Saturday, June 11, 2011

Writing About Characters = Bad.

I often give advice to not write about a character, but through them. To not refer to action, but instead have it taking place. That good writers know it's not about them and do their best to make themselves invisible in the prose. Don't state pauses, create them. The importance of language is only measured in the effect it creates.

Just as often as I give advice I get someone asking what the hell I'm even talking about. It's not easy stuff to understand, mostly because in-depth concepts, which is pretty much all fiction writing, can't truly be represented in simplistic sayings like 'show, don't tell' despite being adopted by the millions of hacks that think that phrase means a fucking thing when it's really a crock of shit.

And no, I will never, ever give up my hatred of the mantra 'show, don't tell' because it's horseshit advice that I've seen do little more than confuse and misguide aspiring writers, all the while putting money in the pockets of hack writers who cling to it and call it teaching. But hey, why delve deeper when simplistic bullshit adages sell, right?

Why delve deeper? Because some of us care more about helping other create quality fiction than lining our own pocketbooks or thinking we're hot shit in some small pond where 'show, don't tell' is big fish.

Here's my effort to help you create quality fiction, keeping in mind I've never made a dime from writing, whether from my own or by giving advice on yours. Specifically, this advice was given to someone confused by what I meant by writing through a character instead of simply writing about them, and how to handle direct thoughts and feelings.

Say you're writing a character who got cheated on and is pissed off. You have two options. The first is to write about that character from a distant perspective that just sounds like someone is, well, writing about a character:

Bill sat in the bar, sipping a drink, hurt over what had happened. He was really mad that his wife Peggy had cheated on him and vowed revenge. He wasn't sure how he would get his revenge on Joe, but would one way or another.

As the reader, we understand the situation from an informational standpoint and understand how Bill might be feeling, but it's all generalized, referenced action and emotion. It becomes what a generic character, but not Bill specifically, may be experiencing. It's like stage direction telling an actor, or in this case the reader, the circumstances of a role instead of having that role being acted by the character (which is a dick thing to do to a reader. Here, dear reader, thank you for paying for my book, now you go ahead and create the important stuff for yourself).

Writing through the character brings about a specific demonstration of the ideas and concepts we're going for, in this case hurt, anger, revenge, etc:

Bill sat at the bar, sipping a drink, knowing there wasn't enough whiskey in the world to dull the pain. The love of his life, Peggy, done committed carnal betrayal and wasn't nothing left but to get revenge. Bill didn't know how he'd settle the score with Joe, maybe screw his old lady, or worse, but to keep any shred of respect Bill knew something had to be done.

This way, we understand the concepts--hurt, anger, betrayal, revenge--even if they aren't as deliberately stated (real, authentic emotions are usually more complex than a list of vocabulary words, though that may be a good starting point. And we understand the emotion concepts at play because instead of a generalized commentary on how a random person might feel in these circumstances, we get highly specific examples of what Bill is experiencing as he acts out his own story.

Hell, the use of certain vernacular even gives us an idea of who Bill is--apparently I made him all countrified and you can start to learn the rules of Bill's world, but those are other lessons entirely.

The important thing here is instead of the narrator just talking about a character as if he's some animal being observed in a documentary, we get a peak into what it means to be Bill in this moment.

From a technical perspective, when you're writing in this sort of empathetic, connected way (usually a limited, close perspective/POV) you don't even need to use italics to indicate thoughts or the ever clumsy and repetitive 'he felt' or 'he was' to indicate what Bill is going through. Let the story happen. A line like "The love of his life Peggy done committed carnal betrayal and wasn't nothing left but to get revenge." blurs the line between whether it's a direct thought, information, emotion, motivation, etc.

This is okay, though. Great in fact.

Real people exist in multiple ways in any given moment. We don't think, now I'm thinking about something and then I'll feel it and then I'll react to it and later I might tell someone about it. We simply exist. Our thoughts and feelings just are, they happen, and all sort of meld into what we call experience.

If in your prose you can represent the experience of the character's existence instead of referring to or even distinguishing what is action, what is thought, what is emotion, etc, it feels more real. And then, instead of the prose being about a character, it becomes the existence of the character, their state of being, their reality. Instead of reading about a story, about a character, about an experience, it all happens.

But, you see italics in published fiction all the time, right? So what. I see a lot of sloppy, annoying shit that isn't up to my personal standards, so I don't do them. Italics pretty much scream NOW MY CHARACTER IS THINKING SOMETHING, which is not only annoying, but isn't necessary in an empathetic, experiential based style.

There is a problem to be aware of, though. It's not an issue with fiction or reading, it's an issue with writers (one of many!). What can sometimes occur is we're so hyper-sensitive in workshops or revision, reading every line looking for things we can say are wrong, that we can't see the forest for the trees.

For instance, what if I add not only a potential POV break, but unattributed thoughts by not even saying 'he thought' or using italics. Most people would put their workshop hat on and point out the 'error.' But in empathetic, experiential writing, it may not be since the effect and experience is still being clearly expressed, and isn't that what's important?

Bill sat at the bar, sipping a drink, knowing there wasn't enough whiskey in the world to dull the pain. The love of his life Peggy done committed carnal betrayal and wasn't nothing left but to get revenge. Bill didn't know how he'd settle the score with Joe, maybe screw his old lady, or worse, but to keep any shred of respect Bill knew something had to be done. Might even have to kill the son of a bitch.

OH NOES! That last line I added is floating completely in no-man's-land. Is it a direct thought? Is the implied pronoun an "I" and thus could be seen as a POV break since a direct thought isn't attributed?! It's not even clarified if it's the character providing insight or the narrator explaining Bill might have to kill whatever I called the other generically named character! CHAOS IN THE STREETS!

Whateversky. Only an issue in workshops or revision where writers are often too smart of their own good and looking for things they can declare wrong that may not be.

The thing is, we're so firmly established in Bill's experience that these [alleged] technical hiccups are pushed aside in favor of the fact this last sentence is expressing exactly what Bill is experiencing in this moment. It may be half thought, half feeling, part realization, a bit of foreshadowing, some gut-reaction, etc, but who cares. It would get messy if the writer, as many do, felt the need to attribute everything in a 'he thought' or 'he smelled' sort of way. The important thing is we've shifted attention away from the language, toward the effect of the language, and the prose becomes part of the experience, a representation of Bill's state of being as he acts out his own story.

This is good! Scary for some writers who are paranoid they won't make sense in workshops on a pedantic 'is that a thought because it isn't stated' sort of level. But who cares. Remember that good fiction is all about the effect of the language. If you're focusing on language, and not it's effect, then you may be writing about characters, not through them. And you may be writing about themes and ideas and concepts and writing about a story instead of presenting a story that just happens.


  1. Thanks, dear brother. Glad to know ya.

  2. Good points. I think you need to write thoughts in that manner if you want to go really deep into a character's PoV.