Notice What You Notice

In my previous post, we discussed the introduction of a character and how to describe them without the writing becoming boring. Now, we can come across the same problem when it comes to describing setting and a scene. I’ve discussed some of this in earlier posts, which I will link at the bottom of this one, but I wanted to touch upon another aspect and basically give you homework (which you don’t have to actually share unless you want to).

I mentioned the term ‘deductive writing’. What is that? Let’s bring Sherlock Holmes back into this. He uses deductive reasoning to come to his conclusions and solve the mysteries. Now, how do we apply this to writing?

Sherlock Holmes is very observant. That is what makes him good at what he does. Not every character will be as observant as he. If your MC is a boy-crazy girl who has only spent all her free time on the internet or watching chick flicks, she’s not going to be observant. In other words, you can’t rely on her to show the reader the setting of a scene when she walks into the room. Her eyes won’t notice the color of the walls, how many doors or windows there are, or all the food and drinks, or how everything is carefully decorated in this impressive mansion. No, her eyes will scan the people—quickly overlooking anyone who is plain, maybe noting her rivals, but absolutely pinpointing all the hot guys in the room. She’ll then get sucked into conversations, and the rest of the scene unfolds.

However, if your character has any training an Martial Arts, they will have a completely different approach the same situation. These characters are more reliable when you want to show a scene through their eyes. Now, you can have a character who has never taken any form of Martial Arts but is still observant by nature, and this character is also reliable when setting a scene, but it is only because of that character’s personality that makes him or her reliable like that.

So what am I talking about, and how does it apply to writing? Here’s the exercise I want you to do, and I’m going to show you how it’s done.

Notice how you enter a room or unfamiliar setting and the first things you look for when entering the room–

Because I am prone to terrible headaches, as I approach an unfamiliar room, my senses are already spread out looking for four things: loud noise, flashing or dizzying lights, crowded environment, and potent smell. Any one of these can trigger a headache, and I avoid such places to the best of my ability. If it cannot be avoided, I at least limit my time there to the bare minimum.

When I step into the room, due to my training in martial arts, I note every exit, windows, stairways, and balconies and whatever might be blocking me from them. Yes, I’m not necessarily counting them but making a mental note as to where they are in case they’re needed. Also, if I can’t see down the corridor at the end of the room, I make a mental projection of what might be down there in case it is important to know. I then begin to assess the crowd for any threats or unusual behavior as well as their dress—whether it be practical or not in any given circumstance.

Being a writer, I automatically read people’s faces and body language determining their possible thoughts, feelings, and motives.

As naturally introvert, I scan all the faces for someone familiar and feel the greatest relief when I recognize someone.

All this takes a few seconds while I pass through the room. Can I recount all this information to you in that moment? Unlikely. I note it immediately, but it takes time to process in my mind. It is merely instinct.

If the room has any of the elements for a headache—especially noise or crazy lights—I forgo most of my usual assessments simply because I can’t see doors or windows in the flashing lights. Instead, if I am there to meet someone, I will zero in on that person and prompt them to go outside, so we can have a conversation without shouting. Otherwise, if I’m alone—well, I’d never go to such a environment on my own, so I would just leave.

This is an example of how to measure your own assessment of a new location. Once you know how you take in new surroundings, it’s easier to introduce a new setting for your characters.

The same tactic can be applied to when you meet someone new. What is the first thing you notice about them? Is it their appearance? Their face? Eye color? Clothes? Posture? My sister has a superb memory of people. When I ask her what someone looked like, she’ll say, “He’s a bit taller than I am, has brown hair, blue eyes, square jaw, lean.” She usually links their appearance to an actor. But personally, when I look at someone, I see none of that. Instead, I notice how they carry themselves, how they present themselves. I might note their hair color and height and if they’re lean or muscular, but other than that when I meet someone, I make note of their personality and who they are rather than simply how they’d like the world to see them. Once you understand how you handle introductions with real life people, you can apply this idea to your writing.

Of course, your characters are not you, and they will notice things you probably wouldn’t notice, but it’s your job to make sure they notice what they would see such as Marcus, the ex-Marine, taking note of the guards at the ballroom; Patrick, the hacker, noticing all the technology; and Olivia, the thief, identifying the valuable pieces throughout the room.

So, how do you enter a room? And when you meet someone, what do you first notice about them?

Now, step back, communicate with your characters, and figure out what they notice when they walk into a room or when they meet someone. And they won’t notice everything, and that’s okay. Not one person can notice everything (unless you have a superhero character), but that is why we have multiple characters, and we can get a bigger picture of the scene—if necessary—through the eyes of other characters.

As promised, here are the links to the previous posts I posted discussing scene setting and description:

Paint Pictures With Words

Movement With Description

Shifting Points of View (POV)

If you want to include in the comments a brief description of what you notice when you first walk into a room or when meeting someone for the first time, feel free to do so. It would be great to read!

Describing Your Characters upon Introduction

In a sense, there is a ‘camera’ in your story which sets the pace of how the scene unfolds. Description immediately slows down the pace, and too much description makes it almost slow motion. It’s not important to record every detail in order for the readers to get a clear image of the character in their head. Let them imagine whom they will—just as long as the character’s personality doesn’t change. The personality is what shines through and what should remain consistent regardless of how others imagine their appearance.

Once I let someone read a chapter of a story of mine, and she gave me this feedback:

Character development – I very much enjoyed how you are developing your characters. Nothing annoys me more when a writer says here is my character, this is what they look like, this is their temperament within the first couple of paragraphs without giving their character a chance to develop and grow. I dislike this “in your face” approach and prefer to learn about the character as the book develops, so I like your approach to your characters.

Then she sent me a sample of her story. What amazed me was how this writer was acutely aware of terrible introductions of characters yet could not write without falling into the same problem. After exchanging a few emails, I came to learn that she knew she had been writing the kind of writing she didn’t like to read, but she didn’t know what else to do. So I gave her some advice.

The characters’ looks are not important. It is their personality and behavior that are fundamental to the story. Once I wrote an entire book, and I imagined the actors who would play the characters if it became a movie. However, I didn’t try to describe the actors’ looks. I just went along with the story, developing the character as I went. The most remarkable feedback I got from a reader was, “Have you ever watched the TV series Merlin? Your character reminds me of Morgana.” I had to laugh because that was exactly whom I imagined when I wrote that character though there were some differences.

The problem is that the brain is much quicker than the eye, but when reading our eyes must first read the words in order for our brains to comprehend them. If the pace has slowed down, then our brain doesn’t see the story unfold as quickly. The only way to prevent this is to use motion description, which I’ve already discussed in a previous post, here: Movement in Description. 

This is an example of what dragged-out description feels like to a reader. Once I was in the kitchen baking when my mom came in and started reading to me a section out of a Sherlock Holmes story. In it, Sherlock and Watson walk down a corridor at a brisk pace, and suddenly they turn a corner, and someone is standing in the middle of the hall waiting for them. The whole story stops to describe the character entirely! To me, I imagined it as a movie. They’re walking down a hallway at a swift pace, turn the corner, and then S-L-O-W motion as they take in the sight of this new character from head to toe. It was like a L’Oreal commercial where the women have their hair flying in the wind in slow motion…except, this new character was a guy—a tough, hardened man. As you can imagine, because the pace slowed down to take the time to describe him, my mental image of him was completely ruined. I had to laugh because I couldn’t get the Sherlock Holmes L’Oreal commercial I envisioned out of my head. This is one example of how films and television have influenced our imagination.

There are a lot of Sherlock films and TV shows, and we know Sherlock doesn’t take THAT much time to observe a character. He’s very quick about it. Just as Sherlock used deductive reasoning, we must use deductive writing in our stories when introducing characters and setting. Always keep the story moving.

“So if we’re not supposed to give a described snapshot of our character upon introduction, what are we supposed to do? How are we supposed to show our characters?” Imagine your character and the first thing you’d notice about them in person. Is this character tall? Perhaps he has striking eye color  you’ve never seen before. Or perhaps it has nothing to do with the character’s look, but rather the aura he presents is regal and noble or flamboyant and careless. Whichever way he is will be evident in the way he carries himself, and this has a lot to do with body language and can be shown over a course of time instead of a pause in the story to describe the character. Here are examples of both styles of writing:

Example 1: Standing at 6’2, Skelton wore a black trench coat, black clothes, and black boots. His hair was a shocking blonde, and his eyes were stunning blue while he smiled with mischief. High cheek bones, sharp nose, and square jaw made him all the more striking to look at, but there was something fun and roguish about him.

Example 2: Skelton flung the doors open and smirked when everyone flinched at the sound of the door slamming against the wall, but he sauntered in with confidence. “Well, well, well! Looks like you’re having a party! And no one thought to invite me?” He pressed a hand to his chest as he pursed his lips into a pout then clicked his tongue and wagged his head–dropping his hand and the pout as he smirked again. “Not to worry! I’ll just make myself at home!” Marching around the length of the table, he came to the head of it and plopped himself down in the chair then kicked his boots up onto the table as he leaned back in the chair and intertwined his hands over his chest. “So, peoples, where are we? What’s on the agenda?” Everyone glared at him.

In one version, we are merely told what he looks like and hinted at how he behaves. In the second version, we don’t need to be told anything. We get his personality right away. Yes, we don’t know the color of his hair or his eye color or the exact shape of his face, but is more important? Always keep in mind what is most important to your story.

“Are there ever any exceptions?” Of course, there are always exceptions to every rule. It merely takes an exceptionally good writer to know when and how and why exactly to break the rules.

Author/Character Relationship

Last week we discussed author-based characters, but let’s focus on the relationship characters have with their authors. These are people in our heads who want their story told so badly, and we are their own means to be made known unto the world. It’s a hefty task, if you think about it. But when it comes to characters, there are two kinds of authors. There are those authors who hear their characters’ voices in their head, can see them clearly, communicates with them often, and has little say in what they will and will not do. And then there are those authors who don’t have that relationship with their characters. Let’s break this down a bit more.

Interactive Authors are those interact with their characters. To them, their characters are very real people, and the rest of the world is very unfortunate not to see or have a chance to communicate with them. That’s why these authors write. The characters are so vivid and strong and real, their story must be told. This makes writing fun and enjoyable, but it also runs the risk of making it very difficult.

Fleshed-out characters are those who have a say on everything you want them to do. Not only that, but they’ll also whisper in your ear a profound twist at the worst (or best) of timing, and all you can do is sit there and stare stunned because suddenly everything makes sense—suddenly the character has a new layer of depth to them you had never imagined. However, as I mentioned, if the character doesn’t want to do something, it won’t.

Characters have a secret superpower—the ability to curse the writer with Writer’s Block. If you try to force the character to do something, he will go kicking and screaming all along the way, or he might fall silent and completely close off and glare at you. Without the open interaction with the character, you will find your imagination falls short, and it will run dry. When that happens, you flounder about for ideas, explanations, something—anything! And the character won’t talk to you until you’re ready to listen. So either you’ll throw the story away and never finish it, or you’ll knuckle down, back up, and figure out where the problems began while keeping an open mind toward the characters. You will know when you’re getting close to the problem. There is a game children play where one of them hides something, and the others have to find it, and if they’re getting closer to the item, the child says, “Hot,” but if they’re getting further from it, he says, “Cold.” The same idea applies here. As you get closer to the problem, the character will hint, “Hot,” but if you drift further from it, the character will become silent again. Once you’ve landed on the problem, the character will be like, “FINALLY! Now, can I tell you what I want to do rather than doing what you wanted me to do?” Sometimes it wastes words and time doing this, but you always learn something.

Now there are also Static Authors. These authors don’t have such communication with their characters. I’m going to be honest, I don’t understand how an author can ‘not’ have that interaction with their characters, but I have run across people who look at me weird and ask, “Your characters actually talk to you?” to which I want to respond, “Your characters don’t?” However, every author has their own style. I have found though while listening to Static Authors explain their story and what problems they have encountered, their stories are very author-controlled. The author wants this story to turn out this way and have his character do or say this or that, and there is very little room for negotiation from anybody outside the author (friends or family) or even inside the author’s mind (characters). With Static Authors, the characters have little to no voice because they realize their writer won’t listen to them.

As an Interactive Author, sometimes the characters of Static Authors talk to me because their own authors won’t listen to them. It makes for awkward conversations at times when a Static Author comes to me to brainstorm a problem they’ve encountered, and along the way I hear like the nagging voice of a character that isn’t even my own, so I ask the author, “Have you tried talking to your character?” I always encourage the author to listen to the character and communicate with them, because that resolves problems the quickest. I can’t always be around being the meditator between author and character, and it shouldn’t be that way.

Some writers are very mechanical and have to have anything and everything figured out about their characters before they even begin a story. This can be both good and bad. Good—because it helps you thoroughly think out your story and develop the characters and storyline. However, it can be bad because no matter how much you prepare ahead of time, the character and/or story may simply not want to go that way, and if you try to force the issue, you run the risk of Writer’s Block. So, no matter your approach to writing, always keep an open mind.

So, is it weird to communicate with people that don’t even exist? Does this borderline insanity? For people who cannot discern the line between reality and fantasy, then yes—it does borderline insanity, but for the most part, authors are acutely aware of the line. They love to cross it back and forth all the time, but they never blur the actual line.

“If I’m a Static Author, is that all I’ll ever be?” or likewise, “If I’m an Interactive Author, is that all I’ll ever be?” No. The kind of author you are can change over the course of your life depending on what you are encountering in real life and how you respond to it. If you are going through a difficult time where everything seems to be out of your control, you might switch from being an Interactive Author to a Static Author because you want one realm of your life to be under your control—no arguments. Static Authors, you might decide one day to let loose and just have fun with writing and not be concerned with whether or not it is publishable work. And you can always revert back to the kind of author you’re most comfortable with. Neither of them are wrong, and there are things both kinds of authors can learn from each other.

So what kind of author are you?

 

Author-Based Characters

Young writers (‘young’ can mean age or inexperienced) get an idea and think, “It would be so cool if I could do that.” They proceed to daydream, form a story, and might finally attempt to write the story. This results in an author-based character.

An author-based character doesn’t have to be a writer in the story. It doesn’t have to be in present day or do anything the author does. The author could be a stay-at-home mom who writes a spy thriller. The way you can identify an author-based character is the voice of the character, the actions of the character, and the lack of real depth in the character.

Author-based characters come into existence because the author places himself into the situation and writes how he would respond if he ever had run from the CIA, save the world with some new superpower, or travel back in time. This is where all the daydreams and fantasies come to life, and you’re able to do what you could never do in real life.

These characters are often found in fan fiction because the author gets the idea for the story by thinking, “Now, if I could have been in that movie/book, what would I have done? What would happen?” Author-based characters have the tendency to become Mary-Sue or Gary Stu–that is to say the ‘perfect’ characters. To the author, these characters are charming and beautiful, but they’re absolutely annoying and unrealistic to the readers.

Once a writer asked me to read the first novel he ever wrote because he wanted to publish it. I met his female protagonist, and I had to put his book down. Everyone in the story loved that character. They crowded around to reach out to her just to get a brief touch of her. They said she was an angel, and she was described as beautiful.

This, in and of itself, would be all right if the twist had been that on the inside she was dark, but the worst part was this character was absolutely innocent, ignorant, but knew anything about everything. There was nothing wrong with her, nothing different, no shades of gray, or depth. Have you ever met someone who just seemed so perfect that it’s annoying? The same goes for stories.

Needless to say, I couldn’t finish reading that story. I had to give him credit though because it was his first novel, and he was writing a female character. His downfall came in being too careful. He didn’t want to insult his female readers by making his female character unlikable in any way whatsoever, but there is a crime in being too careful. Every character has a conflict. If there’s no conflict, there’s no story.

But I didn’t mean to write a Mary Sue! What am I supposed to do?” Think back and reconsider why you’re writing the story in the first place. Yes, Mary Sues have their proper place in writing, but they’re never the main character. They’re often used in parody.

If there’s even the slightest chance of me accidentally writing a Mary Sue, I don’t want to write.” That’s your choice, but if you’re a writer, you won’t be able to not write. No one said writing was easy. Characters are only one aspect of writing, and you must master them before you can think about publishing your work.

This is why the Playground Experience is important! During the Playground Experience you can play around with all sorts of characters, tear them apart, piece them back together, find out what makes them tick, and talk with them–argue with them. You’re going to disagree with your characters. They’re going to storm away and slam doors in your head on the way out, but they’ll always come back because you are the only means they have to get their story told. Like us, they want their story known to the world. The Playground Experience is the proper place to experiment. Mary Sues are tolerated in fan fiction because it is an unspoken agreement among fan fic authors and readers that fan fiction is merely a playground to learn the craft.

Writers have the most selfless people in the world because even though they write the story, imagine the characters and the setting, they have no say in what actually happens. They may want something to happen, but in the end, it’s all up to the characters.

Every writer must know and understand their characters and realize they are not their characters, and their characters are not them. This understanding comes with practice, and over the course of many years, you—as the author—will develop how you connect with your characters and how you communicate your characters to the world.

Quick Tip: If you think your character is an author-based character, change the gender of your character. Author-based characters are the same gender as the author, so if you change the gender, you automatically create a distance between that character and you.

Flashbacks and Tenses

Flashbacks and tenses—what is the connection? It’s very subtle and simply something done naturally. However, flashbacks are complicated, so it bears mentioning.

Some stories are written in present tense. How should a flashback be handled in such a story? The flashback is the past, but the actual story is in the present. We live in the present, but we often think or tell stories of the past, and when we do that, it’s often in past tense. For this reason, flashbacks in present tense stories should be written in past tense, and when the flashback is finished, the tense should switch back to present tense.

Yes, I’m recommending switching tenses in the middle of a story, and this is frowned upon. Handling flashbacks is tricky—especially signaling when they start and when they conclude. In film, this signal is often done by different lighting, but because we can’t use that mechanism in stories, we use tense shifts.

“But there isn’t a switch when the story is already in past tense.” Well, let’s consider that for a moment. Now, there are no hard, fast rules to flashbacks, so everyone does it differently, but what I’ve observed is the tense actually does shift even in a story written in past tense. It goes from past to past perfect tense, and yes—that’s a shift. Yes, both are forms of ‘past’, but if you want to be technical, it’s still a shift. However though, because the past perfect tense lends itself to passive voice, you wouldn’t want to stay in that tense for the duration of the flashback. You would use the past perfect tense as a transition into the flashback, but once you’re settled there, you can slide into simple past tense. Here’s an example:

Jadkon paused at the mention of their sister, Deborah. He had learned of her death after being released from the dungeon for crimes he did not commit. When he realized what had happened to Deborah—as he always had people watching his brother and sister—it crushed him. He went to see Conrad then, but he saw how broken his brother had been in that moment, and he knew having a long lost brother return at such a terrible time would bode well, so he refrained and observed from a distance—consoling that his little brother had the princes of Aquila there for him.

Now let’s take that apart:

Jadkon paused (past tense) at the mention of their sister, Deborah. He had learned (past perfect: we switched from past tense to past perfect tense now) of her death after being released from the dungeon for crimes he did not commit. When he realized what had happened (past perfect) to Deborah—as he always had people watching (past perfect) his brother and sister—it crushed him. He went (past tense: switched tenses again) to see Conrad then, but he saw (past tense) how broken his brother had been in that moment, and he knew (past tense) having a long lost brother return at such a terrible time would bode well, so he refrained and observed (past tense) from a distance—consoling that his little brother had the princes of Aquila there for him.

Now, with that settled, how do you wrap up a flashback? Well, that’s relatively easy, and most people don’t have trouble with that. If the flashback started in a person’s thoughts, yank them out of their thoughts. If it started a them telling a story, have them conclude the story. Do you have to change tenses? It depends on how you managed the tense in the flashback and which tense you end up with at the end of it.

So, what was the point to all this? It’s a simple reminder of the use of tense when handling flashbacks in a story. Is this an absolute rule? No. Writing is more fluid than that, but if you’re having trouble with the flow of your story, especially if it’s in present tense, it might be because of this. Something worth considering.