Many of us turn to writing fiction because we are drawn to character. We want to invent characters and know them completely, and yet the most compelling characters must possess the ability to surprise even their creators. In this class, for writers of all levels working in any genre of fiction, we will push beyond what we know and go deeper into character. What questions should we ask ourselves besides the essential but hardly sufficient, “What does my character want?” What greater potential for story emerges once we’ve discovered more about our characters, central and peripheral? Our work together in this class will focus on voice, agency, and interiority as critical elements of character in fiction. We will complete weekly writing exercises, readings, and all students will receive one letter of instructor feedback in response to their submitted work. Students will leave the class with strategies for deepening their knowledge of characters and writing heart-driven fiction that will captivate readers.
- Tools to create compelling fictional characters, using voice, interiority, agency, and memory
- An understanding of how characterization impacts other elements of craft, such as setting, image, detail, and plot
- Four completed writing exercises that help you establish the multidimensionality of your characters
- One letter of instructor feedback based on your four exercises. This letter will be designed to develop your awareness of your skills as a writer as well as tasks for further growth
Week 1: Voice
Writers and readers often talk about “voice”—the voice of an author, the voice of a character—but it can be difficult to define. Is voice merely how a character sounds? How does voice shape the meaning of a work of fiction? How do you craft an intriguing voice for a character no matter the point of view you’re writing in?
Week 2: Inner Life
What is interiority? Why does it matter and how does it show up in fiction? What does it have to do with description, point of view, and interaction with other characters? Does writing interiority make for quiet, introspective fiction? How can inner life drive narrative movement in fiction?
Week 3: Choice
All fiction features characters doing things, but not all actions are significant or interesting. How do you write action that reveals character and advances a larger narrative? What if you’ve written a character who is passive, or stuck, or facing large, seemingly immovable obstacles? How do you write characters full of agency, no matter their background, traits, or circumstance?
Week 4: Memory
Every character has a life before the page, whether in a novel or a short story. How do you differentiate between what you know about a character and the knowledge that must be available to a reader? When is it appropriate to use flashback or summary to reveal backstory? How much is too much backstory? What are other techniques to reveal a character’s history without dipping into the past?
Naima Coster is the author of Halsey Street, a novel of family, loss, and renewal, set in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn. Naima is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Cosmonauts Avenue Non-Fiction Prize, judged by Roxane Gay. Her stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Catapult, Arts & Letters, The Rumpus, Kweli, Guernica, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere. Naima holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia University. She has taught creative writing to students in jail, youth programs, and universities.
“I first had the pleasure of meeting Naima Coster in a creative writing workshop at Columbia. Since then, and following the publication of her excellent novel HALSEY STREET, I have often found myself thinking of her exquisite descriptions and incisive social commentary. When she read my work in workshop, Naima's feedback was consistently astute, wise, and generous. As a writer, editor, and teacher, Naima offers a thoughtful and perceptive take, with concrete steps for improvement and suggestions to transform writing into its optimal state. Any student of hers will be in exquisite hands.”
“Naima Coster is definitely a writer to watch. Her clear-eyed writing interrogates race, class, and family in a refreshing and thoroughly engaging way. A lovely and thoughtful book.”
“In this lovely novel, Naima Coster captures, with depth and nuance, the yearnings, ambivalence, and insecurities of a woman on the brink of adulthood. In the process of healing old wounds, Penelope Grand must mend complex fractures in relationships with her estranged mother in the Dominican Republic and her father in Brooklyn. An exceptional debut that explores how to find meaning within the shifting emotions and tangled webs of connection.”
“With this debut, Naima Coster has established herself as a major new talent of literary realism. A tale of what happens when your own past is rendered as unknowable as your future, this family story looks at all the different ways loss defines us. Brooklyn is under trial for Coster’s Grand family in a way any New Yorker can recognize, but Coster goes the additional mile to investigate the nuances of the gentrified and the gentrifiers. Race, ethnicity, and class are masterfully challenged in this narrative of self-discovery and the quest to preserve one’s heritage while honoring lifesaving transformation. A brilliant debut.”
“Naima Coster is a dream editor: generous, insightful, incisive, and astute. She’ll kill your darlings with kindness while helping you hone the themes running beneath and reinforcing the foundations of the work. She’s smart, very well read, and wide open to the possibilities in her art and yours. She’s as gentle an editor as she is a teacher, and just as gifted.”
“Naima is an incredible writer and editor. She reads with generosity and good faith, always aiming to help the writer achieve their goals. She asks probing yet respectful questions that helped me see my work in new ways. I feel lucky to have worked with Naima, and I highly recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity.”