Archive for September, 2009

How Many Words Do You Need to Develop Character?

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

In a recent tweet, writer/editor Robert Swartwood made an interesting observation about character development in the new genres of short, short fiction. He mentioned a horror anthology seeking submissions for stories of 500 words or less. The anthology editors said that character development would be impossible in so few words. Robert Swartwood countered that character development is certainly possible in 500 words and that even hint fiction—a genre he himself created and with a word limit of 25—allows for character development. Of course, Robert Swartwood continued, we must all agree on the definition of “character development.”

I believe that character development is of two types, and both are possible in the 25 words of a piece of hint fiction. I also think character development of at least one type is possible in a shorter piece, although that will be the topic of a later post.

As I understand it, the term “character development” can refer both to 1) the action and descriptions that establish a character as realistic and three-dimensional and also to 2) the growth and change a character undergoes throughout the course of a story. The first type of character development is, perhaps, more static than the second. But in either case, the idea is to create a well-rounded and believable character.

In hint fiction, character development is severely limited by word count and by the fact that, by definition, hint fiction merely hints at character (as well as plot and conflict). Hint fiction can have a meaningful title (not included in the 25-word limit), which can be a big help in character development. As the following examples illustrate, character development of the first type—merely creating three-dimensionality and believability—does seem entirely possible in 25 words or less, although showing character might take away from creating plot. Character development of the second type—showing character change throughout a piece of fiction—might also be possible, although this character development relies heavily on plot.

The following piece of hint fiction shows character development of the first kind. Although we learn what Lucretia is like at the particular moment the story describes, she undergoes no change throughout the piece. The title contributes to characterization:

Bully

One tableful of drunken wedding guests sat together the entire night. Lucretia was among them, snickering.

“Hey, Dottie,” Lucretia called mockingly. “Come talk to us.”

In this particular example, one might argue that plot has given way to character development. In order to establish Lucretia as a bully, little happens in this story.

Character development of the second type is more difficult in a piece of hint fiction. In general, character change in hint fiction probably comes across through plot, rather than through a character’s emotions. The following shows plot-dependent character development. Once again, the title contributes:

Redemption

Dwight cocked his pistol and walked into the bank. He chose the youngest teller. A child waved at him. Dwight put the safety back on.

Developing character and showing character change are both possible in hint fiction. However, the first might tend to take the place of plot, and the second might tend to rely very heavily on plot.

Please read my next blog, in which I explore the possibility of character development in less than 25 words, and leave your comments about character development in short fiction. I would love to hear from you.

Learning from the Rough Draft, Part 2

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009

My last two postings have focused on the value of a complete first draft—one that records the writer’s every fleeting thought during the writing process. The first-draft-writing period is not the time for whittling away text and paring down ideas. That winnowing process will happen later, during an edit. The first draft should be filled with glorious excess—all possible characters, descriptions and ideas—because some of these will be good enough to survive until the final draft.

The following is an unedited description from a rough draft. Its author wrote a longer Regency romance, from which I extracted this paragraph. Below the description is the same passage with bracketed, italicized and underlined editorial comments to indicate the author’s thought process in a later edit of the rough draft.

Something about the room—maybe its scent—made Drusilla think of wealth. She had known wealth like that before, back when she was secretary to the Viscount. At that time/in those days she had perched on a velvet chair in front of a carved, inlaid walnut desk, her plume poised over the thick parchment as she waited for the words to flow from the Viscount’s honeyed lips. She would smell the thick, perfumed air exhaled by the hothouse peonies on the exquisite Turkish side tables. The Viscount’s footsteps thudded dully/sounded thick and soft on the hand-tied/hand-knotted wool rugs that ran the full length of the room. His letter opener gleamed in the sunlight that spilled creamily over his wooden desk. The Viscount paced like a sleek panther among his solid objects/in his expensive jungle/in his wood-paneled jungle.

Drusilla Now, Drusilla looked around the chamber in which she found herself./Now, Drusilla found herself in the chamber of the Duke of Ashton. Filled with French furniture and marble appointments, it exuded the air of wealth she had first noticed. However, the chamber lacked the sense of danger—albeit, mother-of-pearl-inlaid danger—she had known in the Viscount’s quarters.

The following is the same passage with the author’s bracketed thoughts.

Something about the room—maybe its scent—made Drusilla think of wealth. [Change this sentence to “The fragrant room made Drusilla think of wealth.”] She had known wealth like that before, [Change to “She had known that kind of wealth.”] back when she was secretary to the Viscount. [Cut the word “back” before “when she was secretary.”] At that time/in those days [Keep “In those days.”] she had perched on a velvet chair [Change “chair” to “stool.”] in front of a carved, inlaid [Cut “inlaid.”] walnut desk, her plume poised over the thick parchment as she waited for the words to flow from the Viscount’s honeyed lips [Change “words to flow from the Viscount’s honeyed lips” to “the Viscount’s dictation”]. She would smell the thick, perfumed air exhaled by the hothouse peonies on the exquisite Turkish side tables. [Change this sentence from passive to active: “As the Viscount spoke, the peonies on the Turkish side tables exhaled their hothouse perfume.” ] The Viscount’s footsteps thudded dully/sounded thick and soft [Would the adjectives “thick” and “soft” ever apply to the dashing Viscount? Change this description to “footsteps thudded heavily.”]on the hand-tied/hand-knotted [“hand knotted”] wool rugs [“carpets,” not “rugs”] that ran the full length of the room. His letter opener gleamed in [What about “seemed to slice through?”] the sunlight that spilled creamily over his wooden desk. The Viscount paced like a sleek panther among his solid objects/in his expensive jungle/in his wood-paneled jungle [“in his wood-paneled jungle”].

Drusilla Now, Drusilla looked around the chamber in which she found herself./ Now, Drusilla found herself in the chamber of the Duke of Ashton. [Change to “Now, Drusilla found herself in the Baron’s private office.” The Viscount should have the higher peerage rank.] Filled with French furniture and marble appointments, it exuded the air of wealth she had first noticed [Change to “an air of wealth that had, at first, reminded her of the Viscount”]. However, [Change “However” to “She realized now that.”] the chamber lacked the sense of danger—albeit, [Cut the comma.]mother-of-pearl-inlaid danger—she had known in the Viscount’s quarters.

After this first edit, the draft reads something like the following. (The story will go through more edits before its final draft.)

The fragrant room made Drusilla think of wealth. She had known that kind of wealth when she was secretary to the Viscount. In those days, she had perched on a velvet stool in front of a carved walnut desk, her plume poised over the thick parchment as she waited for the Viscount’s dictation. As the Viscount spoke, the peonies on the Turkish side tables exhaled their hothouse perfume. The Viscount’s footsteps thudded heavily on the hand-knotted wool carpets that ran the full length of the room. His letter opener seemed to slice through the sunlight that spilled creamily over his wooden desk. The Viscount paced like a sleek panther in his wood-paneled jungle.

Now, Drusilla found herself in the Baron’s private study. Filled with French furniture and marble appointments, it exuded an air of wealth that had, at first, reminded her of the Viscount. She realized now that the room lacked the sense of danger—albeit mother-of-pearl-inlaid danger—she had known in the Viscount’s quarters.

Please send me your thoughts and comments about this rough draft. I would love to hear from you.

Learning from the Rough Draft

Saturday, September 12th, 2009

In my last posting, I wrote about the beauty of a complete rough draft, even a mediocre one. My advice to writers was that they forge ahead with a rough draft, no matter how shaky its start, because a finished rough draft can be a wellspring of good ideas.

The Writers Community blog recently explored a similar idea, recommending automatic writing to those with trouble getting started on a writing project. Sometimes maligned as a parlor trick or a Surrealist gimmick, automatic writing taps into a writer’s subconscious, bypassing the writer’s inner critic. The Writers Community posting recommends “put[ting] pen to paper without thinking about it at all,” which allows a writer to produce a completely uncensored piece of stream-of-consciousness writing.

Whichever way writers go about putting pen to paper—through some form of automatic writing or through the sheer will to produce a completed work—a finished rough draft should be the ultimate goal.

The following is the unedited opening paragraph of the first draft of a short story. The author completed the entire draft, but I have posted only this one paragraph. Following the paragraph is the same paragraph with my own thoughts and comments, in brackets, italicized and underlined. My comments illustrate the thought process of an author revising a rough draft and indicate the good ideas that can come of writing a draft straight through, from beginning to end, without stopping.

In writing the first draft, this author has ignored her inner critic, putting all fleeting thoughts to paper and rejecting nothing. In one place, the author has potentially rejected a sentence, indicating this rejection with a strikethrough. When writing a rough draft, using a strikethrough is a better idea than using the delete button or scribbling something out until it’s illegible. Upon revision, a rejected word or sentence can turn out to be the right one. Merely striking through it will keep it visible—and “accessible”—during the revision process. This rough draft author has also written several notes for later reflection, a habit I recommend (See each “NOTE TO SELF.”). Instead of stopping to revise in the middle of writing, the author makes a note to consider at the revision stage.

The original paragraph reads as follows.

Harold had become proficient at diagnosing his family and friends online. He knew all the websites that were useful for diagnosing people, and he knew what was wrong with everyone he knew. That was how Harold had decided to call off his wedding to Sophie. (NOTE TO SELF: Marie?) Harold had thought that he and Marie were an ideal couple, and he thought that he was really happy with her. Everyone told him that Sophie was ideally suited to him. But then, he discovered DiagnoseOthers.com and realized that Sophie (NOTE TO SELF: Sophie or Marie?) was either obsessive-compulsive or psychopathic—one or the other; he wasn’t sure: repetitive behavior—check (Marie had that. Didn’t she watch Nightmare on Elm Street over and over?); obsessive behavior—check (Marie had that, too. Wasn’t she always washing her hands with that expensive soap?); and wait a minute—Nightmare on Elm Street—she loved serial killers: psychopath—check. (NOTE TO SELF: Keep all of these sentences? Is this too many examples? Too over-the-top?) So Harold determined that Marie had some problems. His family was upset when they learned that he and Marie were through. But then, Harold looked them up and realized they had classic dissociative identity disorder. (NOTE TO SELF: Is dissociative identity disorder the right one for the family to have?) That explained everything.

The paragraph with my thoughts and comments is as follows.

Harold had become proficient at diagnosing his family and friends online. [This opening sentence works. The reader will wonder why Harold needs to diagnose others and whether his diagnoses will lead to some sort of trouble.] He knew all the websites that were useful for diagnosing people, and he knew what was wrong with everyone he knew. [“All the websites that were useful for diagnosing people” is needlessly wordy. Consider replacing it with, “the most useful diagnostic websites” or “the most useful psychological websites?” Consider cutting the second half of the sentence (beginning with “and he knew…”)? The first sentence already makes clear that Harold is diagnosing everyone he knows, so the idea in the second half of the sentence is superfluous.] That was how Harold had decided to call off his wedding to Marie. [To what does “that” refer? Consider changing the opening of the sentence to “Online diagnosis was what led Harold to call off…” “Marie” has won out over “Sophie” as the name of Harold’s former fiancée.] Harold had thought that he and Marie were an ideal couple, and he thought that he was really happy with her. [This sentence is, in fact, a good one and can go from “strikethrough” format back to “normal.”] Everyone told him that Marie was ideally suited to him. [This sentence is unnecessary.] But then, he discovered DiagnoseOthers.com and realized that Marie was either obsessive-compulsive or psychopathic—one or the other; he wasn’t sure: repetitive behavior—check (Marie had that. Didn’t she watch Nightmare on Elm Street over and over?); obsessive behavior—check (Marie had that, too. Wasn’t she always washing her hands with that expensive soap?); and wait a minute—Nightmare on Elm Street—she loved serial killers: psychopath—check. [These three sentences, which seemed over-the-top during the writing process, actually work here. However, for the sake of clarity, the punctuation may need work.] So Harold determined that Marie had some problems. [This sentence is unnecessary.] His family was upset when they learned that he and Marie were through. But then, Harold looked them up and realized they had classic dissociative identity disorder. [Dissociative identity disorder is not the right disorder for the family. Find another one that works for them.] That explained everything.

Please send me your thoughts and comments about this paragraph. I would love to hear from you.