagnosed the problem properly on my own. I’ll be mapping my main character’s traits against plot elements to better ensure they make sense together. The question I’ll be trying to answer is, does the events I make my character go through align with the emotional journey I want for that character? Is he presented with challenges that make sense for his personality?

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