Character building, a crash course

Posted: Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fiction, nonfiction, stage plays, screenplays, children's books, even poetry - characters are the lifeblood of creative writing. As a result, and not coincidentally, good characters are exceedingly difficult to create, let alone develop.

Why do characters draw us in to some pieces of writing but not others? What distinguishes a compelling, believable character from your average Joe/Jo? How can a writer nudge his or her characters to life?

Author, teacher, 49 Writing Center director and co-founder Deb Vanasse tackles these and other delightfully bookish topics at her seminar "Crash Course: Characters," from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Nov. 20, at the downtown Juneau Public Library. The class is free, made possible by generous support from Friends of the Juneau Public Library, who are instrumental in much of the library's programming. The class is appropriate for ages 14 and up.

"We're people-programmed," said Vanasse earlier this week from Anchorage, where she lives whenever she's not at her cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. "We want to know who's like us, who's not like us. Why do you think reality TV is so popular, even though no one ever really does anything?"

The class, explained Vanasse, takes an in-depth look at character: major vs. minor, flat vs. round, how writers "get to know" their characters and how to be "generous with them - allow them to develop organically as opposed to serving a story's plot." She will also discuss how to render "good" and "bad" characters as less black and white.

Vanasse, who's published 10 books for children and adults, counts Alice Munro ("Open Secrets," "The Love of a Good Woman," "Too Much Happiness") and Alice McDermott ("That Night," "Charming Billy," "After This") among her favorite character writers. Her class also examines work from Alaskan writers Seth Kantner ("Ordinary Wolves") and David Vann ("Legend of a Suicide"), as well as from her own writing.

Interestingly enough, however, Vanasse does not consider creating and developing characters among her natural strengths.

"Other writers have a better instinct for character," she said. "So I always had to work a lot harder at that aspect."

She re-wrote her second book, "Out of the Wilderness," four times, and ultimately critics did not receive it as well as her first book, the more character-driven "A Distant Enemy." Specifically because of the characters, "A Distant Enemy" "wrote easier - much, much easier."

"I like to teach classes on subjects that are hard, though," said Vanasse, who also leads courses on voice, probably the most beguiling aspect of writing. "That means there's a real hunger for it."

But Deb Vanasse wasn't always a writer.

After graduating with a degree in English from Bemidji State University, she landed a teaching job in the tundra village of Nunapitchuk, where she and a group of high school students worked on an oral history project, "Cama'i," published by Doubleday in 1981. Vanasse set her first novel, "A Distant Enemy," in Southwestern Alaska.

Moving to Fairbanks in 1987, Vanasse taught first at the university, then, for 11 "mostly wonderful" years at North Pole High School before retiring in 1999.

"Retirement benefits definitely help round out the writers' salary," she said.

These days, that salary stems mostly from travel guides and children's books, as well as a draft-in-progress of a "big-people story book set in Alaska." Along with co-founder Andromeda Romano-Lax (herself a novelist and travel writer), Vanasse co-directs 49 Alaska Writing Center. Its mission: to support creative writers throughout the state, while simultaneously building an audience for Alaska literature.

While writing itself is an intensely private activity, writers often benefit from sharing with each other. Finding a way to connect with other writers can be challenging, especially in Alaska, especially if you don't live near Anchorage.

Crash Course: Characters represents 49 Alaska Writing Center's aim of growing into a truly statewide organization. In addition to the Juneau workshop, Vanasse led another class on Wednesday at Sitka's public library and hosted a "formal informal" writers' gathering in Ketchikan. She will also conduct programs earlier in the week in Juneau's public schools.

"Our vision has always been a statewide organization," she said of 49 Writers, which started in 2009 as a literary blog; within a year, it became a full-fledged nonprofit with resources for writers of all levels.

"In Alaska, so many people live in far-flung locations," Vanasse said, elaborating on plans to establish an e-mentoring program. "The Web works pretty well at providing a point of connection."

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