Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Details, details...

Today’s question: How soon do you reveal character details? When, in your novel or story, does your character get described?

To answer that question, I’d like to consider another. What does an undescribed character look like? Do we as readers just assume the character is some standard, generic person? Do we assume they are like us, our age, our skin color? Do we leave a blank space for them, holding off picturing them fully until we get the necessary data?

Certain traits should be revealed early, I think. It is significant, for example, if the character is a child. The world treats children differently and their capabilities are different. And, as a general rule, you don’t want to surprise the reader by revealing critical information about the character too late in the game.

Unless, of course, that is precisely what you intend to do. A particularly subversive example is Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. At home among his people, the title character Ged is just another person. It is only three chapters into the book, when he travels to the Isle of Roke, that the narrative happens to mention that Ged had the red-brown skin of “most folk of the Archipelago.”

You have to remember that the book was written in 1968. Starting off with the revelation that most of the characters had brown skin could well have, at that time, made it a book about brown-skinned characters. But it’s not. It’s a book about wizards. It wouldn’t really change anything if they were green.

Which brings up another point -- what is necessary data about a character and what is not? Skin color is very relevant if you are writing a story about the Watts Riots, but might not be important in a futuristic or fantasy setting. A character’s gender is usually revealed the first time a pronoun is used for them, but I’ve seen books where the author has cleverly avoided pronouns all together to conceal this information. The character’s age usually impacts their place in society, but which is important -- the societal status, or the age?

As usual, bringing the questions up for consideration is more interesting then finding any one perfect answer. After all, the answers change with the needs of the story.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

It’s a Process

Where do you write? And, perhaps as importantly, how? I know some writers work longhand, using pencil and paper. This gives the nice advantage of being able to work anywhere.

I prefer to work in electronic media. Usually this means on a computer, although portions of my first novel were composed on a Palm Pilot.

My personal twisted psychology of the writing experience goes something like this: I know I’ll need to rewrite later, but I have to believe while I’m writing that I’m doing the best I can. So I write like I don’t intend revisions. Writing by hand will only need to be retyped later, so I never bring my A game when writing that way.

I do, however, use pen and paper for notes and outlines. I sometimes use a notepad as a sounding board for in a brainstorming session, listing ideas so that I can connect them, compare them, and chose among them.

There is a reason I opened this post with questions. The writing process I am describing is merely how it works for me. Other writers I know work very differently.

In learning to write, I had to pay attention to what worked for me. I advise others to do the same. Question yourself. Learn what works for you.

Which of course leads us back to that old writers’ conundrum: The best way to learn to write is to write.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Worked on a Movie…

Today is Wednesday. I normally post on Tuesdays. Sorry ‘bout the delay, but I spent the last two days working on a film set.

Not as glamorous as it sounds, I’m afraid. I was an extra on a small (probably less than 20 minute) historical piece of the kind they show in museum displays. It was about the Klondike Gold Rush. It’s likely I will either be lost on the cutting room floor or be visible only as third hat on the left.

But it was an interesting experience.

The extras were given general instruction and left to build their own stage business. I was amused to note how much went on that could not be credited to the show’s writers.

The visuals – how the scenes were constructed, the camera angles used, the timing, were all created on the spot. More than once I was asked to stand in a certain location just so I would block something modern from the view of the camera.

I know there was a script and there were principal characters and a story. They just were not in evidence on the days that I was there.

I think writing for film must be like throwing a pebble into a pond but only watching where the ripples reach the shoreline. There script has to be there first, the ideas and the characters and the plot – but the writer must expect a certain distance between the his or her work and the finished product. We see only ripples, not the stone.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Certain Antagonism

Heroes tend to have villains. And the more the villain is thematically or stylistically linked to the hero, the stronger the story is.

One classic trick is to have the villain be just like the hero, only evil. Whatever advantages the hero has, whatever makes him or her special – this villain has them too. Holmes has his Moriarty, someone smart enough to challenge even the great detective. The Doctor has the Master, another Time Lord with a TARDIS and a screwdriver of his own. The trick is older than the popular examples I’m using, of course. MacBeth has his MacDuff, after all.

And then there is the archenemy who goes the opposite route, literally. The Joker is the classic example, here. Everything Batman is not: colorful instead of somber, crazy and unpredictable instead of rational and methodical, and, of course, murderous.

Both these villain types serve a double function in the story. They not only provide a high level of challenge even to their competent protagonists, but they also serve as foils – characters that the illustrate something about the nature of the protagonists.

While I tend to favor adventure fiction, these techniques are hardly exclusive to genre. A romantic rival could just as easily tell us something by being everything the romance protagonist is not. In the classic French Harlequinade, Columbine’s rivals, Harlequin and Pierrot have been described as sunlight and moonlight, laughter and sorrow.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

The Moment of Doom

So I’m rewriting my April Project D&D movie script (see any of my posts from April for more info). Now as I noted before, I’m rewriting to establish stakes for the hero’s quest, to make his success or failure more meaningful to the audience.

Only, now that I’m rewriting, I’ve hit another snag. I am questioning now whether I need a moment where things go really bad, where the hero fails and the quest seems impossible.

It’s not that there are no conflicts. But the pattern is something like: monster attacks, heroes find a way to beat monster, heroes move on to next monster. Rather like the source material, actually. And I have some personality conflicts along the way as well, just to add a little spice.

But the heroes are never captured, hope is never lost, the fellowship of the core team is never truly tested. And I’m afraid the quest will seem too easy without such a moment, too unsatisfyingly simple.

I’ve not followed any of the movie formulae – this isn’t meant to be the classic three-act pattern or the Hero’s Journey – but now I find I’m questioning whether I am missing a fairly classic element. What I’m looking for here is the Descent into the Underworld.

So I guess I’ve got a bit more rewriting to do before we can all have that script-reading party.