Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 5)

Bias and Loaded Words

Descriptions are not required to be neutral. In fact, neutrality is the easiest way to make your descriptions tedious.

The whole point of charged words is that you can get huge amounts of play from just picking a more aggressive word. “Frankly, I don’t give a damn,” works because the the statement is both rude and blunt, but not too rude and not too blunt. Hollywood types tried to change that last line from Gone With The Wind, but the director was able to persuade the film board to let the line stand.

You want bias because that opens up a whole world of vocabulary and energy. The readers want their protagonist to be right and their opponents to be wrong. Lean into that. Comedy is all about bias, especially when the reader knows that the characters are wrong and how deeply wrong those characters are.

My standard example is a poster child for neutrality. Although factually correct, the description fails to deliver any impact.
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.
I’ll rewrite my example and add in some bias.
The most eligible man in town, Bob, walked into that Devil’s den of a saloon wearing blue jeans and a red shirt. His lovely brown hair escaped from around his torn hat which only a woman’s loving hand could mend. He walked up to the rail in that saloon and ordered the Devil’s brew, then turned around to look at the harlots that worked there.
That’s a bit outrageous, but also more fun. Notice how much more CHARGED that paragraph feels. It oozes conflict. The reader can see the fundamental forces at work. Which will win, the force of wholesomeness or the temptations of the Devil?

Pleasant words are just as biased. “Sally walked down the winsome lane, still giddy from her sister’s marriage, wondering what sort of man she would marry.” Is that lane objectively winsome, or is it a dirt track with some mud holes left over from yesterday’s rain? Words assign meaning, meanings give us tenor and tone, and tenor and tone give the story direction. From one sentence, the reader can already tell something of what this story will be.

So abandon object truth. Focus on subjective truth. Leave object truth to textbooks and documentaries.