Author KL Cook began his writing career as an actor, unlike so many of us who always knew we wanted to be writers. When he finally began to write, he immediately recognized that his theater training was perfect for fiction writing. Perhaps it’s the practice in taking on different characters’ personas in a deep way, figuring out how each one relates and reacts to the others, learning to put oneself inside the story—being not an observer, but an “experiencer.” He’s said, “I think of writing as performance—something that ideally enchants, haunts, and persuades through the senses.” This is a strategy all writers can practice. If you were your character on stage, how would you be? relate?
From his theater background, which included studying and performing the works of Shakespeare, he found the kind of complex characters authors strive to achieve. “You can never reach the bottom of them,” he says. Hamlet, Iago—they contain mysterious contradictions. It would seem that the struggle to try to understand them is what prepares writers for creating their own story characters.
Cook’s principal character in the award-winning novel, The Girl from Charnelle, is a sixteen-year-old girl. He says that while writing the book, he sometimes felt as if he were such a girl. But he had some false starts. He wrote the whole 400- page novel in the third person, then rewrote it in first person and wasn’t satisfied with the result. The narrator had to look back at her sixteen-year-old self make some judgments and interpretations that took some of the tension out of the story. So he switched it back to third person, in what must have been a tear-your-hair-out decision! Revisions, revisions, all along the way. The message here is that even changes that require some massive amount of work like these, help you get inside your characters and understand their stories better. Whatever, it worked, and gained great acclaim.
Having made that switch myself in one novel (which has multiple point-of-view characters, only one of which changed) and one short story, I can attest that it involves much more than switching pronouns.
Writing a character very different from yourself requires seeing the world in a different way—part of the challenge and the fun of it! “The only limitation is imagination,” Cook has said. This sound like a more controversial point of view than it once was, now that we’re in the era of sensitivity readers. At the same time, I believe, as Cook has said, that “Access to other lives is why fiction is such a great humanizing art.” People different from us.
Inhabiting characters different from oneself requires giving them their due—making them neither cardboard cutout villains nor perfect specimens. You find out in my novel, Architect of Courage, that the main character has been having an affair. Worse, when he finds his lover dead, he panics and does a very human thing—he panics and runs. But how to make that situation real, not cliché? I tried to make his situation believable in the first chapters by clearly describing his wife and his lover, who were totally different in personality, appearance, and behavior. Neither was a bad person. No bitchy wife or scheming younger woman. It had to be plausible that he could, as he eventually realizes, love them both, independently.
KL Cook’s award-winning books span genres. His first book Last Call, is a collection of linked stories and a novel about the lives of a Texas panhandle family (and I should read them, because that’s where my grandparents lived!). He’s published other short story volumes, a book of poetry, and essays on fiction-writing titled The Art of Disobedience. Sounds like another worthy read. He’s an English professor and co-director of an MFA program at Iowa State University.