This post was inspired by Emily Wheeler’s post on dreaming about her characters. (See Emily’s tea leaves)
They say that if your characters talk to you in dreams, you are doing something great. I’m lucky to have had that happen once or twice.
But I usually have to start off on the physical. One of my protagonists is a Peruvian woman in her mid-thirties, lower economic bracket. Being male, I have to do extra homework to get her right.
A book club had me as a guest once and loved my first book but one woman wanted to know what kind of shoes Nina wore. What? She wears boots with her uniform, sneakers when she is solving crimes and pumps if going out. Yes, but what kind of shoes? I was caught off-guard.
So now I start off scenes (internally) with a checklist. Most of the details won’t make it to the final draft (most of them, in fact) but I know they are there. It helps center my character. Tip of the iceberg is what I show.
What is she wearing? How has she done her hair? In a ponytail because she is running a quick errand and it’s windy? What kind of shoes is she wearing? What brand? How many pairs does she own? No more than a few pair. One good pair of black heels to wear on special occasions. She keeps them in the box and wipes them off when she puts them away. Can she afford nail polish? What does she think of nail polish? Jeans? What kind of jeans would she wear if money were no object? Does she have an opinion on spending a fortune on jeans when a third of her country goes hungry?
I thought I was doing this but I wasn’t doing it enough.
The physical leads to the psychological.
Lipstick? The lipstick question got me on a Google search of Peruvian department stores. No, I’m not weird. Well, not too much. I settled for a brand of lipstick a woman Nina’s age on a budget like hers might think was OK without being cheap or flashy. But she is Latina with a sense of style North American women might not share. All of this helps me get into her head. Physical leads to psychological.
I find the physical is a great place to start. Elmore Leonard once said his criminals go to the closet every morning and ponder what pants to put on.
¡viven los escritores!
“There’s too much description, not enough conflict and your protagonist is vague.”
As authors, we are all guilty…
This week I am channeling Jim Frey, writing mentor and friend (not to be confused with the James Frey of Oprah fame). If my work has any of the ingredients required of a damn good novel (a Jim Frey term) i.e. conflict, drama, plot, then it is because Jim kindly showed me the error of my ways when I turned out page after page of over-descriptive, confusing, navel-contemplating prose (which I, of course, knew to be brilliant at the time).
1. There’s too much description:
As you write your draft, the tendency will be to write long passages of description leading up to the actual scene (hopefully there is a scene coming and not just more long beautiful descriptive passages, but we’ve all done that too). This is known as ‘warming up your engines’, the need for a writer to set the scene for himself and immerse himself in the story which will one day be a fantastic novel. The answer? As you rewrite (remember: anyone can write but only a writer can rewrite) target these sections brutally and cut. If something is just too precious, even more so. “Kill your darlings,” as William Faulkner said. Elmore Leonard put it more directly: “Leave out the parts people skip over”. More often than not, that means long chunks of description.
2. Not enough conflict:
Conflict is the key to good drama and we, as writers, tend to avoid it, especially during early drafts. We’re sitting in our little caves with the lights down low, banging out a masterpiece. For us the work is superb as is—unlike other novel drafts. As humans, we shy away from conflict. But conflict is what defines character and drives your plot. Every line of your novel should in some way be contributing to the conflict of the story. Scenes where your protagonist remembers a pleasant time from her youth (with lots of description) when the main story is a mystery are to be heavily considered for the chopping block. If your writing does not create conflict (and also create meaningful conflict) chop and reread. Also, when searching for scenes that sag, look for the dreaded flashback.
3. Your protagonist is vague:
Hard to believe that this wonderful character you have created is, well, kind of blah and hard to fathom for others. She’s not nuanced, has no real physical characteristics, no sharp inner turmoil (wound) that drives her to seek justice. Why is that—especially when your secondary characters might be the opposite? Because as authors we tend to live in our protagonist’s head. We know exactly what she is thinking, feeling, and about to do next. It’s painfully obvious—to us. It’s so obvious we don’t even put it down on the page. Maybe we should.
viva los escritores!