From the General to the Specific

specific

From the General to the Specific

Let’s talk specific rather than general. It’s very common for writers to pen something like:

Jen was very bossy. She was always telling her co-workers what to do. Even with her family, nothing got done unless she okayed it.

Not the end of the world as writing goes, either good or bad. But weak, I think. First of all, it has the air of telling the reader what to think about the character (which is bossy in and of itself) and no, following it up with corroborative examples from the office and home don’t make it less tell.

Now, if Jen is a very minor character, then I’d let it go. You presumably want Jen for some limited purpose which, once achieved, she will drop off the literary cliff into oblivion. If that’s the case, the example paragraph might work.

But if she is more major, then starting off with this sort of general descriptor doesn’t work as well.

Specific first

Let’s do the scene again.

“No, not there.” Jen moved the vase to the edge of the table.

“But it might tip over,” Clark objected.

“Nonsense. It balances things much better.”

“But I want Lilly to see them as soon as she comes in.”

“She can see them fine from here,” Jen held the vase firmly in place.

So, here we see Jen do something specific. The word ‘bossy’ doesn’t get mentioned but we get the message. And in a way which is more vivid and therefore more likely to stick in the readers’ mind.

This specific approach has other advantages. It allows the reader to come to his own conclusion about Jen’s personality and the act of doing so involves and commits him more to your story. You allow him to make an emotional investment in the character.

This applies in many places

This specific first approach works in many venues. Here are a couple of examples.

General Specific
The mountains were beautiful One peak, the tallest, had caught the sun on its tip and was holding it there, balanced, as if a daily trophy.
The man was old His hands. Not claws exactly. But not not. He shuffled over to pick up the glass.

Again, don’t need to do this for absolutely everything. But if there are points which you’d like the reader to remember, go with a specific example from which the reader can generalize to the conclusion you’re aiming for.

Do I hear, “Doesn’t this take longer?”

Yes, the old bugaboo. It does take longer to write and takes more work. But is your aim to write the fastest and easiest piece of literature known to man (sic)? Of course not. That’s writing jingles. Instead, you want to use every trick you can to engage the reader so that no matter how long you take, he is with you all the way.

Establishing a Character Trait

trait

Establishing a Character Trait

This might be another fiction is not life post in that what you do on the page, might not be what happens in real life. You want to provide your lead character (let’s call her Dani) with a trait, either positive or problematic, to create a rounded character. Say Dani is shy.

In real life, and over an extended period of time, you’d probably notice various actions—not talking much, avoiding social gatherings, spending a lot of time alone—which would lead you to conclude that Dani is shy.

But in fiction, if this shyness figures significantly in the plot, you need to establish this fairly early on in a way that sticks in the reader’s mind. Then you can build your story with that understanding firmly entrenched and avoid the reader being confused by what might seem like Dani’s puzzling or at least unexplained behavior.

Just a note—in this post, I am talking about a characteristic on which you might be building as part of your plot. It is NOT the character trait or flaw which you spend the entire novel unfolding so that the climax is partly the reveal of the presence or absence of the attribute.

All right, so it’s hard to think of a climax whose conclusion includes, “Oh, she’s shy. Now I get it.” But it makes more sense if we’re talking courage, self-sacrifice, selfishness, etc. The subject of this post is the quality (e.g. shyness) you want to nail down early on to support/mitigate/excuse/contextualize the final conclusion on the heroine’s personality.

Building a Character Trait

You already know that having somebody say of Dani, “Gosh she’s shy,” is tantamount to tell in quotes. Efficient but not effective. If you want this to stick in the reader’s mind, it needs to be more than a passing comment.

If you can, and it fits well into the plot, you might have a scene where Dani shows her shyness in a way which is memorable, probably because it embarrasses her or puts her in an awkward position. She might be asked a question whose answer she flubs, to the merriment of those listening and to her humiliation. Whatever fits into the plot.

Having established this fairly early on, you can even give the reader the pleasurable sensation of being in the know. Every time Dani is faced with a potentially difficult situation, the reader knows how she’s likely to react.

In addition, doing an establishing scene fairly early on means you just need to drop reminders of the trait occasionally without elaborate explanation.

Evolving a characteristic

Sometimes, it’s enough for your plot that you have shown that Dani is shy and she stays that way for the rest of the novel.

Other times, however, you might need the trait to progress because it helps the story. For example, Dani may need to overcome her shyness in order to help the climax, whatever it is, to come to fruition.

If this is the case, you can’t go from church mouse at the beginning to roaring lion at the end. It’s going to be jarring and not all that credible. Instead, in the reminders suggested above, you might consciously build in small steps of bravery which make the final fearlessness both believable and satisfying.

See what I mean? In real life, Dani’s road to courage would be haphazard, two steps forward, one back, and even long periods in hiatus. In fiction, it is a more linear progression. That is a writer’s reality.

Do Your Readers Have to Like Your Heroine?

heroineDo Your Readers Have to Like Your Heroine?

In the last post, I maintained that you have to like or at least understand your heroine. So, it seems redundant to ask if your readers need to like her, too.

But the surprising answer is NO. Not if your heroine is compelling.

What is compelling?

In The 9.17% Solution, one of my protagonists was Jamie, a manipulative, scheming, damaged young man who plots his way up the corporate ladder.

One reader of an early draft announced, “I hate Jamie.”

Enough to sink the heart of any writer. “Did it make you want to stop reading?” I asked tentatively.

To which he replied, “No, I had to keep going to make sure the bastard got what he deserved.”

Writer heart started repumping.

That was when I realized that while it’s probably preferable your readers find your heroine sympathetic, it isn’t always necessary. You can do away with this requirement completely if she is compelling. That is, your reader wants to keep reading about her.

How do I make my heroine compelling?

Obvious next question: how? You’re gonna throw up your hands when I say I don’t know. I don’t know how I made Jamie compelling or whether he would be so for every reader. Perhaps the sense that Jamie was racing to an inevitable and unavoidable doom? Perhaps his flashes of humanity?

I bored everyone in my life for weeks, asking them to think of compelling literary characters. (Movies don’t count because the viewer has access to many more than the written word on which to base their judgement.)

It was tough. Anne of Green Gables? Scarlett O’Hara?

What it came down to is no paint-by-numbers list of characteristics or techniques. There didn’t seem to be a commonality among the suggestions; nor did everyone agree with every candidate.

But they all agreed that compelling characters made them want to find out what happened to the heroine even if she was despicable.

Again, it comes down to magic

I was forced to conclude that this is the magic that is writing.

You put the work into learning your craft. Showing when needed and telling when not.  Supporting the plot with description rather than distracting. Growing your characters. All to create a continuous dream in which your reader can reside.

Beyond that, you get at the core of the story by telling the emotional rather than literal truth. And every day, you are naked on the page. Bringing your unflinching self to writing, no matter how shameful, wicked, or shocking it might seem to you.

And then, you hope for the best. Hope that the work, the honesty, and the caring will be rewarded with writing that nobody can put down. That magic will strike.

Do You Have to Like Your Main Character?

likeDo You Have to Like Your Main Character?

Your main character—do you like him? Do you need to?

By and large, I would say that you do, if only to tolerate being around him while you’re writing the novel. And if you don’t like him, why would your readers? It’s hard to have sympathy or want things to work out for an unlikeable character.

Another way to think of this is as ‘getting’ your character. By that, I mean understanding your hero well enough so that you know how he would act outside the parameters of your story.

‘Getting’ my protagonist is something I almost always need to work on during the course of writing a novel. If I don’t feel I can see the world through his eyes, I have trouble moving forward.

Actually, I don’t like him

After consideration, you decide either that you don’t get your hero or you don’t like him. What can you do?

First, why don’t you like him?

You may find, on reading over the draft, that he comes across as superior or insensitive. The first instinct might be to go back and make him more humble or empathetic.

But I’d hold off for a moment to explore what’s behind these negative characteristics. In particular, ask yourself: Where is his humanness?

He’s superior. But people who look down their noses often are, deep down, scared that they themselves are wanting in some big and shameful way. Is that him? If it is and you can show the underlying fear and uncertainty, your readers (and probably you) will like him more or at least feel more sympathetic. You also create a much more complex character.

Similarly with his insensitivity. What underlies that? Does he walk all over people because he fears that if he doesn’t grab what he needs, he won’t get it? Doesn’t have to be that reason but whatever you decide on, ask yourself further questions. Why doesn’t he trust the world to give him what it needs? What would that look like? How would it come out?

So, although uncomfortable, not liking or getting your main character can actually produce some pretty useful results.

But don’t fall in love

So, now you like your main character. Or at least understand him. But don’t fall in love.

You know new love—the other person is perfect and can do no wrong. So, this is a boring character on the page. Allow the hero his dark side. You can understand him without excusing or explaining away his shadowy side. Makes for a much more interesting hero.

There is another, more pragmatic reason for liking your protagonist but still keeping a healthy distance. When you are editing your novel or having it edited, you or your editor may want/need to make ruthless cuts or alterations. It will be harder to see the necessity if you are convinced you have a perfect leading man.

Do I need to do this with all my characters?

I wouldn’t. First off, it’s a huge amount of work.

You might want to do the analysis of the antagonist is she is to be as complex as the protagonist. Another possibility is when the novel features two people who both figure prominently in the plot.

But I’d keep it to a dull roar. It really is a lot of think time.

Next post: do your readers have to like your protagonist?  You may be surprised at the answer.

Creating Reliably Unreliable Narrators

narratorsCreating Reliably Unreliable Narrators

In the last post, we talked about ways in which unreliable narrators can be unreliable. This post will take the types discussed last time and work through what you need to make each sort unreliable but still credible.

Narrators with believable unreliability

We believe her from the get-go

In this type, we don’t know until the end that the narrator wasn’t telling the truth. You need to pay attention to:

Keep the reader entertained. Because the big reveal is at the end, you need to keep the unsuspecting reader interested. The story must work as a story, even without the twist ending. Otherwise, the reader may not bother to keep reading.

Drop hints.  Having said that, drop hints along the way that the reader will not pick up as significant until the ending and which allow him to re-evaluate what he thought was happening.

Have a good reason for the ending. That is, the shock ending must make sense in the context of the story. If it doesn’t, you risk a Deus ex Machina. Or in the vernacular, your reader will be left with a what-the-hell? feeling. So, “I was unreliable just because I thought it would be fun,” doesn’t cut it.

We’re not sure of whether she’s telling the truth

Here, the suspicion comes up somewhere in the story that the heroine isn’t truthful.

Keep clues ambiguous.  For as long as you can, keep the clues as to the heroine’s real nature equivocal. Did she not see Larry or was she avoiding him? The longer you can keep the reader guessing, the better.

Resolve ambiguity.  I suppose it’s possible to end the novel with the reader no wiser than when he started. Might work but prepare for lots of angry letters. Because the reader has a theory of what is going on, he needs an ending that has him shouting either, “Ah ha! I knew I was right!” or “Wow, I didn’t see that coming! “ Either way, the ending can’t just whimper off. It needs a clear resolution.

Pretty sure she’s lying

Cue early on. Very early on, let the reader know what kind of story you’re planning. The heroine being taller than a tree would do it as would her boast of being faster than a car.

Have satisfying ending.  The ending needs to pull all the exaggeration and fibs together in some way. I know this sounds a bit vague but you are going for your reader smiling at the ridiculousness of the ending while still finding it satisfying. It doesn’t have to be any more likely or true than the rest of the story but it has to feel like it coalesces the disparate elements.

Believes what she is saying

Make heroine’s assumptions credible. This type is very similar to the first type in that we need to believe what the heroine believes. If her flights of fancy are too obvious, the reader may start to doubt her.

Drop clues, of course. But again, the clues need to be super carefully laid. If the reveal is to work, the reader cannot pull out of the continuous dream to think, “Really? If she believes this, why is she doing that?”

This might be a walk-before-you-run thing

My inclination would be to avoid using unreliable narrators until you’re pretty comfortable writing reliable ones. It’s challenging enough to create a believable tale; it’s even tougher juggling the conventions of the novel if you’re still working on getting the rules down pat.