Last month, One Story hosted our annual benefit, The One Story Literary Debutante Ball, honoring Ann Patchett and celebrating seven One Story authors who published their debut books in the past year. Thank you to all of the sponsors, donors, guests, publishers and writers who came out and made this amazing night possible. It was a ball!
Last Thursday writers packed One Story‘s home, the good Old American Can Factory in Brooklyn, to hear editor-in-chief Hannah Tinti’s lecture on creating interesting, fictional characters using superheroes as models. Perhaps charged from seeing The Avengers or just passionate about fiction, the crowd was all ears and masks. This craft lecture was presented by One Story‘s Workshop for Writers, which will be held July 22nd to July 27th in Brooklyn. Along with daily workshops, and professional publishing panels, similar lectures will be held every day of the workshop, helping writers improve their work on the page with practical advice from talented authors and teachers.
Hannah began her lecture by revealing a personal trick she uses whenever a character she is writing feels flat: she opens a new page on her computer and starts listing facts about the character, using superheroes as her model. As an example, she reviewed the basics of everyone’s favorite superhero, Superman.
- Name: Superman.
- Costume: Red, yellow, and blue spandex with “S” logo and cape.
- Superpower: super strength, super hearing, super speed, flight, x-ray vision, heat vision, arctic breath.
- Weakness: Kryptonite.
- Backstory: He was placed on a rocket as an infant while his home planet of Kypton crumbled around him. Then he was found and raised by the Kents in Smallville, Kansas, where he developed and mastered his superpowers.
It’s the backstory, Hannah explained, where the most interesting information on your character is hiding. Superman is an orphan—the sole survivor of an entire planet. Batman’s parents were murdered in a back alley. Bruce Banner’s life was destroyed after he was exposed to gamma rays and started turning into The Hulk. Once you know a superhero’s backstory, they start to have more texture. It works the same for characters in fiction: by sketching out the basic elements as you would for a superhero, an author can translate crucial questions about the people they are trying to create on the page:
- What is the character’s name? (sometimes a name alone reveals a lot about a person).
- What does he look like (his costume)?
- What is he good at (his superpowers)?
- What are his weaknesses (emotional or plot-based)?
- What is his back story?
The final question Hannah asked is the most important and propels the character through the story: what does he want? This desire becomes his motivation, and fuels all of his actions and decisions. To give some examples of characters quickly and vividly established, Hannah turned to Charles Dickens. Magwich in Great Expectations provides a brief but deft example of how this information can be rendered on the page:
“Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!” A fearful man, all in coarse gray, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.”
With these lines, the reader not only gains a clear and frightful image of Magwich from the sound of his voice and the details of his appearance, but also learns his backstory as an escaped prisoner (without being explicitly told), and understands what he wants: freedom.
After looking at a few other Dickens characters, Hannah asked the crowd to don their masks. Then the audience created their own superhero, deciding a name, superpowers, weakness, and backstory for One Story managing editor Adina Talve-Goodman, who gamely donned some spandex, a cape, a mask and a shield. Her most impressive superpower? Smelling like lavender. (It must have been the purple tights.)
After fielding some great questions from the crowd, Hannah ended the night with this last piece of advice: “Love your characters—make them people you care about and like Pinocchio, they will come alive in the story.”
Events like this free craft lecture give One Story a chance to open our doors and extend our literary community. For this same reason, we invite you to apply to our third annual Workshop for Writers. We hope you will take advantage of this opportunity and join us this summer! Deadline to apply is May 31st. For complete details, go here.
Our new issue, “The History of Living Forever” by Jake Wolff, was pulled from our slush-pile by Sam Katz—one of our eagle-eyed readers here at One Story. As soon as Sam shared this piece with me, I knew that it belonged in our pages. Set in China in 210 BCE, this compelling tale follows Xu Fu, fangshi to the Emperor, as he sets sail in search of the fountain of youth. Based on actual myths from China & Japan, this short story reads like an epic novel. I hope you all enjoy it as much as I did. And now here is Sam Katz, issue editor for “History of Living Forever,” who will give a proper introduction to this wonderful historical adventure. -HT
On the surface, “The History of Living Forever,” is a story of epic and ancient scope. There are giant man-eating sharks and a mythical mountain island guarded by gods. There is unrequited love and feats of loyalty and that most primal of quests: the search for immortality. It is a story fit to be read aloud to an audience. But like any great story, it is ultimately carried by the actions of individual characters—in this case, the decisions of two men. A man in the hull of a wayward ship must choose between his friend’s life and his own happiness. Another, at the other end of the world, decides the fate of a thousand virgins. Narrated in concise prose, Jake Wolff mixes myth and fiction in a tale of exploration that takes us on a journey from the docks of Warring States China to the open sea to the white sand beaches of the mythic Mount Penglai. We are thrilled to welcome him into the One Story family. To find out more about “The History of Living Forever”—including what Jake would do with eternal life—please check out our Q&A with the author.
There are many great workshops to choose from this summer and it is difficult to know which one is right for you. One Story understands and would like to invite you to a sampling of our 2012 Workshop for Writers. In addition to daily intimate workshops, and evening panels with publishing professionals, each day of our July 22-27th workshop will include a lecture from a talented and generous author on the craft of writing fiction. On Thursday, May 17th at 6:30 pm at One Story’s home base, the Old American Can Factory, (232 Third Street btw. 3rd & 4th ave. in Brooklyn) Editor-in-Chief Hannah Tinti will lecture on character, using the model of comic book super heroes. Please join us to see how understanding the dynamics behind Spider-Man or Superman can help us create our own believable characters in fiction.
Last year Hannah revealed the secrets of revision. Her five draft process is easy to follow and extremely helpful. The writing process can be a journey through the dark but these craft lecturers are full of practical advice that illuminate the path ahead.
The evening will begin with a cocktail reception. Workshop leaders Marie-Helene Bertino and Will Allison will also be there to answer any questions you might have. This event is a great opportunity find out if the One Story summer workshop is right for you and a chance to meet our staff (in super hero garb). See you there!
If you would like more information on this event or the workshop you can email Workshop Coordinator Michael Pollock at firstname.lastname@example.org.