"Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another's skin, another's voice, another's soul."
— Joyce Carol Oates
Reading fiction gives us the opportunity to leave the limits of our bodies and explore the world of others. We are able to feel what they feel, to experience what they experience, and to understand the world as they understand.
I can never become another person in the real world. I will always be myself no matter how much I grow and develop. Reading like acting gives me the opportunity to become someone else. I can feel their fear, their love and their joy. Some people I inhabit I love and enjoy being them. Others, I don't like and don't enjoy being in their skin, but I can still learn from them. I can still expand my understanding of the world.
I prefer reading stories where I like the characters and enjoy being with them. For me, character is more important than plot. I don't always enjoys novels driven so much by plot that the author sacrificed character depth. I prefer novels where I can climb inside the character's skin and become him or her for a short period of time. Two of my favorite private investigators from the world of crime fiction are: Easy Rawlins (created by Walter Mosley) and V. I. Warshawski (created by Sara Paretsky). I enjoy spending time with each of them in the worlds they inhabit. For me, the plot is less important than being with the two private investigators.
Writing fiction gives me a similar opportunity as reading fiction. As a writer, I am able to become another person in a world of my creation. Unlike reading, I am able to explore the character on a deeper level and get to know the person even better than the reader does. The fun of writing is in seeing the character slowly reveal himself and the world in which he lives.
This week make a list of characters in fiction who you like as well as those who you dislike. Ask yourself why you like or dislike certain characters. What appeals to you about certain characters? What disturbs you about certain characters? Identify the type of characters you like to write about.
Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most prolific American novelists and writers living today. She published her first book in 1963 and has since published over 40 novels as well as a number of plays, short stories, poetry and non-fictional works. She has taught at Princeton University since 1978.
Oates was the oldest of three children born to Caroline Bush and Frederic James Oates. She was born in Lockport, New York and raised in the farming community of Millersport, New York. She was raised Catholic, but later discovered that her paternal great-grandfather was Jewish. Her paternal grandmother encouraged her to read and gave her a copy of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventure in Wonderland which influenced her writing. She called the book "the greatest treasure of her childhood." Other early influences included William Faulkner, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Henry David Thoreau, Ernest Hemingway, Charlotte Bronte and Emily Bronte. She began writing at fourteen when her grandmother gave her a typewriter.
Joyce Carol Oates graduated from Syracuse University in 1960 with a B.A. in English and from the University of Wisconsin - Madison in 1961 with a M.A.
Here is a video of Joyce Carol Oates discussing how to write characters.