Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Secrets of Creating Characters in Written Fiction (Part 8)

Your Readers Do the Work 

The dirty secret of writing is that your readers do the real work. To understand this, you must first understand that the human mind is a pattern-matching machine. A mind is constantly extrapolating data into predictable behavior. On the African plains, our ancestors ran after animals, then threw javelins at them by predicting their location and then throwing there. That’s amazing.

That same human brain that does all those amazing things belongs to your reader. That brain, if not given enough to do, will tear your writing apart in seconds because their brain has nothing else to do. So you, as the writer, need to actually give your reader’s brain incomplete data so that the brain has something to do. Because the brain only gets tidbits, it must start making connections and filling in detail, creating images and noting patterns, thus building for itself a far more vivid character than you could ever possibly hope to describe.

Let’s go back to our example of Bob.
Bob walked in wearing blue jeans and a red shirt. His brown hair escaped from his baseball cap. He walked up to the bar in that saloon and ordered a drink, then turned around to look at the girls.
That gives the reader a lackluster mental picture. None of the data is particularly important. None of the data will matter late in the story. No data made my brain investigate further. My brain quickly determines that this is ephemeral information, so it throws out the detail out because it has nothing to do with the story.

I’ll rerwrite this to make the reader do the work.
Bob walked into the bar, pushed his cowboy hat back on his head, then turned around to look at the painted girls.
In that sentence, I dribbled out one piece of information: cowboy. Once the reader gets that, his brain will form an image of what he thinks that a cowboy looks like. The reader put Bob in jeans, a vest, and riding boots. I didn’t tell the reader to do this, all I did was to poke at that place in their brain that would conjure this image for me.

The lesson here is that character don’t get real until a reader’s brain gets busy at making them real.