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Monday, 25 July 2016

"Make Your Characters Live" And Other Writing Platitudes

I spend a lot of time hanging out with writers. Not in a smoke-filled coffee house, absinthe-sipping kind of way, but in a spotty nerd online in his mother's basement way.
What 'hanging out with writers' really looks like most of the time.

Now that's cleared up, it's probably time to get to the point - which is that I come across quite a lot of writing advice, much of it to do with how to write good characters. Most of this advice is along the lines of "make your characters live" or "when your characters do stuff you didn't plan, then you know you're on the right track."

This is annoying on several levels. As advice, it's utterly useless. The first example doesn't actually mean anything and the second is both unhelpful and not necessarily true. And all of it together is a bit like being a boxer's corner man and offering something like, "Hit him quite a lot and really hard." It's basically answering a question about how to do something with vague instructions as to what should be done.

So let's talk about the how.

When writing fiction, what we're mainly trying to do is create an experience for the reader. I'm aware that many people who write fiction are doing so because they feel compelled to elucidate their grand and unique vision of the universe, or because they think it's a cheap replacement for therapy, but I'm mainly concerned with people who want to write good stories. And those people are as much or more about the story and the reader as they are about their own special inner specialness.

In creating an experience for the reader, what we ordinarily do is provide a proxy consciousness in the form of the narrator. This means that the narrator, regardless of the 'person' being used, needs to perceive and conceive in a way that is familiar, or at least understandable, to the reader. Let's take the example of walking into a room. When we enter a room, most of us do not make a detailed accounting of every single object within, and nor do we completely ignore these objects until we wish to interact with them. The eye falls naturally and in a predictable way. We obtain an impression of size, note key pieces of furniture and decoration and any people who might be inside. Sometimes, we take note of what can be seen out the window. Given this, it should be a relatively simple matter to describe a room. All that need be done is to consciously emulate the normal pattern of the moderately observant eye, and then remember to add in anything which might be crucial to the plot.

A prose description is not a detailed catalogue. Unless, of course, you're writing a catalogue.
Or if your name is Andy McNab.
The same principle applies for characters. One should ask the question, "Of what, in fact, does another person's existence consist?" Examined clearly, the answer tots up to a surprisingly short list. When we 'know' a person, this knowing consists of little more than a jumble of impressions and images held within our minds. Generally speaking, our experience of the 'other' is limited to just a few telling aspects. A signature context or environment, one or two physical mannerisms, a habit of speech, some dominant characteristics - stupidity and a quick temper, for instance. Layered on top of this we might have a vague idea of their beliefs, profession, some likes and dislikes and one or two signature ways of moving or walking, though usually only if we know them quite well.

Given that our narrator is a sort of proxy consciousness, and that this consciousness should be recognisable to a reader, then creating a believable, life-like character is actually pretty simple. All we need do is re-create those aspects of another person which make up the existence of others as it is experienced within our own minds. Some writers put these elements in a spreadsheet of some sort and tick them off as they are revealed through action and dialogue, whereas others use a less accountancy-based approach. Either way, it doesn't really matter. The essential thing is that no amount of laboriously telling the reader who someone is, no potted biography, no matter how detailed, is ever going to measure up to a method which echoes the memories and experience of your own consciousness and, by extension, the reader's.

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