Wednesday, April 15, 2015

My Name is Renee and I Write Invisible Characters


Long ago and far away, in the days before I found my voice, I wrote everything in third person. I don't know why, beyond the fact that that's how most of the books I'd read were written and so that's how I wrote. She walked. He spoke. They fought the zombies together.

Okay, to be honest, I never wrote that last one, on account of having never written a zombie story, but you get the idea.

Nowadays, I find myself more often than not writing in first. I like it. I feel more comfortable inside my character's head and I connect to the story better, which, in my opinion, makes me tell a better story. So it's all I walked. I spoke. We fought the zombies together.

Except again, not the last one. Still not writing a zombie story.

I should really do that one of these days. I seem to have zombies on the brain lately.

Which sounds dangerous, given their dietary needs. Would the voices in my head be able to survive my writing a zombie apocalypse? Or would I just be serving them up on a silver platter at that point?

These are the questions that keep me up at night. And prevent me from writing a coherent blog post.

Moving back to the point, I write in first person a lot these days. And one of the challenges I'm facing right now is describing my characters. I don't know how to do it. I've finished several stories in a row now and gotten notes back that read "I can't see these people." From inside the character's head, how do I let the reader know what they look like, what they're wearing, what their name is? Heck, I'm having a hard time even indicating their gender.

When I wrote in third, this was easier. For starters, the gender and name things sort themselves out right away. In third you refer to the characters by name or by the appropriate gender pronoun. Easy peasy. And working in physical details is easier too. In third, you're painting a scene from the outside, so you can say things like her cobalt eyes drifted closed or his bright red scarf snugged up against his neck like a noose without much issue.

In first, though, everything is about looking out rather than into the scene. The call is coming from inside the house! The story looks out from inside the POV character's head, which means, ideally, your prose is akin to their thoughts. It's not exactly a running transcription of their brainwaves, but it's close. I don't know about you, but I don't spend a lot of time describing myself to myself.

She might be aware of closing her eyes, but she's not going to take the time to note what color they are. He might have trouble swallowing under that too-tight scarf, but he's probably not focused on what color it is.

Which makes it more challenging to find a way to communicate the things a person takes for granted--their name, gender, that their hair is blonde, or their t-shirt is green--outward to the reader without it slowing things down and seeming like an info dump or a trick.

And then, of course, there are a whole bunch of rules that make everything more difficult. For example, just about the only time I think about what I'm wearing on a given day is when I'm looking at myself in a mirror. Except you're not supposed to have your characters describe themselves in a mirror just for the sake of doing it. Unless you can find some way to make looking in the mirror and examining their appearance relevant to the plot, they--the infamous They who make up the rules--tell you not to do that.

Plus, even if you do find a way to work a description in, you're limited by the filter you're looking through. If your character is a no nonsense, hard-boiled, meat-and-potatoes kind of girl, she's probably not going to describe her sweater as cerulean. That sucker is going to be blue. If she thinks about the color at all, because it's entirely possible she would never notice that kind of thing. She might just be thinking about how the shoulders pull unevenly when she moves because Mother doesn't actually know how to knit a sweater.

Even that detail only makes sense to include if she's actually moving, by the way, but not doing anything else that would be more important in her thoughts right then. After all, when you're running from brain slurping undead monsters, are you really going to be thinking about your mother's failed knitting hobby?

Well, maybe you would. I know I wouldn't be. Apparently I would be thinking about zombies.

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