My fanfiction and other random ramblings

my thoughts on how to write (or not)

Why characters should sometimes do something

with 2 comments

Or why they should not. And on a various ways of speaking.

I’ve gone on a FF reading binge again, this time diving deep into the “X-Men: The Movie” category on FFNet, and I’m coming up with some pearls of wisdom. Feel free to ignore, criticise or simply glare at me for my audacity of trying to lecture others while my own style is still limping sometimes.

To the point:

Pearl 1: Make your characters do something.

What bugs me sometimes is that these poor guys in the stories only walk, sit, stare and speak. Really, people. Sometimes the girls sigh. From time to time someone screams.

Correction: Make them do something that makes sense AND is connected to what they did before.

What I mean is that the characters are people. They should do stuff, even when they are discussing weather or planning a strategy. Make them pick their noses when they forget themselves, roll their eyes, tap fingers, snort, yawn, blink, even stomp around in a fit of nerves. Just make sure what they do is more or less consistent with the context (don’t make a girl yawn and then be bright and sunny in the next sentence OR make someone sit down as a picture of serenity and start screaming out of a blue – of course not applicable if you’re describing a mental asylum).

Paying attention to what they say, the faces they make, the movements around the room/table/field will make the story more fluid and more connected and not just a bunch of disjointed paragraphs.

Also, don’t make your characters do things totally out of character (unless you lampshade it properly by someone else commenting on weird behaviour). Try to redo or describe better necessary weirdness. One of the most common means of furthering the story is someone (preferably a young lady) running out of the room/house and collapsing by the nearest bench/pond/window for our hero to save her or whatever is on his agenda. Make sure her behaviour, EVEN IF DISTRESSED, makes sense.

Yeah, I’ve written a “run out, fall down, be almost ravished” scene myself. When I was 16. It seemed like a good idea at the time and I had no other way of making Her see Him finally. Which was a totally lame way of progressing the events, now that I re-read it.

Pearl 2: Don’t make them do single-action, separate things.

Don’t fill in every gap in dialogue by someone doing a separate action.

“Ugh” she said.

He walked to the mantle.

“I’m not very sure” he said.

He picked something up. He turned it around and put it back on the shelf.

“I’m very sure” she said.

She stood up. She threw blanket behind the sofa.

You see? Awful. Like something from a kid’s book. Make longer sentences. Make things connected with each other. “She stood up, throwing the blanked behind the sofa she’d just vacated” makes this description much more dynamic.

Pearl 3: (from a recently-read P&P fanfic)

For God’s sake, whatever you do, don’t let them run into a soliloquy.

When they talk, let them talk, and by this I mean exchange information. If one person just blurts all their innermost thoughts in a 4-paragraph soul-searching and mind-wrenching expose, all others would normally flee or faint. Don’t make them do this. Let them have a bit of dialogue.

In the case of this specific story, Wickham spewed the whole “Darcy sucks” story in the VERY FIRST SENTENCE to Elisabeth. Well, PARAGRAPH, not a sentence.

Now, monologues are OK. if you’re a Danish prince (and even then they are a bit pathetic), but for normal people (with normal fiancées) it is not the preferred method of communication. The preferred method is, in fact, the exchange of ideas. You say something, I answer/comment, you do something, I open my fan, you stomp, I criticise and so on and so on. Mix a bit of movement into the dialogue and let it be an actual dialogue and not an exercise in a debate club.

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Written by Srebrna

2014/07/24 at 00:04

2 Responses

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  1. I think the most important thing you said here is that characters should do things that make sense. I would add one more thing, because it’s far less obvious than we tend to assume: they should do things that make sense *to them*, as opposed to “things that make sense to the author”.

    (We could take it one step futher and claim they should do things that make sense to their subconscious selves. People often do things that they themselves consider “crazy” or “irrational”, but even those things don’t come from nowhere.)

    This is something I’ve noticed when teaching game design basics. An author’s first instinct is to make things happen because they’re needed for the story. For example, the author needs to create tension, so SUDDENLY a mad Wolverine approaches and claims vengeance, FIGHT!

    The big problem with this is that a chararacter who only makes things because the author needed them isn’t going to seem like an actual person. Why did Wolverine get mad all of a sudden? I mean, that’s kind of his thing, but he’s not that random. And why is he in this story at all? The character will appear random and incoherent, especially because the reader (or the player, in case of games) is not supposed to track and dissect author’s intentions. The audience expect to be immersed in the story and have their disbelief suspended. Which means they’re going to pretend the author isn’t there. Which means the only thing that keeps the character going isn’t there as far as they’re concerned.

    Hence, characters need to do things that make sense to them, because then they are governed by their internal motivation, and that’s something much easier both to describe and to observe. E.g. if you make Magneto clench his fist because someone mentioned Xavier, it’s going to be much better than Magneto clenching his fists because you needed him to be angry in this particular scene (which is generally better than Magneto saying “I am angry” out loud).

    Ideally, you want things to happen because they make sense for the story and for the characters at the same time. Let’s go through a simple example.

    Adam is having a convesation with Betty. They could just talk about anything at all, but that wouldn’t be fiction, only reporting. So let’s spice things up a bit. Adam is browsing Betty’s bookshelf. That’s just some random arbitrary thing to do, and as such it’s boring… unless it makes sense for the character and the story. Adam is a detective. He has a habit of spying on people. He browses the bookshelf because of his unhealthy curiosity. We also need this to make sense to the story, and one way to do that is foreshadowing. Adam spots a specific book on the bookshelf and it means nothing to him at this point, but he’s going to remember it 15 pages later for some reason (go ahead and think of one). Okay, so now we have something, but we’re not there yet. Adam notices Betty has a lot of books on mutant biology. What for? She’s not a biologist. Is she hiding something? Is she invonved in the kidnapping of a known mutant hater whose sudden disappearance Adam is investigating? Of course he asks – but he can’t ask directly, or she could suspect something (and what if she’s innocent?). So he alludes, insinuates, and tries to provoke her so that she makes a slip. Here’s something the reader isn’t expecting: Adam loses. Betty manages to provoke him, but he doesn’t realise that he’s slipped before he has left her home. We let it sink into reader’s mind, and the reader is now going to suspect Betty, except in the end it turns out that she does, in fact, know something, and thus manages to save Adam’s life.

    Oh, and by the way, why is he at her home, browsing her bookshelf? Why did she let him in? One possible reason is that they know each other. This example is already fairly cliched, and the most obvious solution that comes to mind is that she’s his ex or love interest. That’s precisely why we’re going to dump it. Betty is 80 years old and she’s his neighbour. She always felt odd to him, and his too curious for his own good, so he started to do groceries for her in order to earn her trust. He’s grown to like her, and she likes him, but they can’t be friends as their world views differ too much. Can we fit this into this scene somehow? Yes! Adam browses the bookshelf, removes a book from the shelf, reads the title out loud (that’s a confrontational thing to do), and puts it away in a different spot. A minute later he does it again with another book. And then again. She has her books sorted by author’s last name, and he’s re-sorting them by topic (this is a “proxy conflict” of values: they won’t argue about their worldviews, so they confront each other about something less important instead – BTW, don’t have them actually say it out loud). He’s also invading her space. She gets up from the chair, sighing (she’s 80, her spine is aching, she’d rather keep sitting), she approaches the bookshelf, and she starts to put the books back where they were. Superficially, they’re just talking and doing arbitrary things. But in terms of how the story works, nothing is random, and the simple act of holding a book holds multiple meanings. As a bonus, we’ve managed to insert a conflict of values into a casual, non-hostile conversation involving mundane, non-violent actions. We have our both characters express their motivations without making them launch into monologue.

    Jacek Wesolowski

    2014/07/24 at 01:59

    • Yep, Woverine just storming in screaming is one of the obvious devices. In general I dislike “event causers” (a girl suddenly getting depressed and running out ONLY to meet someone/be left alone and caught AND thus provoking sth else), because they are so obvious in their role. They mean, in short, that author wants to lead to a certain outcome and is taking shortcuts – instead of skillfuly building up to the point, he’s taking a “lightning from heaven” approach – Something Happens.
      In 90% of cases it’s even not lampshaded by someone saying “She just run out there, into the rain? It’s so not like her!” Actually, sometimes it would be enough if author gave a bit of a background to the run:
      * she’s slightly claustrophobic and any stress provokes an episode
      * she saw a portrait of someone she hates and wanted to be out of that house
      * she remembered something bad that happened in that house and wanted out
      * she wanted to hide but there were servants/tourists/children everywhere, so she had to go out
      And yes, this must make sense in the context of existing story. If the narrator only says she run out and we learn about her fear of closed spaces in half a book, it will look lame.
      Also, if it’s simply put there “Anna was claustrophobic, which meant fear of closed rooms. She run outside.” it will be lame. So the way things are introduced and shown, even if it comes to the same end, also changes the way we’ll view someone’s actions.
      “Anna looked around. All windows were tightly shut, not even a breath of air getting into the room. She felt her throat constrict with fear. She hated this. She hated being inside. She needed to feel the sun on her face. Her hands were trembling as she turned the knob and walked into the corridor on wobbly knees. Making sure there was nobody around, she proceeded down the hall, her steps gaining stability every second.”
      And now she can go into the garden and get an offer of marriage. Or get kidnapped.

      Srebrna

      2014/07/24 at 08:22


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