Discussion in 'Archive: The Amphitheatre' started by Nevermind, Jul 3, 2011.
I think that is next.
Is there also an entry about authors who describe what the characters are eating in minute detail? *coughGRRMcough*
What Color Am I?
"Where the character must be in front of a mirror to know what she looks like."
"Melinda paused to inspect herself in the mirror. A girl with a nice body and a pretty face stood relected there, with a nice body and a pretty face stood reflected there, with medium-sized breasts that stood up proudly in her halter top. She gave her long straight cinnamon hair a perky toss and decided Joe would be crazy to let her go."
"the reader wants to know what your characters look like. But how do you get your point-of-view character to rattle off his height, weight, and skin tone? Frog-march him to the mirror!
Unfortunately, this is so obviously a convention of bad fiction that it might as well read: "Looking in the mirror, Joe saw a tall, brown-haired man, trapped in a poorly written novel."
When the reader looks in the mirror, what she notices is not the color of her hair and the size of her breasts; she notices the hair out of place, the misbuttoned shirt, the smudged lipstick. People don't notice what they see every day; they see what's different and the reader, on some level, will balk.
Making a character think about his own looks is not the difficult. Remeinders are all around us. any encounter with the opposite sex could reasonably cause a character to reflect--knowledgeably--on his own appearance. At best, the mirror is an unnecessary detour, because the POV character whom you have dragged there already knows what he looks like. He could relay this information to the reader just as easily from the confort of the couch."
The Kodak Moment (As previous, with photo instead of mirror)
"As he passed the mirror, Joe noticed the blond hari and square-jawed features that had always won him attention from the girls. Then he saw, wedged in the mirror's corner, a photo of Melinda. Her pretty face was lusciously framed by long straight cinnamon hair and medium-sized but perfectly shaped breasts."
The point is, people think of their own appearance and those of others all the time, and you don't really need a mirror nor a photo to trigger. Plus it's a giant cliche.
They mean G. R. R. Martin, not J. R. R. Tolkein. Not at all the same thing.
yeah i hadn't realised she'd already done the GRRM thing. tolkien is just as guilty of describing every meal they get through, and i'm sure that's where GRRM stole the idea from.
and i, btw, actually enjoyed that bit, i found it a thoughtful addition to the journey. i would totally spend time rationing and calculating
Channeling the E! Channel
"This usually goes wrong because if you [say your character looks like George Clooney] pre-existing impressions of George Clooney will drown out any character you attempt to attach to it. it is even worse to play the Julia Roberts plus or minus game (a shorter Julia Roberts, a an ugly Julia Roberts, an Asian-American Julia Roberts) because the reader is now doing math in his head whenever he should be thinking about your character."
I'm unfamiliar with this mistake. I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but it just seems unlikely to me as per the example because I'm not certain actors have such distinctive traits that much of anyone would particularly notice if they read those traits in written media. I can only think that if your character was described as "looking like George Clooney" you'd have a problem -- and that's sort of a different class of mistake, isn't it?
I suppose if there was a certain catchphrase an actor or personality used, and the character in your story used the SAME catchphrase, then there'd be issues.
But think about George Clooney or Julia Roberts. Is there anything really so distinctive about them that if you wrote a description, that's what a reader would think in their heads?
I think you'd need some very distinctive traits for that to be a concern. Like, maybe Peter Lorre back in the day, or Michael Jackson, or Marty Feldman. People who otherwise look "average" probably wouldn't just jump to mind even if you were describing them in your head. I could see a writer trying to describe Brad Pitt down to the last detail, and the reader end up thinking of Robert Redford with a 5 o'clock shadow.
That is to say, the subject has to stand out for the mind's eye to easily share perspective.
They did say, though I did not include it, that you can describe Julia Roberts, just don't mention her name...
Didn't Dan Brown describe the Tom Hanks character as "Harrison Ford in Harris tweed"?
This isn't entirely a new mistake either. Ian Fleming used to drop lines about James Bond looking rather like Hoagy Carmichael, which is just . . . strange.
Well, now nobody knows who the hell Hoagy Carmichel is. So it's not really a problem.
The Joan Rivers Pre-Novel Special
"Where clothing is given too much prominence:
"Joe, meet Wanda," said the hostess. Joe looked at Wanda appreciatively. She was wearing a short blue dress with bows at the shoulders, and matching blue kitten-heel sandals. A thin silver necklace completed the ensemble. He liked her immediately. He shook her hand and felt her appraising look.
He was wearing his charcoal gray blazer with the narrow lapels, and a pale green shirt. His tie was olive with tan stripes, and his pants were narrow-cut, in a daring dark green. The shoes were black suede loafers. The socks were thin wool and also black. Wanda smiled at his outfit, feeling as if she had know him forever."
The book says that unless it is a 'sex-and-shopping' novel, this is to be avoided. Clothes sometimes indicate character, but are not a substitute for it.
Chapter 5, "Getting to Know Your Hero'
...and if she were a vegetable? Canned beans?
"So, before we start the hero on his series of adventures, we want to get to know a little more about him. What makes him tick? What are his strengths and weaknesses? Is he married, does he live on a space station, is he criminally insane?
Unpublished novelists, however, understand that there is more to a character than the interesting stuff.
The Average Day
Joe woke at seven and toasted an onion bagel, slathinge it with cream cheese. He read the Wall Street Journal while eating his breakfast then headed out to his Lexus to drive at an illegal 65 miles an hour to the gym. He did some cardio first, then lifted weights, working on his pectorals and triceps.
After a quick refreshing shower, Joe left the gym and got to work just five minutes late. He said "Howdy" to his secretary, who, as she always did, laughed and said, "You ccamp!" He went into his office and began his routine of blah while he admired the same view of blah blah that was just the same as every other day on which blah and like clockwork blah blah until it began to seem as if life was an empty series of meaningless actions."
"The result, in both cases, is like reading a stranger's long to-do list. If the reader is exceptionally unlucky, Joe has a girlfriend, who also has a routine. The cure for the Average Day is simple: cut to the chase."
The Child is Father to the Digression
Wherein too much is made of a character's childhood
"Joe's mother was a beautiful meteorologist, that his father had swept away after a whirlwind courtship. By the time Joe came along, though, their love had turned to hate, and there were always raised voices in his parents' bedroom at night. As Joe grew up, he began to associate the fear he felt during their screaming matches with the idea of marriage. Perhaps that was the reason, he thought, putting his sandals on and looking down the beach wehre Betty coming in from her swim, that he couldn't commit. Little did she suspect that this innocent beach trip would summon up ghosts of love betrayed. Poor Betty! How could she ever understand the tangled web of his childhood!"
"The anuthor now dives more deeply into Joe's troubled past, outlining the embarrassments of his first sexual experience and detailing Joe's reaction to his grandma's death from a tragic bookmobile accident. All this is meant to explain what makes Joe the way he is: it is a tour of Joe.
The reader, however, is not baffled by the riddle of why guys don't commit. Or why anyone might be neurotic, agnry, shy, or (add your own adjective here). The aurthor is also in danger of going fractal--if we must know that Jue fear raisins because of an unfortunate incident on a camping trip with his father and the parish priest, shouldn't we know what made them the sort of men who would od that with a raisin?
Characters can certainly be provided with some history. But the relationship between that history and their behaviour should be more complex than Pavlovian dog psychology. And, generally, unpublished authors are far more intrigued by their characters' baskstory than their readers are."
Too Good to Be True
Wherein an attempet to make the protogonist sympathetic overshoots the mark.
"Melinda suppressed a grimace of concern as she saw the homeless beggar on the subway stairs. Was five dollars enough? She decided it would have to be; she still had her sister to support, and her mother might need that heart operation. How she wished she could work evern longer hours though the work was grueling. Melinda tried to keep the other girls' spirts up, always ready with a joke or a kind remark. "I don't know what we'd do without you," Esmerelda was always saying in her Salvadoran accent. All the women on the assembly line would nod in agreement."
"Perfect people are boring. Perfect people are obnoxious because they're better than us. Perfect people are, above all, too good to be ture.
Protagonists should only be as nice as everyday people are in real life..."
The Vegan Viking
Wherein the author accesorizes with politics
"The knight Rogaine scratched his chin and pondered what the lovely Indinavir had said. She appeared not to accept the limited role of wife and mother that society had scripted for her. Rogaine himself had often mused that women werre the cleverer sex. His mother was a wise woman who knew all the uses of the herbs, and had taught to respect the ways of the dar-skinned sailors who came to their shores, whose matriarchal culture involved respect for all creatures, and whose ships were furnished with a loving attention to what was called in the Eastern tongue, Feng Shui."
"Fictional characters have politically correct or New Age values with much greater frequency than do people in real life."
"Love Me, Love My Cat"
Wherein there is a cat
"Mr. Whiskerbootm pattered out of his favorite lair beneath the sofa and meowed inquisitively. Melinda said, "Does His Highness want his dinner?" His Royal Pussliness seemed to squint his eyes in approval, his whole demeanor saying that he was a pampered potentate of the domestic realm. His fluffy tail swished back and forth in the air, and his cute tufted ears were slightly back with impetience. "I live to serve," Meldina laughed."
"In most novels a pet should have about as high a profile as an armchair, unless it is a car mystery, or the ferret or pot-bellied pig plays an important role in the plot, they can probably vanish from the story. most of all, it does not work to give a character a pet to make him or her sympathetic."
Wherein the character is beyond help
"Characters should have serious problems. But one character should not have every serious problme known to mankind."
Thankfully, I haven't seen this in published, professional works yet (perhaps due to my very discerning tastes (hah) or just not reading the right things), but I have seen this in fanfic in the past. I've also seen published characters that are so over-the-top emo and whiny that it's any wonder why the reader would even want to sympathize with someone so bullheaded and lacking in any gumption whatsoever. Sometimes, it gets to a point that watching those characters get screwed over is almost cathartic. Eventually, yes, the character should grow and prosper and we should feel good about their transformation. But, don't overload them with problems, both physical and emotional.
Someone should write a novel that hits every single one of these mistakes! Here's my outline (yes, apparently I have nothing better to do):
A vegetarian policeman, Sgt. Gregario, who's indeterminately Hispanic but holds incongruous New Agey beliefs, and of course has not a racist bone in his body, goes about his morning routine in a riveting account of breakfast cereal and interactions with a beloved pet orangutan. Dressing fastidiously (with every strap and fiber lovingly described), Gregario finds he has lost a sock! It's a really important sock without which his shoes will not fit his feet properly. While looking for it in his organized-yet-cluttered apartment, he comes across a hundred thousand little items that make him recall his past in long, gripping flashbacks. Red herrings on mantelpieces abound! Adverbs and passive tense are employed liberally.
The cop, who looks like a Mexican Rupert Everett with a beard like Kurt Russel and a gut like John Rhys-Davies, passes from the living room to the dining room and wanders around the kitchen for awhile, noticing the linoleum and that the wallpaper is peeling a little in the corner.
Then he reconsiders and wonders whether he should have started in the bathroom. What would have happened if he had started looking in the bathroom instead of the entry hall closet? What if the missing sock is in the dirty clothes hamper? At the bottom of the dirty laundry? "No, wait, forget it," he thinks, humming the tune to Led Zeppelin's Custard Pie, "I cleaned out the hamper last week! It can't be in there." The possibilities (and the story) are endless.
Then, by a remarkable coincidence, his girlfriend -- the only other POV character in the story -- loses a sock in her apartment, and undergoes the same fascinating process of reliving her childhood and adolescence while encountering various Cheeto bags and scrapbooks stuffed full of photos of her family and old friends, each of whom is described in close detail down to the patterns on their tube socks. And BTW, the girlfriend looks at herself in a mirror, and decides she looks like Helen Mirren with a Clara Bow wig on. her name is Lucinda, and she is black with incongruous New Agey beliefs and not a racist bone in her body, either.
Both of them, by another remarkable coincidence, are out of food, and their water has been shut off in a citywide emergency stemming from a Russian air attack happening, you know, outside. Neither can leave their respective homes to get food or water, which is further problematic because Gregario is diabetic and needs insulin, and Lucinda is in the last stages of lung cancer. Once the raid is over (and each finds his or her sock) they can go pick up the medicine they need; Gregario's seizures will cease, and Lucinda's cancer will vanish! She read about the cure in a health food store advert, which the author graciously provides verbatim. Their hunger, thirst and various life-threatening medical emergencies are recounted in excruciating detail.
The two narratives overlap in a dream sequence the two characters share, in which they are chased by tiger sharks through a Norwegian zoo while waving heads of lettuce at each other and proclaiming their undying love for Swiss cheese. The couple wake up and call each other on their cell phones, and argue about whether their pursuers were tiger sharks or nurse sharks (which have no teeth), but their cell phones die and the mystery remains unsolved.
Later, after the Russians have vacated the area (about which we hear from radio broadcasters and newsboys) and the necessary medications have been purchased, the couple meet up at coffee shop, also described in mesmerizing detail, and argue about the sharks' species some more. "Remember when we had that argument about that dream we had...?" The scene abruptly ends; in the ensuing chapters vague allusions to a "long conversation" are intimated by the author, to the effect that (we think, maybe) the two now know about each other's mutual missing socks. Both have been barefoot this entire time.
Later, when they me
It's frightening just how plausible that all sounds.
"I am Expressing My Sexuality
Heroes should not masturbate or ogle strangers in the first three chapters...the readers also knows everyone [defecates]. But if the first thing a character does is [defecate] in front of the reader, the reader will think of him as the [Defecating] Character forevermore."
The book notes three exceptions: James Bond and his ilk and Jackie Collins-style books; and highbrow authors such as Philip Roth and Martin Amis, who are exploring humour and sexual obsession. The latter trope takes a spectacular amount of talent, so if you don't have it, don't try it.