On Becoming a Professional Amateur, #4: Character Acrobatics

woman at computerI’m replaying one of my favorite posts on writing. Why? Well, in part because I’m juggling too many cats and in part because I’ve just had the issue come up in a book I’m reading.

This is not an amateur’s manuscript, not a hopeful neo’s first offering. No, Dear Reader, this is a book by a professional writer of middle school fiction that I am reading to my daughter. It is a good book, and well-written in most ways, but somehow, during the editorial process, both the author and her editors (and proofreaders) lost track of an important element. Which prompted me to reread two pages and ask:

Madam, do you know where your characters are?

I am now asking this of any of you who aspire to the writing life. In all seriousness, in any given scene, do you know where your characters are and what they’re doing? Does your reader?

In one manuscript I edited recently, our hero was walking (or perhaps sauntering, for he was a cowboy), then he was on horseback, then he was walking again. First there was a mountain. Then there was no mountain then there is. (No, wait. That’s a song by Donovan.)

cowboyThere was no mountain, but there was a rifle that kept appearing (when the hero needed it) and disappearing (when he was crawling for cover).

Will-o-the-wisp characters and objects indicate the scene is not vividly enough written to fix such an important detail as where the characters are in the writer’s mind. If you can’t picture where your characters are, your reader won’t be able to either.

How does this happen?

Sometimes a writer induces errors in logistics during the editing process, unintentionally deleting a line and leaving the heroine sitting in a chair by the window when he meant her to stand and cross the room to confront the villain. It’s a shock to the reader when the heroine suddenly slaps the villain across the face … from across the room. You can just imagine how the villain feels.

Sometimes the writer simply loses track of where the character is, perhaps because he wasn’t paying attention when he wrote the scene, because he wrote the scene over a period of time, or because the location wasn’t fixed firmly in his mind and he literally forgot where he put key features of the room.

What’s the antidote?

In any event, the antidote is careful editing. I know a number of writers who hate rereading and editing so much that they will do almost anything to avoid it (even paying me to do it for them). Why? I don’t know. Personally I find editing as much or more enjoyable than writing. It’s where I get to mold the details of my story. It’s where the characters develop nuance of personality and mannerism. It’s where the plot takes on new subtlety.

MrTwilightThere is one “prefix” aid I recommend: I sketch location layouts at least once for every story I write that contains any amount of action or travel. When Michael Reaves and I wrote MR. TWILIGHT, I realized I didn’t have a clear picture in my head of Collin “Twilight’s” workshop when I realized the orrery I had thought was in one corner of the room turned up in a different place. I did a layout in Photoshop and sent it to Michael and said: “Is this where everything goes?” Once we’d agreed where things were, we used the layout as a go-by.

This is also beneficial at the macro level. When I wrote my first novel, THE MERI, I made a map of Caraid-land (my fictitious country) so that I knew where my characters were traveling to and from and how long it might taken them to get there.

On the “post-fix” end—that is, when you edit—visualize each scene as you read it, rather than allowing the image in your head to set the scene. Remember, your reader can’t read your mind—only the words you put on the page.

Exercise: Choose an action scene or dialogue from your own prose and read it carefully. Visualize what the characters are doing as if you were watching them on a movie screen. Be honest—is everyone where you expected them to be? Are their actions and locations clear?

Too close to the action yourself? For a reality check, have someone else read the scene, then have them describe what they envision the characters doing.



On Becoming a Professional Amateur, #4: Character Acrobatics — 8 Comments

  1. There’s always the reflexive reaching problem. If you describe something, you automatically reach for something familiar. This is why caves have lighting with no visible light source; authors aren’t familiar with being in totally dark places. My characters tend to forget their horses and walk because I walk when I’m not driving, and my auto-reach does manage to realize that the car would not be suitable.

    Here’s a funny take on it, from a role-playing POV.

  2. Writing Starfarers, I wished desperately for a map. The campus is inside a rotating cylinder (similar to an O’Neill colony). This is difficult to draw. A couple times I almost had a gaming company ready to create a module for one of their games that would be set in an O’Neill colony, but the contacts kept leaving for greener or less stressful pastures or graduate school or something.

    I finally got a two-liter plastic soda bottle and drew the campus on the outside of it. Worked surprisingly well.


  3. The great Dorothy Sayers said that all dramatists had to ‘sit in the stalls’ — visualize the play as it would be staged. Her bad example was the scene that took place in the heroine’s bedroom at night. The girl lay in bed and went through huge emotional gyrations and stress of enormous plot significance. But what would you see, in the audience? You got it — nothing. Because she’s lying in bed, in the dark!
    I am writing a novel now in which the villain lives in a Roman villa. Eventually I had to draw the entire floor plan out, to be sure that when they turn left after the tablinarium they always arrive at the paterfamilias’s study. There are novels where, if you head east from the capital, sometimes it’s mountains and sometimes it’s the ocean. Bad!

    • You can make the oceans and mountains work if you deploy non-Euclidean geography.

      The trick is that you then have to keep on deploying it.

  4. *disclaimer: I’ve worked with a LOT of editors. I’m still working with multiple editors. I have no intention of providing clues about who, where, when.*

    I have to laugh with dark irony. This only happens to me the other way around: I’ll be reading along in CEs and discover a spot where Editor has chosen to line edit/delete, generally for reasons I don’t truly understand. Suddenly, my characters translocate from one spot to another, physical logistics change without explanation, and critical groundwork disappears. My jaw drops, I clutch my hair, and oh…the language…

    The most upsetting thing about this in my view is that when this happens, I spends far too much time simply trying to save the book, with little energy/focus left to continue improving it. So other stupid bits are potentially left unseen and untended.

    As an aside, my second draft is all about easing up a little bit on scene-setting and such. Too much detail about where that cave light comes from is just as problematic to storytelling as forgetting to manage the light at all. 8)

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