Thursday, November 20, 2014

That Thing is a Character?

via Pinterest

     I'm going to play with our concepts of characters.

     Typically, we think of a character as an interactive being in the story.  They have thoughts and feelings, motives and a backstory, personality traits and quirks.

     But there is another side to the characters, not seen by the reader, and that is the handling of a character.  It is the author's responsibility to make sure that characters are introduced, given an appropriate amount of "screen time", and never lost. 
     Let's say that you are reading a story about Jack and Jill.  Everything up until now is built by these 2 characters alone.  Now let's say that Jack and Jill are having a conversation and suddenly...
"I agree," said Freddy, rubbing the end of his nose thoughtfully.
     What?!? You, as the reader, are reeling.  Who is Freddy?  Where did he come from?  Why is he here?  You eagerly look to the next line, hoping for an explanation from the author.
      But, no, the author merely continues the three-way conversation as if nothing unusual had happened.
      You feel a bit betrayed by the author, but you are a generous sort of person.  You decide to accept the fact that Freddy has suddenly appeared.  You read on.
"What a beautiful sunset," Jill said.
"We should take a picture," Freddy said.  "I have a camera."  He pulled a small black camera from his bag and handed it to Jack.
Jack balanced the camera on his knee, snapping several shots of the crimson sky.
Jill leaned close, wrapping her arm around Jack's elbow.  For several moments, the two of them were silent.  Then Jill sighed contentedly.  "It's nice to be here with only you."
Jack smiled.  "There's not another soul in sight."
     Wait a minute!!!  You grab the page and yell loudly, hoping the author can hear you.  "Where did Freddy go????"  You read on for some explanation of Freddy's disappearance, but there is none.  It's as if Freddy never existed, and you put down the book in disgust.

     As authors, we all know you can't do this with characters.  It's not fair to the reader and it doesn't make sense.

     So I want to talk about giving your props and scene backdrops the same courtesy.  Of course, they are not characters in the sense of having personality and motives, but they still deserve handling as much as the interactive beings.  Let's talk about examples:
     April dragged her homework off the dresser like a prisoner would drag his chains.  Flipping a light on, she squinted at the page of Algebra problems.  Fifteen questions were all that stood between her and the vacation of her dreams.
     "This is a miserable little hole for homework." Valerie's voice startled her, and April looked up to see her friend standing in the doorway.
     "I have to get them right, Val, or my parents are going to ship me off to summer boot camp for dummies." April sighed, crossing her arms and squinting at the sunlight glinting off the water.
     "Boy, you sound stressed.  You need to cool off!"  Without further warning, Val lunged toward April and both girls went flying headlong into the pool.
      Okay...so the first paragraph was fine.  We are setting up a bedroom scene.  The second paragraph introduced Val...that was okay.  Then we hit the third paragraph and the...sunlight?...glinting off the water?  That doesn't make sense.  Where are we?  By the fourth paragraph, we are falling in a pool.  Are we still in her bedroom?  Where did the pool come from?  Ahhh, I'm so lost!!!

     Let's try again:
April dragged her homework off the dresser like a prisoner would drag his chains. Flipping a light on, she squinted at the page of Algebra problems. Fifteen questions were all that stood between her and the vacation of her dreams.
"This is a miserable little hole for homework." Valerie's voice startled her, and April looked up to see her friend standing in the doorway.
Valerie bounced across the room and grabbed April's arm.  "Come on.  Let's go outside by the pool.  You'll thank me - I promise."
April permitted herself to be dragged out the door and onto the smooth concrete slab by the pool.  She dropped her homework papers into a nearby lawn chair and shook her arm free from her friend's grasp. 
 "Why such a long face?" Val asked, kicking her shoes off and shoving them under a neighboring lawn chair.
"I have to get them right, Val, or my parents are going to ship me off to summer boot camp for dummies." April sighed, crossing her arms and squinting at the sunlight glinting off the water.
"Boy, you sound stressed. You need to cool off!" Without further warning, Val lunged toward April and both girls went flying headlong into the pool.
     Hopefully, you did not feel so lost that time.  The author took care to say goodbye to old scenes (April permitted herself to be dragged out the door) and introduce new ones (and onto the smooth concrete slab by the pool).

     Do you see what I mean?  Props as well as people deserve careful handling...for the reader's sake as well as your own.  Try pretending that the "things" in your story are characters, too.

     And have fun with it!

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