Bend and Break

One of the more common problems I run into when editing fiction is the “dimensionless character.” You know her. She’s defined by…um…her lack of definition. She’s a paper doll trying to make a splash in a three-dimensional world.

Now, when I say “lack of definition,” I don’t mean she’s not well described (though sometimes this is also true). That she has pink streaks in her midnight-black hair is a fine detail, but it is a meaningless (and potentially unnecessary) detail unless we know enough about her to care why she has those streaks.

Perhaps it’s evidence of a rebellious nature. (That would be a reasonable guess.) But it could also be evidence of a playful, free spirit. What if it’s the consequence of a lost bet? Could it be a not-so-subtle cry for help? An invitation for love? Or maybe it’s a poignant picture of longing – a sincere-yet-misguided attempt to paint herself into a peer group that she knows will go all Star-Bellied-Sneetches on her the second they see her hair, quickly replacing their own pink streaks with beaded locks or some other look.

If the author has done a good job revealing the character, we’ll know exactly why she did it. Even if the reason goes against her nature, we’ll understand what prompted the act.*

So, how do you get there? How do you give your paper doll flesh and blood and a soul worth caring about? There are tons of ways to do this and I’m sure you’ve discovered many of them in that leaning tower of “Building a Better Character” books stacked on your bedside table. Write her backstory. Make up a resume. Base her on your crazy Aunt Lucy. All are fine ideas.

Now here’s mine: bend her until she breaks. Put her in situations that will test her mettle, challenge her beliefs.  If she continues to put on a Stepford smile and say “everything’s just fine” each time you toss her a challenge, try tossing her in front of a train.

Take away her friends, her family, her dreams. Push her, Job-like, to the edge and then keep pushing. (BTW, it’s okay if you don’t use these scenes in your novel. The point of this activity is to reveal the true nature of your character.)

If you’re doing this right, it’s gonna hurt you as much as it hurts her. Don’t shy away from that pain – it means you care what happens to her.

And isn’t that what you want from the reader?

*I’m not suggesting that you avoid all description until a character is well-defined. That would be silly. Use all the paints you want, but just make sure that somewhere along the way we learn enough about her to understand the why behind the what. Don’t underestimate the power of those “oh, now I understand” moments when a reader discovers a character’s underlying motivation for previous acts. They are just the sort of discoveries that bind readers to the characters and the story.

The Mysterious Importance of Mystery

Not so many years ago, my younger son became a fascinated by videogames. Like his older brother before him, this fascination grew into a full-blown addiction for a time. But unlike his brother – who suffered through the challenges of finishing a level using the age-old technique known as “if at first you don’t succeed, stomp your feet, pout, growl, try out a new word to see if your parents notice, then try again” – my younger son was known to ask, “is there a cheat code for this?” Younger son has always been rather pragmatic; he likes order and when he comes across an obstacle, he prefers a simple, ordered solution to a complex puzzle.

On some occasions, (like when I was too busy doing Really Important Stuff to be a good parent and drop to the floor, pick up a controller and help solve the problem right then and there) I went in search of his requested code, handed it over, and returned to doing Really Important Stuff. Looking back, I now see this was a mistake (one more to add to the growing list that surely will be enumerated someday in the privacy of a therapist’s office).

Cheat codes provide a shortcut around the very purpose of a good videogame: discovery. And by handing these to my son, I cheated him out of the joy of that discovery. The other day I came across a link to an article in Wired Magazine written by J. J. Abrams. Here’s a brief excerpt:

True understanding (or skill or effort) has become bothersome—an unnecessary headache that impedes our ability to get on with our lives (and most likely skip to something else). Earning the endgame seems so yesterday, especially when we can know whatever we need to know whenever we need to know it.

– excerpt from “J. J. Abrams on the Magic of Mystery” (Wired Magazine, 17.05. Click here to read the complete article.)

The article makes some rather salient points about the damaging role the “spoiler” plays in our Internet-soaked, “I want it now” culture. Spoilers (like cheat codes) have the potential to steal the mystery from a story. People still might have flocked to see The Sixth Sense had they known the ending, but the experience would have been less.

Much less.

I was thinking about this in relation to novels. What is it that keeps a reader reading? A compelling story is important, of course. Twists and turns, tension and release, uncertainty and anticipation all urge readers to turn the page in search of “what’s next.” Generous readers will often forgive cardboard cutout characters if the the pace and action are interesting enough to warrant continued attention. But well-written characters compel the reader forward for anther reason – because we care about them. Whether good or evil, kind-hearted or hard-hearted, want to know them. We want to follow their stories to a satisfying pause. There is a tremendous opportunity for mystery-that-leads-to-discovery in well-written characters because they’re as much in the dark as we, the readers are – sometimes even moreso. It is the question of who they will become, and how they will act and react along the way, that compels us to keep reading.

A few months back I was editing a novel that had a well-structured plot and interesting enough characters, but it just didn’t grab me as a reader. As I turned the last page (okay, as I scrolled to the bottom of the screen – you caught me), all I could muster was a response that teetered on the edge of damning with faint praise, “Um…that was nice.” Something was missing.

Here’s a beautiful paradox: what was missing was “less.”

After some spirited discussion about the manuscript, the author agreed with my plan to trim back the internal dialogue and cut a few scenes that explained away too much of the story. If I might return to the videogame metaphor, I edited out the cheat codes. The result? Well, we’ll see when the book hits the shelves, but I am convinced it’s a better story simply because of those (relatively minor) edits. Readers will have to do a little more work, a little more intuitive sleuthing, perhaps, as they read – but because of this, the turning of the last page will be accompanied by a satisfied sigh instead of a shrug.

A Book, Some Editorial Advice and a Picture of a Kitty & a Puppy

It’s Friday, which means absolutely nothing to a freelancer since all days end up looking the same. But for the sake of the rest of the working world, I’m going to play along. Hooray for the weekend! (For the record, I almost never use exclamation marks. This is not because F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote of them, “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes,” but because I rarely feel all that exclamatory. So, if you see one on this blog, it’s either a sign of the apocalypse or a snide comment on the sentence that precedes it. Listen for the sound of hoofbeats. If you hear them and you’re not at a rodeo, it might just be the former.)

In order to set a trend early in this blog’s life, I’m declaring Fridays as “write a post about anything” days. This is my way of lowering expectations and providing for the likelihood that I’ll be underwhelmed by my own writing at least once a week. Which is not to say you are required to be underwhelmed as well. Feel free to be as whelmed as you like.

Friday Item Numero Uno – A Book

shameShame, by Greg Garrett. Buy it. Read it. I edited it. Okay, so this could be considered shameless self-promotion (irony noted), except for the fact that it really is a great book and I’d recommend Greg’s writing even if the closest I ever got to editing it was scrawling “best” in my autographed copy between the words “To my…” and “friend, Steve.”

Fair warning if you’re looking for a whiz-bang-shoot-em-up thriller with paranormal tendencies – that ain’t this book. Shame is the story of John Tilden, a good man wrestling with relationships and regret and the lure of oft-remembered longings that threaten to redefine the life he has come to know. Reading Greg’s prose is like canoeing on a twisting, gently flowing river – it draws you in, carries you, sometimes surprises you, but always takes you to a satisfying ending.

Friday, the Second Thing – Some Editorial Advice

Ready? This one’s profound. You sure you’re ready? Because when I say “profound,” I mean it. Okay, here goes: Don’t take every bit of editorial advice as the gospel truth. Even what I just wrote.

I’ll give you a moment to catch your breath.

There’s a lot of great advice here on the Interwebs and also in those dust-gathering paper things with pages people in one possible future will refer to as “Pre-Kindle Reading Devices.” Learn as much as you can. Soak it all in. But don’t presume that what works for one (or even a thousand) will work for you, too. For example, many writer-advisors say, “Kill adverbs now!” (Unless they speak irony, in which case they might say, “Quickly, kill all adverbs!”) Hey, it’s generally pretty good advice, but maybe your book actually is better because it has three adverbs in it. Here’s another: conventional wisdom says don’t open your novel talking about the weather. Yeah, “It was a dark and stormy night” probably won’t give that agent you’re stalking a literary orgasm. But “When I was seven years old, a tornado swept through my small town and took everything with it but me” just might.

Here’s my best advice on the whole advice thing: Study all you can, then stuff all the study materials under your desk and simply write. The hints and tips and advice that most resonated with you will begin to naturally shape your writing. And even if your writing still sucks…er…isn’t brilliant, the best time to fix it is after you’ve written your first draft, right? At that point, you can go back to learnin’ and apply what you discover to your work in progress.

But then again, don’t take what I say as the gospel truth. (See “Some Editorial Advice” above.)

Finally, Friday Item 3 – A Picture of a Kitty & a Puppy

Because some of you were disappointed that my Tuesday post included words about writing and not a picture of a kitty and a puppy, here you go. Happy “Awe, cute!”ing.

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Have a swell weekend.