Posts Tagged ‘rules’


One of the first things that will hinder a work of fiction is poor characterization. A good rule of thumb is that before we sit down to write, we should have a firm grasp on the concept of characterization and the role it plays in the overall effect of good storytelling. Unfortunately, passion and inspiration generally beat good form and doctrine to the punch. We plunge into what we think is a brilliant plot concept, making the characters a secondary priority, tossing them in and out of the story as convenience requires it. Then we find out too late that as powerful as the plot is, the fictional folks who people our story have cast a long, dark shadows of suckiness that dulls the brilliance.  I used to do this all the time, and it’s something I still struggle against, but I’ve learned some general rules of characterization that I have found to be very handy.

First, there are a couple of different ways to present a character, which determines right away who these people are. One method is called direct presentation and the other is indirect presentation. In direct presentation, the author lays it out for us in either exposition or through the dialogue of other characters. “Bob Longfellow was a tall man,” is much the same as, “Wendy turned to her friend with wide eyes and said, ‘Did you see how tall that guy was?'” Either way, we know Bob Longfellow is a tall drink of water because we’ve just been told that he is. With indirect presentation, the author shows us the characters through their actions. “Jim Jones strained to reach the jar of peaches on the top shelf, cursing whoever had thought that building a shelf that was nearly ten feet high was a good idea. Losing patience with the whole shenanigan, Bob Longfellow strode over to the supply shelf,  swiped the jar from its spot, unscrewed the lid, and handed it to Jim.” Now you know Bob is tall, not because I told you he was, but because if he can easily swipe a jar from a shelf that’s about ten feet high, he couldn’t be a short man. From that same indirect method of presentation, you also get the impression than Bob Longfellow is an impatient man and that Jim Jones is stubborn.

This ties into the whole “Show vs. Tell” concept that no writer can get away from. As a general rule, readers prefer to be shown rather than told about a person or an event. That, however, just like almost everything else in writing, is subjective. Danielle Steele, for example, loves to tell us detail after detail about any given person, place or thing, but we keep reading her because, well… she tells a good story. However, the direct method usually lacks emotional impact because unlike the indirect method, it fails to present the characters as living beings of flesh and blood. Also, by too much telling, we give the impression that we aren’t crediting our readers with the intellectual capacity to connect the dots, and thereby, we are inadvertently insulting their intelligence, which will make us anything but popular among readers.

Aside from how we present our characters, we also need to understand what kinds of characters they are. There are three types of characters that populate a story: static, dynamic, and stock.

We don’t need to know much about “static” characters. They generally possess only a few prominent qualities and are there mostly to move the story along, or give the main characters some kind of conflict or resolution. Static characters are different from stock characters though, because these guys can have more than one dimension, and can play very large roles in the story, much like a “supporting” actor or actress in a movie. The main definition of a static character though, is that they do not change. Static characters are the same people by the end of the story as they were in the beginning.  We don’t get to see how they are changed by the events of the plot.

“Dynamic” characters are just the opposite.  These guys are usually the main characters and we get to see them change. Dynamic characters are multi-dimensional, life-like beings who undergo a distinct change of personality, attitude or character as the story progresses. One of the biggest mistakes writers make, in my opinion, is creating a main character who is entirely static. Sometimes, avoiding this is terribly difficult though. In the case of “Beautiful Monster”, (a manuscript I co-wrote with Kim Williams-Justesen) my main character was bad guy. A very, very bad guy. Bad enough that there was no believable way to give him a life-altering epiphany that would show him the error of his ways. Furthermore, I had no interest in redeeming him. Still, he is a dynamic character, and therefore, he must change. The possibilities of change for dynamic characters is wide open though. It doesn’t matter how they change, only that they do change.

Finally, “stock” characters are basically stereotypical characters an author uses for the sake of quick and easy grasp-ability by the readers. We are all too familiar with the wicked stepmother, the harlot with the heart of gold, the good-looking, dark-haired man on the white horse, the hospitable southern widow, the manic-depressive artistic genius, etc. Stock characters are just static characters with one single role: to bring immediate understanding to the reader by capitalizing on stereotypes.

The rules of characterization are some of the most important rules of writing fiction. Unlike many of the other writing rules, I believe these ones need to be firmly observed and respected. A great plot is a powerful thing, but without the right characterization to execute it, readers are left with a sense of having been cheated, a reaction that no writer I know wants to get.

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The prologue is that first page (or few pages) at the opening of a story which gives readers background information, establishes character and setting, and/or gives readers a quick glimpse into the central conflict of the story, sometimes in an attempt to grasp the reader’s attention enough to motivate further reading. There does not seem to be any real rules about what a prologue may or may not contain, or whether or not a prologue should be used at all, therefore, whether or not a book should or should not open with a prologue is a subjective topic. While I’ve known people who feel that prologues are no more than a lazy way to introduce information, I’ve also known people who will only read a book if it has a good prologue; so there really is no right or wrong answer.

I’ve never used a prologue in any of my stories, mainly because it never seemed called for. That being said, I personally am a fan of the prologue, but it has never been a subject to me that seemed to require any of my attention, until just recently when a good friend of mine asked me to critique the opening chapter of the book she’s currently working on.

As I started reading this chapter, I noted that as soon as I’d just begun to get involved with the present situation in the story, I was thrust backward in time, where the events that lead to the present were revealed. While there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with this, it felt too soon to me; I wasn’t ready to flash back yet. I finished the chapter and considered ways that my friend might more smoothly incorporate the information into the story, but found no reasonable opportunity for it. Then I read the chapter again, skipping the background information, and was stunned by how much smoother the ride was. Finally, I read the flash back, separate from the rest of the chapter, and it struck me that it would make an excellent prologue. The problem is, my friend hates prologues.

I was very cautious as I approached her with the idea of beginning her story with a prologue. At first, she was adamantly against it, but now, as far as I know, she is considering it.

It’s been said by many that a “good” writer can work background information into a story without resorting to a prologue. It’s also been said that the best way to judge a good book is by its prologue. I am sure there are literary agents out there who scoff at prologues and shove manuscripts straight into the slush-pile just because the story begins with a prologue. I am equally as sure that there are those agents who will not represent a book without one. The point is, using a prologue or not using a prologue is the author’s choice and should be a decision based on his or her own judgment.

To me, it’s a simple matter of the author’s style; some use prologues, some do not. But there are no rules for or against it, and in a business that is over-saturated by an endless and ever-changing list of do’s and do not’s, we sometimes have to keep in mind that writing, at its core, is still a form of art… and that art, for all it’s marketing rules and its potential levels of salability in the retail world, is still subjective.