Thursday, January 23, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 4)

Painting the Picture

What about painting a picture for the reader? Doesn’t that count for something?

No, it counts for nothing.

As a writer, your job is to entertain the reader. As there’s no true, universal genre, you are the one who must determine what the readers of your genre want. What interests a war story reader is not what interests a romance reader. Are your readers interested in a five page description of the countryside? How about a Victorian living room? What about the history of the AK-47? Is that interesting? How about the technical workings of a warp drive? As you can see, there any number of topics that can engage your readers.

Some genres skip describing all together. Most fairy tales have almost no description in them, yet they are very entertaining stories. You never get a good description of a giant or a troll, but that doesn’t stop the story one bit.

If you are to paint a picture with your words, then you need to decide which parts of the picture are the most important. A writing teacher of mine had us sit down and describe a plain white cup in detail. As you can guess, we hadn’t been able to write enough words to capture all the detail. At the end, what we had was mostly useless descriptions.

Painting the picture does not just involve the physical picture, such as the size of the room and the number of floorboards, it includes the mental state of characters, aims and ambitions, possible hazards, and a myriad of other intangible details. Keep the intangible and the untouchable, memories and moments, wishes and desires in mind as you type.

I will now improve my bland example.
Bob walked into the saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt. His brown hair escaped from his torn hat. He walked up to the rail in that saloon and ordered a drink, then turned around to look at the girls.
Here’s the whole scene redescribed, with me adding in both tangible and intangible details.
Bob walked into the saloon filled with swirling smoke from the stogies of the card table. He wore blue jeans and a red shirt, both new, having just purchased them at the trader’s with his pay. These were the very first new clothes that he ever owned. His hat was still old, though, and his brown hair still escaped it. After a drink he would go to a barber, but right now he wanted to see this real saloon. He wanted to see the bright brass rails before the bar, the chandelier above, the well polished wood, and the large mirror behind. These were all wonders that the other cowboys had told the glories of. There were also the women in their colorful dresses, none of whom were ladies, with their painted eyes and painted lips, eager to give a little attention in exchange for a little money. They knew tricks, his friends said, and they were worth his time.
Notice how Bob became a naive cowboy, yet I never said that particular fact. I let all the other facts imply that. I have painted the scene here, but not the literal scene of the saloon, but the figurative scene of a naive cowboy entering a den of vice. I'll let you decide which description is more effective and evocative.