There are three types of relationships an author has with their reader: a relationship built on trust, a relationship built on indulgence, or a relationship which ultimately feels one-sided (a relationship wherein the reader is simply confused about if the author actually cares about them or the story at all).
The quality of relationship is dependent on this skill: knowing how to set up and take down a scene.
When I first started writing, I was made to believe that a paragraph dedicated to a character's description was just a girlish or adolescent urge to play dress-up. I was warned against doing this; to instead let the readers’ imagination take over. I was quoted the worst three words you'll ever hear at your next writer's workshop: "sHow, DON't teLl." Leave things to the reader's imagination--you'll establish trust and rapport that way, they said.
An imagination is a sandbox. I could choose to give my imagination supreme freedom by never picking up a book and simply imagining a "story" from beginning to end, skipping to the parts I like best, swapping in characters from my real life to play their puppet roles in my fantasies.
These are not stories, however; these are daydreams. And they are ultimately dissatisfying, being made for light flights of fancy and not actual food-for-the-soul. Daydreams are also, as a rule, exhausting. They have as much depth as a Calgon commercial; a 20-second blip that fulfills a momentary desire or advertises a perceived need and is lost when the next fleeting desire arises or something of actual substance takes its place. Not having any limits or structure makes daydreams only marginally better than the dreams we have at night, which are rarely cohesive (when they are, we're mostly desperate to know why--did their sudden clarity mean something? Always, always, we are looking for meaning).
Imagination by itself can conduct very little meaning.
One opens a book so they can do more than dream.
Recently, however, it has become very difficult for me to get a first impression on any of the major players, be they World Setting, Atmosphere, Tone, Theme, or Protagonist. Especially in science fiction and fantasy, there's a tendency to whiz-bang a bunch of colorful character names and snappy dialog in the first impression. In literary prose, it's making sure the assonance and alliteration are just right, and the author always appears eager to courageously judge the status quo (just forget about the courage to be normal). In fact, a good bit of this has to do with the lack of courage to be normal. Oh, except when it comes to the protagonist. The protagonist is Joe Schmoe, remember? The protagonist is just a stand-in for the reader.
Well, yes. That's always been the case.
However, nobody's ever mistaken Frodo for Odysseus, or Elizabeth Bennett for Anne Elliot, or Superman for Batman.
We identify with any hero placed in the terrifying role or protagonist, because we know the terrifying role of protagonist. It won't matter if the character is a hero or a heroine, the first-born or the youngest of seven, a redhead or a balding monk--not when it comes to a reader being able to recognize the basic story of humanity in the protagonist.
This does not mean we don't care about the particulars. For example, when we think of Mr. Holmes, we think of two things almost immediately: his deductive reasoning and his costume. Scarcely will you see one without the other; when you don't have the deerstalker, you get an exaggeration of the first trait, which is why BBC's modern Sherlock is even more condescending in his displays of intelligence. Forget the fact that the deerstalker isn't even canonical--it's the fact that, based on the description of Holmes, we can surmise he would be the type of person to wear a deerstalker.
Just like Sherlock, or other everyday people for that matter, a protagonist is made of more than one defining aspect. While it's their actions we'll be most keenly aware of and interested in, readers are inherently less interested in the actions of a blank slate.
Here’s the other thing: we humans like looking at other humans. It’s immensely comforting, when we allow ourselves to be free to do so. And we don’t often get to do it with a level of depth that actually garners trust, curiosity, reciprocity, etc. In a culture obsessed with crime reports and exaggerated definitions of Freudian terms, we treat human personalities like circuses and peepshows: oh poor tragic Diana, oh boorish orangey Trump, oh sick twisted hunky Ted Bundy. No wonder more and more people are depressed and anxious; we can’t just look at a human being anymore and not see some angle of entertainment or neurosis.
Well, fiction has always been another word for balm. One remedy for the inability to see other beings is describing other fictional beings that we can more easily feel through and intuit from. Intuition: that's where reader participation comes in. It’s in making assumptions and developing a feel for a character based on the 20% we’re given; don’t worry, we’ll make up for the remaining 80%.
Character description makes me warm up to that character, thus to that world, and thus to that particular story.
It’s one reason why I have a much easier time following stories from, say, the Victorian and Edwardian eras. They were less cautious about detail, giving us an intimate view of a person’s face, clothing, psyche—because they knew even these verbose descriptions were just a scratch at the surface of a personality.
Case in point, here are two examples from G.K. Chesterton’s detective short story, “The Salad of Colonel Cray”:
The introduction of this character is also helped by Chesterton's fine syntax; the ‘solidified into a figure that was, indeed, rather unusually solid’ at once reveals something about Major Putnam’s physique, while Chesterton’s sense of humor about it adds lightness to his character, and, gives the reader a physical description that is also entertaining to read. Notice how he goes on to describe Putnam’s physical features and even clothing, but not every single thing about him. The main character, the eyes through whom we are seeing Major Putnam, is viewing this man for the first time as well. This being a detective story, any details of personality or quirk or color are also important. But almost every story is a detective story, answering a question with an uncertain outcome: a romance explores the “how” and “if” two people will get together, a drama explores the mystery of the human personality, etc. So this is not to say that this level of detail is only appropriate in a detective story.
Further, I included the short exchange between our protagonist, Father Brown, and the Major, because dialogue too reveals the character, and I was absolutely in love with the line 'with his good-humoured gooseberry eyes.'
The character’s movement (’solidified into something unusually solid’, 'came out of his house in a hurry’) adds to his character description while leaving the story with a sense of momentum, the imperfect details (bald-headed, apoplectic, puzzled, a halo by no means appropriate) combined with more positive details (good-humored, innocent grin) create intrigue and contrast. It already hints at the character’s personality, but that’s all: it hints. We know as much as the main character knows, and that’s important.
Now, on for a more psychological portrait—this one expanding on the main character, Father Brown. In general, the main character will be given a more in-depth, inner-world treatment than other characters. In a romance, where there are technically two main characters, this will also expand to the love interest. But even so, the main protagonist, be it any genre, is the most important to understand: they are at once the lens, the cinematography, the tone; they are what colors the story, no matter how distant the author chooses to keep them from us.
Ah, Chesterton slays me.
He’s using the situation at hand (Father Brown is performing some early morning duties as a priest when he hears what he thinks, but isn’t sure, to be a gunshot) to not only move the story forward, but reveal important bits of information and hint at future characters (the Major named Putnam, the Maltese cook), as well as draw a fascinating portrait of a man who cannot be summed up as simply “a nosy priest” or “a fastidious clergyman” or “an old man.” And Chesterton does all of this in one paragraph.
What's more, Father Brown is the protagonist of a series of short stories. Chesterton probably wrote these stories with the intention that a reader's first introduction to Father Brown could very well be the second or twelfth or thirty-third entry in the series. So he highlights an aspect of Father Brown's character; in fact, summarizes the core of his belief system so succinctly, that both the first-time and the returning reader are rewarded and enlightened and very little ground gets retread.
Notice too how the character description starts with an inner world description and, by the end of the paragraph, has moved this analysis into an action. Pick up any book on the craft of writing and you'll figure out one of the cardinal rules is that a scene starts in one mood and ends in another; we go from inaction to action, from triumph to loss, from question to answer. These scenes can be as long as a chapter or as short as sentence; or somewhere in-between, like this here paragraph.
Illustrating Brown's character also justifies the action he takes next. Father Brown would never stray from his duties on a lark; but his is a "free mind" (the reader is invited to ponder over what this means) and has already started working on the curiosity at hand; so the two men combine, and Father Brown logically goes to investigate because it is true to both halves of himself 1) gunshots being serious, it is his serious duty as a priest to investigate, and 2) being a free thinker, his curiosity will not rest till he gets to the bottom of this mystery
. Chesterton's "detour" is at once reflective and active.
Chesterton could have simply written: 'Father Brown went in at the garden gate, making for the front door.'
Perhaps that's a choice Hemingway would have made. Perhaps that's a choice you would have made.
But Chesterton is telling us this in two voices. His, and the protagonist's. Father Brown really is two men: he's revealed in Father Brown's voice, and he's revealed in Chesterton's voice. Like a matryoshka, our characters and our stories hide themselves in layers, informed by the author, who in turn informs the character's personality, which informs their actions, which informs the story, which informs the theme, which informs something too deep for words, which are woven back into the cyclical nature of the story by audience interpretation, who interact with all levels of this story, sometimes erroneously putting too much emphasis on any one of these factors. Stories, the good ones, are as much full-bodied orchestras as they are living tapestries: why unravel the author's sexuality or the historic context or the the theme or the style, as though one string were what made up a whole tapestry or one note which chiefly made up a symphony?
If stories are genuine, if they are true, they will, going back to that orchestra analogy, possess this multi-tonal quality: the voice of the character and the author may not always be as one, but they will resonate to the same key. The characters will not be author stand-ins (here is another cardinal sin of bad character descriptions, usually taking the face of a Mary Sue/Gary Stu), but the story will not be bereft of an author either. You can't have one without the other.
The examples above aren't meant be taken as the Golden Standard. This is the Golden Standard for G.K. Chesterton. Part of the hard work of the author is finding, maintaining, and polishing their own Golden Standard.
Before we move on to the opposite of the Golden Standard, let's look at a more spare way of introducing characters. Having dropped Hemingway's name often enough in this entry already, let's use him as our example. Is he the antithesis of what we've been exploring here, or does the argument hold water no matter the authorial voice?
Before, we said that the skill needed to establish a quality relationship with the reader is the skill of being able to set up and take down a scene.
That sounds more like something for plays than for ho-hum prose, but it's all connected.
Look at the examples of stagecraft below. All are from different productions of the same play, Tennessee Williams'
The Glass Menagerie:
Our narrator Tom introducing us to his past, and thus to the play's real narrative. In the first, his homelessness is apparent and his recollection of his family home is piecemeal and dreamy. In the second, Tom's a more clean-cut outsider and his family's apartment is more fully-furbished flashback than it is a mindscape.
Different interpretations of the main playing space--the entire narrative takes place in the family living room. It ranges from a realistic set-up, to a slightly realistic set-up dominated by colors representing the character's emotions, to almost purely abstract, taking the title of the play to an extreme.
The pivotal scene. Laura and her would-be suitor Jim have a heart-to-heart about Laura's glass menagerie. In the first, all is warm and romantic. In the second, the contrast of red and blue suggest all sorts of complicated feelings--and the picture in the background is obviously not real, but a symbol of--what? In the last, it's a 50/50 mix of this approach. A fully realized set-up, warm in the front, with the blue uncertainty of the world dominating the space behind them and weighing on their shoulders, threatening to overtake the fragile peace. Appropriately, this is the scene where Laura's dreams are shattered, and no matter how the scenes are dressed, every iteration of this play will have two things: warm candlelight and a cold collection of glass.
While plays have the different advantage of being visual media, the thing about setting up and taking down scenes applies across the board. The reason I bring them up is that, in this case, the stagecraft is an appropriate analogy to the authorial voice. As long as there is a solid narrative and a few anchors, and as long as the scenes are set up and then taken down, what is conveyed in-between (by pale strokes or bold, fully-realized details) is all a matter of set design. Important set design, to be sure--each of the productions above, for example, bring out different aspects of Williams' story in different dosages. Some productions will be more palatable to some than to others, but even if you don't like the play itself, you can't deny that the story, scene by scene, simply works.
Let's talk about anchors.
If I were taking a pleasure cruise around the Adriatic Sea, you know what I would vastly appreciate? An anchor. Yes, I want to go and sail and see, but if I don't have the security of an anchor, I'll always be vaguely anxious on the journey. The anchor allows the journey. Stories need anchors, too.
In the case of The Glass Menagerie, the very title is the anchor and must, by necessity, be featured as a prop in the play. But there are others, too, notably Laura's candles. No matter how abstract, these two anchors will be present in every iteration of Williams' play.
In the Father Brown stories, Father Brown himself is the anchor. But so is the landscape, and so is the tone.
If prose and protagonist are stripped to bare essentials, a reader still needs an anchor.
Now, here's the part where we finally get to Hemingway.
Here are two things that a more Spartan voice like Hemingway does:
Here's an example of him establishing all of these things in one paragraph from his short story, "Indian Camp":
The smoke. That's what I remember after this paragraph. I can smell it. It anchors me to the spot. This woman is more fully realized, at the moment, than the main characters (the young boy Nick, and the relatives we know so little about, the boy's father and his Uncle George). All I can think of is that the men went out of range to smoke, not to keep the smoke out of range, but to keep out of range of the noise. Her husband obviously would have joined them, if he hadn't cut his foot.
Hemingway doesn't tell us how to feel about this, but he does, at the same time. "The room smelled very bad."
Illumination and Silence:
Words Never Spoken Are The Ones Worth Hearing
There's a fine line between well-decorated and kitschy.
If you over-explain a thing, or oversell a thing, it's always rings false. It doesn't matter how down-to-earth a person claims to be (in fact, the more down-to-earth, the better a person is at seeing through someone's bravado), a human being is an intuitive creature. First impressions are disproportionately powerful for a reason--once someone draws a conclusion about a person or a character or a work in general, the impression tends to stick. If there's an impression of salesman slickness, it'll be hard to wash out.
For example, there are two types of writing, one in ads and one in fiction, that are really one and the same and always make me cringe: the mouth-watering sell.
Those descriptions on menus that try to make you salivate over the watercress and gouda burger or, alternatively, the blackened chicken Cajun gumbo? I always feel a little less dignified after having read them, like I was being seduced by twelve different greasy contenders. I mean, I know what I want. I want a Reuben, thanks, you don't have to sell me a sexier Reuben, I like Reuben just the way he is.
It's worse with character introductions that come from the same vein: you know, the broody guy with rock-hard abs or the ingenue with pliant breasts and supple...something or another. This pretty much screams--have a visceral reaction! Purely physical descriptions that are obviously aimed at one thing--titillation. The reader as a Peeping Tom.
Don't get me wrong. This isn't a high-brow crack at the poor plebeian public; The Washington Post already has a corner on that market. Sexuality, the senses, blood and poetry and guts and good looks: all of that belongs in fiction, because all of that is human.
But selling me a character like you'd sell me a hamburger simply feels undignified to me. Dignity isn't about class, it's about common ground. Don't treat me like a salivating customer, treat me like a partner in this telling. The Oral Tradition of Yesteryear didn't rely on one storyteller alone, but the input of those around the fire. In that case, let my imagination take over. Give me the particulars and I'll give you my particulars. Tell me our man's got a broken nose and I'll imagine which way it's tipped; tell me our lady's got dark hair and I'll give her the reddish sheen in the sun.
Since we've touched on framing scenes already, and touched on the topic of titillation, I want to point out that there's still absolutely nothing wrong with innuendo.
Innuendo, like authorial voice, is all about the quality of light: the colors chosen, the amount of, the intensity of. Innuendo as illumination. Innuendo is also, like authorial voice, as much about the silence kept.
In fact, innuendo is most powerful because of how its framed (the scene is set up and taken down, even if it's nothing but a fade-to-black) and because the words not spoken are the ones worth hearing.
If you've ever listened to Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire," you've probably listened to at least fifteen times in a row. Here's a song at once intensely private, like it says it all, and yet it's all too short. Or is it? The very length of the song supports its message: its the question that's immortal, the answer that's finite. It's not to say that stories with happy and/or definitive endings are sub-par, but that the details are not what is ultimately satisfying. The innuendo of "I'm On Fire" is in the same category as the ending of all classic stories, "And They Lived Happily Ever After." How? Doing what? Does it matter?
The innuendo is even more potent in the official music video:
Nothing happens, and that's what's so moving.
More than that, though. It's about wanting to connect with somebody. And you feel that, even without seeing the Woman's face or knowing the character's names.
A story works if it connects with the reader. Even if its a repulsive story; it the story talks of inhumanity but treats the reader as human, it's alright. Even if it's a sad story, and especially if its a joyful story (which can't help but being equal parts sadness and happiness).
Floating Heads and Purple Prose
Of course a reader doesn’t want or need to know everything the character is feeling, or thinking, or wearing. It’s descriptions that attempt to box characters in to a clothing style or cliche that are the real reason for the overbearing rule of “Don’t Reveal the Protagonist’s [Hair Color, Etc.] or Else.”
The problem with sparse or hit-the-ground-running writing arises from characters taking actions before the author has fully realized at least one other aspect of their story: the atmosphere, or the world setting, or the character's relationship to the world or the other characters.
But regardless of style, character descriptions should serve to place the character and the reader in the world, not floating around with a bunch of talking heads.
At the very least, the Floating Head Syndrome is a sure way to get me to not care.
You know, the Floating Head Syndrome, a cold open with two characters talking and dropping names and events like we're supposed to care. This works on an economic level, I mean, I know about these types of stories because they've gotten published. They were accepted out of a sea of submissions and people wanted to pay for them. They work for somebody. There's less concern here with what works at the moment, however, and what works in the grand scheme of things. We can spend our whole life studying the tenets of story, but they're older than we are and have lifetimes to teach us and we can only give it one lifetime. Sounds lofty? Of course. But stories are universal--I mean that literally. This Universe is a Story; science can't explain why it doesn't have an ending. Stories are as common as air and earth, so I'm not trying to speak in an Ivory Tower kind of way about it. It's as much a craft as carpentry or auto mechanics or the Japanese tea ceremony. It takes lofty expectations and elbow grease.
The opposite problem of the Floating Head Syndrome is the Purple Prose Problem.
Now that we've borrowed from plays and music, I say we agree to be democratic beggars and also borrow from film. If innuendo is an example of good cinematography, then Purple Prose is an example of bad cinematography.
As usual, Wikipedia sums it up pretty darn well:
"In literary criticism, purple prose is prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself. Purple prose is characterized by the excessive use of adjectives, adverbs, and metaphors. When it is limited to certain passages, they may be termed purple patches or purple passages, standing out from the rest of the work.... Purple prose is criticized for desaturating the meaning in an author's text by overusing melodramatic and fanciful descriptions."
I like that--the desaturating. Or, oversaturating, as in the example above. In this case, the subject matter and the composition is just fine--but all the "extra touches" simply drown the piece.
In general, people are more afraid of writing purple prose than they are of writing what's known as beige prose or blue prose. Beige prose is taking Spartan prose to an extreme; going for boring even when your characters find themselves in dazzling situations. Blue prose is what most screenplays are troubled with nowadays: the character with the vocabulary of a 14-year-old who just discovered the thrill of four-lettered words.
The result of purple, beige, and blue prose is all the same: an overwhelming blandness.
And none of that garners the relationship we started talking about way at the beginning: trust between the author and the reader.
In the end, though, I discovered that the words themselves are just anchors for the real story: the Story that is told in sighs too deep for words.
In Excelsis Deo.
K.W. writes novels, short stories, the occasional ode, game scripts, and (with actual evidence!), this here blog.