Let’s Get Physical 2: Sense Memory – Character First Impressions

First Impressions

We all know that first impressions count. And the same is true for our characters.

MH900252595Finding that balance between too much physical detail (which prevents a reader from using their own imagination) and too little detail (height, hair and eye colour may be too generic and not individual enough) can be tricky.

It’s also important to realise that it is not just about a character’s physical appearance. To give those first reader/character moments real impact, a writer also needs to establish a character’s physical presence.

Which is where sense memory comes in.

Using sense memory allows an author to go beyond a character’s superficial physical appearance and to delve deeper into the essence of their character – to tap into their emotional core.

What is ‘sense memory’?

‘Sense memory’ is the effect of a character’s emotional and life experiences captured or expressed in their physicality.

How does sense memory work?

Just as our bodies reflect our physical lifestyles, so too they also mirror our emotional experiences and general outlook on life. Therefore, the main question is ‘Why is the character’s body memory the way it is?’

Take the following example:

Let’s start with the barest amount of character information:

‘The elderly man walked down the road.’

This sets up the basic image for the reader, but it gives us no clue whatsoever as to the old man’s character, or, indeed, tells us anything about who he is.

Next step, let’s look at physical appearance only:

‘The elderly man walked down the road. Of average height, he was of slim build with a shock of white hair.’

This tells us more: we now know what he looks like, but the question remains, does the character description tell us who this man is? No? Well, let’s push it even further and introduce a smidgen of sense memory into our description:

‘The elderly man walked down the road. Of average height and slim build with a shock of white hair, he moved slowly, hunching his shoulders forward with each laboured step.’

The man’s forward-hunching shoulders is a small detail, which piques a reader’s interest because, as well as describing his outward appearance, it gives us some idea of the kind of man we are dealing with: what sort of character he might be.

Physical and emotional impact

MH900157951Suddenly this elderly man becomes more noticeable. He’s no longer just one old man walking down the road; he’s an old man with a history, and a life; an old man who over time has learned to brace himself against adversity and somehow still keep pushing forward down the road. And, as readers, we now want to know more.

What has happened to that man in his lifetime? What has he experienced emotionally over the years to shape him in such a physical way?  

Sense memory can act as a useful emotional shortcut to your character for your readers, creating maximum emotional impact and allowing your character to hook reader interest in a few short sentences. In other words, sense memory makes it possible for all your characters, main or otherwise, to make an immediate and lasting first impression.

Creating and exploring new characters

It’s also a great way of creating and exploring new characters. For example, why not follow the elderly man’s sense memory story and see where it takes you? You may well find yourself in some very interesting places.

The Glitch in the Matrix 2: Heads will roll…

Yes, it’s true: sometimes words can be – as Gollum would put it – ‘tricksy’, and very often it’s those little physical quirks which can cause the most problems.

MB900192427Consider this conundrum which I heard on TV one evening:

‘My reflection in the mirror looked back at me like a bad smell.’

Huh?? There is a definite aroma of mixed metaphor with that one. Or rather, mixed simile (for the difference check out my earlier post ‘Shall I compare thee?‘) To start with, what exactly does a bad smell look like? Even if we manage to sort that one out, what’s the story with it looking back at you? Scary!

So please do take care that your hero is not accidentally foraying into the realm of physical impossibilities as he or she goes about their narrative business. In other words, keep an eye on what your protagonist’s eyes are doing. Are they following people across the street, rolling down mountains, sweeping across rooms or dropping to floors?

The human body is indeed a thing of wonder and it’s amazing what eyes actually can do, but, generally speaking, they tend to do it from the comfort of a person’s eye sockets rather than indulging in some perambulation of their own quite distinct from the rest of the body. Besides all that running, dropping and rolling sounds rather painful and damaging to the anatomical part in question.

Happily, a protagonist’s gaze or stare, on the other hand, can quite easily follow, roll, run or sweep across anything you wish.

The same rules apply to protagonists’ heads and other generally fixed parts of the body, by the way.

Of course if your hero is an animated cartoon character where anything goes, the above may not apply!

For other glitches in the prose matrix, see my earlier post ‘The Glitch in the Matrix 1: Dealing with Danglers‘.

Building Narrative Tension 1: The Tension Rises…dah, dah….doh??

The issue of readers’ expectations cropped up in my earlier post ‘The Ins and Outs of Writing Character’ in relation to keeping your protagonist in character rather than out of it.

MH900390992However, readers’ expectations also play an important part when it comes to structuring scenes to create tension in your novel.

As a general guideline, if you set up your reader to expect a certain development, event or revelation in a scene, you must deliver in some form or other, or risk incurring their (wholly righteous) anger and annoyance.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you have to tell the reader everything immediately. Revealing character secrets bit by bit is an essential part of building tension, and keeping your reader engaged. But one of the structural problems I come across as a substantive editor is what I call the ‘unfulfilled promise’ syndrome, which usually shows up when an author is trying to create tension by drawing out, say, a confrontation or the revelation of a secret over a number of scenes.

To illustrate my point, let’s bring in Simon and Julia from my earlier post in relation to Point of View shifts:

Simon made his way to the greenhouse. Julia was alone at last. He would tell her now. That it was over. Them. After twenty-five years, three children, five dogs and a grandchild. He would do it now, while she was alone. She looked up at him as he reached the greenhouse door.

‘There you are, darling. Almost finished here. I’ll be in shortly.’

BD09315_He gulped.

‘Julia? ‘

‘Yes?’

Simon decided he wouldn’t do it. Not yet. 

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

‘Oh, yes, please.’ 

As a reader, this encounter leaves me feeling dissatisfied and a little cheated. And asking some awkward questions. Why did Simon say he was going to tell Julia their relationship was over and then decide not tell her after all? What caused him to change his mind? And what exactly was the point of that scene?

So how do you build tension without giving everything away at once? The answer is the same way you keep your character ‘in character’: by managing your reader’s expectations, not simply walking away from them or changing the subject at the crucial moment.

Let’s look at our Simon and Julia scene once again. What we need to do is to make it clear to the reader why Simon doesn’t go through with his intention of telling Julia their marriage is over. So why doesn’t he? Remember objectives and obstacles in The Terrible Twos? What if Simon’s objective is to tell Julia of the break-up while she’s alone, but just as he is about to do so, someone else arrives:

 

‘Julia? ‘

‘Yes?’

AN00363_A loud bark from their excitable cocker spaniel and the sound of a small car pulling into the driveway alerted Simon to the fact that their two youngest daughters had returned from their shopping trip rather earlier than expected.

Now was not the time, after all.

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

Or perhaps the obstacle is internal: to do with the type of man Simon is. Perhaps he simply hasn’t the bottle to go through with it, or he shies away from conflict, or perhaps he still loves Julia deep down, and just can’t bring himself to do it.  You’re the author, it’s your character, you choose. But whatever you choose, please keep the reader in the loop.

‘Julia?’

‘Yes?’

MB900412716Simon hesitated. The thought of his wife’s distress at what he was about to say made him feel sick. No, he couldn’t do it. Not now. Not while she was alone, with no one to comfort her. He’d wait until their daughter, Poppy, arrived. Yes, that would be better. He’d wait until Poppy was here, then he’d do it. 

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

So by fulfilling the promise set up in the scene, you not only gain a wonderful opportunity to impart some great character information, you also keep your readers engaged and wondering what will happen next.

Of course, if you really want to make it interesting, you could try this:

‘Eh… I’m making a cup of tea, do you want one?’

For a moment Simon thought he saw a look of dark suspicion cross Julia’s face. But then she smiled sweetly at him. 

‘Oh, yes, please.’

Dah, dah, dah….

For Dickens’ sake, please don’t tell!

‘I am a mortal,” Scrooge remonstrated, “and liable to fall.’
‘Bear but a touch of my hand there,’ said the Spirit, laying it upon his heart, ‘and you shall be upheld in more than this!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens 

It’s almost Christmas and, in the—ahem—spirit of the season, we are back with A Christmas Carol’s Ghost of Christmas Present, who is about to tell that old miser Scrooge what’s what.

‘Ho, ho, ho, Ebenezer Scrooge, sit yourself down there, and let’s talk about you. 05 Ghost of CPA lonely child, left behind at school when all the other boys went home for Christmas; one sister, Fanny, frail body, big heart; she died young; one child, your nephew. You were devastated. All that resentment and bitterness, dude—not good for the soul. Then you were in love with Belle, and she loved you. Oh, yes she did. But it didn’t last. You were too ambitious, too greedy; it became all about the money: you and Jacob Marley grubbing and scheming, until there was nothing left to you but each other and your false idol. And now look at you: wizened and miserable. Do you know what you need, Ebenezer? A change of heart! You need to start caring about other people again. People like Bob Cratchit and his poorly son, Tiny Tim, who’ll surely die if you don’t start caring. And then you’ll end up dead yourself and unmourned. Nobody will even miss you; well, not for longer than a moment (your nephew really is a decent sort, you know). In fact, there’ll be some doing happy dances at the thought. Doesn’t really bear thinking about, does it? So here’s the deal: repent and redeem yourself, or die and suffer like Jacob Marley, with a long chain trailing behind you for eternity. A bit of a no-brainer, don’t you think? Right, got that? So, we’re good? Pleasure doing redemption with you. Must dash, other places to go and people to see, and next door has mince pies! Ho, ho, ho…’

Not quite Dickens, is it? But it does raise a number of interesting questions. As a reader, the Ghost of Christmas Present’s charm, joie de vivre and his illuminating banter notwithstanding, would you expect the embittered, miserable, petty Ebenezer Scrooge as depicted in the first chapter of the book to repent, as the late, great Tommy Cooper would say, ‘just like that’? Would you believe Dickens if he tried to make you believe Scrooge would change so easily? I don’t think so. In fact, in those circumstances, I’d be inclined to believe Scrooge was correct when he surmised that the whole ghostly experience was likely the result of indigestion. No, all in all, I’d want a little more emotional and psychological incentive over and above the jolly warnings of a fat old ghost dressed like a Victorian Christmas tree.

01 Jacob MarleyWhich is exactly what Dickens gives his readers: he doesn’t tell us about Scrooge, he shows us using images, events and relationships to which both the reader and the character can relate. He carries us, just as the three ghosts carry Scrooge, on an emotional journey towards redemption, through the memories of his character’s past: the sad childhood, his devotion to his sister, his friends and first love—all possibilities in Scrooge’s youth for a different outcome—into the bitter-sweet present of the Cratchits and Tiny Tim, and the bleak future promised by a refusal to change.

A Christmas Carol demonstrates very clearly the difference between showing and telling. You get the same facts by telling, but you don’t get the emotional connection that showing can give you.

If you still don’t believe me, cast your eye over the Ghost of Christmas Present’s story once again. Who or what are we really focussing on when we read it: the Ghost of Christmas Present or the story he is telling us? Which of them is engaging us emotionally? Are we so busy being entertained by the ghost’s character and anachronistic style, that the story he is telling fails to move us enough to shed tears at the thought of Tiny Tim’s imminent demise?

The moral of this Christmas tale: watch out for those telltale signs of telling: chunks of back story, exposition and information dumps, and replace them instead with scintillating dialogue, thrilling action and warm fuzzy feelings.

And so to Dickens for the last word:

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!’

Quotations and illustrations are from the 1843 first edition of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by John Leech.

Full copy available to download on http://www.gutenberg.org/files/46/46-h/46-h.htm

The Ins and Outs of Writing Character

‘Bob trembled, and got a little nearer to the ruler. He had a momentary idea of knocking Scrooge down with it, holding him, and calling to the people in the court for help and a strait-waistcoat.’

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I raised the issue of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character in my earlier post ‘A Conspiracy of Coincidences’.  But what exactly does this mean?

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In everyday speech, we would usually describe somebody as being ‘out of character’ if they do something we don’t expect. But, I hear you say, the whole point of my novel is that my character doesn’t do what everyone expects. And what about character nuance and complexity? Surely, my hero is allowed to be contradictory, or change his mind without being considered ‘out of character’?

In fiction, as in real life, the key to being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character depends on other people’s expectations. So the key to keeping your character ‘in character’ is to manage your reader’s expectations. Your character can change his mind and be as contradictory as often as he likes to all the other characters in the story, as long as it is clear to the reader that this unpredictability and contradiction are part of his essential nature, and not something tacked on by the author to get him out of a rather too deep and awkwardly constrictive plot hole.

If your story turns on the fact that your character is going to face his demons and do something he has never done before, you need to prepare your readers in advance.

 Take Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, for example. His employer’s post-Ghost behaviour is so out of character for him that poor Bob Cratchit assumes the man has lost his wits entirely. So why are readers so willing to accept the curmudgeonly miser’s complete change of heart and personality?

MH900020689Because Dickens has set up the hope of redemption at a plot and character level from the start of the book: Jacob Marley’s ghost is a last chance warning to change before it is too late, and the Ghost of Christmas Past shows us a kinder, more innocent Ebenezer Scrooge just waiting to surface underneath all that miserly cynicism. Bob may not expect Scrooge’s redemption, but we readers do, and all is well.

So don’t wait until your hero has his back firmly against the inescapable wall of whatever jeopardy you have in store for him before he discovers his hidden depths of character and abilities. Your readers won’t thank you for pulling convenient and hitherto unknown character traits from nowhere like rabbits appearing from a magician’s hat, but they will appreciate a carefully structured pay-off for all their emotional investment in a character.

Book Nanny is running a workshop on writing character, ‘Write them for real’, Saturday, 6 December 2014 at 9.45 am, Carousel Creates Writers’ Centre, Rathfarnham, Dublin 14. Full details here

Character and Plot 4: A Conspiracy of Coincidences

MH900059565The subject of coincidence in plotting is a thorny one. Many years ago, a TV development executive told me that one of the key plot flaws they asked their script readers to look out for in a sample script was coincidence. If the story hinged on it or there was a pattern of rather-too-convenient events or coincidences, then more than likely the script would get the thumbs down. A little harsh, perhaps, but their view was that the presence of coincidences in a story would invariably lead to two killer audience complaints: ‘the plot was contrived’ or ‘the characters weren’t believable‘.

Before the outcry begins, let me be clear that we’re not talking about the merely fantastical or serendipitous here: we’re talking about the type of plot coincidence in which it is clear that an author has essentially attempted to ram a square character into a round plot hole or vice versa.

Unit Objectives 

Take our two characters from ‘The Terrible Twos’: in the last post we left Character A battling her spontaneous combustion demons and trying to prevent Character B from being on stage—two interesting dilemmas (and obstacles to Character A’s objectives) keeping the audience engaged. So how do you think the members of the audience will feel if any or all of the following happens?

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(1)    Character A states that she has been suddenly and miraculously cured of her fear of bursting into flames and sits down; or

(2)    She sits on the chair, and the whole ‘spontaneous combustion’ thing is conveniently ignored; and/ or

(3)    A letter arrives from Character B telling us that she’s decided to move permanently to the Caribbean and won’t be coming back.

Fair enough, these ‘coincidences’ may seem a little too obvious, but the fact is that the more complex the story, the easier it can be to fall into the coincidence trap. You know you need a character to be at a certain place at a certain point in the story, and you just keep hammering away until you get them there, ignoring the instinct that is telling you loudly and clearly that something is just not quite right. We’ve all done it, and hitting that kind of plotting block can be hugely frustrating for a writer.

One of best ways of sorting out these structural blips is to play the objective: this time not just the super-objective which drives the overall emotional arc of the story, but the small scene or unit objectives we spoke about earlier.

So how do we get at these ‘unit objectives’ and how can they help with plotting our story?

MB900238208

Essentially unit objectives derive from those other all-important dramatic building blocks: character and character choice. Each move, each action should involve your character in a choice. Whether the impetus behind it is conscious or sub-conscious is immaterial, but it should come from the character asking her or himself: what do I want to achieve and how do I make it happen?

Let’s assume Character A above has reached crisis point: she needs to get rid of her ‘spontaneous combustion’ fear in order to achieve her super-objective. Perhaps hypnosis is the answer? But how to get Character A and a hypnotist together at this juncture? If she leaves the building, Character B will take her seat and A’s super-objective is finished. We can’t have our hypnotist simply turn up in a ‘here’s-one-I-called-earlier’ sort of way—that really would be a coincidence! But what if A could persuade someone to fetch one for her? What if she could somehow even manage to persuade Character B to fetch the hypnotist, thereby unwittingly causing B’s own downfall? Now that would be a psychologically interesting scenario. So next question, what strategy should Character A use to persuade Character B: seduction, bribery, brute force or all of the above? And what to do if Character B doesn’t take the bait?

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As you can see, each choice a character makes leads to another question and another choice. It also clearly pinpoints the intersection of character and plot because Character A’s answer to each question posed and each strategy choice will be determined by what type of person she is. We’ll look at the whole issue of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of character in another post, but for now, suffice it to say that as long as A remains within character, then the action will push forward naturally and organically and accusations of authorial manipulation or contrivance can be avoided.

Lastly, you shouldn’t forget that in building a story, you are not only dealing with one character’s objectives. Other characters, even minor ones, have objectives too, and their objectives can provide useful obstacles or assistance to help you weave what Sir Walter Scott called a ‘tangled web’ to keep your main characters under pressure (it’s that emotional arc again) and your readers turning the pages.

Happy plotting!

 

Character and Plot 3: Spontaneous Combustion and other Objects of Desire

MB900294304What I’ve tried to show in previous posts are what I consider to be the vital ‘building blocks’ of dramatic conflict: objective and obstacle. Somebody sets out to do something and finds an obstacle in their way, often in the guise of another character with conflicting objectives. Crime procedurals are excellent examples of this: the detective wants to catch the bad guy; the killer wants to escape capture. Two objectives or wants at odds from the start and a good place to begin a dramatic journey. However, the other thing to bear in mind is that obstacles to achieving a character’s objectives are not necessarily external. They could well be internal: a fear, a phobia or a character flaw which a character has to battle in order to achieve their goal.

Let’s return to our long-suffering Character A: in ‘The Terrible Twos’ we left her desperately trying to prevent Character B from sitting on the stage (because her objective is to be the only person seated on stage). But what if, even if she solves the Character B problem, she can’t sit in the chair? Or at least, she can physically, but something is stopping her psychologically, say, she’s convinced that she and the chair will spontaneously combust the moment she actually sits on it? This immediately ups the ante for the character: now she not only has to battle Character B, she has to battle herself as well. MH900389348 Of course, even with the intriguing, albeit macabre, possibility of poor Character A spontaneously combusting, wanting to sit on a chair is perhaps not the most exciting objective for a character. But what if the chair isn’t just a chair? What if it is a throne or a seat of power and the ‘stage’ is a country, kingdom or an empire? A throne is still physically a chair, but, clearly, it has significance and meaning over and beyond its practical use or function. Combining a far-reaching emotional or spiritual want or objective with a physical object in a character’s super-objective allows a writer to form a strong backbone for a story, whether it is genre or literary fiction. Thus Chekov’s Three Sisters and their yearning to return to Moscow: a physical journey which never takes place and which becomes a metaphor for their unfulfilled emotional wants and desires. Or George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones which is basically a whole bunch of people striving to sit on a chair called the Iron Throne and gain the personal power over the Seven Kingdoms that comes with it.

Which brings usMB900441386 back to our character’s emotional arc: to raise the emotional pressure we need to keep the stakes high for the character. When deciding on an objective to carry your character emotionally and physically through the length of a novel, the most important question to ask is: what does the character have to lose? The more they can lose by failing to achieve their objective, the better the drama.

Character and Plot 2: The Terrible Twos

MH900279674Picture a toddler in the middle of the Terrible Twos: you tell them specifically not to do something, they either do it immediately or spend the next few hours determinedly trying to find a way around whatever obstacle or hindrance you’ve put in their way to prevent them from carrying out the forbidden task. The Germans have a word for it: ‘Trotzkind’, literally, ‘a defiance child’, with all the connotations of defiance for defiance’s sake. And what Trotzkinder and Terrible Twos toddlers have that your characters need is that overwhelming sense of purpose and desire to achieve a set objective, ‘trotzt’ or despite the odds.

Last week, I introduced the idea of actors using objectives to analyse plays for performance. How does this actually work? Well, let’s start simple: take an empty stage with a chair on it. Character A enters. Her objective is to sit on a chair. There is only one chair, so she sits. So far so good: not particularly dramatic, but at least the action is clear and the audience is now focussed on the character and the chair and is waiting for the next event.

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Enter Character B. Her objective is also to sit on a chair. But wait—the chair is occupied—Character A is still sitting on it! Now the audience are watching with interest. How will Character B react? What will she do? What about Character A? How will she react?  And the key question for the audience: what will happen next? Without any long character explanations or convoluted plot twists and frenetic action, we’ve already set up an intriguing dramatic scenario.

Of course, both characters don’t have to have the same objective, as long as some conflict of purpose between them remains. Character A’s objective may well be to be the only person seated on stage—so what does she do when Character B decides to achieve her objective by going off to find another chair?

A character’s objective can change within a scene as they react to another characters’ actions.

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For example, in the above scenario, Character A might decide that the only way of preventing Character B bringing on another chair is to block up the entrances to the stage. In that case, blocking up the entrances becomes her new unit objective (her new purpose), but the overall super-objective of being the only person seated on stage remains and dictates all her further actions and reactions.

This is the great thing about using objectives—they act as a vital point of reference to link all the action and dialogue for a character and prevent a scene, an act or, indeed, even a whole novel going merrily off on a tangent. Because if it threatens to go AWOL on you, just play the objective and bring it back. Remember the Trotzkind: what is my purpose? Why am I here and what am I trying to do?

Building a Character: What kind of animal am I?

Mausi, mausi, sag mal 'Piep'!

Mausi, mausi, sag mal ‘Piep’!

No, I’m not going crazy. Figuring out what kind of animal your character might be is a basic acting exercise familiar to theatre actors, and it can be a useful character building tool for authors also. Basically, actors use ‘animal work’ to explore the essence of a character. The trick is to progress beyond the simple representation of roaring, mewing or squeaking, beyond even the clichés – ‘wily as a fox’, ‘quiet as a mouse’ or ‘greedy as a pig’ – to an internalization which will give a fully rounded and nuanced physicality recognizable (albeit often on a subconscious level) by an audience.

So using an animal reference can be a great way of getting a quick handle on a character, either in your own mind or in the mind of your reader.  Like a form of visual shorthand.

With his dull brown hair, large eyes and perpetually twitching nose, Mr Doulton resembled a rather dim-witted mouse, but Hannah soon found to her cost that his personality was pure ferret, and nasty, bad-tempered ferret at that.’

Two sides to every animal 

References to animals have powerful connotations and it is these connotations (for good or bad) that can be utilized by writers and actors alike.

This little piggy...

This little piggy…

Take the pig, for example.  Even when used positively, there is an underlying sense of uncontrolled appetite about them that can be exploited.

‘Hannah could barely hide her laughter. The fact was that Mr Blower had all the appearance of a rather jolly pig stuffed into an expensively-tailored suit.’ 

Of course, you don’t necessarily need the full animal – you can still work from the basic pig image, but highlight certain aspects with equally powerful effect.

Mr Blower was a short, rotund man with little, piggy eyes and ludicrously tiny feet.’ 

or

‘Mr Blower’s hair was coarse and blonde, bristling to a peak on top of his head. His nose was snub and the corners of his mouth turned upwards in a perpetual porcine grin.’

Obviously, you need to use animal references wisely and sparingly, otherwise your play or novel will begin to resemble some form of bizarre humanoid barnyard or an exotic zoo with an Orwellian theme. The whole point is, of course, to get the writer or actor’s imagination working beyond the obvious: to look for and think about physical nuances which not only set each character apart from the others, but also give an indication of what makes them tick.