Characters want, therefore they do; desire drives the action. It is what makes characters real, and it is the writer’s job to connect the characters’ wants to the reader’s own longings. Like characters, readers want justice, love, redemption, freedom, connection. Desire propels. Mistakes, irrevocable blunders get made. The story quickens.
But while characters want things desperately, only rarely can they have them. Drama lies in the frustration of desires. (From WORD CRAFT: Driven by Desire, by Carol Edgarian)
Does our writing resonate? If our characters breathe, wince, and cheer, our readers will do the same.
When an author makes you feel, she has you.
I remember reading a manuscript, enjoying the characters, and wondering where the story would lead. Then, in the middle of a conversation, one of them cocked his head. Something wasn’t right. A noise that shouldn’t be there. I felt a chill.
Suddenly, those wonderful characters — high school students — were engulfed in horror:
The first thing I noticed was the blood. It was everywhere, all over Kyle’s clothes and arms, soaked through the back of Daniel’s shirt and already dripping onto the sandy grass near Mani’s knees. It was so much darker than I had thought it would be — almost black — until I touched him, and my hands came away red.
A week later I was still replaying that scene, and I wasn’t alone. When it came time to title the book, one of the women on our team quoted a line from the story — and we all agreed. The author, Lisa McKay, had every one of us from that scene forward. What else would we call the book?
My Hands Came Away Red.
Novels are tricky. Is upbeat artificial? Is dystopian faithless? Are plot line and characterization exclusive? Robert D. Kaplan’s new book, The Revenge of Geography, hints at the link between realistic characters and complex scenarios:
Geography is common sense, but it is not fate. Individual choice operates within a certain geographical and historical context, which affects decisions but leaves many possibilities open. The French philosopher Raymond Aron captured this spirit with his notion of “probabilistic determinism,” which leaves ample room for human agency. But before geography can be overcome, it must be respected. Our own foreign-policy elites are too enamored of beautiful ideas and too dismissive of physical facts-on-the-ground and the cultural differences that emanate from them. Successfully navigating today’s world demands that we focus first on constraints, and that means paying attention to maps. Only then can noble solutions follow (from The Wall Street Journal, 9/8/12; italics mine).
In Unseduced and Unshaken, Rosalie de Rosset points to the realistic characterization of Jane Eyre and Elizabeth Bennet. “These women do not betray their convictions; they are not sentimentalists. [They] are ‘formidably self-possessed young women with detailed moral sensibilities’ who take themselves and are taken seriously. They don’t just respond; they decide what to do with their lives, every part of them” (from page 153).
The ultimate formula fiction: realistic geography + human agency = noble solutions.
As an author, the less you say, the better. Strunk and White ring this bell in Rule 17 — omit needless words.
But what if your theme eludes description? Novelist Jennifer DuBois provides an example of what to do in her Word Craft column from last Saturday:
In the middle of a novel about music (already notoriously difficult to write about), she gives us an autistic boy, Lincoln, who is fascinated by the pauses in pop songs. Lincoln’s subjective experience is unusually defended against efforts at description, and Ms. Egan’s approach to writing about it is elegant — she doesn’t.
One of the book’s most-discussed chapters is in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, composed by Lincoln’s sister. It’s an investigation of pauses in pop songs, and when we land on a slide that is blank — a pause — the effect is strangely haunting. Ms. Egan gets us closer to feeling what Lincoln feels than we might have thought possible. Instead of describing an experience for her readers, Ms. Egan actually gives them one.
My favorite writing challenge has always been, “say it better in half the words.” Now there’s a corollary. Say it better in no words.
(1) Tension. Something’s not right about all this.
(2) Respect. A strong, competent hero.
(3) Empathy. Characters I care for.
(4) Conflict. Most of these characters are in mortal danger.
(5) Enemies. Opposition that is believable and overwhelming.
(6) Romance. Between characters I’m rooting for, but with plenty of #1, above.
(7) Resolution? Wrap things up, yet with nagging uncertainty. Unless you’d rather not sell millions of the sequel(s).