Thursday, February 11, 2010

Your Embellished Sentences, Part 2

Before we move off the embellished subjects which we discussed here, I want to foreblog some ideas from the comments and make sure we have some parameters for when to use an embellished subject.

To begin, Erastes rightly suggests,
Stick to the names once you know them, or "him" or "he" if it's not confusing - don't think you are being clear by using epithets because you aren't. I thoroughly agree that before you know that person's name - e.g. "The elderly woodcutter wiped his brow and said, " my name is..." but after that. NO NO NO. don't do it.

I don't think I can dispute that in any way. Once the character is established (more on this to follow), you want to avoid using labels or designations. "The elderly woodcutter" and similar character tags work best for new characters who don't yet have names. My corollary warning: Don't use multiple, disjointed character tags for the same character. He can't be "the elderly woodcutter" in the first paragraph, and "the cheerful baker" in the next.

Which begs a question: how do you handle it when an unnamed character remains present for a long stretch of sentences? The first reference should be a character tag with strong visuals. From there on, use a pronoun or, if necessary to avoid confusion, re-use the original character tag or use action beats relevant to that character tag. That is, the first time, he's "the elderly woodcutter." Down the page a bit, where you need something to clarify things, you might use a bit of stage action related to his age or occupation. "He dropped his axe and hobbled toward the door." See this post for more tips on using this technique.

Deb Salisbury points out,
The amount of description I'd include would depend on how important the character is, and what the reader needs to know for the scene to make sense.

Yep. It all goes back to relevance. One of the reasons secondary characters can often appear to "take over" a scene is that we weight them incorrectly. We give them too much room on the page, too many lines of text relative to their function. Or we give them super interesting characteristics and actions that make the reader more attracted to the secondary than to the mains. (Ooh, look! The sidekick just went Rambo on the bad guy, and his only weapon was a travel-sized bottle of shampoo! Hero--what hero? You mean that guy dialing 911 in the corner? Bah. I want more of shampoo man!)

Leona says,
sometimes I think people are too general and emphasize the wrong thing because they are too lazy to look at a better way. "the green eyed wizard" was a good example.

Yes. This is an old, familiar problem. Unless we're in a police lineup and eye color is a clue, who cares if the wizard's eyes are green? (N.B. Romance readers might care, in any case, because physical characteristics can contribute to their suspension of disbelief in the romance. Even there, you're better off limiting this kind of reference to fertility markers, rare features, and other factors which the opposite sex views as highly attractive.)

But Leona's main point is one I strongly agree with. Don't be lazy. Make your descriptions memorable. Which is more intriguing --

The little girl played in front of the house
The plump-cheeked toddler drew chalk circles on the driveway.

The thing is, if the kid and her toys are important enough to mention, you might want to mention them in a way that isn't boring. Relevance is still the guiding force, but if it's relevant enough to include, it might be worthy of specificity and authorial care. There's a middle ground between a dull sentence and a detailed treatise on Sidewalk Chalk Drawings: Color and Form. (Which is sort of where we started this whole topic, isn't it?)

Finally, thank you to Dave Shaw for making this point,
If the social role matters to the plot or to how the character appears or behaves, I think it should be brought in as early as possible.

Dwight Swain said there are four aspects of character which an author can use to create a dominant impression on the reader: age, gender, vocation, and mannerisms.

If my slush pile is anything to go by, vocation (or what we've been calling social roles) and mannerisms are least often used to good effect. Of these two, social roles are used appropriately when they're used (but they tend to be underused), and mannerisms tend to be least effectively used. We either see mannerisms so clumsy that the character reads like a collection of twitches and compulsive behaviors, or we don't see mannerisms at all. (Or we see trite mannerisms -- the ubiquitous hand pushed through hair to signal frustration or anger. These don't tell me anything specific to the character, and remember, we're talking about ways to identify characters for the reader now.)

I asked a question in the last post, and I think the answer may have been too obvious to warrant much discussion. How does the context influence your choice to use a gender noun (man/woman) rather than a social role noun (woodcutter/waitress)? When would you include an adjective?

The answer lies in Dwight Swain's four aspects. Look for character labels that hit on as many of those four as possible. Instead of man, dad -- which is both a social role and a gender noun. Instead of boy, Cub Scout -- which is indicative of age, gender, and social role. What other examples can you share?

I think we've about beat this to death. It's a useful topic because it so often gets botched in beginner manuscripts, but it's probably not important enough for us to dwell on it much beyond this post. So if you have any remaining questions, ask them in the comments and I'll address them there.


Theresa Milstein said...

These are great tips.

I never thought about character tags that much but now that I've read this post, I have to go back and check a one character in particular. He's a stranger for a couple of scenes.

Mannerisms specific to a particular character is a good way to add dimension.

Jami Gold said...

Very clear examples in this post - thank you! I wasn't unclear on anything in regards to this issue, but the examples still made me feel like I learned it better. :)

Jami G.

Sylvia said...

the ubiquitous hand pushed through hair to signal frustration or anger

Or the young girl biting her bottom lip which drives me batty.

I struggle with mannerisms though - I think I tend to avoid them for fear of doing some other version of hair-pushing and lip-biting without even realising. :(

Dave Shaw said...

"Bones, is it--?"
"It's dead, Jim."
"But it is logical."
Kirk and McCoy obliterate Spock in a phaser barrage.
"Beam us up, Scottie. We killed all the intelligent life down here."

- Brought to you by the Society for Free Association

Leona said...

Look what happens when I'm on a hiatus from the internet! I am quoted in my favourite blog :D

I'm catching up!