Characterization—creating believable and interesting people on the page—is an absolutely essential part of successful fiction writing, and it is equally important to narrative nonfiction forms such as memoir or literary journalism. It is also one of the most complex elements of craft, with many different means of achieving it and quite a few ways in which it can fall short. In this workshop, we will examine a variety of successfully realized characters (both major and minor) in published fiction and narrative nonfiction, exploring how the authors managed to bring them so richly and intensely and memorably to life. We will place particular emphasis on discovering the uniqueness of characters, whether imagined or drawn directly from life, the individual’s “strangeness,” the distinctiveness that makes a person most real as well as most surprising. Through daily writing exercises—some involving excerpts from pieces you have already drafted and some drawing freshly on your memory, observation, and imagination—you will generate and share new and significantly revised scenes, putting into practice a number of the most important characterization techniques, strengthening those with which you are already familiar and experimenting with those you haven’t used before, at least with these particular characters.
Lon Otto (Ph.D. Indiana University) published his third collection of stories in fall 2015—A Man in Trouble, from Brighthorse Books. His previously published books are A Nest of Hooks (University of Iowa Press), winner of the Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction, Cover Me (Coffee House Press), and the craft ebook Grit: Bringing Physical Reality into Imaginative Writing (Writers Workshop Press). His writing in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry is in many anthologies, including The Pushcart Prize (Pushcart Press), American Fiction (New Rivers Press), Flash Fiction and Flash Fiction Forward (W.W. Norton), Townships (University of Iowa Press), and Not Normal, Illinois (Indiana University Press), and in the craft text Best Words, Best Order (St. Martin’s Press). Several of his stories have been broadcast on NPR’s “Selected Shorts.” He is professor emeritus at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he taught literature and writing for many years.