I have a hard time reading in public, because I’m very… let’s say interactive with my reading. I make faces, I get up and pace, I yell at the characters, I (carefully place a bookmark on my page and then) hurl the book across the room.
It’s such a common practice for me that I sometimes forget that not everybody else acts that way all the time. I was talking to a less violent reader about it, who had this to say:
Stacy: I have done that in two other cases. One: reading Lord of the Rings. Two: reading Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. // It is like the story itself slaps you with an unexpected left hook. And you are all glass jaw and feelings.
Me: I’m curious– which part of the The Lord of the Rings got to you?
Stacy: Sam facing Shelob. // He yells Elvish and it is a miracle that he knows it. // And then Tolkien is all “by the way, this monster is older than Elves and finds the attempt adorably useless”. // And I screamed at Sam because he doesn’t know. // Elves are everything. And good. And like a secret crazy weapon. So good vibes that Sam has that. Then… dashed.
I hear a lot of advice about surprising a reader by doing the unexpected, and about using dramatic irony to build suspense. Usually those pieces of advice are in completely different conversations, but they can come together beautifully to leave the reader completely shattered– as Stacy put it– all glass jaw and feelings.
Isn’t it ironic…
By definition, dramatic irony is what you get when the reader knows something that the character doesn’t. You’ll see something big revealed during a prologue, or you’ll have seen Psycho and Silence of the Lambs before watching Bates Motel and Hannibal, and every moment after that is just waiting for the ax to fall on the unwitting characters.
With a situation like Sam’s in The Lord of the Rings, you get something a bit different.
After all this time, the reader has caught on to certain rules. These are the tropes upon which the world (or even the entire genre) is built, and the reader has learned to predict what will come next based on those rules, right along with the character. And then you learn that the context has changed, just in time to watch it all fall apart.
Everything in moderation
The thing about this technique is that you can’t use it often. Joss Whedon and George R. R. Martin are both famous for their ‘anyone can die’ philosophy– and so while it might have been shocking the first few times a beloved character meets an unfortunate end, after a while the readers stop trusting them. They hold characters at arm’s length and hold pre-emptive funerals for their favorites. But they’re master storytellers; change the rules once too often, and you may lose your credibility to the reader.
I had one particularly bad experience in which we got so many flip-flops between magic and science (“there is magic in this world!” “Just kidding, it’s sufficiently advanced technology!” “Just kidding, it’s actual magic!” “Just kidding, it’s actually technology!”) that it was starting to sound like the author was just making up new rules as they went along, without any plan or consistency, and I gave up entirely.
Use gut punches like this sparingly– they’re most effective when they’re unexpected.
Look at the rhythm of your scenes. Some scenes are obviously building up to a big shock, and so the reader is likely already bracing for impact before it strikes.
This is one of those situations where mood whiplash would come in handy.
Even if gut punches are effective, they won’t affect everyone equally. Make sure the scene is strong enough to be plausible even if the reader isn’t caught up by shock.
It may not be the most hilarious page Mr. Wiener* has ever penned, but it makes a lovely point about conflict.
(*Yes, that is his name.)
One person’s bad day is another person’s best day ever– and in a lot of cases, you can’t have one without the other. Take, for example, a lion and an antelope: either the lion and her cubs risk starvation and the antelope gets to live another day, or the lion gets to eat while the antelope dies a horrible death. Neither can win except at the expense of the other.
Often the people involved have no idea what’s going on, which creates room for all kinds of tragedy. A sweet moment between father and daughter becomes horrifying when it’s colored with the extinction of an unknown society. Hamlet’s single-minded investigation into his father’s murder takes a sickening turn when he unwittingly drives Ophelia to madness and suicide. Edmund’s fondness for that lovely woman in white and her Turkish Delights inadvertently gets Aslan killed.
Of course, when characters do know the whole story, it creates a whole different kind of conflict: suddenly you’ve got questions like “which of us deserves to come out on top?” and “is what I have to gain worth what they have to lose?”– the answers to which can speak volumes about that person’s character.
For the most part I’ve been dealing with pretty large-scale conflicts, but not every struggle needs to be life-and-death. Often you’ll find out as much– or even more– about your character by the way they handle small disputes.
Whenever I meet a new volunteer at the bookstore, I introduce myself as Loudmouthed and Opinionated (seriously, my rants are pretty much legendary). But you don’t need to be able to go on hour-long rants to have an opinion. In fact, most opinions don’t need to be stated outright, because often they’re so ingrained in your worldview and belief system that it bleeds through into your everyday language.
This is also true about characters. And hopefully, those characters don’t spend nearly as much time as I do ranting their opinions to anybody who wants to avoid doing work for the day.
An important part of narration (especially first person narration) is finding the character’s voice. A lot of people accomplish this by making the character off-beat, sarcastic, funny, or just plain weird– but that doesn’t always mesh with the personality of your chosen narrator. A great way of bringing out that personality and adding color to that voice is to let the narrator’s opinions take forefront. The way they see the world will inform huge swaths of their perceptions of the world around them.
Consider the following sentence:
I walked into a large building that stood on a wide lawn.
That’s bland. It’s unimaginative. It’s boring. Now let’s add in some personality. A few made-up-on-the-spot characters and their opinion of the same building:
Architect: I hurried between an arrangement of Roman columns, glancing up at a vaulted ceiling so high I had to crane my neck to take in its full scope.
Agoraphobe: The building was a lousy shelter from the overwhelming expanse of the lawn; the pillars felt like some giant monster’s fangs, open wide to swallow me whole.
Guerrilla: The openness of the green space was unnerving. The inside of the building wasn’t much better, but at least I could take some cover behind the columns.
Gorilla: Finally I find some trees– but there’s something wrong with these. They’re cold and hard and have no branches. This place smells wrong, like lemon and leopard piss.
For each of these, that one sentence (or couple of sentences) might very well be the only time the building is ever described, and none of these are particularly time-consuming descriptions. But each of these sets the stage with a setting, a mood, and an insight into the mind of the narrator. The end result is often prose that is dynamic, compact and (hopefully!) just plain interesting.
I was watching this episode of the Nostalgia Critic, in which he analyzes M. Night Shyamalan’s travesty The Last Airbender and compares it to Avatar: The Last Airbender, upon which it was based. I recommend you check it out, too– you won’t be disappointed.
He made one point in particular, though, that stuck with me:
“You have a great set-up for an emotional moment. Aang is seeing all his past lives. The power and weight of who he is should hit him at this very point. But instead, what do they do? Try to explain more exposition… And that is the problem. Whether you’re aware of the show, or you’re not aware of the show, the movie is all explanation with no humanity. Why do you think they waited twenty minutes to ask [the protagonist] his name? Because that wasn’t what was most important to Shyamalan. The identity? Who gives a shit. It can’t be nearly as important as explaining and explaining and explaining and explaining.
I DON’T FUCKING CARE!
And you know why? Because I never once heard anyone in this movie say ‘I feel this’ or ‘I like this’ or ‘I wonder this’. There are no emotions being addressed. Traditionally storytelling is setting up a character, sending them on a journey, and learning more about them through the journey. Last Airbender is just chess piece storytelling. Character goes here. character goes there. Characters says this. Pawn to King Four. So in this scene, which should have been the emotional pinnacle of our main star, it’s just more explaining about what happened, rather than why it happened.”
We’ve all heard the standard “Show, Don’t Tell,” but I got something a bit deeper out of Doug Walker’s commentary: don’t let a work’s story usurp its soul.
What does that even mean?
Shyamalan’s problem with The Last Airbender was that he tried to include all the mythos and backstory of a three-season television series in a two-hour movie, and he does it at the expense of the characters emotions and interactions. I’ve noticed that I have the same problem in my own writing. I get so caught up in the backstory and worldbuilding that I forget that the characters are supposed to be taking center stage in this story. It’s what Walker calls “the most essential element of telling any story; if the character can never express any emotion, why should the audience ever express any emotion?”
The same holds true whether you’re trying to tell a character-driven story or a plot-driven story. The characters are our way of connecting to the events going on. If we can’t relate to them on some level, the story becomes little more than a textbook.
Like I’ve said, I’m still working on this myself. But here’s some fixes that I’ve been experimenting with:
If the backstory is more interesting than the protagonist’s story, try telling that one instead.
If a subplot is taking up needless space but isn’t strong enough to be swapped for the A plot, consider cutting it entirely.
If the reader doesn’t receive this particular piece of exposition/explanation, will they be utterly incapable of grasping the plot from this point on? If the answer is no, you’re probably safe to cut it.
That isn’t to say a deep and well-thought-out world and backstory is a bad thing. In fact, it can become fuel for the sorts of significant details that make a world feel lifelike, creates more well-rounded and interesting characters, and can add subtext to dialogue. But in all three of these cases, the effect is strongest when that backstory is omnipresent, rather than being described every thirty seconds. After all, you don’t need an advanced degree in physics to feel the effects of gravity. Just by seeing it acting around us, we have a pretty strong grasp of what it does.
It’s a writer’s job to explain, to take that vivid picture in your head and use words to paint it in mine. That takes a lot of effort, a lot of detail, and a lot of words. Sometimes, though, those words can clutter the sentences, bog down prose, or otherwise get in the way of the image. We’re left walking a razor’s edge: too many words, and you risk overwriting. Too few, and you risk not being understood.
(That’s the last blade-pun, I promise).
You might notice the problem: it’s very difficult to identify that line in your own writing. After all, you already know what you’re trying to convey. For a matter like this, which is dependent on clarity and reader understanding, I recommend getting a beta editor to look over your manuscript and point out which sections are unclear or overwritten.
What is overwriting?
There’s different varieties, but these are the ones I see most often:
Purple prose — When the writing calls attention to the author instead of the story or characters. Often it comes in the form of waxing poetic at length about… anything, and it typically comes across as the author trying too hard to be fancy. That’s not to say good writing can’t be poetic, but you’ll often get a stronger effect with a single significant detail than with a paragraph-long abstract description.
Needless repetition — Sometimes it’s as subtle as using both a dialogue tag and an action beat for the same section of dialogue. Sometimes it’s characters repeating the same information to one another. Sometimes it’s a word or phrase being reused too frequently in a short space, when one or more of them could be replaced by a synonym. And sometimes it’s the same detail being given in two different ways.
Understood — “He reached down to his belt level, wrapped his hand around the hilt of his sword, tightened his grip, contracted the muscles in his arm and shoulder, pulled the weapon from his scabbard, and raised it into the air in front of him.” Or, once my scalpel has had its say: “He drew his sword.” There are a lot of secondary and tertiary details that readers will assume to be true when they’re given a little bit of context. The biggest offender: “he said, looking at her.” If two people are in a conversation, unless it’s explicitly stated they’re avoiding eye contact, we will always assume they’re looking at one another, because that’s the way people hold conversations (outside of movies and television, of course).
Unnecessary words –– Descriptors can often be trimmed if they’re understood. For example, “He sat down in the chair” can usually be slimmed into “He sat in the chair” (unlike “he sat up in the chair”, which indicates an entirely different action). Similar examples include “stood up” and “woke up“.
These are all things to give you ideas, but like all writing, it’s subjective. In the end it all comes down to whether that word or phrase helps to create a vivid image or emotion in the reader’s mind, or whether it’s just clutter. .
I like to think of myself as a casual gamer, more interested in stories than actual shoot-em-up action– which is why Amnesia: The Dark Descent is a big favorite of mine (even if I can’t fix the stupid elevator). While playing Amnesia’s shorter tangent, Justine, I wound up in what I fondly like to think of as the Potato Room. (Starts at 8:00)
(Note: works best when watched full-screen in a dark room).
Part of the gameplay of Amnesia is the utter helplessness of the main character. Trapped in a castle full of monsters, you have no hit points and no way to fight them. Your only hope is to run and pray they don’t catch up, or hide until they pass you by. Unless you’re in the Potato Room, apparently, where a monster circles endlessly through a room, and you have to sneak past it unnoticed.
I didn’t know this the first time I got to this area. So when I heard the monster coming, I hid in the corner, behind a bookshelf, and waited. My lights ran out, and my character quickly lost her sanity in the dark. The screen pulsed in and out of focus to the sound of her frantic heartbeat, and she repeatedly lost consciousness and fell sideways, in what I’m guessing is a fetal position on the floor. For (I kid you not) twenty minutes of real time, I sat and waited, straining my ears for snarls and growls, unable to look at the monster without my character passing out again.
Then I had a friend look up a walkthrough, and I felt rather silly for trying to wait out the monster instead of sneaking past.
Not too long after, my husband initiated a conversation he and I very much needed to have. I no longer remember what it was about, but it was one of those things that I very much needed to do, and very much didn’t want to. The cornered, desperate feeling started me on a slight anxiety attack. My heart was racing, my breath was shallow… and when I shut my eyes, I could see the Potato Room: the darkness, the shadows crawling in the distance, the pulsing screen, the sounds of the monster shuffling closer by the second. Since then, the Potato Room has essentially become the place my mind goes when I get anxious and frightened.
The power of Potatoes
This isn’t unique. Into The Free opens with Millie hiding under her porch and witnessing a mother dog killing and burying her litter of newborn pups– which is referenced again almost every time we see child abuse throughout the book (and dear lordy, there’s a lot of it). In Going Bovine, Cameron begins his story by retelling the day he almost died on a ride at Disney World– a bittersweet experience which he describes as the happiest day of his life. But while the technique isn’t unique, it’s often unique to that book. The sorts of experiences strong enough to become a character’s Potato Room are often mundane (unlike, for example, a first date or first day of school, which are usually considered noteworthy), but they’re weighted with a particular emotion that makes the place leap out every time that emotion resurfaces. They’re a great way of really delving into the depths of a character and giving them a detail that is purely his or her own.
Do any of your characters have a place that holds particular emotional weight for them? Where is it, and what emotions are attached to it? Tell us about it in the comments!
According to Wikipedia, an archetype is defined as:
A statement, or pattern of behavior, a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated.
The Platonic philosophical idea, referring to pure forms which embody the fundamental characteristics of a thing.
In Jungian psychology, archetypes refer to a collectively inherited unconscious idea, pattern of thought, image, etc., universally present in individual psyches.
Archetypes can refer to a constantly recurring symbol or motif in literature, painting or mythology. This usage of the term draws from both comparative anthropology and Jungian archetypal theory.
In literature, The Mentor is an archetype (Gandalf, Obi Wan Kenobi, Dumlbedore, Giles from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, and so forth). So is the Everyman (Arthur Dent, Bilbo Baggins, John Watson… basically every character Martin Freeman has ever played). You can find twelve examples of them here— or spend the next two weeks of your life lost in the digital labyrinth that is TV Tropes. But while some archetypes are universal, every writer has a couple of tropes that are their personal favorites.
So here are two (three?) of mine:
The Pet Tiger
I began noticing these sorts of characters as a teenager. Izark/Izaac in From Far Away/Kanata Kara. Vegeeta in Dragon Ball Z (to some degree). Sesshomaru in Inuyasha. Yes, I watched a lot of anime during that time of my life. Recently, I would refer to Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Castiel from Supernatural as Pet Tigers, as is Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite... though he’s got the less common designation of being an anti-hero to start out with, rather than an outright villain.
The pet tiger is a person who is powerful– often insanely so, to the degree that they first appear as a small-scale villain. They’re big, they’re scary, they could snap you like a toothpick. But then they have one too many run-ins with the wrong person (TV Tropes refers to this person as a Morality Pet). They’re forced into prolonged exposure to that person, for some reason can’t kill them, and they start to appreciate them– as a friend, as a potential lover, as somebody to protect, it doesn’t matter. Somehow, usually completely by accident, they wind up tamed. They still growl, but they don’t bite nearly as often– unless somebody hurts the Tiger’s Morality Pet. At that point, there is no force on Hell or earth that can save you from their wrath.
In my writing, Pet Tigers tend to be associated with cats or dogs– predators that in their larger forms famously eat people, but which we keep as loving pets.
Jara and Kya
If the name Kya is familiar, this is why. Once upon a time, my best friend and I started working on a story together. The two main characters were originally based on ourselves– and then stylized and exaggerated so many times so as to become something else entirely. My character’s name was Jara, hers was Kya.
The Kya is bright and bubbly, trusting and naiive– not because she’s stupid, but because she can afford to be. She’s nice to everyone and give them the benefit of the doubt, because if they betray that trust, she knows the Jara will royally mess them up. In comparison, the Jara is quiet, and usually only opens her mouth to be snide, snarky, or strategic. She naturally assumes the worst of others, and is ready with contingency plans for anything that could possibly go wrong. Usually violent ones. Often the Jara tries to experience joy vicariously through the Kya, usually by spoiling her rotten and letting her have her way, and tends to express anger on both of their behalf, so the Kya doesn’t have to deal with the consequences of such an outburst. They tend to be at least slightly codependent on one another, and stories tend to grind to a halt when they’re separated: the Jara is too practical to do anything adventure-worthy of her own volition (better to bunker down and fortify), and the Kya too whimsical and optimistic to stay alive very long without somebody to watch her back.
Will and Jem of The Infernal Devices are essentially poster children for the archetype. Supernatural‘s Sam and Dean sometimes reflect the Jara/Kya dynamic, but not nearly as much as do Flynn and Rapunzel from Tangled. Kyouya and Tamaki of Ouran High School Host Club also fit the mold to a degree.
I put a Jara/Kya pair in every work, even if they’re very minor characters. They’re easy enough to find: When I write them, the Jara of the pair always has ‘ara’ somewhere in her name. I like to think of it as a personal signature, not unlike the way Terry Pratchett always has Death make a cameo in the Discworld novels, even if he’s not part of the main plot line.
Admittedly, Pet Tigers and Jara/Kya pairs aren’t that far apart. A Jara could well be a Pet Tiger who’s had several years of practice. Generally Jara/Kya pairs have a longstanding history and tend to act as a unit rather than individually, while the Pet Tiger is more often seen grumbling alone in a corner until he’s needed.
Sensing a pattern here…?
I’m not shy about admitting that I’ve always had a thing for devotion that borders on the obsessive. Miss Pross is my favorite character from A Tale of Two Cities, as are Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings and Conseil from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea… and Lindy is eternally tied with Maladonis Bin for my favorite character in Kindar’s Cure. These are the kind of characters I like to read about, and therefore they keep winding up my writing.
Do you have any personal tropes or archetypes you go out of your way to include– or ones that keep cropping up in your writing by accident? Tell us about them in the comments!
A while back I was working on a story with Kya, and I kept hitting a roadblock with one character in particular. She was an ordinary teenager tossed into a magical world. Unfortunately, she was also more grounded than she was practical. Looking at the magic, she started coming up with every possible explanation: that she’d been dosed with something and was hallucinating, or that she was dreaming.
No matter what she witnessed, nothing could disprove the idea that none of this was real. Now, this was a problem, because she was in a desperate situation… but wouldn’t necessarily react to it with desperation, because she firmly believed that it wasn’t real.
In the same way, absolutely nothing could possibly disprove the notion that you’re in the Matrix right now, aside from blind faith that The Matrix is just a movie. After all, any evidence we have could have been fabricated.
One of the first people who considered this idea (at least, the first who bothered writing it down) was a philosopher named René Descartes. He pointed out that everything he learned could be a lie, or a dream, or the influence of a “wicked demon” bent on tricking him.
Bringing a character down the rabbit hole
As far back as Through the Looking Glass, characters have been stepping out of the ordinary into worlds beyond their imagination. Part of the drama there is figuring out how they come to terms with that, if they do at all. For example:
In Inception (as well as an episode of Doctor Who), the only way of escaping the deepest levels of the dream world is to die. So how do you know if you’re about to wake up, or just about to off yourself for real?
If you’re in a dream, then the other people in the dream are merely figments of your imagination. Therefore, does it matter if they get hurt? On the other hand, should you let yourself get attached to somebody who will disappear when you wake up?
If the “dreamer” believes they’re asleep, does somebody else take care of them? How does that interaction play out?
Does the “dreamer” ever come to grips with this new reality? What makes them come to that conclusion?
There are countless ways of playing out this scenario, ranging anywhere from the philosophical to the purely practical.
What about you? Have you seen any works where a character has decided to check out and refused to acknowledge reality? How do you deal with a character in this sort of situation? Let us know in the comments!
While I’m busy with grad school, I’ll be replaying some of the most-read posts from my old blog.
Some people instantly gravitate to one particular narrative style. The story they’re writing just naturally lends itself to one Point of View (POV) in particular. After all, who would want to read “That guy over there? His name is Jake,” as the intro to one of the Animorphs books? The same goes with Terry Pratchett’s stories– they just don’t work if you were to squeeze the whole story into a single person’s head.
Other stories, though, get a bit fuzzier, and we writers can get iffy on what POV works best for what stories. Hopefully, though, I can clear up a bit of that fuzziness.
This is the standard fairy tale narrator. It’s an all-knowing, all-seeing, omniscient being that intimately knows the thoughts, feelings and intentions of everything. The Third Person uses words like ‘he’ and ‘she’ and ‘it’ and ‘they’, rather than ‘I’, ‘you’, ‘us’ and ‘we’. As with the First Person, a lot of its pros are cons, and vice versa. Continue reading “Nitpicking Narrators – Part II: He gazed into the sunset”→
I’ve heard a lot of people say gender doesn’t matter– that we are all equal in soul and under the skin– and I’m not arguing that, with or against. But it’s undeniable that society changes our expectations of how men and women look, think and behave, and how they should be portrayed– at least on some level. The Hawkeye Initiative plays with this concept a lot, pointing out that what we consider acceptable poses for female comic book characters are just plain ridiculous when you make a male character try to pull them off.
Even in my own writing, gender plays a big role in how my characters behave. My first finished manuscript began as an idea for a character, but without a sex to go with it. After consulting with my little sister, I decided the name was more feminine than masculine, and the rest of the story fell into place. I can guarantee that it wouldn’t be the same story if Chicago was a teenage boy being stalked by his childhood maybe-girlfriend. In another manuscript, I’ve got a very powerful and confident woman… who, when genderflipped, stops seeming powerful and starts looking like a sexual predator.
I’m not saying all traditional gender-based behaviors and actions are necessarily bad, but they do open the doors for us to gain some new perspective.
If you’re having trouble writing a scene, try flipping it– all the dudes are now chicks, all the chicks are now dudes, all the MtF are now FtM, etc– and write it from that perspective. What are they saying that they weren’t saying before? What are they suddenly hiding? Pay attention to the changes in their body language, changes in vocabulary.
Once you’ve written it gender-bent, go back and turn it right-side-up (or maybe you’ll find it works better that way, and change the rest of the story to match it). If you decide to keep your initial gender roles, rewrite that scene back in the old style, but still pay attention to the body language, the vocabulary, the taboos and secrets and posturing. You’ll be amazed what you find.