Writing techniques: revealing character

September 17, 2009 Writing Comments (0) 71

The new Flaming Lips album Embryonic, is streaming in its entirety over on Colbert Nation.  I’ve been listening to it all day at work.  This is a good day.

I’m currently “reading” Neil Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.  I use the quotes because I am experiencing the novel on audiobook, as I do most of the novels I read.  I walk half an hour each direction to and from work every day and usually walk for forty-five minutes on my lunch break, and it’s damned difficult (not to mention unsafe) to thumb a paperback while walking the busy streets of Center City Philadelphia.  But it’s annoying to say “I’m listening to a book” and get odd looks from people, so I say “reading.”  Anyway, I digress.

In this morning’s passage there was a line where one of the main characters, John Percival Hackworth, experiences relief “like a puff of opium smoke.”  Or something very much like that – forgive me, it’s hard to look up quotes on an iPod.  It called to my attention a little-discussed writing technique.

In writing classes you’re generally taught that there are three ways to reveal character to your reader.  How the narrator describes the character, how other characters perceive the character, and how the character perceives herself.  There is another way, tied in with point of view, and that is how that character perceives her world.

Many talented writers use this very successfully.  Here’s a quick example.  Compare these two passages:

1) Molly sat on the floor.  It was as cold as ice.

2) Molly sat on the cold travertine.  The chill against her flesh reminded her of her mother’s tombstone.

The first passage, aside from being bad writing (okay, neither is particularly great writing, but I was aiming for a point here) is generic.  The second reveals a few things about Molly, assuming the narration is attached.  First off she recognizes what the floor is made of.  Why that is I don’t know.  I haven’t spent a lot of time with Molly.  Maybe she worked at a Home Depot.  Maybe she just watches a lot of HGTV.

The second sentence reveals more.  Why is her mother’s tombstone the first thing that comes to mind?  Was she there recently, or is she just a morbid sort?  Why has she been sitting on her mother’s tombstone in the first place?

This works best when you’re writing in first-person or third-person attached, though it can be interesting to use in second-person.  A character who fought in Vietnam might look at sunset over a forest and compare it to napalm outside Da Nang.  A police officer might describe a bad smell as being “like the bathroom of a flophouse on an August afternoon.”  A character with a broken heart is going to see a lot of things in maudlin, depressing ways.

Many authors trying to describe their world aim for accuracy.  They want the reader to see, hear, feel, smell, and taste the same world they imagine.  Remember, though, that every world is seen through a lens of perception.  Two actual humans sitting in the same room will experience it in very different ways.

So when it comes time to describe your setting, don’t show me the world as it is.  Show it to me as your character sees it.

To get even more advanced, go all Rashomon on your reader and give more than one character’s account of the same experience.  The contrast in the metaphors and images they employ reveal much about their personae and the way they receive their world.

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