by Ryan Lanz
It’s been said that the difference between a good novel and a great novel is only 1%. When I first read that, it used to drive me nuts. What is that 1%?
If you asked 100 people, you would probably get 100 different answers. What I’m talking about here may not be all of the 1%, but it certainly is a very important part of it.
Someone that I have brought up before is Robert Jordan, author of the Wheel of Time series. One of his many strengths as a writer was to flavor the world through his character’s eyes. A prime example of that is a character called Siuan Sanche, who was raised as a fisherman’s daughter. She would often pepper her dialogue with examples and comparisons to fish and nets. She would notice things, due to her experience, that others wouldn’t.
While many people may not have noticed it on a conscious level, those things dramatically impact the reader. When a reader doesn’t feel attached to a character, it can create an emotional barrier. By the same token, when a reader feels like they see everything in the world through the character’s eyes, everything becomes more interesting.
How the author guides this perspective—as well as how consistent the author is—makes all the difference. In fact, you can tell a lot about the protagonist just by how he/she perceives things. Now, it’s fine and dandy to hear all this said to you, but how about seeing it exampled? I thought it would be much more of a learning experience to try out an exercise and have you all guess things about the protagonist by what he/she notices in a room.
Below, I’m going to rewrite essentially the same paragraph, but each time I will highlight or modify at least one facet. Based off of that, ask yourself things about the protagonist. What is the gender? What are the person’s preferences, or what is he/she hiding? What sort of background or profession does this person have? How does the protagonist’s point-of-view make you feel as a reader?
Not all of the above questions will be answered with each example, but I’d like you to keep them all in mind as you read. I won’t say the “answers” at the end, because that’s not the purpose of this exercise. The purpose is to see what you feel as an individual. When reading fiction, everyone takes away something a little different. There may be more than one “right” answer. If you’d like, put your answers in the comments below and compare them. Here goes!
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The door shut behind me. The room smelled like oregano that was days off from being fresh. Susan sat in a chair, not far from the living room. Her necklace hung from her fingertips. Even with the light dimmed, I could see her frown. I knew this would be a long night. A dirty knife sat on the counter, still with the bits of herbs stuck to it. I had mentioned to her at least a hundred times to wash her utensils. She knew better than to attempt to make dinner without me.
The door shut behind me. My back pressed against it, and my chest heaved. I snapped the deadbolt shut and ordered myself to breathe. The room stunk. Susan surprised me by still being home. I could have sworn she said she was visiting her mother this weekend. She sat in a chair, not far from the living room. Her necklace hung from her fingertips. Even with the light dimmed, I could see her worry. I didn’t blame her. A dirty knife sat on the counter, with bits of green stuck to it. She had clearly started dinner without me.
The door shut behind me. The room smelled pleasantly like dinner. I smiled when I turned the corner and saw white wine on the table. I gave a small shriek when I saw Susan sitting in a chair, not far from the living room. She was so quiet. Her necklace hung from her fingertips. Even with the light dimmed, I could see her frown. She shouldn’t frown like that; even I could see the crease marks developing. I found myself wondering if she was wearing a new blouse. A dirty knife sat on the counter, with bits of green stuck to it. She had started dinner without me.
The door shut behind me. The room smelled like one of those rotting foreclosure houses. The place wasn’t empty after all; a woman sat in a chair, not far from the living room. She gripped her necklace in a shaking fist. Her chest rose and fell rapidly when she saw me. She had only made this easier with the dimmed lights. A dirty knife sat on the counter. Perfect. An hour later, the dinner still sat cold.
The door shut behind me. The room smelled like dinner. A woman sat in a wooden chair, not far from the living room. It had been a long time since I’d seen a Hitchcock. If it was genuine, it was worth too much to simply be sat in. The paint rippled a little along the legs, but the bronzing finishing coat still shone. It struck me how similar the curved back rail looked to a Klismos chair. Her fancy necklace hung from her fingertips, flashing even in the dim light. Some knives and forks sat on the countertop. Why would she make an appointment like this at dinner time?
The door shut behind me for the second to last time. The room smelled like the same dinner we’ve had for the past week. Boxes lined the hallway. Susan sat in the last remaining piece of furniture, not far from the living room. Her necklace swung from her fingertips as she stared out the window. Her lips had bite marks on them. I was sure she dimmed the light just to hide her wet cheeks. Dirty dishes sat where she had left them on the counter. She didn’t even wait to start eating.
There you go, everyone! I hope you found this exercise helpful.
Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.