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.

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.

Shadow Characters – Part I

Psychiatrist Carl Jung, like Freud, defined the subconscious by breaking it down into separate “parts”.  In Jung’s breakdown, the Shadow self is the part of ourselves that we hide (or hope to hide) from others – things we’re ashamed of about ourselves, flaws, weaknesses, vulnerabilities – things we may not even want to admit to ourselves are the case.

In literature, it’s common to find characters who represent the shadow self of the protagonist, even when the author wasn’t consciously writing with that intent.  In high school, I took an awesome elective class on Shadow Literature, in which, essentially, we spent a semester psychoanalyzing books – not authors, books.  Ever since then, I’ve been finding shadow characters everywhere, and I notice the parallels and contrasts in my own characters and their experiences in a way I never did prior to that class.  At times, it’s just been fun to note, but sometimes it’s been extremely helpful in fleshing out characters, drawing out interesting dynamics between the characters, and/or providing intriguing role reversals in the storyline.

I’ve written here before about the importance of giving character traits a little balance – making it clear that your good guys aren’t perfect, bad guys aren’t pure evil, and keeping in mind that we’ve all got a little of our opposite within us.  It’s essential to making interesting characters.

What makes shadow so fun to play with is, you can externalize some of that opposite within and let it out.  Let me illustrate using Batman (hah!  I KNEW I’d get Batman into my blog somehow, someday!) and the Joker.  The thing that makes Batman my favorite superhero ever is the fact that he walks a razor’s edge between complete diabolical insanity and self-sacrificing heroism.  He’s a hero, but he’s always struggling to hold back his own demons, as well as the various super villains he comes up against in Gotham City.  Toward the innocent, he’s compassionate and philanthropic, but he’s a vigilante, using his own judgement as to who deserves punishment – and man, if Batman thinks somebody needs punishing, there is no compassion about him anymore.  He may manage to force himself to play by the rules of justice most of the time, but it’s often a struggle for him not to deal out retribution as he sees fit.  So you see, as a character, he already has an internal shadow clearly laid out (particularly in the graphic novels and the most recent wave of movies).

Now, where does the Joker come in?  The Joker’s favorite game to play with Batman is to point out how much alike he and Batman are, which, of course, Batman hates.  But in a way, the Joker’s right.  Batman is crazy.  He’s maladjusted, incapable of resolving his issues with the world, prefers to strive for his goals in an unconventional and unsanctioned way to actually working with the system that we “normal” people have to deal with….  Depending on what version of the Joker’s background you read (every graphic novel writer seems to have his own), there are often parallels or intersections of Batman’s back story and the Joker’s back story.  The Joker is a clear-cut shadow character – he represents everything Batman is afraid he might be, or might become, and everything Batman doesn’t want to admit about himself.  The thing is, Batman chooses not to become his shadow self, and the Joker revels in being what he is.  That choice is what makes them different.

It’s also important to note that Batman is also the Joker‘s shadow self.  The Joker mocks Batman’s heroism, and (again, depending whose version of the Joker’s back story you read) has spent so long ignoring his better instincts that they’ve essentially vanished.  The Joker does not want to be Batman, any more than Batman wants to be the Joker.  That’s why he loves to mess with Batman’s head every chance he gets.

Okay, I promise I’m done talking about Batman now.

There are lots of storylines in which the protagonist’s shadow character is his/her adversary (or at least is the antagonist).  There are others in which the shadow character is a friend or ally, or the relationship between the two shadow characters changes.  It’s crucial that shadow characters are connected through important similarities, such as strategic thinking, a parallel grief, a core tendency toward anger – deeply ingrained elements of personality.  If they have nothing in common, they aren’t shadow characters – they’re just opposites.  Anytime a character says, “No!  I’m not like you!” to his/her adversary, you probably have a case of shadow on your hands.

Long story short, there is a lot to be said about shadow characters, which is why I’m breaking this topic up into multiple posts.  More about shadow characters, and with different dynamics, next time!

For now, I’ll leave you with some pretty clear examples of shadow antagonist/protagonist teams:

  • Batman and the Joker, particularly in the graphic novel Arkham Asylum by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween and Haunted Knight, and The Killing Joke by Alan Moore
  • Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – Probably the easiest and most clear-cut example of the shadow in all of literature
  • Gollum and Frodo in The Two Towers, from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series – I say The Two Towers in particular because that’s where the two characters interact directly for the first time
  • Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books
  • FBI agent Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter in the film of Red Dragon (based on Thomas Harris’s novel, which is too gory and graphic for me to be able to read it, although I’ve tried)

——

On Tuesday, June 15th (this coming Tuesday), I’ll be guest blogging at Marian Allen’s Weblahg.  Marian Allen has three novels published for electronic format through Echelon Press, many short stories published in magazines and anthologies – some of which are available at Amazon.  She is also, I’m proud to say, my mom.  I’ll be posting about giving and getting critiques, and how to get the most out of your feedback, on her blog this Tuesday, so be there or be square!

Fixing Flat Characters

While there are some fine examples of books/stories in which an “everyman” character can be interesting, there are many more examples in which an “everyman” type is…well, boring.  That’s not to say that stories about “normal” people can’t be awesome, but there’s no such thing as a perfectly neutral person, just like there’s no such thing as a perfect person.

Don’t you risk pushing away some readers if you make a characters’ quirks, beliefs, attitudes, or lifestyles different from those readers’?  Yeah, but, just like in real life, not everybody is gonna like everybody else.  There are people who don’t like YOU, but you’re still yourself, right?  And a lot more readers will be intrigued by and endeared to a strong character (even one of questionable morals) than a flat, boring character.  Look at Han Solo.  He’s kind of a rake, self-centered, and smart-mouthed.  But that’s why he’s an entertaining character – that juxtaposition of “not a NICE GUY, but a GOOD GUY nonetheless” keeps you curious about his next line, whether he’ll do the right thing or not, etc.

Now, there’s another way to make a character flat and boring, at the other end of the scale.  There is nothing more intensely BLAH than a character that’s overdone – he/she is a stereotype, relies entirely on a single central trait, or is so over-the-top that he/she leaves readers rolling their eyes and sighing in moments that are meant to be powerful or gripping.  This happens a lot with the all-good hero or all-evil villain, but it’s not a problem confined to good guys vs. bad guys.

The core of the issue, really, is when the writer himself/herself doesn’t know enough about the character.  Sometimes, characters just come out three-dimensional without any effort on my part.  I love it when that happens.  Other times, they develop depth and back story during the writing process (I also love that, although it usually means I have to tweak the first scenes or chapters that character appears in, to account for things I’ve “learned” about them along the way).  And then, some characters take momentous effort to make them come alive.  Actually, I love that process, too, although it can be frustrating when the characters just won’t work with me.

For particularly troublesome characters, here are some things to try:

  • Break up stereotypes.  If you’re writing a character who is one, reverse a few expectations, throw in some additional interests, or give us some reason that your character him/herself is TRYING to be a stereotype.
  • Ask your character any 10 questions, like it’s an interview.  Write down your questions and their answers, and see what new information you can uncover about them.  What was his favorite birthday present as a kid?  What’s her ideal vacation?  What STILL bothers him, even though it happened 16 years ago?  What’s the ability she’s most confident about in herself?
  • Write down 3 things your character is aware of about himself/herself (pick some good and some bad), and 3 things that OTHER characters would readily notice about his/her personality (some good, some bad) that he/she isn’t aware of about himself/herself.  Think about the things you’ve listed – are they things that would factor into events and reactions within your storyline?  Are they things that will change, or things your character will realize, within the storyline?  Are they things your character will have to call upon or overcome in order to make it to his/her goal(s) in the story?
  • Strengths and weaknesses are sometimes one and the same.  It’s often the balance of a trait that makes it a “flaw” or a “merit” in a personality.  Being stubborn is bad, right?  The flip side of stubbornness, though, is persistance, determination, tenacity, and/or constancy.  Many of the best characters are ones whose flaws and strengths are a double-edged sword, and the interplay of positive and negative side effects of their traits gives the narrative plenty of potential intrigue and tension.
  • Don’t make a character all anything – good, bad, cruel, confident, indifferent, whatever.  Even if it’s just a smidgen of contradiction, and even if it isn’t written on the page, you should have it in mind that no one is all one way or another.  The ultra-confident jerk at the office who always gets the promotions and the girls may be exactly that to your main character, but YOU, the writer, can know better.  Maybe the guy is secretly horribly insecure and is overcompensating, or has something to prove to his overly critical father, whatever.  But, whether that’s specified in the story or not isn’t as important as the fact that, as a writer, you’ve got to know all your characters, heart and soul, as if they were real people.  They’ll never be real people to your readers unless they’re real to YOU first.

You can probably tell by now that I’m a very character-focused writer, so you know I’ll be rambling about characters and character development again.  You haven’t heard the last of it yet!  Muahahaha!  😉

Ode to Internal Conflict

In real life, people have internal conflict all the time.  Sometimes it’s more apparent than others.  Sometimes it’s over a triviality, and other times it’s about something life-changing and complex.  But it’s there, and it affects our words, actions, moods, relationships, and worldviews.

If you want your characters and their problems to come alive for readers, you’ve got to give the people in your story some internal conflicts.  Of course, it’s most important to show in your main character(s), but secondary and “bit” characters can come through richer and stronger for a little dose of internal conflict, too.

How you go about showing that conflict will depend on a few factors:

  1. If you’re writing in first person, your readers get direct insight into the main character’s thoughts and feelings, even if he/she is an unreliable narrator.  Your other characters will be viewed through the lens of your narrator’s opinions and observations, but you, the writer, should know the real deal about your secondary characters – not just what your main character knows, thinks, and feels about them.  That includes knowing what makes them tick and what internal conflicts may be affecting them in any given scene.
  2. Third person can be done in a few different ways, but generally there’s some balance between omniscient narration and a sort of journalistic telling of the facts (just what is said and observed, with no direct insight into the characters’ minds or emotions).  If you go more for omniscient narration, you can reveal characters’ thoughts directly, and show inner conflicts that way.  If you stick with “just the facts, ma’am,” you’ll need to make sure to use facial expressions, hesitations, nervous habits, body language, tone of voice, etc. to communicate your characters’ thoughts and feelings, including their inner conflicts.
  3. If you have a character who just isn’t introspective, who doesn’t (or can’t) face his/her own flaws or mistakes, or who dislikes communicating his/her inner workings (even in his/her own thoughts), again, you’ll have to bring out internal conflict through responses to external factors:  other characters’ actions, dialogue, events, etc.

Now, about different kinds of inner conflicts.  There are inherent, long-term issues, such as the desire for freedom and independence battling with the desire for belonging and love (which could apply to a character’s family background or love life or both).  That kind of deep-rooted conflict is almost a character trait, and can be the foundation for the entire plot or can simply be a factor in your character’s behavior and attitude.  You can resolve it as a subplot, give your character new insight into the problem as the main story goes on, have your character come to terms with it by the end, or leave it hanging over his/her head.

There are also smaller, more specific inner conflicts (do the right thing, or the easy / profitable / fun thing?)  That kind of internal conflict is the spice of fiction, in my opinion.  When an author weaves together the events of the book and the conflicts and tough decisions of their characters, everything pulls together until you can’t separate THOSE characters from THAT plot.  It had to be [Character A] faced with [Event 1], because only he would’ve reacted by doing [this], which caused [Event 2], which set up [Character B] with [that] decision, and…so on and so forth.

So there are lots of reasons to give characters internal conflicts of various importance and scale.  It gives them depth, keeps them from being too predictable or stereotypical, lends tension to the story (because people don’t always make the right choices, or even know what the right choice is), plays characters off one another, and is an excellent catalyst for both main plot and subplot.

Even if you’re never going to mention a particular character’s hang-ups in the story, you should know what they are.  Your characters, dialogue, and story will all be the better for it.

Structure

So you finish your first draft of a novel, and you’re ready to edit.  It needs more work than just proofreading – there are things you need to work in, move around, combine, cut, rethink, etc.  In other words, it’s time to look at the overall structure and see where everything should go for clarity, effect, and pacing to be the best they can be.

Sometimes it’s easy to see where something can be plugged in, but when it isn’t so obvious, it can be daunting, to say the least, to start rearranging your manuscript, changing the tone of scenes and dialogue to make it all fit together cleanly, unsure what the domino effect of all that effort will be.  And if it doesn’t work, you have to undo everything you’ve worked on for weeks or months, and start trying to tackle the problems again.

It’s really hard to hold the entire structure of a book in your head (even your own book), so I decided early on in the editing process of my current novel that I was going to try a different approach to rewriting on a novel-length scale.  I made a plot layout for the whole book.  For each chapter, I did this:

  • Chapter # / Title
  • Characters’ Goals & Motivations:
  • Chapter Summary
  • Questions Raised:
  • Points of Conflict:
  • Larger Plot Movement:
  • Notes & Suggestions:

Goals and motivations are whatever your character(s) in that chapter are striving for, whether that’s “defeat the evil overlord” or “have a positive conversation with his son” or whatever.  If you have multiple characters, answer for each of them.

The chapter summary is just a brief account of the events, like an episode guide.

Questions raised means anything that either the characters themselves are asking, or that the reader may be wondering during/after the chapter.  “Who is the evil emperor?” or “How did that cheerleader learn black magic?” or “Why did the zombie cross the road?”  Anything hinted, foreshadowed, unexplained, etc. that you mean to follow up on later.

Points of conflict should include inner conflict as well as external conflict.  It will really help you pinpoint character development over the storyline arc, as well as helping you pace the action and the lead-up to the climactic scenes of the book.  If a chapter seems to have no conflict, either (a) cut the chapter or (b) dig deeper for some inner conflict or character dynamic conflicts, and make sure the rewrite brings those to the forefront.  People don’t have to fight or even argue to be in conflict – they don’t even have to be upset with each other.  They just have to have some goal or need that’s at odds with one another.

Larger plot movement – what, in this chapter, pushed the story arc forward?  It’s fine to have a chapter here or there dedicated to subplot, or to deepen the characters, but if you find you have multiple chapters in a row that don’t move the story forward, it’s time to rewrite or rearrange.  Also, if you have a high ratio of chapters that don’t move the story forward, you probably want to re-think some of the material.  And yes, character development that affects the action in the larger story does count as plot movement!

Notes and suggestions is for anything you realize as you’re reading, like, “I never answered this question in the whole book!” or “Oops, 3 chapters in a row with no forward movement.”  “This chapter is kinda short, not much happens…might be a good place to plug in [this scene].”

I found that this really helped my focus with multiple elements of rewriting.  It really helped me pinpoint pacing problems, troubleshoot boring chapters, keep the characters’ interactions true even as the characters and their relationships changed and developed, and figure out where I had room to maneuver new material into the book.

I hope it can be likewise helpful to you.

One Damn Thing After Another

One of the things that seems to happen a lot with action-packed books and movies is this barrage of events that become increasingly tedious to sit through, when they should be exciting, edge-of-your-seat scenes.  My mom and I call that phenomenon “one damn thing after another”.

This is something I’ve had to work to avoid in my own current novel, so it’s been on my mind lately.  The thing is, the individual events may be interesting and gripping, but they can still become boring when you stick them all together into a giant blob of action without substance.  Throwing peril on top of peril followed up by peril can be just as lousy to read as description after description after description in tedious detail.  But you’ve got to have conflict, right?  And some stories require a lot of action, right?  And lots of peril for the characters should make for a great climax, right?

Here’s what separates a well-built increase in action-based tension from One Damn Thing After Another:  consequences and revealations.  Okay, so your main character just had to fight off a zombie football player to save his dog from having its legs eaten by said zombie.  (Totally random example, there.)  In the next scene, you want your character to have to face multiple zombies and you want to raise the stakes for everyone involved.  But BEFORE you jump into another wave of zombie attacks, wait a second–let’s go back to your character saving his dog.  Wow, so he really loves his dog, because he was willing to risk himself for it.  That reveals something about the character.  It also makes the reader worried that something bad will happen to the dog at some point, because that’s an extra vulnerability for your character.  Explore that fear within your character a little in the scene where he saves his dog.  It doesn’t have to be stated outright or take a whole paragraph to do.  Word choice and/or a sentence or two will do it.  And how does your character feel afterward?  Relieved that his dog is okay, but scared about what will happen next?  What are the emotional consequences for him?  How is his dog acting after its brush with zombification?  Is it traumatized?  Is it too doofy to know what almost happened to it?  Did it get wounded and it’s going to be a zombie soon itself?  How awful would THAT be for your character???  And when the next scene happens, what if it turns out the zombies aren’t just brain-sucking corpses, but maybe they have attachments to one another–what if the rest of the zombie football team is horribly upset about this guy killing one of their friends, and they want revenge?  Now your character is in for it!  Always keeping your characters’ personalities in mind, using their quirks and traits and aversions to drive the way the action plays out, makes it a lot more interesting than say, Man Saves Dog From Zombie.  More Zombies Attack.  Man Kills Zombies.

It also helps break up the action a little, so you have beats of reflection and/or emotion and character development to break the action up AND increase the reader’s attachment to what’s going on.

As an excellent example of One Damn Thing After Another vs. awesome, well-done action, I give you the movie The Two Towers.  I’ve read the LOTR books a few times over, and I watched the cut versions of the movies when they came out in the theater.  I hated the theater-cut of The Two Towers.  It was one long string of battle sequences that felt like it went on forever and ever and I couldn’t have cared less about what was going on.  When the extended cut box set of all three movies came out on DVD, I bought the set.  The extended cut of The Two Towers is almost twice as long, but felt SO MUCH SHORTER to watch than the short version.  It is excellently paced, interesting from start to finish, and the battle scenes are actually gripping.  Now, they’re the same scenes, right?  YES, but the context is changed.  Stuff happens between battle scenes.  The viewer sees the cause-and-effect interplay between one action sequence and another.  There is emotional impact and storyline impact that results from what happens in those battle sequences.  There are revealations about the characters that impact the action, or that result from the action.  And suddenly, the action is interesting to watch.  Suddenly, I cared how things were going to play out.

Now, a lot of what is gripping or not is a matter of personal taste, so what’s One Damn Thing After Another to you may not be the same as what’s One Damn Thing After Another to me.  In light of that, I say, pay attention to the things you watch and read.  What bores you about one action scene, when another has your heart pounding?  What makes that difference for you?  Did one throw in an unexpected quirk (Indiana Jones’ fear of snakes), and the other didn’t?  Or did one lead to unexpected complications that ramped the action up AS A RESULT of a character’s own decision?  The more you can pinpoint what you like and dislike in the things you read and watch, the easier it is to troubleshoot things you want to avoid in your own writing.