Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 2)

The Written Word

If you learn nothing else from me, read this sections until you understand it. This section, by itself, is worth everything that you paid. (And if you paid nothing, good for you.)

Our modern society has its own version of storytelling. Specifically, modern storytelling is all about visual storytelling. Film, television, and video games dominate how we experience stories. We've seen thousands of hours of visual stories before we ever write. Because of this constant stream of visual media, we, as a society, have an innate creative bias towards visual media. When we create stories and characters, we visualize and listen through the stories that we want to tell. When we have a story, we innately employ tools that work easily and effectively in visual mediums. This is perfectly normal and expected. There is nothing bad about this.

As writers, if we are to create written characters, then we must acknowledge our visual bias. We must become aware that written techniques are different than visual techniques. The screen uses visual and audio techniques because those techniques are both easy and effective in that medium. When you transfer those same techniques to the written word, those techniques often become cumbersome and, in some cases, nonsensical. What works well in one medium does not work well in another.

When creating something for the written word, choose techniques that are easy and effective for the written word. Play down the visual and the verbal while playing up just about anything else.

Let's walk through and 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.

In that example, I gave you an impression of Bob with a visual technique. You may have conjured a brief image of Bob show up in your head, but you will quickly forget him. Honestly, you learned nothing important about Bob, the setting, the mood of the story, or why Bob is worth being the main character in a story.

If we avoid the visual description, instead dwelling on the more subjective experience of the character, we come out with a far different paragraph.

Bob walked into the saloon like a buffalo bull ready to mate. He clodded up the bar, boots like hooves, his left spur scraping its way across the floorboards. He didn’t survey the women because he knew that those women would survey him. He would have time enough to turn around and choose who he wanted.

In that sentence, I gave no physical description of Bob yet I gave a far stronger impression of the character. I did nothing special in that sentence. All I did was use a simile and a few sentences from Bob’s point of view. That was cheap and easy to produce using the written word but not so cheap and easy to do visually.

So, to repeat the basic lesson, pick techniques that are easy and effective when used with the written word. Your characters come out far more powerful and clearer while needing fewer words to achieve their impact.