“I don’t care about your characters.” I heard this in my earliest readings of my first manuscript. If you’ve followed my blog, you’ve heard this story before. My critic followed up with the meat of her argument. “I don’t care about the because I don’t think you do.”
In those days I wrote feverishly, eager to finish my first novel. But like a prefabricated house, sloppy construction caves in pretty quick. I turned a good portion of my time to reading about writing.
“When introducing a character, show them doing something characteristic.” I can’t remember which book I read that from but it’s stuck in my head ever since. Some of the best characters in fiction, when you think of them, certain actions or phrases come to mind. I found a movie that both demonstrated this and explained why I found the second Star Wars trilogy so forgettable.
In “The People Vs. George Lucas” the documentary team asks some folks to describe characters from the first trilogy without using their title or profession. Han Solo and Luke Skywalker’s descriptions flowed freely from these folks and you could see them reliving the enjoyment they garnered from these films. Contrast that with the same exercise applied to the second trilogy and what you see are blank stares. Often the folks fall back on profession or title because there’s not much character to them.
Like many lessons in life, even though I’ve been told and taught, it took a painful experience to drive the message home. I’ve taken to reading some of my fellow indie/small publisher’s works. We exchange books, read, review, and general help generate a little buzz. So I start this story and Blam, Blam, Blam! The first chapter hits me with a shotgun blast of exposition. I’ve got more names and past adventures in my head than I can manage and no clue what it means to me. Now before you flip through any of my pages, let me save you some trouble; I may have done the very same thing myself. What sent me rushing from my Kindle to the laptop was the realization, I just experienced the ‘why’ behind lessons in writing I felt confident I’d learned. The names as I read them meant nothing to me. Some characters were picking up the pieces of a shattered home in the aftermath of a disaster, but it didn’t stick because they were just names.
Bottom line, it’s easy to care about your own story but it takes some work for others. Save the shotgun for the zombies.