Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Boxers or Briefs?

On Saturday at 5pm I had a moment of doubt.  The panel:  Boxers or Briefs?  When is enough information on your character too much information on your character?  The panelists:  John Helfers, Diana Pharaoh Francis, Renee Stern, K.L. Young, Dr. Harry Turtledove (pictured here from opening ceremonies) and, er, me?  I didn't have stage fright.  More like I had this dread that I would start to yammer, or put my foot in my mouth, or otherwise make a complete fool of myself.  I only get stage fright when I don't know what I'm doing.  I get the dreads when I feel like I don't belong.  But I got over it.  (Thanks Renee for the words of encouragement afterward!)

In a lot of ways, despite this being an amazing set of panelists, this turned out to be the least informative of the panels, at least for my own edification.  We talked about toolboxes, how to fill them (read books about writing, attend writing panels at conventions, etc.) and why you need them.

And why do we need writing tools?  Because sometimes writing is awkward.  You need to insert X information about your character in order to get people to care about them at the beginning.  What X is varies from character to character.  As you continue writing you add Y information to justify the character's ability to cope with their environment and deepen the readers' knowledge (and hopefully caring) of the character, so that they become like a friend/guide to the universe/champion (or whatever your mix may be.)  Getting that information on the page can be very tricky.  Readers are easily bored by things like lists, exposition, and skill demos that don't involve risk.  I've found that trying to use intuition alone to get me through the information dump portions of a novel is a lot like trying to make lasagna based on how I think it should taste.  Writing tools, recipes, whatever you want to call them, will give you ways to transmit information about your characters without making a mess of things.

To illustrate, how about explaining a lion to someone?  You could give the height, weight, hunting habits, etc. in dialogue, as an expository lump, and so forth.  Or you could describe the lion on the hunt, especially an unsuccessful hunt.  The horns and hooves of his prey flashing in his face, the confusion of black and white stripes.  How he hooks his claws and teeth into his prey and how it screams.  The storm of a stampede, the ground shaking, dust, the musk of panicked zebras.  Adrenaline tunnel vision, his eagerness and maybe even desperation, the depths of instinct and previous experience and how they work both for and against him.  How it feels to go home with the smell and taste of blood on your face but no meat in your belly, and the half-sleep as you rest hungrily for the next hunt.  This set of tools is explanation through action, and it's one of the best tools out there.

Good writers use visual cues, auditory cues, taste, smell, touch, mental and physical balance, and they use stress to trot out their characters' best and worst characteristics.  Each individual sense is also a tool.  So is the use of repetition.  Who likes their martini shaken, not stirred?  So is the use of tag lines.  I really enjoyed getting to know the rat-faced Drasnian, even though I didn't know what a Drasnian was when I started.  The use of language in the tags, the sound of the words and the rhythm, gave me hints into the character.

So how much character information is too much?  Easy, and hard.  Some of it is about context and timing.  When it doesn't matter, it's too much.  In the boxer/brief question, we don't care if Sally wears a thong in the opening scene of your novel because it's not important.  However, if we learn Starbuck, an established character in an established series, wears a thong, or boxers, we've been given a tantalizing glimpse that adds just a little more depth to the character.  The choice of underwear implies a great deal about her only because we know she's a tomboy, that she's tough, unapologetic, etc. and a highly feminine choice like a thong or a masculine choice like military issue boxers gives us a subtle cue about how she sees herself.  We wouldn't get that at all unless we had a lot of context first.  Some of it is about relevance to the story arc.  It will never matter that Sally knows how to fish while she's running around on Io, especially if no one else knows how to fish (no connection to the other characters) and that skill doesn't come into play (although I can see her fishing for a mini-monster or jigging for a part that's fallen out of reach--but that's a stretch.)  Maybe at the end Sally can finally go back home to Earth and go fishing, but that only proves the point--that's relevant to the story arc.  So you want details, but details that enrich the character, the plot, or both.  If it's a throwaway, throw it away.

How much is too little?  Also easy, and hard.  When there isn't enough to set a character apart from all the others, it's too little.  Much as I enjoy J.R.R. Tolkien's work, I have to say that in my estimation his characterization is weak.  The good guys are all about the same as each other, as are almost all the bad guys.  We don't learn many personal details about them.  One of the reasons the hobbits are a little more engaging than the other characters is that we learn a little more about their home life and their longing to return home.  One of the things that makes Aragorn more interesting is his unwillingness to take up his destiny, and Faramir stands out due to his isolation and desire to please his father.  The movie did a much, much better job of bringing out the individuality of the characters and making us care about them.  But the movies were based on the books.  So what happened?

The readers filled in the blanks.  Tolkien trusted his readers a great deal more than most modern authors do.  I think he trusted too much.  A lot of people who are invested in the idea of finishing the Lord of the Rings trilogy can't make themselves get all the way through it.  It's too much to ask if you force your readers to make the characters shine for you.  If you're an unknown and your work isn't considered a classic (chances are very high that you're in this category) you can't count on social pressure and expectation to get your readers through your work.  You need to give readers more than Tolkien did, but not too much too soon.  

Easy.  And hard.

One more panel to go:  The Sketch Book:  Your key to sanity.  Then we'll return to, um, more stuff about writing, and small farms, and gardening--the usual.

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