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February 08, 2009

More About Writing the Novel

So the questions this time are centered primarily on characterizations. What’s the best way to describe a fictional character? When is enough enough, or too much too much?

In my opinion, there is no “best way.” It’s as if you were to ask Rembrandt, Hals, El Greco, Velazquez, Renoir, van Gogh, the other greats, “What’s the best way to paint a portrait?” Each writer, as it is with each painter, “sees” the character and then channels his inner vision through the labyrinthine filter system of his native talents, encouraging the vision to materialize as words on his work surface — be it a sheet of paper or a computer screen. And, if you were somehow able to gather Dickens, Hardy, Defoe, Orwell, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, any number of other giants, and ask them to portray , say, the same traffic cop — Well, no need to belabor the point.

Bottom line: You’re the writer. You “see,”uniquely, then you decide the best way, uniquely, to translate what you’ve “seen” into a literary image. Whether your “uniqueness” carries precision and power is left for your consumer to judge.

As for me, I work from the hypothesis that claims fiction to be the greatest of all audience participation games. Under this assumption, the writer, in telling his story, delivers enough information to trigger the reader’s imagination, to enlist the reader as an accomplice in developing the imagined parts into a satisfactory whole. In short, he lets the reader do a lot of the work.

In the movies, what you see is what you get. When Tom Sellick rides into town, or Clint Eastwood shows up at a crime scene, or Meg Ryan throws that wonderful smile at you, there’s no room for your imagination. That’s what the character looks like. Period. How many times have you read a peachy novel, then gone to see its movie translation, only to be dismayed by the actor playing the main role? Hell, you say to yourself, there’s no way that Sam Frammer looks like that guy. But you’ve paid your ten bucks, so you go along with the movie, vaguely disappointed throughout.

In my thrillers, it’s my practice never to describe my main character at all. I believe the reader likes to create his own image of the person who energizes the plot and solves its problems. My character is “fleshed out” via his actions and dialogue — both his own and that of others. What he says, how he says it, what he thinks, how he does things, help the reader formulate a personal image of the character. And I rarely let the other characters paint too precise a picture of him, either. Just enough to let the reader decide that my main guy is very much a guy he would like to know and have on his side when things get rough.

Then, if your “uniqueness” makes you so disposed, you can have a field day with the subsidiary characters. Eddie is a schmuk, Ramona is a brassy annoyance, Murgatroyd is a sneaky SOB. Sally is a wholesome ingenue. And you can pull out all the stops and describe to the point of glut as far as they are concerned. But I’d advise against it. Too much garlic ruins the stew, as the old saying goes. Be sparing, judicious. Eddie wears his bubba cap at the dining table and laughs when he burps. Ramona wears miniskirts that look as if they’ve been painted on her and she hoots and waves at friends at a table across the room. Murgatroyd’s eyes are restless, throwing glances right and left, while he tells Sally what a rat our hero is. Sally has milky skin, a level gaze, always smells like fresh linen, and doesn’t believe a word Murgatroyd is saying.

Use words or phrases that capture the secondary character’s essence, then fill his mouth with revealing dialogue, e.g.:

From his cover among the petunias, Frammer watched the black Mercedes pull to a stop at the foot of the grand staircase. The chauffeur opened the door, then waited politely as Rigor von Mortis stepped from the car’s dark shadows. Gathering his cloak about him, the baron stood in the wind, tall, aloof, his coal-like eyes expressionless as they considered the castle’s bleakness. “Heinz,” von Mortis rasped, “garage the car and carry Sally to the Tower Room and chain her there. Then round up the servants for a meeting in the Great Hall. See that Murgatroyd prepares dismissal slips for the lot and has them gone by nightfall. And be sure to release the tarantulas in Frammer’s bedroom. He’s due here within the hour.”

See? With a paragraph like this you let the reader know that Frammer, our hero, by being ahead of schedule, is finding out that dirty things are afoot at Schloss Mortis. And why wouldn’t there be with a baron who wears cloaks, is tall and aloof, has coal-colored eyes, rasps when he talks, and keeps a platoon of tarantulas in a closet somewhere? Not the kind you’d want your sister dating, I’d say.

And, illustrating a point made above, how would you feel if the movie cast Mickey Rooney in the von Mortis role?

Jack

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