Thursday, September 27, 2018

Boil Them Down!

     Slowly, the Mule bowed his head, as anger and despair cornered his mind completely, “Yes. Too late–Too late–Now I see it.”
     “Now you see it,” agreed the First Speaker, “and now you don't.”

     [Isaac Asimov, Foundation and Empire]

     The period between the completion of the first draft of a novel and embarking upon the changes required to reach a final draft is, for me at least, one of great intensity. Sometimes it tells me things I seriously needed to learn – and not just for the refinement of the current novel-under-construction.

     In my stories, the driving force is always character. More specifically, my stories are about the reasons people do things. Tom Kratman has said that illuminating the “eternal verities” is his fuel. That’s a good short way to put it, for the eternal verities are immutable facts of human nature – and the most important of those facts, at that. So as I write, the characterization process is continuously uppermost in my thoughts.

     That doesn’t mean I always get it right.

     A friend I shan’t name has served as an indispensable test reader for Experienced, which is drawing near to release. Her observations have proved critical to unearthing flaws and under-exploited motifs in the story. But the most valuable thing she’s done for me is to illuminate, to and for me, a stunningly important guideline to characterization.

     There are only three ways to characterize a character:

  • Through what he says;
  • Through what he does;
  • Through what other characters say about him.

     My friend illustrated this for me by capturing each of the Marquee and Supporting Cast characters in Experienced in no more than three sentences. And in reading her summations I had a brain flash that damned near incinerated the BLEEP!ing useless thing:

A character’s character – i.e., his animating desires, fears, and convictions – must be summarizable in no more than three sentences.
If you can’t do that, you’ve got a problem.

     That comes pretty close to being a fictioneer’s Philosopher’s Stone.

     Characterization is critical to any writer who has a theme of importance in mind. If Smith wants his story to impress the importance of some idea on his readers, he must do so through the decisions and actions of his Marquee characters, and through the changes they experience as they travel his fictional landscape. Bad fiction will fail at this; good fiction will bring it off beautifully.

     The novelists of centuries past often missed this point. I find it relatively easy to excuse them; after all, the novel as a form was still in its infancy, and what works / doesn’t work was still being discovered. We of today have no excuse.

     Theme is closely coupled to the emotions we feel at seeing a character triumph or fail, or be exalted or destroyed. In my little tome The Storyteller’s Art, I wrote:

     [I]t's the passion evoked by the theme that's really important. However, the writer can't simply scream at his readers, “Feel deeply for my characters!” That would be akin to an actor trying to evoke audience emotion without a script, by the sheer power of his expressions and poses. That's called “emoting,” and no self-respecting theatergoer -- or reader -- will stand for it.

     Theme, as embodied in plot and character, is the conduit by which the writer transmits his passion to his readers. There’s a conservation law at work here, though not one you’d study in first-year physics: passion can neither be created nor destroyed, but only transmitted from artist to consumer.

     This approaches tautology. Yet the heartily detested maxim ”Show, don’t tell!” which fledgling writers have resented since Ug first scrawled on the wall of his cave is about nothing else.

     And as always, the fewer words you need to capture a character you’ll use to transmit your passion to your readers, the more likely you’ll be to depict that character in a maximally effective way.

     So: Once you’ve decided on your theme and Marquee characters, for each character, write three sentences, no more. One about the sort of things the character will do. One about the sort of things he’ll say. And one about what the other characters will be prone to saying about him. Strain for concision in each sentence; concision is the best imaginable aid to clarity. For best results, do this before typing the first sentence of the story. Print the results on a 3” x 5” card, prop that card in front of your monitor, and make a point of reviewing it before you begin a scene.

     It’s the cure for what ails your stories, and it’s available without a prescription. Trust kindly old Dr. Fran. Might help with your rheumatism, too.

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