Saturday, November 14, 2009

It Builds Character (A Letter To My Nephew)

Dear Jared, Your mom tells me that you have a story to write for school and want some advice on creating and introducing characters in a way that doesn’t detract from the storytelling. The most important thing anyone ever taught me was that stories don’t ever begin and they don’t ever end. We always join them in the middle and leave before they’re done. I know that sounds odd, bear with me for a moment. Say, for instance, that you are a character in a short story. The story is about what you did last Saturday and it begins with waking up Saturday morning and ends with you going to bed that night. Saturday is your story. But you didn’t spring into existence on Saturday morning and you won’t wink out of existence at the end of the day. Sunday morning, you will get up and do Sunday things. Your story didn’t begin with the first sentence of the story and end with the last sentence, your Saturday did. You existed before it began and you’ll go on once it’s over. The story is just a snapshot of one day. That’s probably the most important thing to keep in mind when you’re crafting any story, because you have to decide where you’re going to jump into a story that’s already in progress. There’s a name for that, by the way, it’s called “In medias res” which is Latin for “In the middle of things”. Characters are much the same. They have a beginning (they are born), the have a middle (they live) and they will eventually have an end (they die). But unless your story is ten thousand pages long, odds are you’re going to have to leave some of that out or your reader will never get to the good parts. So, we will almost always join them in medias res -- in the middle of their story. So, what do you leave out? What do you put in? Think about Harry Potter. How much do we know about Harry at the beginning of the books? He’s got messy dark hair and he wears glasses. Oh, and he has a scar on his forehead. JK Rowling takes a hundred pages to tell us that he’s a wizard with a tragic past. That he’s destined to fight Lord Voldemort has to wait another hundred pages. And we never get a complete description of the characters. We know Hermione has bushy hair and we know Ron Weasley is a freckle-faced redhead -- anything more than that is discovered later through the storytelling. For now, all the author needed us to know is that he’s a kid with glasses and a scar and that’s enough to get the story rolling. When you create a character for your story, it’s vital to keep in mind that they’re supposed to be a person, just like you or me or your brother, mom. dad, or teacher. We’re going to see a small fragment of their life in the story you’re writing and all we need to know about them is what’s important for the story you want to tell. Introduce characters quickly. Tell the audience as little about them as you can. Fill in the details as you go along. Another cardinal rule of writing is “show, don’t tell.” Rather than telling the audience all about how this kid with the scar on his head is really a wizard and has this evil enemy lurking in the shadows, just waiting to strike and he’s the chosen one… JK Rowling told us the bare minimum and let the rest of it come to light as the story progressed. She didn’t tell us, she showed us. How you show us will largely be a function of how you’re choosing to tell the story. And that means talking a little about Point of View. The key elements of storytelling and characterization will be mostly decided by how your readers are seeing the story. If the story is told through the eyes of a specific character, your readers only get to know what that character knows. This is called “first person”.
First Person: “The lady walked into my office. She had a hat the size of a super-deluxe pizza with all the trimmings. I could tell she was going to be trouble the moment I laid eyes on her.”
We only know what the guy sees, and more importantly, we only know what the guy bothers to tell us. He leaves a lot out because he’s obsessed with her wacky hat. It’s a great way to keep from having to tell your reader too much by having your character focus on the wrong thing. It’s a lot of fun to write like that and a lot of writers do it, but it gets really hard to write in first person because you can’t tell the readers anything that your main character isn’t there to witness and describe. Often this leads to some pretty preposterous stories because you have this one guy running all over the place, doing crazy and unrealistic things simply because the writer needs them to be there to tell the readers what’s happening. If you are telling your story from outside, seeing all the characters as if they’re in a movie and you’re not inside the head of any of them, that’s called “third person”.
Third Person: “Jordan dropped her cigarette as she tumbled out of the car. He took a step back and held up both hands as she glared at him with all the dignity she could muster. Now that he had her out of the car, he looked surprised rather than angry. An average-looking fellow of about thirty, bearded and tanned around the neck of the faded flannel shirt. Her gaze dropped to the dried mud on the knees of his jeans, pegging him as a gardener. “Smoking isn’t allowed on the school grounds, miss.”
Even in third person, description is kept to a bare minimum because your reader wants something to happen, they don’t want to sit and read Jordan’s resume. Almost all of my books are told in this style and this is an excerpt from my most recent novel. The two characters have just met and all we know at this point is that Jordan is a woman who got caught smoking (and she's a bit clumsy) and the man who caught her is average-looking, bearded and dressed like a gardener. It’s another twenty pages before you learn his hair color. I chose the passage above for two reasons:
  1. This is the only description of the main character that the reader ever gets.
  2. The character isn’t a gardener. I’m using Jordan’s perception of him in his grungy clothes to mislead my audience into believing that he is. At least for the moment. This is because, even though I’m using ‘Third Person’, I’m only telling the readers what the characters know about each other.
That last part is important. When you’re introducing a character, don’t venture much beyond what the characters could see if they looked at each other. Think back to what I said about characters being like real people. How much do you know about the average customer that walks into your parent’s store? You only know what you can see and what they tell you. Even when you’re talking about a good friend, you only know so much about them. Only show your readers what they absolutely need to know. My early novels and stories were almost all fantasy novels, which is what I believe you’re currently working on. It’s difficult sometimes to get this same information across in a fantasy setting because you’re worried that your reader doesn’t know as much about your world as you do. They won’t, and that's ok. They might not know specifically what a Ranger is, but all they really need to know is that the character spends a lot of time in the woods. Any special abilities he gets from his status as a Ranger (or a rogue, thief, wizard or whatever) can be unveiled in the story. And if you don’t get to it? Don’t worry about it. If it didn’t come up, it wasn’t worth worrying about and you have something saved for the sequel. -Uncle Scott

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).