Fiction and Reality, Part Two

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how characters have to be real people.  They need to have hopes and dreams and likes and hates just as much as they need to have realistic actions and reactions: that’s how you know what they do in reaction to the plot.

It’s actually a lot of fun, writing a person.  It’s fairly similar to making a friend: you learn bits and pieces about them in the “nothing moments”, in the parts of your novel where the plot moves forward subtly.  You figure them out bit by bit: do they laugh when they’re the subject of a prank, or curse everything in a blue streak? Do they enjoy hanging out in groups, or are they more solitary?  That character is then tested when you hit the Big Baddies, the stresses and the major plot points, and a good character makes it through somehow.

What “making it through” means is up to you as a writer.   A well-written but not very kind character may flip sides the instant trouble comes along, or sell out the group.  A poorly-written but very noble character never loses his resolve once, never shows himself to be human, and solidly fights against what he believes is wrong.  It all depends.  And of course, that rule is made to be broken, like every rule in writing.

My biggest challenge, I think, is figuring out how to fit those “nothing moments” into a book, while simultaneously pulling the action forward with every scene.


Striking a Balance

It’s easy to pull to an extreme, based on the type of writer you are.  If you’re plot-driven, characterization can seem excessive.  You don’t want to spend all your time writing boring romance scenes (a classic characterization tool) when you have all this cool plot!

Or conversely, maybe you can just listen to your characters talk for hours.  I’m that type of writer: loads of my old notebooks are full of scenes of my characters just conversing for hours, getting to know each other.  Some of these characters aren’t even in books I’m actively working on: I just like the people.

It’s fairly difficult to strike a balance.  Extraneous scenes should always be pulled from a book: if it does nothing for the plot, cut it.  But at the same time, you need those little subtleties that let people get to know the characters.  Those goals often completely contradict each other.  Writers have different ways of dealing with that problem: you can use the introduction of a scene as an opportunity to get to know the characters a little (or the introduction of an episode, as many episodic/formulaic TV shows do).  Later in the book, you can describe the normalcy they’re longing for when they’re in a state of despair.  There are ways to squeeze in a little characterization here and there.

Those methods work. They’re totally fine.  I have no problem with them, and often use them myself.

But it can always be better.


Game of Thrones

George RR Martin is, in my opinion,  a master of characterization, so I’m going to use a scene from the first A Song of Ice and Fire book as an example.  I’m copying out the passage here: I should make it clear that I don’t own this writing and am making no money from it.  This is just some literary analysis.

Arya was in her room, packing a polished ironwood chest that was bigger than she was. Nymeria was helping. Arya would only have to point, and the wolf would bound across the room, snatch up some wisp of silk in her jaws, and fetch it back. But when she smelled Ghost, she sat down on her haunches and yelped at them.
Arya glanced behind her, saw Jon, and jumped to her feet. She threw her skinny arms tight around his neck. “I was afraid you were gone,” she said, her breath catching in her throat. “They wouldn’t let me out to say good-bye.”
It’s a rule of any art that your characters should always be doing something when you see them.  This is why the characterization-to-introduce-a-scene works so well. Arya’s been pretty well-defined up to this point– we know she’s close to her brother, we know she’s willful.  All this reinforces her already-set character: it’s nothing new.  And it certainly doesn’t seem like a “nothing moment”, since Jon is saying a possibly-permanent goodbye.
“What did you do now?” Jon was amused.
Arya disentangled herself from him and made a face. “Nothing. I was all packed and everything.” She gestured at the huge chest, no more than a third full, and at the clothes that were scattered all over the room. “Septa Mordane says I have to do it all over. My things weren’t properly folded, she says. A proper southron lady doesn’t just throw her clothes inside her chest like old rags, she says.”
“Is that what you did, little sister?”
“Well, they’re going to get all messed up anyway,” she said. “Who cares how they’re folded?”
“Septa Mordane,” Jon told her. “I don’t think she’d like Nymeria helping, either.” The she-wolf regarded him silently with her dark golden eyes. “It’s just as well. I have something for you to take with you, and it has to be packed very carefully.”
And yet in the very next line, we get a small conflict that definitely counts as a “nothing moment”: Arya VS Septa Mordane is a pretty common trope throughout the rest of the book.  Note that the plot is still moving forward, as Arya is packing for a trip that’s going to change her life significantly and for the worse, but there’s still always time for Jon to laugh at his little sister’s stubbornness.
There’s also a significant lack of foreshadowing.  The goodbye itself is heart-wrenching enough: he doesn’t need to tell us what a bloodbath this trip turns out to be.
Her face lit up. “A present?”
“You could call it that. Close the door.”
Wary but excited, Arya checked the hall. “Nymeria, here. Guard.” She left the wolf out there to warn of intruders and closed the door. By then Jon had pulled off the rags he’d wrapped it in. He held it out to her.
Arya’s eyes went wide. Dark eyes, like his. “A sword,” she said in a small, hushed breath.
The scabbard was soft grey leather, supple as sin. Jon drew out the blade slowly, so she could see the deep blue sheen of the steel. “This is no toy,” he told her. “Be careful you don’t cut yourself. The edges are sharp enough to shave with.”
“Girls don’t shave,” Arya said.
“Maybe they should. Have you ever seen the septa’s legs?”
More nothings amid importance: the sword will save her life later in the book, but they’re talking about Septa Mordane again.  And while Jon and Arya could probably spend a good hour ragging on the septa, they don’t: it’s just a familiar tease, which keeps the novel on-point.
She giggled at him. “It’s so skinny.”
“So are you,” Jon told her. “I had Mikken make this special. The bravos use swords like this in Pentos and Myr and the other Free Cities. It won’t hack a man’s head off, but it can poke him full of holes if you’re fast enough.”
“I can be fast,” Arya said.
“You’ll have to work at it every day.” He put the sword in her hands, showed her how to hold it, and stepped back. “How does it feel? Do you like the balance?”
“I think so,” Arya said.
“First lesson,” Jon said. “Stick them with the pointy end.”
Something fairly new: Arya doesn’t know how to use a sword very well.  More characterization: another familiar tease, and Arya’s reaction…
Arya gave him a whap on the arm with the flat of her blade. The blow stung, but Jon found himself grinning like an idiot. “I know which end to use,” Arya said. A doubtful look crossed her face. “Septa Mordane will take it away from me.”
…Which tells us more about her character (and Jon’s) more than any passage describing Arya’s fierce nature could ever do. In these three sentences, we get her reaction to teasing, a demonstration of the subtext of the teasing, and a demonstration of trust: she’s worried about the loss of something clearly and instantly special to her.
“Not if she doesn’t know you have it,” Jon said.
“Who will I practice with?”
“You’ll find someone,” Jon promised her. “King’s Landing is a true city, a thousand times the size of Winterfell. Until you find a partner, watch how they fight in the yard. Run, and ride, make yourself strong. And whatever you do . . . “
Arya knew what was coming next. They said it together.
” . . . don’t . . . tell . . .  Sansa!”
Jon messed up her hair. “I will miss you, little sister.”
And then they say their words together, which is something that just the two of them do.  We’ll leave the passage there– I can analyse a book until the cows come home.  The entire book is as dense as this passage: the plot moves forward, we learn about a relationship, we learn about individuals, we learn about the situation.  Every line here has a purpose.
The plot and the characterization move forward simultaneously.
This is really hard to do.  It’s a little easier in a political drama like Game of Thrones, where characters’ mettle is constantly tested in grey areas, but many books have very black-and-white situations.  If your character’s goal is “keep the world from being blown up”, they have a goal pretty much anyone could get behind.  There’s not a lot of room for creating an individual when nearly anyone would agree with them.
I don’t mean this as a jab at books with black-and-white situations: more a description of an interesting challenge.  It’s something to keep in mind while you write, not something that should shape an already-fleshed-out story.
Keep it Dense
The best way to do this is to make your sentences dense.  In the example above, it’s made pretty clear that they don’t have to be difficult to read: just dense in information.  Write something that makes the plot move forward: then ask if it’s a realistic reaction, how the relationship between anyone involved in the scenes might change it, if that’s really how your character thinks or talks.
Everyone’s a little different.  Your characters should be no exception, and that’s a huge challenge.
If you want a challenge, write a scene below.  Just 500 words or so.  Use a character you’ve got already, or make someone new.  I’d love to see the results.

One thought on “Fiction and Reality, Part Two

  1. Pingback: Fiction and Reality, Part Three | The Evening Ramble

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