After the lovely warm fuzzy fest of yesterday’s award/challenge interlude, I give you:
The return of The 25!
Today’s addition to that list has a rather familiar smell, gentle viewers. It smells a lot like #2 on the list, which is precision. By following my nose, I deduct they started struggling to come up with new bullet points. Regardless, I’ll try to say something new and exciting, and barring that, I’ll just throw some more confetti at you so you can go, “Ooooh, preeeeeetty!” Deal?
14. Effective Details
The key to effective description is to realize the importance of contradictions. The telling detail is almost always one that at first glance doesn’t seem to fit, but by its being there creates the unique whole that the object or action or person represents.
Go to a good people-watching spot or a place you want to describe. What’s the thing that doesn’t quite belong? Pair one or two more typical attributes of the thing/person/scene with this anomaly, and judge the impression. If it differs from what you meant to describe, figure out what’s missing. Add as few details as possible.
A related point: Often, we read a description and think, If this is there, then that has to be there as well. Many writers then think that both details must be included, but usually the opposite is true. Provide the stronger, more typical of the two, and the other is implied; the reader’s mind supplies it automatically.
Having read that again, it does bear suspicious similarity to stuff I’ve already discussed here. Harumph. Regardless, here’s the part where I drink my tea anyway and buckle down.
I’ve heard many times that it’s fine to say something that’s already been said as long as you say it in a way no one has said it before. Keep it fresh. Keep it honest.
Since my last post on effective details (Cough. I mean precision.) focused on setting, I think this time I’ll turn the spyglass on characterization. What makes a good character? What makes a memorable character?
A good writer can take a Joe Schmoe character and make you like him. A great writer can take Joe Schmoe and make you love him. Make you cry for him. Make you seethe with anger when something doesn’t go right. Make Mr. Schmoe so real you can feel him next to you as you read. The great writers out there make characters into your friends — or barring that, make them a worthy and hated enemy.
They do that by building their characters with effective details. Much like my diatribe on setting described my home with a couple unique details (the bed for a sofa and the two plastic skulls on the entertainment center), you have to pick the two or three details about a character that make them stand out, even if they are Joe Schmoe or one of his more slack-lipped relatives.
David Eddings does an excellent job with that. I’ve read and re-read his fantasy series probably ten times or upward by now. I keep going back to them because his characters are so familiar I can see them clearly even now. Garion with his sandy hair and rather serious nature, who has a tendency to take things too literally. Belgarath, the ancient sorcerer who wears mismatched shoes because the right one of that pair fits better, and the left one of this pair is much more comfortable. Aunt Pol has one white streak in her raven dark hair and a secret love for the fairytale extinct Wacite Arends. Beldin, an ugly and misshapen little man who can turn into a blue-banded hawk and who eats jam straight from the pot. Ce’Nedra is a tiny, copper haired Dryad who has a temper far beyond her hair color and a heart bigger than she is.
There are many more characters in those books, and yes, all of them have those little details that make them unique. Your characters ought to mirror life.
That means that your characters should have quirks and pouty moments or a tendency to get knocked in the head. No one is perfect all the time, and sometimes even good traits can hit that magical part of the spectrum and become bad traits. A zealous nature could turn to fanaticism. A desire for justice could turn into a witch hunt. Generosity could beggar a person. In fact, I’ll wager that the best characters show exactly that — how a character’s strong points can also be their downfall.
For my protagonist, her anger is what helps her survive at first. It’s what enables her to get back up after the first giant shock and move forward. But later it begins to eat at her and poison her. It’s not fleshed out as fully as I want it yet, but she’s shaping up to be a damn fine character. The good protagonists can inspire love or frustration or hair-pulling with equal facility, and they should inspire the full spectrum at some point in the book. Just as every writer is unique, the characters we create should each be unique. Mirror life, and find your unique details that create art from clay, you little snowflake you.
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