Tag Archives: characterization

Should Your Story Be Told by an Unreliable Narrator?

26 Sep

by Julie Eshbaugh

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Stories told in first-person POV are enjoying great popularity at the moment. I myself write in first-person almost exclusively.  The benefits and limits of first person have been talked about on this blog and on others (first person is obviously a limited perspective, but it also allows you a deeper understanding of the character’s thoughts – see my POV post here) but I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about the reliability of the first-person narrator. After all, not everyone who tells you a story is telling you the truth.  Should we assume all first-person narrators are telling the truth?  Maybe an even better question for us as writers would be, “Should our first-person narrators always tell the truth?”

This blog has covered characterization from a lot of angles, and my colleagues here have given some great advice, such as in this post on contrarianism by Savannah, this great post about sassiness, also by Savannah, and this post about Mary Sues by Biljana.

But what about reliability?  Is the story your MC tells necessarily the “whole truth and nothing but the truth”?

First, it could be argued that no first-person narrator is telling the complete truth, because the story is filtered through the narrator’s perspective. That’s well understood. But what about the narrator who – due to willful deception or just a poor ability to understand events happening around her or him – just is not trustworthy?

Let’s look at some classic examples of unreliable narrators:

  • Holden Caufield, narrator of JD Salinger’s CATHER IN THE RYE:

Holden tells us a story of two days he spends in New York City after having been kicked out of yet another boarding school.  Holden is strongly opinionated, and rants about the “phonies” around him. But is he always being honest with the reader? No. Instead he’s secretive, a bit dodgy about the details, and frequently makes excuses for himself while holding others to a very high standard. As we read, we discover that we can’t assume that Holden’s side of the story is necessarily the way things really happened.

  • Humbert Humbert, narrator of Vladimir Nabokov’s LOLITA:

This might be the strongest example of an unreliable narrator I can think of personally. Humbert is a pedophile and a very dangerous man. But his story is directed to the “jury,” and that should be a tip that he cannot be trusted. He is a character attempting to justify heinous crimes, and so, despite his amazing eloquence, the reader must stay on his or her guard at all times. The narrator is trying to deceive you. The success of this device is one of the many things I love about this book.

  • Nick Carraway, narrator of F Scott Fitzgerald’s THE GREAT GATSBY:

One of the unique qualities about THE GREAT GATSBY is that it is told in first person by someone other than the main character. In effect, it works to keep a lot of the hero’s secrets hidden, and also contributes to the mythical qualities of Gatsby.  However, unlike Holden Caufield or Humbert Humbert, I wouldn’t argue that Nick knowingly deceives the reader. He tells what he knows. However, what Nick is privy to is often limited to what Gatsby allows him to see and to know. In this case, Nick’s unreliability is more a reflection on Gatsby’s character than on Nick’s.

I hope that these examples give you some food for thought about unreliable narrators. Would this technique work for your story?

Here are some questions you might consider in deciding how reliable your narrator should or shouldn’t be:

  • Does the narrator see the situation of the story clearly, or is her or his perspective skewed by lack of experience, self-deception, pride, etc?
  • Is your character too flawless?  Is he or she infallible? Would suggesting that this character may at times be an unreliable narrator make the character more interesting?
  • Is your character unstable or delusional?  If so, and your story is told in first person, it would be almost necessary that your narrator be unreliable. An emotionally or mentally unstable character would rarely be able to tell a story from beginning to end without distorting the truth along the way.

As for me, I am currently examining the hero of my work-in-progress closely, in order to determine if I have made her more honest than circumstances would allow.

How about your own characters, or the characters in books you’ve read?  Any unreliable narrators among them? Please tell me about them in the comments!

~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can find her on Twitter here.

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Your Characters Should Exist in Time

26 Aug

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of books with characters that have felt ever-so-slightly flat. On the surface it seems as if these characters have been constructed perfectly — they have likes and dislikes, flaws and strengths. My poor brain has been working overtime trying to figure out what’s wrong, what crucial element has been missing in these characters.

I think I’ve finally figured it out. The missing element, the thing that’s holding these characters back from truly popping on the page? Time. These characters were defined purely through their relationships to the things around them. They seemed to have near non-existent histories and were unaware that such a thing as the future existed.

I think one of the easiest traps to fall into with characterization, especially of protagonists, is to view their identity through a purely material lens. “Oh,” the clever author says, “he/she is intelligent, and must therefore own a lot of books about quantum physics!” I actually think that this kind of material characterization is okay, and in fact really good in most cases. It’s active, it involves the character doing something. Namely, reading books about quantum physics.

Characters who have material interests in the present are not necessarily bad or poorly developed. On the other hand, if the material crutch that an author leans on is, say, the kind of clothes or make up the character chooses to wear — I get a little bit more leery.

If clothing, and buying clothing is a big part of the story then that’s a-okay. It’s exactly like the earlier quantum physics example — it involves the protagonist doing something. But. If clothing is simply used as lazy characterization — a way to slot the character into a certain archetypal mold — then as a reader? I get annoyed.

To be clear, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t describe your characters’ clothing. It can add to characterization, can set up that initial archetype — I think for instance, Harry Potter’s skinny frame along with the baggy t-shirts and sellotaped glasses was a good initial character set up. What I am saying is that this shouldn’t be where your characterization ENDS.

I’m saying that you need to move beyond the material.

It’s hard to stop defining your character by the things that they possess, and to start defining them by the things that they do. It’s even harder to get beyond the things that they do, and hit at who they truly are. When asked, “Who is that woman?” A standard answer in our society would be, “Oh, that’s Nancy. She’s a nurse”. The conflation between what we do — job wise especially — and who we are is there on a lot of levels.

And of course, what we do does feed into who we are.

But I think there is a certain fabric beneath that exterior, a fabric of self that is defined in time rather than in things-done or things-owned. A character is not just the sum of all their parts. They’re the sum of all their parts, and all the parts they used to have but are no longer in their possession.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. Say a character is presently a very, very confident person. Perhaps over confident. But when they were younger, they were a shy, self-conscious, overweight boy. That element of their past will be taken with them through their life.

It’s the same for less defining moments. Childhood trips, lame inside jokes with friends, ways of texting or speaking that seem so embarrassing to you when you’re older, modes of thinking that you outgrow. Sometimes, it’s the most insignificant things that stick with people, lingering ‘ghost’ parts of their sum.

So you need to weave your character’s past not necessarily into the story, but into your character, into the way that they approach and respond to their world.

And it’s the same with the future. The character needs to have some kind of expectation for the future — it doesn’t need to be a complex plan of any kind, it can just be a feeling “bleak” or “happy” or “bittersweet” or “messy”. Or it can be more specific like “wedded bliss” or “career security” or “ten kids” or “first woman on Saturn”.

Humans are decoders. We’re constantly trying to work this life out, constantly making both minor and major plans — not having a character be aware that there *is* a future would seem odd, to me. Let your character guess at the future, as if trying to predict an upcoming plot twist in a novel. Let what they see or predict influence them, whether for good or ill.

This doesn’t mean that your characters need to spend a lot of time obsessing about their past, present and future and how all three relate to each other. Good, rounded characters seem to display awareness of this dynamic very naturally.

For instance, in the last book I read, Hannah Moskowitz’s Invincible Summer, the main character’s story story is structured around four summers. You don’t see the time that passes between those summers, but that time bumps over into Chase, the protagonist. The pull of the past on him– those idyllic summers from when he was younger — and his absolute terror of a future  and where it will take him, and his falling-apart family, adds a lot of weight to his characterization. For me, more so than if he’d been given a whole slew of hobbies.

So, this is a post to say that our characters are dynamic beings who exist in time, who are constantly changing. I think that acknowledging this dynamic is one of the keys to creating a well-rounded, compelling character.

What do you guys think? Is time an important element of characterisation? If so,  how do you incorporate it into your stories?

~~~

Vahini Naidoo is  a YA author and University student from Sydney, Australia. Her debut novel FALL TO PIECES, en edgy psychological thriller, will be released by Marshall Cavendish in Fall, 2012. She’s represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can read more about Vahini on her blog.

Using Method Acting in Your Writing

6 Jul

By Sammy Bina

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The first time I ever acted on stage was my freshman year of high school, when I played a 90-year-old nun in the show (warning: terrible pun ahead) Nun of Your Business. I’d never acted before, and knew next to nothing about it. I figured it couldn’t be that hard to pretend to be someone else, but it proved to be more of a challenge than I thought. As a 14-year-old, I had no idea what it was like to walk around using a cane. I still had all my teeth. Hell, I wasn’t even Catholic.

Lucky for me, I wasn’t the only one feeling like a fish out of water. So, to help us get into character before rehearsals, our director would have us sit in a circle and ask us mundane questions like ‘what’s your favorite breakfast food?’ or ‘what kind of errands did you run today?’ And we’d have to answer them from our character’s point of view. Now, as a frigid old woman who could hardly walk, I didn’t run many errands, but I waxed poetic on my love of all things breakfast, particularly buttermilk pancakes. I still remember that. I also remember insisting that I did not wear dentures.

Writing, it turns out, is a lot like acting. You have an entire cast of characters, each of them unique, and you have to manage to keep them all straight. You have to make sure they don’t blend together, and that each has a very distinct personality. I’ve been hard at work editing my current WIP, and was having a little trouble with one chapter in particular, where I couldn’t seem to get the mother to sound like herself. Up until that point in the manuscript, she’d been kind of sarcastic and grumpy. In this particular scene, the main character was in need of some comfort, and I couldn’t figure out a way for this older woman to offer her support without sounding trite and completely out of character.

So what did I do? I went back to my high school days of method acting. I sat myself down, closed my eyes, and tried to envision myself as a 47-year-old woman who’s hiding a fugitive in her basement, whose eldest son has turned out to be a major disappointment, and whose world is crumbling around her faster than a leaning tower of Jenga. I may have considered even putting on a frumpy dress and an apron for this, but couldn’t find any. (But if dressing up helps you, then by all means, go for it.) I envisioned what she’d had for breakfast that morning, and what kinds of errands she’d had to run. Knowing the scene took place in winter, I thought about how snow might affect her mood. Then I read through the entire scene out loud, much like you’d do at a play rehearsal. The problem, I found, was that a script is all dialogue, save for very specific sections of blocking. In between my lines of dialogue, I’d have a paragraph describing the lump in someone’s throat, or how badly their head hurt. When the thing I needed to work on most was voice, all those extra words just got in the way.

How did I solve the problem, you ask? I opened a new Word document, copied and pasted the scene I was working on, and deleted everything that wasn’t dialogue. And after I read through that, I realized why I couldn’t get the mother to act the way she’s supposed to. The problem was that the paragraphs between the dialogue were concentrated on the main character, as she’s the one narrating. So her voice was pulling me away from the one I needed help with. Once I took away my MC’s narration, the scene began to fall into place. I had a much better grasp on the mother’s voice. Keeping those emotions I’d dug up at the front of my mind, I was able to rewrite the scene in a way that stayed true to who both the characters were.

I haven’t acted since I started college, but I’ve found method acting to be a useful took I like to keep in my writer’s toolbox. It’s come in handy on more than one occasion, and I hope you guys can take advantage of it as well. Just start with the basic question of what’s the best breakfast food, and see where your imagination takes you!

~~~

Sammy recently graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in Creative Writing. She is currently in the midst of moving to New York City, where she hopes to find a job in publishing. Her free time is spent editing her YA dystopian, SILENCE, and you can find her on twitter, or follow her blog.

Show versus Tell: Macro-, Micro-, and When to Use It

29 Jun

by Susan Dennard

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Note:

This post has been UPDATED

and re-posted on

Pub(lishing) Crawl!

~~~

Susan Dennard is a writer, reader, lover of animals, and eater of cookies. Her debut, SOMETHING STRANGE AND DEADLY, is now available from HarperTeen. You can learn more about her on her blog or twitter.

Allow me to romance you while you question your sanity.

28 Jun

by Biljana Likic

~~~

Ah, l’amour!

Love, in any form, is pretty sweet. It’s why you constantly see me writing about it. I’m a hopeless romantic. And while I can’t consider myself an expert on romance, I do know a thing or two about it. My favourite part is the tension.

The thing that makes something exciting is the lead-up. You can talk all you want about how you hate waiting, but half of what’s making your stomach flip is anticipation of what’s to come. It’s like when you hear a crush will be at the same party as you. Your mind goes into overdrive. Will they see you? Will they talk to you? Will they, dare you think it, accidentally graze your arm as they reach for the punch they’re getting for your rival? Will you finally be poisoning it tonight?

The wonderful thing about that last question is that it’s only a half-joke.

In writing, it’s no different. If you want the reader to be rooting for two people to get together, make them feel like they’re part of the romance. Make their stomach flip when it looks like the boy will finally notice the girl. I’m not talking about endless woe-is-me from the protagonist, or secret, long-suffering proclamations. I’m talking about subtle things. Things that really show how every moment the girl spends in the boy’s company electrifies her.

What makes it doubly fun, is having her not know if the boy is doing it consciously or not.

She walks into the room with a glass of wine. Her eyes are drawn to him like magnets and she stares at his face. He’s sitting by the cake, already having eaten his dinner. She decides dinner isn’t important anyway and makes a beeline for the three-tiered confection, pretending to be considering the cake whenever she thought he looked over.

She’s there before she wants to be. Her sudden proximity to him is making her aware of every insecurity, from the slight tummy she could never lose to the fact that she isn’t very good at walking in heels. She watches him from the corner of her eye and jumps when he turns to look at her. She makes brief eye contact before taking a drink of wine to distract herself.

“Would you like some cake?”

She almost chokes on her drink. She clears her throat.

“Excuse me?”

“You seem to really want some cake,” he says.

A rush of embarrassment pours through her as she realizes she just spent the last few minutes seemingly entranced by white frosting and pink sugar bows.

She clears her throat again. “Is it any good?” she asks.

He doesn’t answer but stands, taking a natural step towards her, and picks up a cake knife. He’s unbearably close. He cuts a piece and hands it to her on a plate. She has to be careful how she raises her hand to accept it so that she doesn’t accidentally touch him. He’s watching her as she takes it, and she feels his fingers brush hers.

“Thanks,” she says quietly, not looking at him.

“You’re welcome.”

She sits down stiffly. A moment later, he retakes his own seat beside her, and as he pulls in his chair his thigh comes into contact with hers. Her grip tightens on her spoon as he starts to flirt with the girl on the other side of him, and it’s a good ten seconds before he moves his leg.

She sets down her plate, takes up the wine glass, and drains it.

Not once does it talk about how she’s infatuated, and nowhere does it outright say that she’s attracted to him. This is an example of showing instead of telling. Through her reactions, you can see that she’s attracted to him; it never has to be said. And it’s done with the little things, the tiny details: tensing up when he looks at her; staring too long at the cake out of nervousness; skipping dinner altogether for dessert she doesn’t want.

Scenes like these are what makes you want to scream. They make you want to either yell at the girl to grow a spine, or punch the guy in the face.

But, most importantly, when they finally get together, the event makes you squeal with delight.

What I love most about this stuff however is that they can lead to a happy, squee-inducing ending, or they can be the first sign of doom. As it stands right now, that scene can go in two directions: one is amusing, possibly frustrating, but ultimately happy; the other is degrading, miserable, and ultimately resentful. You don’t have to say right away right kind of relationship these two people will have. All you have to do is convey the immediate events. And though I would love for every scene like the one above to end in romance, it can always turn sour.

In the end, when it’s all said and done, the moment you leave the territory of maybe and cross into yes or no, the tension dulls considerably, and the conflict just isn’t as fun anymore. It is, after all, anticipation of the answer that keeps you at the edge of your seat.

And when it comes to romance, there’s nothing more exciting than maybe.

~~~

Biljana Likic is an aspiring author, currently revising her first novel, TIME IS A FUNNY THING. She’s going into her second year of university, where she can’t wait till she’s out so she’ll finally have all the time in the world to write. You can visit her blog and follow her on Twitter.

High Context Versus Low Context – the Communication Style of Your Story

22 Jun

by Julie Eshbaugh

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In 1976, Anthropologist Edward T. Hall published a book titled BEYOND CULTURE.  Through this book, Hall popularized a theory of two main styles of communication.  He called these contrasting styles “high context” and “low context.”  Essentially, Hall taught that certain cultures communicated more through inference and implied ideas (high-context communication,) while others communicated with more explicit and detailed information (low-context communication.)  Though Hall was interested in the broad differences between cultures, the ideas of “high context” and “low context” can apply to any social situation.  For us as writers, analyzing the setting of a scene and deciding if it takes place in a high-context or low-context situation offers an additional method to add realism to dialogue and tension to communication.

In general terms, “high context” refers to societies or settings that have long-established, deep connections. Because of the depth of connection between the members of the group, a lot of communication is understood through implication and less communication is stated explicitly.  Your family would most likely be a good example of a high context group. Other examples of high context situations might be a party of close friends, a small church congregation, a neighborhood diner with a very regular clientele, or a formal restaurant where the rules of behavior are understood without having to be spelled out.

An example of a high-context culture in a work of fiction would be China in Amy Tan’s THE JOY LUCK CLUB, especially as it exists in the memories of the mothers.

Conversely, a “low context” group or setting would be one where people tend to have a lot of connections but each connection might serve a specific purpose and last a shorter duration of time. Rules of interaction will vary more in a low context situation.  Expectations of behavior will be less inferred by the situation and more explicitly spelled out.   Examples of low context settings would include a cafeteria, a metropolitan airport, a hospital, or a large supermarket.

In the example used above of THE JOY LUCK CLUB, the United States that the daughters are a part of is a low-context culture.

Anthropologists will often describe an entire society as “high context” or “low context.” For example, Asian and Arab cultures are generally considered high context cultures, while the US, Canada, and Western European cultures are generally considered more low context cultures. But as writers, we should look at each situation and setting individually and decide if communication in that setting would be more implicit or explicit.

Here are a few examples of how high context or low context can impact communication.

First, imagine a scene in which a teenage girl brings home her report card to the father who has played a dominant role in her upbringing:

Alice creeps through the back door, hoping to get to her room unnoticed.  The door hasn’t even closed completely when she feels the hand on her shoulder.

She turns and slumps. Her gaze falls on her father’s feet as she stares at the floor.  Reaching into her pocket, she pulls out the wrinkled envelope and slips it into his hand.

Motionless, she waits while he opens the envelope and peruses the contents.

After a few long minutes, he folds the paper neatly and clears his throat. Without looking up, Alice heads for her room, where she will wait to be summoned when her mother gets home.

Now, imagine a similar scene – a girl handing a man a letter – but now the characters are strangers, and the girl works behind the counter of a large hotel:

Alice sorts the mail and messages by room number behind the registration desk – a phone message from a limo company, a dry cleaning receipt, a newspaper. The usual. But then she discovers the small pink envelope, with its frilly feminine script, and distinct scent of perfume. “Mr. Thomas Henry” is neatly written across the front of the envelope. There is a stamp, but no return address.

“Excuse me.” The voice belongs to a man standing at the desk.  Alice turns to face him and nods. “Do I have any mail? Thomas Henry, room 134.”

“Uh,” Alice stammers. “This came for you.” She hands him the mysterious pink correspondence.

“Wait, what?” The man, so polished in his jacket and tie, seems flustered. “Did this come by mail?  Or was it dropped off in person?” His manner is intense, and Alice shrinks back.

“I can’t say for sure, Sir,” she says. “I only sort the mail. Mr. Jones, the concierge, brings it to the desk.  His podium is in the front lobby. He may be able to help you.”

“Thanks,” Mr. Henry grunts. He pauses a moment to smooth a hand over the front of his pristine jacket.  One moment more and he is once again perfectly composed. “Could you just point me toward the front lobby, please, Miss?”

The first conversation takes place in a high context situation. The relationship between the characters makes explicit communication unnecessary. The second takes place in a low context situation. Though some information is implied, information is mainly shared through clear words and gestures.

Analyzing the settings of your scenes can help you decide if your characters would be exchanging information implicitly (high context situations) or more explicitly (low context situations.)

If your characters are long acquainted and have an intimate understanding of each other, then an argument about the quality of a meal may really be about finances or betrayal. If your characters are new or casual acquaintances, an argument about a meal is probably just that – an argument about a meal.

Another way that high context and low context situations can impact your writing occurs when the characters start out strangers and become a close-knit group. As a situation evolves from low context to high context, so does the style of communication. The television show LOST, in which a group of strangers on an airliner become a tight group of plane-crash survivors, is an example in which communication would take on the style of a high context society over the course of a story.

To close this post, I want to leave you with an example of the incredible impact one line of high context dialogue can have in conveying the relationship between characters.  Although I no longer remember the movie, (maybe SHE’S HAVING A BABY?) I will never forget this brief exchange of dialogue spoken over the phone between a husband and wife:

HIM: “Meet me at that place by that thing where we went that time.”

HER: “Okay.”

So much of what you need to know about the relationship between those two characters is tucked into that one line of dialogue!

What do you think of high context versus low context? Do you consider this concept when you are writing dialogue?  Do you analyze your setting before you decide what should be said or left unsaid between your characters?  I look forward to your comments!

 ~~~

Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency. You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

Writing in Style (Or Style in Writing?)

15 Jun

By Sammy Bina

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Anyone who knows me in real life (or just follows my inane ramblings on twitter or tumblr) knows that my not-so-secret second love in life is fashion. Every morning I wake up and check the publishing blogs I subscribe to, then immediately move on to the style blogs. My writing may be influenced that day by some tips I picked up, and my outfit may just be an interpretation of something I saw online. Either way, my day has been impacted by the two things I love most.

But what does fashion have to do with writing, you wonder. Besides the obvious fact that your characters wear clothes (or maybe they don’t. Maybe you’re writing about a nudist colony, in which case, this post may not be relevant).

As writers, we’re told to infuse our characters with personality. No one wants to read an entire novel where the main character is as bland as a piece of burnt, unbuttered toast. We’re told to give them quirks, a distinct voice, and maybe a few defining physical features. Clothing, I think, falls into the same category. Maybe it’s just me, but I pay close attention when an author takes the time to describe what a person is wearing, even if it’s only a passing sentence. Suzanne Collins doesn’t really waste a lot of words on Katniss’s dress for the opening ceremony. In fact, this is all we get:

“I am dressed in what will either be the most sensational or the deadliest costume in the opening ceremonies. I’m in a simple black unitard that covers me from ankle to neck. Shiny leather boots lace up to my knees. But it’s the fluttering cape made of streams of orange, yellow, and red and the matching headpiece that define this costume. “

“My face is relatively clear of makeup, just a bit of highlighting here and there. My hair has been brushed out and then braided down my back in my usual style.”

It’s pretty vague, if we’re being honest. We have absolutely no idea what the headpiece even looks like. But that’s okay, because we’re given an impression. In our minds, we’re able to understand that the dress is, in a lot of ways, like Katniss herself: simple yet powerful.

Period pieces require a little more effort than a contemporary novel. Instead of saying a character’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt, you’ve got to worry about historical accuracy. I took a class on the history of fashion in college, just so I’d have the basic information if I decided I ever wanted to write in that genre. The text book is actually a really great reference for anyone who’s looking for one: Survey of Historic Costume. There’s also a great website (the KCI Digital Archives) that has a lot of fantastic images compiled for your perusal. If you’ve read any historical romance novels, you’ll know that fashion plays a bigger role than it does in contemporary stories, if only because a person had to change so often, and a specific garment meant a specific thing in a specific situation. These days we don’t really have that problem; at least, not to such a degree.

Taking characterization into consideration, I think clothing is a totally legit way to help your readers understand them. I mentioned once how black clothing doesn’t make your leading man a bad boy, but it’s still making a statement. Same goes for that girl who’s always wearing frumpy clothes inspired by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Maybe she’s poor and can’t afford nice things. Maybe she doesn’t believe in wearing pants. Maybe she thinks she’s stuck in the 1800s. Whatever the reason, it speaks to her character as a whole.

Lately I’ve been trying to pay more attention to my physical portrayal of people and places. I’ve made a conscious effort to include some sort of clothing description where it’s necessary, and one of my CPs mentioned the interior of my main setting seemed a bit lackluster. Needless to say, I took the time to spruce it up. I realized she was right — initially, it was just a standard house. There was nothing defining about it. Now, as I go back and edit, it’s begun to take on a personality of its own. Which goes to say that clothing doesn’t just belong on people — you can dress up a setting, too!

If you’re anything like me and prefer a visual to help you with your descriptions, the above websites should be pretty helpful. Also, take a look at polyvore.com. Not only can you create visual representations of outfits, but interiors as well! I’ve definitely found it to be a very helpful tool in certain situations.

What about you guys? Do you think clothing can be an important aspect of characterization? I’d love to hear what you have to say!

~~~

Sammy Bina graduated with a degree in Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and interned for the Elaine P. English literary agency in Washington D.C.. She is currently editing her YA dystopian, SILENCE. You can follow her blog or find her on twitter.

Slipping in Character Description

11 Apr

by Kat Zhang

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How much physical information a writer should put in about his or her characters is a pretty well-debated topic. Some readers like to have everything about the characters described the very first time they show up. Others just like to have the basics—hair color/length…eye color…tall or short…slim or heavyset. Others don’t care about physical description at all and like to have a blank canvas to draw their own mental picture of the protagonist and minor characters.

I’m in the middle. Well, actually, to be honest, I wouldn’t mind a super-detailed description of every single character. I’m a very visual reader, and I like books that allow me to see the scenes in my head like a movie. That’s basically how I write, too, except the other way around. I see the scene like a movie in my head, and then I describe it on paper.

Trouble is, there’s really no way you can describe everything. It would slam the action to a halt, and while I say I like detailed explanations, I know that a book that is actually full of them would drive me crazy. So what’s a writer to do?

First off, remember your voice. This is especially important for first person and close third. You’re not just describing someone, you’re seeing them through someone’s eyes. Everything they notice or don’t notice should make sense. Think about what you notice when you see someone. You don’t meet your friend for lunch and run over their entire outfit and the eye color and hair length before saying hello, right? You might notice if they’ve recently had a haircut or if they’re wearing a skirt when they never wear skirts or something, but otherwise, you probably won’t even notice their clothes.

However, it is nice to let the reader know some physical description of the characters, so you’ve got to find ways of subtly slipping it in.

This is an example of just describing someone:

He was tall, about 6 foot 1 with short blonde hair and blue eyes. Also, he wore a white shirt with horizontal blue shirts and camouflage-patterned, baggy cargo pants. His shoes were heavy boots with thick soles, and he had a ring on his ring finger that was just a band of polished gold.

A couple things that could be improved on this description. Right now, it’s sort of just sitting there. Whatever was happening before the protag saw this guy has ground to a stop while you, the writer, describe his appearance. Weaving your description into the story’s flow of action can improve it a lot. So can spacing out the description so the reader’s picture of a character is built little by little. Of course, if you take too, too long, the readers will start filling things in on their own, and it might be a bit of a shock if, ten chapters in, you describe your love interest as having green eyes and the reader has imagined him as having dark brown ones.

So let’s try weaving the previous description into some action:

He waved to her from across the room, and when she smiled back, started making his way through the crowd. She bit back a laugh when he stumbled; he’d used to be graceful, but the recent growth spurt had added a foot to his height and an ungainliness to his walk.

“Hey, soldier boy,” she said when he was in hearing distance. “Nice pants.”

He grinned, automatically looking down at his baggy camouflage-pattern cargo pants. Along with the heavy boots and the crew cut she bet had taken a lot of convincing on the part of his mother to make happen, he looked almost like he’d stepped out of one of those Army Strong pamphlets her older brother used to bring home. Only his preppy white and blue striped shirt broke the image.

“Laundry day,” he said, still grinning, and ran his fingers through his hair. Probably had to get used to how short it was. She was about to say something back when she noticed the flash of the ring and choked on her words.

Right, so not the best material out there (I probably wouldn’t usually try to cram so much physical description in at once), and I missed out on some of the detail in the first example, but this way, the story didn’t stop completely. Yes, I used more words overall, but we also got a bit about the guy’s age (teens if he’s recently grown a foot in a relatively short period of time), about his relationship with the girl (close enough for her to tease him and him to smile), about their families (she’s got an older brother who was/is interested in the army; his mother wants his hair short, and he disagrees), and about the ring (she hasn’t seen it before).

I’ve got lots more to say about things like this, but I think that’s enough for today 🙂 If you guys are interested, though, I’ll continue the series during my next post!

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Kat Zhang is a Spoken Word poet and a Creative Writing major. She is represented by Emmanuelle Morgen and her book HYBRID–about a girl with two souls–recently sold to Harper Children’s. You can read more about her writing process and books at her blog.

Ask Your Characters Some Tough Questions!

30 Mar

by Julie Eshbaugh

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Where does a writer start when he or she sets out to create a character?  There are COUNTLESS character worksheets available, and most of them will serve as a fairly good starting point when it comes to building a character.  But no single “fill in the blank” worksheet will create a character for you.  You may be able to answer questions about what color eyes your character has or how many brothers she grew up with or what his favorite class in school is, but I can answer those questions about a lot of people, and yet I wouldn’t undertake the task of writing a book about them.

What I’m trying to say is that, to really put your reader in your character’s head, you need to go there yourself first.  You need to know what makes your character think and act the way he or she does.  And to do that, you need to ask your characters the TOUGH questions.

What are the tough questions?  They’re the questions you wouldn’t feel comfortable asking your best friend.  Questions you yourself wouldn’t want to have to answer.  You have to ask about things that are private, things that are personal, things that are embarrassing.

Here’s a suggestion.   Sit down at the keyboard and start with a blank Word document.  At the top of the page, type a difficult question and the name of the character you are asking this question.  Then type out the answer as a stream-of-consciousness response.  You may be surprised by what your character “dictates” in his or her answer.

Here are a few ideas for questions to get you started.  You don’t have to use any of these.  Then again, you may want to use several.  The right questions to ask will depend a great deal on your story and its setting.  But here are a few I’ve used:

  • When you were growing up, did you ever suspect that one of your parents cheated on the other?  Did you ever suspect that one of your parents hit the other?  Which would have been worse?  Why?
  • What single act are you most ashamed of?  How did you happen to commit this act?  Who knows about it?
  • If you knew you could do something forbidden and get away with it without anyone ever knowing, what would it be?
  • Everyone has secrets.  What secret thing about you would most shock your closest friend?
  • If you could change one thing about yourself, what would that thing be?  Why?  Would your friends be surprised by your answer?
  • If you could change one thing about your best friend, what would that thing be?  Why?  Would that person be surprised by your answer?
  • Have you ever purposefully caused suffering?  If so, why?  Would you do it again?
  • Everyone has disdain for something or someone.  Who or what do you consider yourself to be “above”?
  • What was your worst failure?  Do you ever think about it?  When do you think about it?  How do you feel about it now?
  • If you could achieve your greatest dream, but it would mean that your best friend would never achieve his or hers, would you take that deal?

Can you answer these questions about your characters?  Do you have others?  Please share your thoughts in the comments!

 

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Julie Eshbaugh is represented by Natalie Fischer of the Bradford Literary Agency.  You can read her blog here and find her on Twitter here.

 

Troubles with Voice

21 Mar

When I open something I’ve written I expect to know who I’m reading within a few sentences (‘who’ being the narrator or perspective character). If I can’t tell, if I’m struggling to remember, or piece things together, I feel something’s off and get distracted from the story by trying to figure out what’s wrong. Every narrative has a voice, some can be bland and detached, others quirky, but they should try to be unique. ‘Voice’ can be difficult to explain and sometimes hard to pinpoint, but it always makes a difference in what you’re reading.

Voice is one of those things agents always say they’re looking for when describing what they want in manuscripts. In first person narratives it is largely the personality of whoever is narrating the story. In books written in third person, it conveys the author’s attitude towards the work, or what they want the reader to think is their attitude, it could be sarcastic or understanding.

Here are two quotes which illustrate the distinctive voices of their respective works:

“This is a bad land for gods,” said Shadow. As an opening statement it wasn’t Friends, Romans, countrymen, but it would do. “You’ve probably all learned that.” -Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Vanity was the beginning and the end of Sir Walter Elliot’s character; vanity of person and of situation….He considered the blessing of beauty as inferior only to the blessing of a baronetcy; and the Sir Walter Elliott, who united these gifts, was the constant object of his warmest respect and devotion. – Jane Austen, Persuasion

American Gods is often detached and unemotional, and I often found it distancing. The voice was the reason I’m still not sure whether or not I liked the book, even though I liked the story. Jane Austen’s voice is satirical, it invites the reader to laugh along and you can almost imagine her winking.

Recently, I’ve started poking a new project with a stick to see if it might be alive, and it’s given some encouraging twitches. I have the world set up, the plot outlined, and the characters waiting with backstories in hand. I just have one big problem, the voice.

If only my main character didn’t sound like Background Teenager #2 from some unmemorable romcom.

‘Come on, Lily,’ I say to the character in my head, like that’ll do any good. ‘How about some more personality?’ And all I get back is a string of curse words, which is not quite how I want to distinguish my new character’s voice. That just feels lazy and like cheating. I should be able to give her something besides a sailor’s mouth to distinguish her narration and make it her own. I should be able to give her distinctive speech patterns, commonly used words, and phrases which mark her apart from other characters and standard ‘teen speak.’ So far it hasn’t really worked.

Mostly I think this is just something I need to work at. I need to write while keeping in mind what should be characteristics of her perspective and speech. Then, when I edit I need to go through line by line to make sure those characteristics are present throughout (not just when I remembered to include them) and the entire narrative has a coherent voice. Sometimes voice comes easyily and naturally and that is always the best. It’s not something that should be forced or it will probably read as inauthentic. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take work, though! You still have to find the right patterns and make sure to use them correctly.

Have you had trouble getting the voice right for your WIPs? What did you do to get it right? Let me know in the comments!

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Jennifer Fitzgerald is the author of a middle grade fantasy novel, PRISCILLA THE EVIL, which she is currently revising. She is also is a Ph.D student in archaeology, focusing on East Asia. You can visit her blog here or follow her on Twitter.