Showing posts with label #setting. Show all posts
Showing posts with label #setting. Show all posts

Friday, March 5

How to Write a Genre Story: Characterization and Character Description



(Note: I'm starting a series of interviews with other writers. If you would like to discuss being interviewed, please contact me on Twitter (@WoodwardKaren) or via email: karenwoodwardemail@gmail.com. I would like to talk with you!)

The Importance, and Unimportance, of Character Description

I realize that opinions differ about this, but when I first started writing I thought that I needed to describe what the protagonist looked like in great and gory detail and preferably in the first few paragraphs. I thought the reader had to know the protagonist’s hair color, its length, the shape of her face, her height, her taste in clothes, and so on, as soon as possible.

Now, I believe that--while it’s good to let the reader know what your main character looks like before she gets too far into the story--you shouldn’t try to make it the first thing you describe. If you disagree with me let me make my case and then, share your view in the comments. I’d love to talk to my readers about this.

The Character of Characters

I don’t identify with a character because of her long luxuriant hair or cute dimples, I identify with her--or at least become curious about her--because of the kind of person she is (I’ll get more into this in a moment).[1] Yes, a character’s looks may have something to do with this, there are other qualities that are much more important. 

I do think it’s important to communicate what the character looks like (long or short hair, what color, and so on) before too long, otherwise the reader will form their own idea what the character looks like and when I tell them differently the reader will likely be grumpy about having to update their already formed image. [2]

Characters are the most important part of any setting

As anyone who has read my blog for any length of time knows, I admire the way Stephen King can draw me into his story world in a few paragraphs. I used to think dark magic had to be involved. Now I realize that King’s magic has to do with showing us the inner workings of his characters, of their contradictory souls.

I want to talk about this but, first, let’s look at the first few paragraphs from one of Stephen King's best books, The Shining (1977).

First Three Paragraphs

"Jack Torrance thought: Officious little [so-and-so].

"Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men. The part in his hair was exact, and his dark suit was sober but comforting. I am a man you can bring your problems to, that suit said to the paying customer. To the hired help it spoke more curtly: This had better be good, you. There was a red carnation in the lapel, perhaps so that no one on the street would mistake Stuart Ullman for the local undertaker.

"As he listened to Ullman speak, Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk--under the circumstances." (Stephen King, The Shining) [1]

An Analysis

Right away, I noticed three things about these paragraphs. First, King uses them to describe the characters and not the room. We understand the characters and only then do we get to the physical setting. Second, the setting reflects the personality of one of the characters in the scene. (I go into how setting is linked to character development in my post, “dkdkdkd.”) Third, the setting increases conflict between the characters in the scene.

a. Character first, setting second.

The first time I read the above paragraphs I don't think I realized that Jack Torrance was in Ullman’s office or that he was there for a job interview. But that's okay, I was still drawn into the world of the story. So, obviously, that information wasn’t essential, at least not right away. Also, the question, “What, exactly, is happening here?” was important enough to me that I wanted to keep reading.

What is important is that we get to Jack and that Jack--and the situation he is in--makes us want to read on. I didn’t understand why Jack was so angry, why he hated Ullmann so much.

Notice, though, that after reading the first three paragraphs we don’t know the color of each man's hair, we don’t know if the walls are painted or wallpapered, we don’t know what kind of desk Ullman has, and so on.

We do know the important things, though. We DO know that Jack is an angry SOB and that he hates Ullmann. And we get it, right in the first sentence. Jack views Ullman as an individual deserving of contempt. But… Why? After all, in the third paragraph Jack admits to the reader that regardless of what Ullman said or did he wouldn’t have liked him because--if things worked out well--he was going to be Jack’s boss. And, right there, we see not only that Jack is capable of being honest with himself but that he has a problem with authority, and it isn’t a small one!

Let’s drill down into the nitty gritty of what the first three paragraphs tell us. In the very first sentence we are told that the protagonist’s name is Jack Torrence. We also have something of an idea how old Jack is, an age range because of the language used. For example, a child probably wouldn't have thought 'officious' and wouldn’t have the kind of interaction with Ullmann that Jack is having. It seems like something formal, something that a child’s parents would be present at. The word “officious” belies not just an adult's vocabulary but also either an educated person or someone who reads a lot. 

Also, a child who thought "officious little [so-and-so]" (depending on their temperament) might well have also said it. But Jack didn't. He's angry but controlling it. 

And, finally, that first sentence also gives us the point of view: third person, subjective.

"Ullman stood five-five, and when he moved, it was with the prissy speed that seems to be the exclusive domain of all small plump men."

From the second sentence (I'm only going to talk about the first two) we learn that Ullman is short and fat and that Jack thought he was prissy. It's interesting (interesting to me at least!) that while we're told how tall Ullman is, how he moves, that he's plump--quite a number of physical details--we aren't given any of this information about Jack Torrence, the protagonist.

But that makes perfect sense, doesn't it? After all, we're seeing all this from Jack's perspective, from the narrator's point-of-view which is firmly ensconced in Jack's mind. As a result everything Jack sees, everything the narrator tells us about the world, also tells us about Jack. And Jack--this character--couldn't care less about his hair color or how it's cut and styled. One feels Jack would label that as 'prissy,' something Ullman would be concerned about. 

It isn't until a few paragraphs later that we learn what we are watching is a job interview and that the characters are in Ullman's office:

"He slipped Jack’s application back into the file. The file went into a drawer. The desk top was now completely bare except for a blotter, a telephone, a Tensor lamp, and an in/out basket. Both sides of the in/out were empty, too.

"Ullman stood up and went to the file cabinet in the corner. 'Step around the desk, if you will, Mr. Torrance. We’ll look at the floor plans.' He brought back five large sheets and set them down on the glossy walnut plain of the desk. Jack stood by his shoulder, very much aware of the scent of Ullman’s cologne. All my men wear English Leather or they wear nothing at all came into his mind for no reason at all, and he had to clamp his tongue between his teeth to keep in a bray of laughter. Beyond the wall, faintly, came the sounds of the Overlook Hotel's kitchen, gearing down from lunch."

The second thing that jumps out at me is that ...

b. Intimate settings reflect the personality of the characters.

I went into this in great detail in my previous post, so I won’t belabour the point here.

When Stephen King--or, rather, the narrator--describes Ullman's desk (see the passage, above), he is describing Ullman. He is describing items--the desk, the chair, the in/out basket--that Ullman has impressed his personality upon. These setting details, therefore, are a reflection of Ullman's character, of who he is and how he wants the world to be. 

(See: How to Write a Genre Story: Setting: How to Show Not Tell)

It is only in the last paragraph that we are given the information that these characters are at the Overlook Hotel and that it's just after lunch. By this time we know that Jack was enduring a job interview ("He slipped Jack's application back into the file"). But I am only interested in these things because, now, I am interested in these men--particularly Jack--and the peculiar tension between them.

c. Use elements of the setting to introduce conflict.

As I’ve mentioned, Stephen King uses the setting--which largely consists of the two men, at least at the beginning--to inject a mammoth amount of conflict right from the first line: "Officious little [so-and-so]." But, as I mentioned above, Jack's thoughts tell us more about him than about Mr. Ullman:

"Jack admitted to himself that he probably could not have liked any man on that side of the desk--under the circumstances."

What are the circumstances? King doesn't answer this question right away. He lets the information unfurl, naturally, like we're perched on Jack Torrance's shoulder, riding along with him on this most disagreeable of days, a voyeur learning about Jack and his world. But notice what he’s done, he has gotten us to ask a question and now he’s making us wait for an answer. (For more about Lee Child and how to create suspense by asking a question, see these articles: Writing a Genre Story: How to Create Suspense, Parts of Story: The Preconditions For Suspense, Lee Child On How To Write A Book Your Readers Can't Put Down.)

After those three paragraphs I was hooked.

Describe only those aspects of the setting that are relevant to the scene's purpose.


Keep description focused.

Each scene has a purpose: the protagonist wants to achieve some goal and they probably won't. At the same time, each scene must advance the overall plot and move the story closer to the final, inevitable, showdown between hero and villain. 

Here are elements each scene needs to communicate to the reader:

- Who is the main character, the FOCAL CHARACTER, in the scene?
Jack

- What is the focal character's GOAL? 
To get through the interview without insulting Ullman and in possession of a job.

- What must the focal character accomplish to ATTAIN that goal? 
Control his temper.

- What OPPOSING FORCE prevents the focal character from attaining their goal? 
Jack’s own temper. And Ullman.

- How does the focal character MEET THIS OPPOSITION? 
Jack contains his anger.

Once you answer these questions you'll know what information needs to be communicated in the scene. I’m not saying that no more than this information can be communicated, but unless this information is communicated the scene won’t make sense.

Make sure that each setting has been described in enough detail, and with enough emotion, to ground each turning point. Part of this is making it clear what has led up to these changes.

If a detail of setting doesn't contribute to answering any of these questions then it might not need to be included in the scene. Perhaps it would be better placed in another scene. Or another novel. 

I hope some of what I've written, above, is of help in deciding how much description is enough. In the final analysis I agree with Stephen King: It's all on the table. Use whatever you want, especially in the first draft. Experiment, try new things! After you've set your manuscript aside for awhile and come back to it, and read it with fresh eyes, then it will be easier to see which parts work and which don't, as well as where you've described too much or too little.

That’s it for today! I hope you’ve found something useful in this. If so, leave a comment. If not, and you’d like to tell me about it, please leave a comment! Whatever you do, good writing. Cheers.

Notes:

1. Notice that these paragraphs were written in third person and yet King seems to have achieved all the intimacy of first person. I've written a bit about how Stephen King might have achieved this--one of the techniques I think he makes use of--in this post: Free Indirect Discourse: How To Create A Window Into A Character's Soul.

2. The idea is that what interests me as a reader isn’t the length of a character’s hair. Take Jim Butcher’s character Harry Dresden, the only professional investigating wizard as an example. He has a proper wizard’s laboratory in his lodgings, it’s in a hidden basement no one knows about. Harry is unrepentantly snarky--a true curmudgeon--and yet can’t help himself when a beautiful woman asks him for help. Also, he collaborates with a spirit named Bob who lives in a human skull. After the first page of Butcher’s first Dresden book, Storm Front, I knew I wanted to know more about Harry. From reading what I’ve just written about him, do you have something of an idea who Harry Dresden is and whether you’d like to read more about him? If so, note that I haven’t said anything about what the character looks like.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like:

Saturday, February 27

How to Write a Genre Story: Setting: How to Show Not Tell (Part 2)



Summary: Setting is an essential part of good writing because a well developed setting helps a writer show rather than tell. Each object in a story has a function, a purpose, a goal. This implies that if we were to get a peek into the hero's--or villain's--lair, that simply by looking at the objects that are most important to him would allow us to, in a sense, read the character's mind. We would know who they really were, what they wanted as well as what their goals were. In what follows I unpack this idea.

Nothing is more important to character development than setting.

At least, that’s what I think. After you’ve finished reading this, let me know if I’ve convinced you.

Setting enables a character to become who they really are and, in so doing, shows what that character wants and why they want it. Setting puts the character’s passions on display, it reveals their loves, hates, fears, strengths and weaknesses.

Don’t believe me?

It will take me a few paragraphs to develop this idea, so hang in there. It’ll be worth it.

Things and Goals

Look around. You’re surrounded by things. I’m sitting cross legged in my black office chair typing on a keyboard. There are miscellaneous pens scattered in front of me, a coffee grinder, a pair of reading glasses, a magnifying glass, a box of sticky notes, a desk lamp and a cup full of steaming hot coffee. 

But… So what? What do any of these things mean

Well, why do I have any of them? I need my pens bcause without them I couldn’t scribble in my writing journal and that wouldn’t be good because that’s how I write most of my rough drafts. Now, I don’t always like writing rough drafts, but I do it because I like eating and having a roof over my head. 

Each object on my desk is like my pens in that each has a function and, as such, is tied to a goal. 

Here’s another example. When I was a teen one of my best friends, Carl, was always on a diet. His Achilles' heel was junk food, when he was stressed he couldn't resist it. 

One day we were meeting up with friends so, being kind, he drove by my place and picked me up so I didn't have to take the bus. When I climbed into his car the first thing I saw was a discarded Big Mac wrapper that had escaped the garbage. That discarded wrapper told me quite a lot about him: he was stressed and, because he'd had a Big Mac recently, he was feeling guilty for cheating.

Goals and Things

Okay, so far so good. Now let’s talk about goals. 

In a story, every object is tied to a goal via either it’s function or by what it represents. (If it isn’t tied to a goal, why have it in the story?)

I think that all things--and therefore all goals--could, more-or-less, be said to fall into one of three categories: things we need to SURVIVE, things we use to PLAY and (for lack of a better term) things associated with DEEP MEANING. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Survival 

In life we do certain things (for example, go to work at a job we hate) to get other things (like food and shelter) we need to survive. 

My example for this category is a briefcase. A briefcase isn’t wanted in and of itself, but only to the extent that it would help someone achieve their goal of helping them at their job. Now, this isn’t to say that everyone who owns a briefcase hates their job, but my guess is that if 100 briefcase owners were each given 10 million dollars they would quit their jobs and divest themselves of their briefcases. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. 

This goal is all about removing the negative--starvation and homelessness. There is nothing the person values in itself in pursuing their goal of being employed. I could imagine that some people, upon retiring, burn their briefcases!

Play

We do other things (for example, go fishing) to get things (for example, fish plus a feeling of tranquility) that we like. As with the above category, certain objects, certain ‘things,’ can be associated with this activity. For example, a fishing rod. A fishing rod isn't wanted in and of itself, but only to the extent that it would help someone achieve their goal of helping them catch fish. 

But, unlike the survival category, this goal is not just about removing the negative, it is also about introducing a positive, desired, emotional or mental state. Associated with this kind of goal is something a person values in itself (for example, a feeling of wellbeing). I could imagine that some people, upon retiring from fishing, still keep their fishing rods as a reminder of good times, or perhaps they gift it to a young friend.

I’ll talk more about this, below, but of course while we perhaps have a stereotype in our heads about what the ‘average’ fishing experience is or why people fish (I fished quite a bit as a child) of course not all people have positive experiences or mental states associated with fishing. In this case such a person might toss their fishing pole into the garbage (similar to the briefcase). BUT this would be unusual and so would (or so I think) make us curious WHY. We don’t need an explanation for why a person would enjoy fishing, but we do need one for why they hated it. Again, this is my claim, please feel free to disagree!

Deep Meaning

We do still other things (for example, get married) to get things (a family as well as a purpose in life) that we love, things that bring a deeper meaning to life, things that help us structure our life, things that provide a framework. I’ve called this category ‘deep meaning.’ 

Certain objects, certain ‘things,’ can be associated with states-of-affairs that bring our lives deeper meaning. For example, a wedding ring. Generally speaking, the ring isn’t wanted in and of itself, but only to the extent that it symbolizes the desired state-of-affairs of being married, of the commitment one spouse has made to another. This state-of-affairs is something the person values for itself and it will greatly change their life and how they move about in the world. 

I would expect that were the relationship to end suddenly that the nature of the relationship and the reason for its termination would affect one’s attitude toward one’s wedding ring. For example, if a beloved spouse passes on then I would imagine the ring would be treasured, kept. If John has a nasty divorce I wouldn’t be surprised were he to toss his wedding ring into the ocean or garbage can.

What we have so far:

There are certain objects (e.g., briefcases) that are stereotypically associated with negative things and others (e.g., wedding rings) that are stereotypically associated with deeply meaningful wonderful things (e.g., marriage). Still others (e.g., fishing rods and playstations) have some emotional valence that falls somewhere in between the two.

So, to recap. The idea is that objects have functions and that these functions imply particular goals. Therefore, when writing a story, in introducing an object with a particular function or one that represents a certain thing, you are also introducing a goal, one that might say quite a lot about the character. 

This is an essential part of showing not telling.

Using Setting to Show Not Tell

An example: Carl

Let’s go back to the example of my friend Carl. The Big Mac wrapper implied something about his goals and the extent to which he was achieving them. If I were writing a story about Carl, the discarded McDonald’s wrapper would say quite a lot about my friend’s success in achieving his weight loss goals. But, also, and more importantly, it would tell me he was under a lot of stress. He wouldn’t have to say anything to me in order to communicate this information, all I needed to see was that discarded wrapper. That’s a big part of showing and not telling.

So there are objects, and objects have a function, and objects are tied to goals via their function. Also, we have either positive or negative feelings about an object based on loosely two things: First, how we feel about the goal and, second, how efficiently the object gets us to that goal.

You can see where I’m going with this. Since the possession of an object can imply a goal, a desire, what objects your characters have in their homes, their private abodes, say quite a lot about first, what face they want to present to the world and, second, what they really care about. It can tell the reader what the character loves, what she wants, what she hopes to achieve. That goes to the essence of characterization.

But that’s not all.

Kicking it up a notch: Breaking Stereotypes

This is really what this post is about: How to use the juxtaposition of setting and character to create conflict and surprise. But before I talk about that let’s get more specific about desires and goals.

Mixing it up: Subversion of Expectation

Comedy

Comedy often results when an object that is used for play is used instead for survival. For example I can imagine a modern day Wednesday (from the Addams Family) being forced to play on a Playstation as though it were much loathed homework. This would tell us A LOT about Wednesday and the values of the Addams family.

One of the things that separates an entertaining story from a boring one is that an entertaining story will have a few of these surprises.

How do we do this? 

One way we can both surprise and intrigue the reader is to take an object that is commonly associated with one category--say a wedding ring--and have a character feel about it the same way we normally feel about a briefcase. 

Terror

Have you seen the 1987 movie Black Widow, the one starring Debra Winger? Here’s the description from IMDB: “A federal investigator tracks down a gold-digging woman who moves from husband to husband to kill them and collect the inheritance.” So, for Catherine, the murderer, her wedding ring had the same emotional significance as a new briefcase would have for the average person. When it comes to understanding such a person that’s a valuable piece of information! That sort of thing paints a powerful picture.

Or how about this: Imagine you have next a door neighbour who everyone thinks adores his wife. She passes after a lengthy illness. He seems devastated. A couple of days after she passes there is a bad windstorm and garbage cans are tipped over, their contents strewn about all over the block. On your way to the store you pass your bereaved neighbours home and see that the wind has tossed the contents of his garbage can all over the road. There, in front of you, is his wife's wedding ring. That would be a good opening for a mystery!

The Harry Potter stories used this device. There are two things here. First, school is more in the survival category, not many children are terribly excited about going to school or doing homework. But J.K. Rowling, first, made a character--Hermione--who loved doing homework like many people love football or hockey. 

Second, the entire school is one that many of Rowling’s readers dreamt of attending! She took something--schooling--that usually is in the “I need to do something I don’t like” category and put it in the “play” category by uniting it with the idea of wizardry, of learning how to control magic.

Show Don’t Tell

You might be thinking: well, Woodward, isn’t that all just a part of characterization? Yes! But to SHOW who a character is we want to have the character react to something important to them--to someTHING in the setting. In doing so, the character will be brought to life. 

(Jim Butcher has written about how to create an interesting character.)

Also, when we take a thing that normally belongs in one category and put it in another, our character is shown to be unusual. That’s a good thing because unusual characters are memorable characters, and memorable characters are fun to read about.

Finally, a thing that characterizes the fictional person is the relative proportion of, say, survival items to play items. Or play items versus deep meaning items. What would it say about a character if his man cave had NO deep meaning items, NO survival items but a lot of play items? He would seem to be a playboy, a dilettante, someone who was truly interested in nothing and lived only for the pleasure of the moment. But (putting a twist on this) what if (as in The Scarlet Pimpernel or Batman) our hero had a secret room that was full of objects from the survival and deep meaning categories? That would indicate that his playboy image was a ruse, a smokescreen.

Summary

It’s fun for me to think about objects this way, it helps me understand the characters I’ve loved in new ways. I hope you’ve gotten something from my ramblings, perhaps a slightly new way of thinking about something you’ve always instinctively known. I hope it was worth it. 😀

(By the way, if you write--you don't have to have anything published--and would like to be interviewed, tweet at me (@WoodwardKaren).)

Thanks for reading! This post took me a long time to write, I’m hoping to have my next blog post up next week. Good writing.

Other posts in this extended series (I'm blogging a book):
How to Write a Genre Story: The Index

Where you can find me on the web:
Twitter: @WoodwardKaren
Pinterest: @karenjwoodward

Blog posts you might like: