Craft and Practice with Jeff Bowles – Characters in Need of ColorPosted: March 17, 2021
Each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
I’m a big fan of color. Maybe it’s the art lover in me, but I can’t stand boring compositions. A little passionate red, cool and withdrawn blue, yellow to energize, purple to pacify. My stories are always full of color. I design them that way so I don’t get bored in the telling. Attention span of a cocker spaniel, I assure you. I figure if I’m getting bored, my readers don’t stand a chance.
In this edition of Craft and Practice, we’ll look at colorful characters. Where do they come from? How can we more easily create them? Let’s assume you find them preferable to stock characters that are functional but not especially inspired. I’m here to tell you that you don’t need much in terms of preparation. Outlines, character sheets, written histories, throw them all out for the time being. The trick here is to open yourself up, to trust your instincts and your ability to create something sort of magical and unique to your abilities, to your point of view. It’s not so much that preparation can hamper our ideas or dampen our expression of them. This is true some of the time, but not always. It’s more that the tighter we constrict our creativity―that’s constrict rather than channel; one is suppressive by nature and the other is purposefully expressive―the more likely we are to produce wooden and inflexible components.
Your characters don’t want to be inflexible. Trust me on this. They long to be unpredictable, passionate, full of life. Some writers like to work with a net. Perfectly understandable. It’s cleaner and in some sense easier. But I’d like you to consider the possibility that extra work at the conclusion of a writing project is worth more in the long run than an equivalent amount of preparation. The final product is bound to be less like everyone else’s stories and more like your own, and that’s a win in my book.
Let’s run a brief exercise to illustrate the point. Character A asks Character B for something to drink. Character A doesn’t visit other people’s homes very often, so the request doesn’t seem rude or presumptuous. Character B is a friendly sort, charitable in all the ways it matters, and if it’s possible to provide hospitality and comfort to Character A, then that’s precisely what Character B will do. Outcome: Character A gets to drink. Huzzah!
Notice that in just a few brief character descriptions, I’ve told you everything you need to know in order to enjoy the scene. Do you care what Character A’s first car was? Not unless it has direct bearing on the scene at hand. Do you care if your protagonist prefers Pizza Hut to Domino’s? Not as such, because they’re not eating right now. They’re, you know, drinking. What if childhood trauma involving fruit punch makes them thirstier than the average beverage enthusiast? I mean, that may be pertinent information. Put it in and see how it reads. In this way, story serves character, not the other way around. These imaginary folks living rent-free in your head, they might change their spots entirely by the time you’ve written THE END. In fact, we sort of need them to. It’d be damn boring if they didn’t. I’m saying the desired effect is best achieved organically. Think about your standard rising action chart
Notice the trajectory, one smooth line shot straight toward a conclusion. Don’t design your plot or your characters in this manner. Just don’t do it. Trust me, that line reads a whole lot better when it’s perforated, imbalanced, full of ups and downs, at last arriving at that ultimate destination. In real life, human beings do not proceed along a straight trajectory. Great actors know this. They understand innately to respond to moments as they come. One foot in front of the other, not all the feet all over the world all at once.
Imagine going onstage with a dozen pages of notes stapled to your forehead. This scene should be easier to perform because you have at your disposal so much background information. Right? Wrong? Yes? No? How’s your performance? Natural or constricted? I mean really, is that stuff helpful, or is it dead weight? A given scene tells me I should be afraid of snakes. The next one tells me I’m falling in love with someone who owns a lot of snakes. The core of my character remains, but the dictates of motivation, action, and reaction are all over the map. Am I in love with snakes and afraid of love? No, of course not. My name is Character A, and I’ve just been bitten by a rattler. See? No preplanning required.
Here’s another classic scenario for you to consider. You can night drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas without ever seeing further ahead than the thirty feet of illumination provided by your headlights. The road is there, it promises to deposit you at your destination, but even it has no idea what will happen along the way. Maybe you don’t end up in Vegas at all. Maybe your characters have decided they’d rather go to Reno. Are you going to tell them no? They’ve already hit the ATM and booked serviceable lodging!
Thinking of your work in terms of performance is a good habit to cultivate. Just try it. Write a simple scene for which you’ve planned nothing. It’s not important where these characters have been, how much money they have, what their likes and dislikes are. All that matters is the spontaneous influencing the spontaneous. That’s the meaty part, the gold in the gold mine.
Fluff is a chore to read. If you don’t believe me, dig out one of your first serious pieces of writing and tell me how much of it is pertinent and how much ought to be nixed. I know, painful, right? Reminds me of the first piece of honest criticism I ever received, “I only have three problems with this story. The beginning, the middle, and the end.”
The good news about this craft is that there are a million and one ways to skin a cat. I’ll be back with more Craft and Practice next month. No cat-skinning required. See ya!
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
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