Character Development

You can’t tell the assholes from the bitches from the idiots from the arrogancia without a scorecard

The image below is of a sign at my gym a few days back. My gym routinely posts “Questions of the Day.” I wish they’d keep a list of the responses because some of them are priceless.

And it occurred to me that such a device would be a good tool for character description purposes, much like how the calendar was used to set a scene in Setting Scenes with Props.

click for larger image

 
Let’s say you want to demonstrate a character who wants to portray themselves as an intellectual, someone knowledgeable:
Emerson read the Question of the Day. “Are you talking just the nucleus or are we including the electron shells?”
Lori shook her head. “I don’t know. I just pick the question from a file. I wouldn’t know the difference between…what did you call it? Shells?”
“It makes a difference.”

We can also show that Emerson doesn’t know what they’re talking about:
Emerson read the Question of the Day. “Are you talking just the nucleus or are we including the electron shells? It makes a difference.”
Lori picked up the sign and read the question. “Not really. It’s asking about atomic mass, not nuclear mass. Even then, the nuclear weights would compare similarly to the atomic weights unless we asked about isotopes for elements side-by-side on the periodic table.”
Emerson’s face flushed. Pam chuckled in the office. She came out and high-fived Lori as Emerson hurried down the stairs.

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Oakley Hall’s “The Art & Craft of Novel Writing”

A definite keeper. A resource. Read it twice and will read it again.

Rarely have I read a book that covers the entirety of a subject so well, so elegantly, so masterfully, with detailed examples and explanations. I had trouble finding pages I didn’t dogear, highlight portions of, make notes on, et cetera. This book is a must for anyone learning/practicing/perfecting their craft. My great loss is my local library not carrying any of his books. I’ll spend the money to see how this wonderful teacher applies his craft. If he’s half the master at writing as he is at teaching, Whoa!

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Cicatrix

Where does it start? What is it about?

Cicatrix is a story originally written pre-1987. I dug it out because I’m thinking of including it in Tales V2. I’ve always liked the idea and concept, I’ve learned so much about writing that I realized I started the story 1) in the incorrect place and 2) with an incorrect conflict.

What follows are the first ~1,000 words from the previous version and the new version. Let me know which is better. If you can give me an idea why you prefer one over the other, excellent.

Original

The cool, early April evening air, heavy with the damp and salt of the craggy New Hampshire coast, wafted through the open windows of Paul’s rented house. His attention shifted from four hotdogs in a pot of boiling water on the stove to a pad of equations on the table. He sat between the two, against the wall and away from the door. He was within reach of both hotdogs and notepad, but he favored the notepad. One foot rested on the back of a large, black Newfoundland, Maschaak. Occasionally Paul would wiggle his foot and the dog would lick its chops and let out a satisfied growl.

A sudden hiss pulled him up from the equations to see a bobble of water dance on the heating element. Another bobble, somewhat greasier than the first, leapt over the edge of the pot and joined in the dance. “Tyndale effect.” He smiled and went back to the notepad. Both he and the dog looked up when a car door slammed outside. Paul’s gaze took in the rest of the first floor. The kitchen was separated from the living room/bed room by a transition from peeling, brittle, yellowed linoleum to frayed, puce purple rug. The house was clean but drab and spent the summer months as a beach cottage. During the school year it was rented to whatever student or students could afford the off-season price. The wallpaper looked and felt like a K-Mart Blue Light Special, heat came from a kerosene burner. Some earlier occupant had taped over the ON/off switch with DEAFENING/cold and Paul couldn’t argue. The place settings were a mix of yard sale Corelle, 1960’s gas station giveaways, and jelly jars, and no two pieces of flatware matched. There were no chairs, only couches with springs which long ago had sprang their last sprung. Each couch pulled out into a bed and Paul knew from experience they were equally uncomfortable. The woman who rented the house to him said, “This is just meant as a place to sleep after you’ve been on the beach all day.” Paul agreed after the first two weeks.

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Man and Boy; Tennessee, 1932

It’s better to be wise than rich

“Boy, what you straining with?”

“Don’t know, pa. It’s fighting me, though. It’s fighting me.”

“Look at that pole bend. Ease up a bit, boy. Give it some slack. See? Your pole’s not twitching. Whatever it is, it’s not fighting you, it’s dragging. Maybe something crawling on the bottom.”

“But it’s coming, pa.”

“Want me to take her for a spell?”

“I’d like that, pa.”

“Give it some slack before we switch poles. Something that heavy, you got to work slow, might have to get upstream of it to pull it in without snapping the line.”

“Look, pa. There it is. I see it.”

“Damn thing’s in the glare of the sun. What is it? Can you see? Feels like some bottom grass. Pity if we can’t loose the line.”

“It’s a man, pa. A black man.”

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What do you mean, exactly, when you tell me to Read and Write to be an author?

It’s what they don’t tell you that’ll ruin you

Almost every writing-how-to book I’ve read has something about having to read, read, read and write, write, write to be a good author. Few books (nor any classes I’ve taken in classrooms, workshops, online, et cetera) include the two pieces of information without which all the reading and all the writing are…well, maybe not worthless but definitely worth less: How to Read and How to Write.

Reading
Read anything and everything. Read omnivorously. Read trashy novels. Read pulp. Read magazine articles, newspapers. Read onlines. Read prizewinners. Read in and definitely outside your genre.

Here’s what nobody told me; Read for craft, not content.

Pay attention to what you’re reading.

 
Pay attention to how characters are developed, pay attention to how scenes unfold, how things are foreshadowed, pay attention to how mood, atmosphere and tone are constructed to create specific effects. Pay attention to how the author does everything they do to get you to read their story.

Especially pay attention to what they do that makes you stop reading their story.

An example of the former is from Fritz Leiber’s A Pale of Air. I read this story mumbledy-mumbledy years ago and remember literally feeling cold after the first few paragraphs. No idea why and continued blissfully ignorant for ever so long. Take a moment to read the opening and enjoy the chill:
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