23 December, 2012

Cues from the Characters for the Readers

You all know how I hate tricks, so I'll work hard here to define this one in psychological terms.

Over the past few months I've been ravenously studying the works of Graham Greene and John Steinbeck.  This is for the simple reason that they are awesome.  Greene has to be among the best craftsman in history.  They told me that back as school, so I didn't believe it (I hated school) but it's actually true.  He's phenomenal.

One thing they both do is use "props" for their characters.  By this I mean methods of representing a very strong characteristic.  Each author gives the character a strong motivation, and the motivation is frequently placed into the dialogue and actions, reminding the reader almost constantly who they are.  I'd thought of doing this before, and it had seemed unnatural, but I absolutely love doing it with my characters.

In my forthcoming novel, one of my characters is an emotionally disturbed, swiftly violent anarchist punk with severe anger problems and a bad sense of humour.  He tells jokes mainly for his own benefit and thinks he's hilarious.  It's great fun to think up bad jokes and draw strong distinctions between him and the others.  This is just one example.  I've tried to do similar things with all my characters.

Another thing I've decided upon is using physical props.  Does a character have a favourite necklace?  Does it represent who they are?  Instead of having them take "a deep sigh" or some such generic thing, why not have them twiddle their necklace while they're brooding.  If it's relevant to their character, it'll represent, for the reader, who they are.

You can do the same thing with the setting.   If they're on a snow bank, use the snow.   Have the characters brush snow off of their trousers in ways that evidence their characteristics, et cetera.

A little caveat:  everything must move the narrative forwards, too.  I'm talking about characters expressing themselves in unique ways, here, not leaping out of the story for cheap opportunism.  Another thing about Greene and Steinbeck is that everything, from the character traits to the semi-colons, serves the story impeccably.

All of this seems obvious, but take a look at how Graham Greene does it in The Quiet American, and you'll start noticing how precious few authors actually even bother, let alone pull it off.  You probably do risk being cheesy if you try, but the most rewarding, strongest things you can do for a story, in my experience, are the things of highest risk.  Try it, and if you fail, read some more and try again.

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