by Lissa Oliver
We’ve all read those wordy introductions to a character, the type that run “ever since she’d suffered the two miscarriages and had failed to conceive since…” or one of the characters conveniently filling in the reader on a back story, “how long is it now since your wife died? Four years? I still can’t believe how that taxi driver fell asleep at the wheel…”
Yes, well, we still can’t believe how a couple of friends would sit and chat like that, but it doesn’t stop it happening in book after book. Or film after film, for that matter. Screenwriters seem to be among the worst culprits when it comes to squeezing in as many facts as they feel we need to know, in the shortest possible time. They’re working to a 90-minute time constraint, but as novelists we have no such restriction and should know better.
Yet there is one thing we can learn from screenwriters and that’s their (often ignored) golden rule: Show, Don’t Tell. As authors, how can we translate that to the page, when our craft is all about telling a story? Perhaps the simple basics of drama classes are all we need.
Being able to visualise a scene is key. For example, you could tell us the hero is nervous, or relaxed, or in pain. Or, you could use a prop to portray that feeling or emotion. Sit yourself on a chair in an empty room and hold a cup and saucer, with a teaspoon in the saucer. Imagine you are angry. How do you go through the motions of maybe stirring in sugar, raising the cup?
Now you are afraid. Feel the fear, as you nurse your beverage. How different is it when you are sitting in that chair, with your cup, at ease and relaxed? Think about how you have handled the cup and saucer, how you have stirred the liquid, how you have sipped, or gulped, or ignored, your drink.
Think about how emotion dictates our movements when next you write a scene and think about how your characters will interact with the things around them. Maybe you won’t need to be so direct and spell out how they’re feeling after all, you can just give your reader a clue and let them figure it out for themselves, which from a reader’s point of view is always more satisfying.
How important is the way we dress? How much are we influenced by personality, a need to conform or blend in or rebel, or the desire to show we belong to a group? What your character wears can often say more than you can about his or her personality.
Go into a charity shop and pretend you’re a theatre costume designer. Pick out a set of clothes for each of your imagined cast. Don’t pick out what you might personally like, but instead what you would expect them to wear. Allow your characters to break free of your influence and express themselves.
You could try it in reverse and pick out the first item of clothing you see, then imagine the person who once owned it. Or perhaps the person who might now come in and buy it. What statement does that item make?
Think, too, about how comfortable a character is within their clothes. Is it someone used to wearing a suit, or have they been forced into it? Try putting on something uncomfortable or inappropriate – how do you fidget with it, how does it change your bearing and posture? Is there a difference when you change back into your favourite outfit?
Next time you’re commuting to work and stuck in traffic or at lights, imagine yourself back in your book. Your character is in a hurry, or is impatient. Or perhaps grateful for the hold up. Someone easily annoyed, ultra relaxed or extremely sad? What do you do, alone in your car, when feeling those emotions? Where are your hands? How do you hold the wheel? Do you fiddle with the radio or put an arm out of the window? What feels natural and instinctive?
In Response To a Question
So we’re getting a feel for characters now, how they can express themselves without speaking; without us having to do it for them. But they will need to speak at some stage and personality in dialogue is just as important. We don’t all use the same words and inflections, even if we are all saying the same thing.
Someone has just asked you if you’d like a coffee, which you would. How do you respond? Love one; yes, please; I’d murder a cup; just what the doctor ordered? Would your choice of words change if you were younger, older, male, female? What is the status, compared to your own, of the person offering the coffee and does that influence your response? Do you gesture as you speak?
Reaction To Bad News
The protagonist in your novel will hopefully never have to hear the angry words “I hate you! I never want to see you again!” But here in the privacy of your own room, how does he or she react to a tirade from a loved one or friend? Understanding how your characters react under pressure goes a long way to breathing life into them and avoiding mere cardboard caricatures.
Be that character, imagine how he or she is feeling, suffer their pain. Do you sit, stand, walk about? Protest? Question? Cry? Accept? Say nothing at all? The chances are it won’t be the reaction you expected.
When you physically enact a role and observe a scene in life, rather than in your thoughts, it can make a dramatic difference – and drama is what feeds us. What seems natural in our imagination can suddenly seem forced or awkward in reality; and our fiction should feel real. When your characters develop a will of their own and upset your carefully mapped out plans and preconceived ideas, then you know you’re not just a writer, you’re a good writer.
Guest post contributed by Lissa Oliver. Lisa is an award-winning horseracing journalist and novelist, with three recent thrillers set in the racing world among her five published books. Based in Kildare, Ireland, she brings transformative education to the creative writing classes she hosts and is a Board member of the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency and the Irish Writers’ Union.