Study Guide

Bird by Bird Part 1, Chapter 7

By Anne Lamott

Part 1, Chapter 7

Character

  • We hope you liked that Polaroid metaphor from the last chapter because Lamott says your characters will also develop like Polaroids.
  • Lamott also introduces another metaphor that helps her understand her characters. A friend of hers says that every single person is given an emotional acre that's their own. It's like getting your own little patch of land, but for your interior life. You can do anything you like with it, as long as you don't hurt others. You can grow fruit trees or flowers. You can leave it alone. You can make it into an auto-wrecking yard or a garage sale.
  • You have a fence and a gate, and if someone tries to mess with your acre, you can ask them to leave. Handy feature.
  • Lamott says your characters also have an emotional acre. Part of what you're trying to figure out is what that character's acre looks like.
  • You may not wind up talking a lot directly about that emotional acre in the story, especially if, say, you're writing an action hero chase scene and the characters don't do a lot of talking.
  • But it helps to learn a lot about the interior life of your characters, and this is one way of thinking about it.
  • Lamott asks a bunch of helpful questions to help us figure out everything from whom our characters would vote for to whether they'd keep flossing if they had six months to live.
  • Lamott says you'll love some of your characters because they're you or some aspect of you and you'll hate some of them for exactly the same reason. She adds that you'll have to let bad things happen to some of them or you won't have much of a story.
  • Lamott says to get to know your characters as much as you can, to be sure there's something at stake, and then to let the chips fall where they may.
  • Lamott tells us a quote from someone she knows that helps make sense of writing characters. He said, "The evidence is in, and you are the verdict" (7.5). This is totally true of characters, once you've finished writing them. Eventually, they'll be their own verdict on their behavior and interior lives.
  • But the writer may not know that at first. Lamott says we may only know the externals of the character at the beginning, and not the character's essence.
  • Surprisingly, Lamott says not to worry about this. It will come over time, and in the meantime, she offers some questions to get us started.
  • Lamott says everyone is walking around as an advertisement for who he or she is. She recommends two ways to get started figuring out what kind of an ad your character is: 1) Base your characters on some aspect(s) of your own personality. 2) Base your characters on someone else you know, or a few people you know sort of put together.
  • Then we get a flurry of advice on how to figure out who these characters are.
  • It all kind of boils down to the following points:
  • 1) Write some dialogue for your characters.
  • 2) Find out what holds your characters' lives together, what Lamott calls the "basket" that they put their lives in (routines, beliefs, journal entries, whatever lets them make sense of life).
  • 3) Find out where those things that hold the characters' lives together are flimsy, just like the holes in a basket.
  • 4) Figure out what your characters are teaching their kids, both in what they do and in what they teach.
  • Lamott moves on to something another writer told her. She asked Ethan Canin to tell her the most valuable thing he knew about writing. His answer? A likable narrator makes a story work.
  • Lamott agrees. She says if we're fascinated by the character's take on things, we won't really care even if the plot is off to a slow start. She says she'd be happy to watch John Cleese or Anthony Hopkins do dishes for an hour because they're so fascinating.
  • Besides, a likable narrator is like a good friend who's really fun to be around.
  • Okay, so what makes people likable? Lamott says it's our faults. She may have a point here—just imagine a totally polite version of Tony Stark, or Hermione if she didn't get a bit carried away with reciting details from Hogwarts: A History in tense situations.
  • Lamott lists a bunch of faults she likes to give to her narrators.
  • But a narrator probably should have hope, according to Lamott. It's pretty hard to stick with a narrator who is completely hopeless.
  • We all know we're going to die; what's important is who we are in the face of knowing.
  • Nothing like a writer to cheer you up, huh?
  • Surprisingly, Lamott says a character can be a great narrator even if that character isn't very funny or articulate. (This applies to friends as well, Lamott tells us.)
  • Seeing things really clearly can make a character compelling, especially if the character is surviving or has survived quite a lot.
  • Lamott says seeing clearly while surviving is inherently interesting since it's what we all have to do.
  • Lamott adds that deciding what is interesting is super subjective—people constantly disagree on it.
  • Characters should also be reliable. We should have a sense that they're telling us the truth (unless a major point of the character's existence is to be dishonest or manipulative).
  • This brings Lamott to a more general point about writers.
  • Writers seek the truth and make things up the whole way.
  • According to Lamott, you have to tell the exact truth about your characters, even though you're inventing all of it.
  • Characters have to feel true to our experience and our understanding of how the world works.
  • Lamott signs off for this chapter by reminding us that it will probably take a long time to get to know your characters.
  • It's sort of like how getting to know your friends can take a while.
  • And just like with friends, it's dangerous to pretend you know more about your characters than they do. It's better to pay attention and listen to them.

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