Happy Turkey Day or Faux-Turkey Day to the vegetarians! It’s my fave holiday, and we on the blog have a shared reason for gratitude: Published or not, struggling as we probably are to work out our plots and create our characters, we’re writers!
And hail to you NaNoWriMo-ers, rounding a curve, the finishing line coming into sight. Eat well! Stay hydrated! Sleep is for slackers (like me). Keep writing!
On September 17, 2017, Bookfanatic102 wrote, I am rereading The Two Princesses of Bamarre again (for the 6th or 7th time), and I realized part of the reason I like it so much is how descriptive it is. (And Volleys is totally awesome.) Do you have any advice on making my books more descriptive and making my characters more fun to read and write?
And Christie V Powell wrote, Have you looked at Gail’s other posts? These ones on description could get you started: http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/category/description/. I also really enjoyed Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan, which is all about descriptions, including of characters.
And Melissa Mead said, Make sure to think about all the senses, including smell, touch, and taste, as well as sight and hearing.
Thanks, Christie V Powell, for harking back to earlier posts!
And I’m with Melissa Mead on all the senses. Humans focus (pun intended!) on sight more than on our other senses, but to get sense-o-rama into our stories we need them all.
I’m having trouble with descriptions in my so-far-title-less historical novel about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492,, so Bookfanatic102’s question comes at the right time.
The problem is the history. For example, at the moment I’ve reached in my story, Cima, my MC, is about to share a meal at an inn with her grandfather, her father, and the duke of Medinaceli. But I’m stymied about who would answer the door at the inn. The innkeeper? A waiter (were there waiters?)? One of the duke’s servants? Who else might be there? I’m not even sure that my made-up meeting with this actual historical figure would have taken place at an inn.
Alas, the place has to be solid in our minds before we can write it. For the room at the inn, I’m drawing on an image I found online. For the food, I’m working from a cookbook based on recipes from a period that’s only a little later than mine. For the rest, I plan to show my manuscript when I’m done to more than one historian.
In our describing, we need to go for a movie-in-the-mind. I live in one as I write, and when it isn’t there, I hunt for details to fill it in. When I’m writing fantasy, I can invent the details, which is wonderfully freeing. But my inventions are usually fueled by real life. I’ve watched YouTube demonstrations of carding fleece, listened to prairie dog vocalizations, smelled spices from my spice drawer. I have well-thumbed volumes of historical costume that I go to again and again. I also draw on my memory. For example, the topiary in Ella Enchanted comes from my memories of the topiary in the Cloisters, which is a museum of medieval art in Fort Tryon Park in northern Manhattan near where I grew up.
Not that we should be chained to reality when we write fantasy. After I’ve listened to prairie dogs, I can decide that my own version can have an entirely different sound; they can gurgle like pigeons, for example. But I’m happy to have something real and solid to spin off.
As with the gurgling prairie dogs, we can wake up our details with surprises. One way is to go against expectation. For instance–I’m making this up–in a seemingly utopian city, the sidewalks are paved with rubber, and none of the citizens ever has sore knees. These wonderful sidewalks are cooled in some high-tech or magical way, so they don’t melt in hot weather.
The fun of this is that we can introduce details for the sake of the movie and then discover that they come in handy for our plot. The rubber sidewalks, for instance, can be used diabolically by the city’s rogue engineers to catch our MC if the cooling is turned off and the rubber gets gluey.
I use my notes and my beloved lists to brainstorm about setting and details. I may ask in my notes, How can I flesh out this scene? Then I’ll start a bulleted list of possible ways. Or I may also ask how I can make whatever is going on hard for my MC, and start a different list. Or I may list possible sensory elements.
So we have several strategies: bringing in all the senses, using research, drawing on memory, making lists, writing notes.
One caution: adjectives and adverbs do not make our writing more descriptive. Generally, they just add air. I’ve talked about this before here. We need adjectives and adverbs, but we also need to be sparing with them.
Now for characters and making them fun to write and read.
One way is to get your MC into trouble you sympathize with, which may mean moving in your mind from the specific to the personal. You’ve never been stalked by a lion-tiger combo, but you may have been picked on. We can use our memories to fuel our character’s responses.
I’ve been worried about my MC in the expulsion book because it’s such a serious book, and she’s a serious person. Will people be interested in her?
Here’s hoping. My approach to her is the approach I use with all my characters. I think about my plot and how she can fit into it. In the fifteenth century, a girl wouldn’t have much scope for action. A Jewish girl would be mostly in the home and would be very sheltered. But I need her to be able to act, since she’s my MC. I thought about what I could give her, and since this isn’t fantasy, a magical power is out. Her father and grandfather are financiers, as a few prominent Jews were at the time, so I made her love numbers and be phenomenally good at math, which will be useful for her family.
Then I picked another characteristic, basically out of a hat: I gave her an aversion to discord. She hates arguments, conflict, disagreements.
We can list personality traits and think about which ones interest us. Then we incorporate one or two into our MC or into a secondary character. When situations arise in our story, we think about how this particular trait will shape our character’s response.
We can do this in the outlining stage or during the writing if we’re pantsers. The result that has astonished me in book after book is that my plot shapes itself around the decisions I made long before I had any idea where my story was going.
In the expulsion book, set in a patriarchal era, I wanted a powerful character who could give my MC some of his power, so a major secondary character is her grandfather, who is a courtier, financier, and philosopher. He becomes very attached to Cima, but he isn’t always sensitive to her needs or feelings–and he’s very demanding about his own. The complexity is what makes him fun to write, and I think that applies to any character. Complications draw in both writer and reader.
It also helps me to make my MC want something very much. Longing is relatable. I don’t mean every MC has to be full of yearning. I suspect that a depressed MC might have lost the energy to want anything, and such a character deserves a spot as an MC. Still, longing sets our story up for obstacles and for revealing how our MC goes about removing them, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. Which makes me think of our dog Reggie. When a toy he wants is out of his reach, he barks at it. It never comes to him, but we’re charmed, and we get it. I don’t know what happens when he’s alone in the house. Maybe the toys do come out then. He’s very cute. They may be charmed, too.
Here are three prompts:
∙ In this world, creatures shapeshift from people to animals and vice versa. One of your MCs was once a porpoise and another used to be a dog. The former porpoise is hearing-centric, and the former dog is sniff-reliant. They are being chased by a villain who used to be a–you decide-what animal. Write the chase scene. Bring in all the senses. If you like, write the whole story.
∙ Your MC wants to be rich. She also helps out at the center for people displaced by the war with the centaurs. One of the displaced people is the former dictator of the neighboring city-state. He has a scheme to get back his fortune. Write the scene when he comes into the center and your MC is on duty. Make the movie in the reader’s mind. Keep going, if you like.
∙ Your MC is one of the displaced people from the last prompt. To escape the war, she and three others, strangers, thrown together by chance, have to cross a mountain range to get to safety. Your MC is terrified of heights. One of her companions is patient with her. The other two are not, and one wants to abandon her. Think about how your panicky MC would perceive the mountain, what she’d focus on and what she’d miss. Write a scene from her POV during the climb.
Have fun, and save what you write!