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

Sunday, March 14

How to Write a Genre Story: Making a Character Memorable: Strengths and Flaws

How to Write a Genre Story: Making a Character Memorable: Strengths and Flaws


What makes a character memorable?

Deborah Chester writes in her article, Bonding with Your Characters:

"We want readers to either love or hate our characters. What we don’t want is a 'meh' reaction. Or even worse, 'Who? I don’t remember her.'"

The question: What qualities do vivid, well crafted, memorable characters have? 

1. Memorable characters are exceptional. Novel.

I want my readers to obsessively worry about my protagonist and loathe my antagonist. This only happens if I’ve managed to craft memorable characters, and exceptional traits are memorable.

We don’t fall in love with characters who are boring and forgettable. Think about Captain Hook in Peter Pan. The man is deathly scared of a crocodile who has eaten his hand, has a ticking clock in its belly and now views Captain Hook as a nice tasty snack. Or take Peter Pan, he is perennially young and has a feisty fairy--one with a mad crush on him--for a best friend.

What makes something memorable?

You could notice many things about your environment, so many things it would be impossible to take them all in at once. So, what do you remember? Of course it’s the thing that sticks out, the thing that doesn’t fit in, the thing that is conspicuously different from everything else.

Lukewarm, middle-of-the-way characters, don’t stand out and so aren't memorable. (BTW Jim Butcher, author of The Dresden Files and creator of the very memorable Harry Dresden, has a really good blog post on this, I urge you to read it: Characters.)

One of my favorite books is William Goldman's novel The Princess Bride. I love, or love to hate, every single character in that story. And I’m sure I’m not alone, If you've never read William Goldman's masterpiece, please, please, do. 

2. Characters need clear motivation.

A character's motivation and her goal are intimately related yet distinct. 

Let’s break this down. What is motivation? 

Motivation is a particular state of affairs that impels a character to pursue another state of affairs, one that represents the character’s goal. 

For example: Susie is in a boat frantically rowing toward a sandy shore. Why? What is her motivation? Susie is being chased by a huge shark with long white serrated teeth. Where is she going? What is her goal? Susie is heading toward the safety of the beach. 

In this example, the danger the shark embodies provides Susie her motivation for rowing and the safety of the beach is her goal. Yes, one could say that her goal is to escape the shark--and that would be true--but I think it helps to keep the states of affairs separate.

3. If a character has a strength, something she excels at, she will be more memorable.

Before we talk about the importance of skills and excelling, let’s talk about the importance of the antagonist being stronger than the protagonist.

3a. The antagonist should be stronger than the protagonist

Jim Butcher was the first person to make me realize that the antagonist needs to be a bit stronger than the protagonist. Why? Because throughout most of the story the antagonist needs to best the protagonist. Also, the struggle between protagonist and antagonist needs to be real and challenging and it’s not going to be if the protagonist is stronger; then we would expect him to win. If there isn’t a more powerful force pushing against the protagonist, motivating the changes he makes to his life, then the stakes introduced won’t make sense and the story isn’t going to be interesting.

Jim Butcher writes:

"Your villain has to have enough power, of whatever nature, at his disposal to make him a credible threat to your hero. Personally, I believe that the more the villain outclasses the hero, the better. David wouldn’t have gotten nearly the press he did if Goliath had been 5’9” and asthmatic."

Jim Butcher, author of the fantastically entertaining series The Dresden Files, has written a series of blog posts in which he gives extremely good, eminently readable writing advice. His posts are terrific, so much so that I’ve assembled an index for them here: Jim Butcher on Writing.

3b. The protagonist needs a unique skill that he becomes really good at toward the end of the story.

You might be wondering, “Well, if the antagonist is stronger than the protagonist, how could he beat him?” By changing, by growing, by learning when the antagonist doesn’t or can’t.[1] Also--and this is terribly important--the protagonist needs a skill, something that he does better than anyone else, and he needs to develop this skill throughout the story. 

Think of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars IV: A New Hope. Luke has a skill, something unique to him: He has the capacity to use The Force.

If the protagonist beats the antagonist at the end of the story this victory needs to be earned. (And, by the way, the protagonist doesn’t need to beat the antagonist, he can also lose, but those stories don't seem to be as popular! People like to have hope that tomorrow can be better than today.)

In order to earn their victory the protagonist has to be great at something, something that only he can do. In practise this means that the protagonist needs to have some characteristic, some trait, that will, in the context of the specific environment of the confrontation, allow the protagonist to plausibly beat the antagonist. 

Yesterday I re-watched Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was a lovely movie. If you’ve seen it, recall that Harry defeated Voldemort because of a special property related to his touch. His touch was deadly to Voldemort because Harry was still protected by his mother’s spell, the spell that resided in his blood.

Or, think of a mystery story, one of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot adventures. Poirot could solve mysteries that flummoxed everyone else because he used his ‘little grey cells’ and paid attention to the psychology of the situation. Mr. Monk, another wonderfully quirky detective, was aided by his obsessive and involuntary attention to detail. As Monk often said, “It’s a gift and a curse.”

4. Characters need weaknesses and flaws.

As I have said, a story is about change. It is about a character who wants something so desperately that he is willing to change who he is so that he can overcome a specific obstacle to achieve his goal. 

But, none of this change would be possible if the protagonist didn’t start out with a weakness. So let’s talk about the importance of flaws. 

Major Flaws

Generally, a major flaw is a beefy, serious thing that prevents a character from achieving his goal. This could be a mental illness such as Mr. Monk's obsessive compulsive disorder or what might be seen as a physical weakness like Dr. Watson had in the first episode of Sherlock (his psychosomatic war injury). 

Classic examples: some sort of physical malady such as the loss of a sense (sight, hearing, etc.), loss of memory, or a character flaw such as greed, lust, wrath, pride, and so on. Arguably, Walter White's weakness was his pride. Frodo's weakness wasn't a character flaw, it was the One Ring he carried that made him vulnerable to the siren call of the dark side.

Minor Flaws

Minor flaws are minor because they don't affect the main storyline in any significant way and are often played for comedic effect. Indiana Jones was scared of snakes. Jack Ryan was afraid of flying.

5. Exceptional characters are unique.

As I have said, each character in your story should be memorable and part of this is being unique. One way to achieve this quickly is to give each character tags and traits. I'll talk about this more in a later post.

That’s it! In my next post I’ll talk about a practical way to make characters memorable by discussing character tags.

Notes:

1. Strictly speaking, this isn’t true. In some stories the antagonist also grows and changes. For example, this often occurs in romance stories. Say there’s a female protagonist and male antagonist and these two characters begin the story hating each other but end it in a loving committed relationship. Here both the protagonist and antagonist will have changed and grown. These stories can be a wee bit tricky because the changes usually need to be complementary so that, in the end, the main characters grow together rather than apart.

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:

Wednesday, March 10

How to Write a Genre Story: Characters: How to Show Not Tell

How to Write a Genre Story: Characters: How to Show Not Tell


 Supporting Characters versus Main Characters

We want some characters to be one-dimensional, characters such as the impatient pizza delivery person or the chatty cabby. They walk on and off the page and are barely noticed. They briefly interact with one of our main characters and then fade from memory. As E.M. Forster writes in Aspects of the Novel:

"We may divide characters into flat and round. Flat characters were called 'humorous' in the seventeenth century, and are sometimes called types, and sometimes caricatures. In their purest form, they are constructed round a single idea or quality...."

Main characters, on the other hand, must be three-dimensional, and memorable. They must seem to live and breathe.

Direct versus Indirect Characterization

There are two ways of characterizing a fictional person: directly and indirectly. Direct characterization involves telling while indirect characterization involves showing.

You might think: But isn’t telling always bad and showing always good? In a word: no. Showing isn’t always preferable to telling, it all depends on context. We can't show all the way through a novel--not only would that be exhausting for the writer and reader but it would make the novel about a million words long! 

Showing is important when we’ve reached a plot point or when a main character does something significant. Then we want to slow down and focus on them and show.

Direct Characterization

If you wish to characterize your fictional person directly simply tell your readers about them. Here are a couple of examples from Stephen King:

"A small boy in a yellow slicker and red galoshes ran cheerfully along beside the newspaper boat." (It, Stephen King)

"She was so pretty, with pink cheeks and bright brown eyes, and her hair the shade of blond you know will darken and get mousey. Sweet is the only word that fits. Sweet and bright and innocent." (Carrie, Stephen King)

Indirect Characterization

As I've mentioned, indirect characterization is showing as opposed to telling. There are roughly four ways of doing this: characterization through action and thoughts, characterization through speech, characterization through looks and, finally, characterization through affect.


Characterization Through Action & Thoughts

Continuing with my Stephen King theme, here's an example drawn from his delightful paperweight of a book, Under the Dome:

"Some newscaster is blabbing away, using words like wonderful and amazing. The second time he says I have never seen anything like this, Martha mutes the sound, thinking Nobody has, you dummocks. She is thinking about getting up and seeing what there might be in the kitchen to snack on (maybe that's wrong with a corpse in the room, but she's hungry, dammit), when the picture goes to a split screen." (Under The Dome by Stephen King)

After reading that passage what do we come away thinking about Martha? She seems to be the kind of person who doesn't suffer fools gladly. She also seems ruthlessly pragmatic. If she wants to watch TV and drink beer and eat snacks then having the corpse of her great uncle in the room isn't going to stop her. What does that say about her? It's possible she's insensitive (an understatement), but she's been living under the dome for the better part of a week and none of these people are quite who they were at the beginning.

Here’s another quotation:

“He [Hodges] gets up and strides around in an unsteady circle on legs like stilts, yanking at his hair so hard his eyes water…” (Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King)

My attention was drawn to that particular quote by Larry M Edwards’ article, “Show, Don’t Tell: A Writing Lesson from Stephen King.” We can SEE the action here. If King had wanted to tell rather than show he might have written something like: “He was upset,” but of course that pales in comparison.

Characterization Through Speech

Here King shows, through a character's speech, just how addicted to alcohol he has become.

"I really need it [alcohol] Johnny. No joke. Just a little, to stop the shakes. I'll make it last. And I won't get up to no dickens. Swear on my mother's name. I'll just go home." (Stephen King, Under The Dome)

What does that passage tell us? Among other things that Johnny is addicted to alcohol. But that's never said. Also, the speech has a certain cadence; when I read it, it had a certain sound. It's pleading, almost whining--like a beaten dog.

Here's another example, this one isn't by Stephen King. Here Edith Wharton uses a narrator to describe a character's speech and, in so doing, describes the essence of the character.

In, “Coming Home,” Edith Warton writes:

"He [Greer] has a voice like thick soup, and speaks with the slovenly drawl of the new generation of Americans, dragging his words along like reluctant dogs on a string..."

"Dragging his words along like reluctant dogs on a string," that lays bare the character's essence.

Characterization Through Looks

How can we use how a character looks, his clothing, his characteristic stances, his expressions, to reveal his essence? In A Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin writes:

"He [Ser Waymar] wore black leather boots, black woolen pants, black moleskin gloves, and a fine supple coat of gleaming black ringmail over layers of black wool and boiled leather. Ser Waymar had been a Sworn Brother of the Night's Watch for less than half a year, but no one could say he had not prepared for his vocation. At least insofar as his wardrobe was concerned."

In other words, the narrator--Will--sees the knight as being all flash, no substance. He is a leader because of his birth but, in Will's eyes, it takes more than high birth to make one a true leader. These two sentences, then, give us information not only about Ser Waymar (he's vain, proud, young, and entirely unprepared for the challenges he will face), but also about the viewpoint character, Will.

Characterization Through Affect

We can use one character to reveal another character’s essence. Does she greet him warmly, does she sneer, does she cringe away? Here is another example from George R.R. Martin's work, A Game of Thrones:

"Ser Waymar's mouth became a hard line. 'No fire.'

"Gared's hood shadowed his face, but Will could see the hard glitter in his eyes as he stared at the knight. For a moment he was afraid the older man would go for his sword. It was a short, ugly thing, its grip discolored by sweat, its edge nicked from hard use, but Will would not have given an iron bob for the lordling's life if Gared pulled it from its scabbard." 

In the prologue to, “A Game of Thrones,” Martin shows how much story can be told in a relatively short space. Martin develops the character of Ser Waymar throughout the prologue and he does this largely by showing how he affects the men under his charge. The passage I gave above is just one instance of that. To put it mildly, he rubs them the wrong way. They think he is soft, young, and ignorant of the dangers of the cold and the forest. They don't trust him. In the above passage Martin shows what Gared, a wise old man of the Night Watch, thinks of one of the knight's orders; an order he is sure will get them all killed.

So! That's it. I hope you have a wonderful day. I'll talk to you again soon. Good writing!

Links and References

These articles are worth a close read:

- Polishing Your Prose, by Larry M Edwards
- Direct vs indirect characterization: 8 tips and examples

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:

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

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