What Your Narrator Doesn’t Notice

Over the weekend, I attended a convention for science fiction and fantasy writers.  At one of the programs, a fellow audience member asked the panelists an excellent question:  How do you convey important details to the reader through a narrative character who wouldn’t notice.  If your narrator is a detective, s/he will probably be inherently observant, but not every character is attuned to every little thing that happens around them.  In real life, people range from highly observant to completely oblivious.  It’s no different with characters.

It was a question that particularly interested me, given the narrator of my novel The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn.  Erica is the first person narrator, and while she’s far from oblivious to details, within the context of the events of the book, she’s incredibly single-minded.  Her own goal is the only thing that she’s focused on, and, to her, everything else is sort of just background noise and distraction.

But I still had to get information across to the reader.  More is going on with the other characters than Erica is putting together, and it was important to convey that to make them full, rounded characters to the reader, as well as helping advance the main plot.  It was a tricky at points – I didn’t want Erica to come across as dense, but I also wanted to convey her state of mind and intense focus.

I handled it (I hope, anyway – LOL) by having Erica see details that she didn’t necessarily think much of.  She didn’t put things together, but she did take note of things that laid the groundwork for the bigger picture.  Other characters (who were putting things together) reacted based on their understanding of the situations that Erica was ignoring because of her “blinders” and I tried to make a point of putting in the narration what it was that was on Erica’s mind instead of what was going on.

For example, she’d be in a conversation with two other characters, but in between the dialogue, she’s trying to work out a plan to reach her goal.  While the reader is getting information from the dialogue and putting it together, Erica is also stating outright in her narrative, “I wasn’t really listening at that point, though.  I was trying to gauge whether or not I could get away with…” etc.  That allowed me to do a lot of work within the scene (setup for the bigger plot as well as conveying subplot information about the other characters in the dialogue), and also showed Erica’s thought process and calculation (so she’s clearly not stupid, just distracted) and made it clear why she missed hints that were right in front of her.

An example of a character who just doesn’t get most of what goes on around him would be Rusty James from the novel Rumblefish by S.E. Hinton (there’s also an excellent movie based on the book).  Rusty James isn’t so much oblivious as…well…dumb, but he’s a great character, and Hinton conveys an incredible amount of subtle meaning, emotion, and character depth in the people and events around him, despite how little of it her narrator actually takes in and processes.

Images & Words

To be honest, I haven’t been doing much with writing for the past two weeks – aside from poetry, which, for me, is a purely personal medium.  I’ve been picking at my NaNoWriMo novel outline, but not wracking my brain over it.  In times of considerable change, I think in images more than in words.  Art projects have been big these past few weeks.  Poems come out like finger-paintings.  I just express and express and express, without trying to construct anything but my own mindframe, healthier and stronger than ever before.

Primarily, this blog is based in writing fiction (or at least prose), so art projects and expressive and personal poetry hardly seem in my usual line for posting here.  However, imagery is something that transcends the boundaries of each of the arts – it’s vital to writing evocative prose.  Without imagery, we’re “just stating the facts, ma’am,” and it’s dry as an office memo.

Imagery gives prose a tangibility that can make the words more than just words to the reader, that fires the imagination and makes the people and places and events of the story so clear that the real world slips away – and that’s our goal, as writers, really:  to create something that, for a time, is larger than life and more real than reality.  Fiction is hardly about accuracy.  It’s about believability, which has far less to do with how likely something is than how interesting it is.  Sensory perceptions – particularly visuals – are important to us humans (yes, that is grammatically correct) and, obviously, with the written word, description is your only method of communicating those.  Factual description falls short, though.  Comparisons, contrasts, metaphors, connotations, juxtapositions, and even letter sounds (hard consonants or soft, repetition of letters, etc.) are our canvas and our paint, bringing the story world to life for our readers.  One of the most inspiring users of sensory evocation of the story world, for me, was F. Scott Fitzgerald, when I read a collection (and The Great Gatsby, naturally) of his for the first time at seventeen.  I went metaphor-crazy for a few years, and although I went over the top with it sometimes, it was good practise.  Writing exercises that challenge you to think in sensory terms and metaphor are excellent for getting you in the habit of thinking that way – once you form the habit, it’s second nature, and if you find yourself slipping out of it, you can always do a few more writing exercises and get it back.

The other valuable thing that image-based thought does for me as a writer is part of my brainstorming process.  Ideas start to come to me in flash images, and putting them together has frequently yielded rich, intricate storylines for me.  Sometimes it’s just an imagined photograph lying on a kitchen floor in the sunlight, and my brain starts churning out questions like, “Why is it on the floor?  Who dropped it, and why?  Did something bad happen to them?  Or were they upset about something to do with the picture?  Who’s in that picture, anyway?”  Boom.  Characters start to jump out of the woodwork.  A scenario is created out of one simple image, and my brain is off and running full speed.

With writing fantasy, this type of image-thought has been particularly useful in getting ideas and getting unstuck.  I can’t tell you how many characters and plot points have been born of one quick visual popping into my head at random.  My NaNoWriMo project for this November is chock-full of scenes that originated with nothing more than a sudden visual of a character making a choice, struggling with an emotion, reacting to another character, or acting on decisions they feel conflicted about.  Sometimes I hadn’t even thought to have an internal conflict for a particular person over a particular choice, but when I played the idea through in my head, it was there on my character’s face.  And then I’d realize, of course that would bring this or that out in this character.  What I hadn’t considered in words or abstractions was so obvious in images that I felt silly for not realizing it before.  I had stumbled right over it.

Essentially, the more angles you can consider your writing from and the more you can give your readers to hang their imaginations on, the better off you are.  So I’m not regretful that my brain is taking a vacation in the land of symbolism and visual metaphor.  I’m digging in as far as I can to see what I can glean from this unexpected journey.

A Mantra For Writers

Whenever I go through anything difficult in life, I tell myself, “This will be great for my writing someday.”  Bam!  Therapy, meaning, AND enriched writing skills, all in one.  That’s what I love about being a writer.  It’s productivity and escapism in one package.  It’s a meaning in itself and a vehicle with which to explore meaning.  It’s solitude and communication at the same time.  It’s pain and comfort, catharsis and vacation from worry, conflict and resolution.

Well, I’m going through a big, difficult transition right now (hence the lack of any posts this week), and although there are painful aspects to this change, I intend to take my new life by the horns and use these experiences to deepen myself and my work.  I would advise any writer in tough times to repeat that mantra:  This will be great for my writing someday.  Almost anything can become bearable, with that in mind.

A History of Writing

Like most kids, I made up stories when I was little.  Reading was an obsession for me so early in my childhood that I actually started screaming at a book one day because I couldn’t read it myself.  I had bouts of insomnia from the cradle on (to the present day…) and I figured out that parents get cranky if you wake them up every night for three weeks.  Luckily, I was old enough to read to myself by that time, so I read – sometimes all through the night – to pass the hours when everyone else was asleep.  Stories therefore became incredibly important to me, and that may actually be why, for me, reading is an escape from stress, a whole other world to believe in (if only for a while), and characters are company when they’re well-written.

My mom was publishing short stories and had written (and was writing) novels.  I knew books could come from people in homes just like mine, knew vaguely that rejection was part of the process and that if you just kept trying, you’d find the right fit for what you’d written.  These were great things to grow up aware of, as my storytelling became more serious.  Thanks, Mom!

And I did get serious about my writing.  Very early in my life.  At first, I just wanted my stuff to be typed instead of written.  My mom had a typewriter and let me hunt-and-peck my stories out on that.  Sometimes she’d type for me while I dictated stories to her.  I was somewhere around five-ish when, once, I was dictating a story (one long run-on sentence connected by “and”s) and Mom suggested, “This is an awful lot of ‘and’s.  You could break it up into separate sentences instead.”  As with most early writers, my initial response was “No!”  Mom typed it the way I wanted it.

Later, though, I looked over it and thought about it.  I think, up till then, I’d believed that stories came out perfect first try.  That writers just sat down and wrote off the tops of their heads, and however the story came out was just how it was.  As if stories were simply born instead of shaped and worked over and created through a process.  It had never occurred to me that a story could be improved.  I wrote the story out in separate sentences, the way Mom had suggested.  I read the first version, then the second version.  The second one was better.  Something clicked.

Then I became a serious writer.  Not a good one, but I tried, bless me.  Ha!  My mom taught me how to type when I was eight or nine because hunt-and-peck typing was slowing me down.  I started my first novel (drivel) when I was nine, finished it at ten.  It was about 150 pages of junk, but there was one great character who came out of it.  Having gone through much refining as I’ve matured, I still plan on using him as one of the major characters in my NaNoWriMo novel.

Again, many thanks to my mom, who took me along to science fiction & fantasy conventions and writers workshops and critique groups starting when I was about nine.  Also many thanks to the Southern Indiana Writers Group, who were my first critiquers (and are still the group I attend, when I make it to meetings (rarely, unfortunately)).  I especially thank the long-standing members who were there when I was a kid, because they actually gave me feedback and took my writing seriously.

And I’d like to thank the Academy – wait, no.  This isn’t actually a thank-you speech post, I just happen to have a lot to thank people for when it comes to my development as a writer.

Anyway, those were my early years and how I learned to refine my stories and talk to other writers about the process.  I have to say, one of the best things about the writing community (by which I mean workshops, critique groups, and so on) is how willing writers are to share with each other, and how excited we get to talk to someone who shares our passion for this process.  Even as a kid, most of the adult writers I met didn’t patronize me, but were instead thrilled to talk to me about my perspective on writing and give me advice and encouragement.

Sometime I’ll write a part two to this, about how my teenage writing went and what I learned from it and all that sort of thing.  For now, I’ll finish by posting (verbatim) one of the first stories I ever typed (I’m guessing it’s from around age 3 or 4 (?) because it’s typewriter print and my mom got a word processor not long after that):

lettl pegwn

oensupon a tieym ter wez a LettL PEGWEN AND HE WEZ Verrey Happey Bekaz momme Tokker Aev Hem.

it wiz gtten let and it wez the let sew the lettl pggwn put oen hez pejommez

the end

Clearly, my spelling had a lot to be desired.  My oldest sister compared it to Middle English.  If you can read that, I congratulate you.  It even takes me a while to muddle through it, and I wrote it.  😉

Pet Peeves: Stereotyped Kid Characters

Among my many pet peeves as a reader and writer, I can’t stand it when kid characters are just cardboard cutouts, are stereotyped, or act many years younger than their supposed age.

The last of these issues irritated me most when I was a kid myself and was reading books written by adults for kids my age.  Sometimes it’s downright insulting to a kid to read the crap that an adult author thinks you would say and do – and yeah, kids mature at different rates, but I don’t know any ten-year-olds who talk, think, or behave the same way six-year-olds do, unless there’s some type of developmental problem involved.

I’ve frequently heard people try to dumb down kid characters in other writers’ manuscripts, saying, “Oh, a kid wouldn’t say that,” or, “Kids don’t think that way.”  It always annoys me, because – again – every kid is different, and some kids are sharp as tacks.  Shocking as it may be to some folks, kids are people, too.  That means they have the same range as adult characters.  Some of them are selfish, stupid, bratty, ignorant, easily bored, or immature.  Some are kind, sweet, intelligent, logical, or fascinated with learning.  They have interests ranging from torturing insects to creating fossil museums in their playhouses to learning as much as they can about the American Revolution.  You never know what will strike a kid as interesting, or at what age.  So please, don’t dumb down your kid characters because other adults tell you that kids “aren’t like that”.  I’m an aunt to four younglings, have worked as a mentor with ages from seven up to nineteen, have worked with kids at a science museum and a bookstore, and trust me, there probably is a kid out there who’s a whole lot like your character.

Equally annoying to the dumbed-down plain-vanilla cardboard-cutout kid is the saccharine sweet angel child character.  I hate those as much as I hate the super-brat with no redeeming qualities.  Like adult characters, kid characters have to have some mix of good and bad to them if you want them to be good characters.  If your kid character is just wallpaper, background for your mommy or daddy character, and you don’t have any interest in making the kid a well-rounded, three-dimensional character, then take the kid out of the book altogether.  They’ve got to be important enough to make three-dimensional if you’re going to put them in – same as any other character.

Some books that have excellent kid characters / kid thinking are:

  • Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card – for excellence at writing from the rather disturbing point of view of a child genius facing dark times
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury – for excellence at writing two three-dimensional kids who are the same age but see the world completely differently – and are best friends anyway
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – do I even need to explain why this is on the list?  READ IT, if you haven’t yet!
  • Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger – burnt-out teenager with a heart of gold somewhere under the sarcasm?  Check!  A beautiful dichotomy of a character
  • Skinnybones and Almost Starring Skinnybones by Barbara Park – because, as a kid, I was crazy about these books, and the narrator cracked me up
  • The Ramona series by Beverly Cleary – another favorite series from my childhood, because Ramona was quirky and not always good, but she meant well (usually) and the other kids in the books kept things balanced out
  • A Series of Unfortunate Events series by Lemony Snicket – don’t let the weirdly pedantic (yet funny) narration (or the terrible Jim Carey performance in the movie) fool you, this is a great series with a trio of three-dimensional young heroes
  • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling – while Harry gets on my nerves from time to time, he’s undeniably well-rounded as a character – and he’s certainly no angel.  The other kids in the books are well-written, too, and as the series goes along you “watch” them grow up.  J.K. Rowling does a stellar job writing that transformation for many characters over the course of many books
  • The Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan – because Percy Jackson makes me smile.  I have yet to see the movie (and the trailer worries me that it will fall far short of the books) but the books are rip-roaring awesome, and the characters are wonderful.  Percy especially.

Making Connections

One of the most common questions people ask writers (especially speculative fiction writers) is, “Where do you get your ideas?”  For me, the answer to that question is, everywhere.  The hard part is turning an idea into a story-worthy conflict with three-dimensional characters, and making sure the idea doesn’t overshadow the actual content of the story.

I’ve picked up the habit of keeping all my ideas (woefully unorganized), even the ones I will probably never use.  Notebooks with scribbled ideas in the margins, grocery lists with character concepts scrawled in next to the shopping, cut and pasted files in my writing directory on the computer, scrap files taken out of other stories…ideas everywhere.

Why?  Because having all that junk to look over helps me combine ideas, and combining ideas is fun, as well as useful for brainstorming full plotlines out of things that, alone, wouldn’t make much of a story.  It’s like going antiquing for a room you’ve only partially furnished – you browse around, find some good stuff, get ideas of what you do and don’t want for the room, remember something you saw over at the dollar store that would fit in perfectly, realize you want to re-paint the whole room, whatever.

The Life & Death (But Mostly the Death) of Erica Flynn, when I first came up with the story, was a combination of a dream, a question, an interest in mythology, and my desire to write something in a world where I could make all the rules from scratch but still have a modern, conversational narration style.  When I knew there was a book in my head was when this alternate-dimension dream I had combined with the hypothetical question, “What would you do with your last hour if you knew you were going to die?”  Once I had the basic setup in mind, I thought about what kind of book I wanted to write, what setting I wanted to spend a couple years in while I wrote it and revised it, and what kind of protagonist I wanted to spend all that time with.  The domino effect took care of most of the rest of the concepts for the book, since the tone required a certain type of narrator, the establishment of that character drove the action and events, the action and events would require these types of consequences in this world, etc.  It was really a very easy book to plot, for the most part, because I knew what I wanted the parameters to be before I even started it.

Now, the book I’m planning for NaNoWriMo is much more complicated – it’s not as linear, it’s a much broader scope, it’s in multiple points of view, there are interlinked subplots, and it’s the first of a trilogy.  Oddly enough, the first idea that sparked my desire to write it has now been cut entirely out of the book.  As it stands now, the things I’ve left in the plotline came from the following sources:  two characters I cannibalized from (terrible) novels I wrote as a kid (age 10 – 12), ideas from I Ching readings I did for my original character concepts, a brainstorm session of conflict mapping, research sessions on the historical scientific and technological effects on the development of societies, photos of Florence my mom brought back from her trip to Italy when I was young and impressionable, and – again – a clear idea of what kind of book I want to spend my time writing and what characters I want to spend my time with while I’m working on it.  Some of them, I want to spend time with the way you can’t help looking at a car wreck, but still, the fact remains that I’m drawn in by them.  If I’m still curious, even though I already know what happens to them and what choices they’ll make, I consider it a good sign that readers will be interested in them, too.  Let’s hope, anyway – haha!

Long story short (too late!) it’s not just where you get your ideas that’s the pertinent question.  A better question to ask a writer is, “How do you connect your ideas?”  Go brainstorm.  It’s fun.  🙂