I just took a lot of pills. Not the scary pills that put you to sleep for a long time, I’m talking about cold medicine. Came down with a head cold today (thanks, kids) and while it’s no more brutal than any previous head colds, the current one always feel the worst.
So anyhow, whether induced by a cocktail of anti-sinus, anti-congestion, and anti-feellikepoo medicine or because I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, I decided to toss out some random writing tips.
I’m working with a promising young man that I believe has a lot of unpolished talent. We’re writing a novel together, the first of – I hope – many. In the process of doing so I’m helping him fine tune his craft and finding myself reminded of many things I learned along the way. It also helps me make sure I stay sharp on my own prose!
To that end the first item I think is worth mentioning is character detail. It is essential to flesh out a character for a reader. Flaws and quirks need to exist and be described, otherwise how will a reader become intrigued, enamored, or annoyed by them? This emotional connection is necessary – yes, even the annoyed one – because it means the reader is invested. He or she has acknowledged your story at that point and it has meaning to them. It’s worth something. They will read more because they want to know more. And beyond that, the odds are better that they will share their thoughts with others, who will in turn become intrigued and want to find out for themselves.
But showing how Adrian gets red faced and goofy every time a girl smiles at him is one thing. Telling ad nauseum how each smiling girl has blond / brown / red hair to their shoulder blades and C / D cup breasts in 34 / 36 / 38 inch bras above there 22/24/26 inch waists and—oh, you’re eyes are glazing over and you don’t care? Exactly. If she’s got a noteworthy rack then have the character notice it (trust me, if it’s a male character, gay or straight, he’ll notice it). Don’t go into great lengths about crap that won’t stick and don’t matter. It slows the story down and does not improve the experience.
A further reason for showing how a character is without listing their resume is to allow some ambiguity. How many times has a book been made into a movie and the readers find out that the actor playing their favorite character is NOT right. The character is supposed to look like x, not y. The list goes on. Well, we can’t increase the available talent at Hollywood to fit every possible character, but we can open it up to allow the readers to connect with the characters in their own special way.
For example, if I tell you that Carl is a weathered looking man that stands stiffly against the wind in his army jacket, you probably paint a picture in your head of him being older (weathered), and either active or, more likely, retired military. The picture in your head might even have him holding a rifle of some sort (for the record it’s probably an M4). If it’s relevant to the story I might add a line where someone notices his green eyes stripping away their smile to dig out the real person they are. Now you know he’s got green eyes and a gaze that can make a person uncomfortable. The rest of it you’ve made up.
Does he have combat boots on? Are his hands chapped and his finger nails broken and rough? Does he have any scars or maybe a chipped tooth? If it’s not important in the story I don’t know. But you do. You’ve drawn the picture in your head by assigning bits of pieces of people you’ve seen that fit the description with what you’ve been told or imagined. You know what Carl looks like, and your Carl may not look like my Carl. That’s okay. That’s better than okay because that means you became invested in Carl, and by proxy, the story itself. A reader has to have room to breathe with a character so they can interact with them in their own way.
Writing is a lot of work, but it’s work that’s shared with the reader. We, as humans, have the greatest appreciation for the achieving and accomplishing things that are challenging to us. Writing a book is a challenge. Reading a book is too. Don’t scoff, think back to that first big novel you read and how you felt when you closed the last page. You were emotionally moved, not only by the words in the book, but by the fact that you had just managed to read all of a big ass book! And you liked it!
Reading is more than just interpreting words. It’s more than comprehending them. It’s also about tying in what you know with what you’re being shown. You create the picture and the story, the book is just the script for the movie in your head. The more work you do without realizing it, the more it means to you as a reader. That’s the job of a writer, to give you all the tools you need to create an epic story that thrills, excites, titillates, upsets, scares, and fulfills you. The more easily our words are crafted to make it possible for you, the reader, to do that, the more successful we are.
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I’m working on getting ready to launch into part two of Vitalis (what? Read this: http://booksbyjason.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/artistic-license/), but I’m a couple of characters short. So I thought, for a change of pace, why not give the readers a chance to personalize a book! Put in some comments here and tell me about somebody you like / admire / can’t stand who could be turned into a character in a book.
I’m looking for characters that are not really all that interested in being law-abiding citizens. I can’t go into too much detail without spoiling it though. I suppose they could be undercover law enforcement of some type. It’s science fiction, taking place significantly far in the future – far enough that humanity has expanded to live in multiple star systems and can travel between them with relative ease.
Propose somebody I like and use and I’ll be sure to hook you up with a free version of the finished product. How’s that for incentive?