Character manifestos

In advance, I’d like to say that some people might take issue with me handing out writing advice considering that, while I do have an agent now, I definitely have not sold a book and therefor whatever efforts at writing I might have made in the past thirteen years or so since I first booted up ClarisWorks (that was the word processing program the Mac clone I got in the eighth grade came with…oh, the late nineties!) and typed a sentence may have very little value for the general aspiring-writer populace. To which I say, um, you’re probably right. So don’t read this post! And I mean that in the kindest way. If you want to see what life is like from the other side of the bold line between published and unpublished, please do visit any one of the writer blogs to the right. I, for now, am resting firmly in a gray area, filled with editorial letters from my agent and plot boards and revisions, but I’m learning a lot, so that’s something, right? And anyway, it’s my blog and I can write what I want, and also nobody reads this thing anyway so what have I got to lose? Right! Let’s get started.

When I was in junior high, I knew this guy who was a little bit intense for his age, and he ended up writing this “manifesto” which, though I never read it, was said to be (by his girlfriend and best friend/aspiring girlfriend) pretty strange, but undeniably him. Cut to a million years later–this is how I get into the minds of my characters. I write all kinds of crap from their PoVs, and to this writing exercise I appellate the term “manifesto.”

Several things go into a manifesto. It usually starts with a topic or a question–How do I feel about this [insert whatever you want, relevant or irrelevant…or, at least, anything you think your character can expound upon]?–and branches out from there. Sometimes, it’s “How do I feel about this person?” I usually try to have each character comment, however briefly, on the other ones eventually in their manifesto, since obviously, by virtue of the story, they are tied together in some way and they must have varying opinions about this. Recently, I started writing a manifesto for a character in my current WIP and, even though this doesn’t have a lot to do with the action of the story, he started his manifesto with, “My parents are getting divorced,” and continued to comment on that. I hadn’t really expected him to talk about that–I expected him to talk about the other main protagonist of the book, a girl he has conflicting feelings about, or on the mystery at hand, or even about his future, but his parents divorce? I don’t think that, at that point, I’d even decided that his parents were getting a divorce. Well, they are now. I mean, he said they were, and he wouldn’t lie to me.

I never mean for any of the information or writing in the manifesto to make it into the book. Ever. It often sneaks its way in, especially the character’s feelings about the other characters and the situations he/she finds herself in during the course of the novel, but usually not the way it is written in the manifesto. My manifestos are not beautifully poetic, or even well-written, or even–and I cringe to admit this–free of grammatical or spelling errors. They’re usually handwritten, they’re usually sloppy, and they usually defy the space-time continuum–they are written from the perspective of that character before the novel begins, but can comment on any event or person throughout the course of the novel, even people they haven’t yet met or things that have not yet happened. So, basically, they’re written in the past with foresight in to the future, and yet none of my characters are prognosticators or anything. It’s like the characters are standing outside of themselves and have access to all their thoughts and experiences throughout the entire novel (and before and beyond). Freaky! I know. But it works.

This is sort of a take-off of the character interviews or questionnaires people sometimes do, which, though helpful to some, really don’t give me the information that I need. I understand that those are about uncovering facts about your characters that would be otherwise unknown to you, but I prefer to do it this way–the characters tell me what they want, what they think is important, and when they lag a little I prompt them–“What do you think about this character?”, etc.–until they’re done talking. Then I put the manifesto away. Sometimes I consult them again, but most of the time I don’t. The whole point of the manifesto is in the making, not in the having. Once they’re alive in my head, what’s on paper doesn’t mean very much, and I never feel especially committed to anything small that they say there–I mean, yes, Protag #1 of my WIP says his parents are getting divorced, that that’s important to him, so I am committed to that, but if he told me he used to vacation with his grandparents every summer in Martha’s Vineyard and later I decide it makes more sense if they go to Shamrock, TX, I don’t think twice about making such a change. If they say they have brown eyes in the manifesto, but I want them to have blue eyes later, again, no compunction about the change–I probably won’t remember that their eyes were brown in the manifesto in the first place!

That’s how a manifesto differs from, say, an outline. It’s exploratory surgery, not plotting. You just go into the character’s mind and feel around, getting the lay of the land, observing, listening, diagnosing. The characters are far more self-aware in their manifestos than they end up being in the novel, owing to their unique perspective, and, maybe more importantly, they’re always, always completely honest. Also, manifestos are always written in a first person PoV, even though that character might never speak in the first person ever in the novel itself. This is, of course, only something I do when I feel like I need to–I may not write a manifesto for every character, or even any character besides the main protagonist…it’s just sort of what I think I need at the moment.

Does anyone else do this? Probably. I’m sure I did not invent this writing exercise. Other than the plot board and character manifestos, I haven’t really done any other writing exercises, per se–just endless, endless revision.

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2 Responses

  1. […] You decide. Character Manifestos Can an MFA program make you a better writer? Stuff I’ve Learned Part 1 That extra […]

  2. I like this post. The manifesto idea makes sense, esp when I character comments on another

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