“Show, don’t tell.” That phrase we all love, or love to hate. But despite its near-ubiquity wherever advice on writing is peddled, I’ve noticed on the various critique and discussion boards I frequent a fair amount of confusion about what showing and telling are, and even some outright resistance to the whole idea of distinguishing one mode of storytelling from another. What follows is my attempt to explain my current thinking on the subject; as always, earnest discussion of all sorts is welcomed.
The following is a cleaned-up version of my personal notes on how to create characters. Any discussions or suggestions of things I missed are welcomed.
Why think about character construction?
No two authors create characters the same way. Often characters are created intuitively, seemingly popping into our heads fully-formed. Sometimes they may be based on real people, either whole or as an amalgamation of several individuals.
But other times, an author may be held back from creating great stories by their inability to imagine new characters. This is seen most often when an author falls into the trap of creating a cast of characters who are all essentially the same person with different ages, genders, races, etc. Other times, an author may have a “stock set” of characters that they deploy for every story, and as a result every story they write is at heart just a copy of the previous one (although some authors have actually made lucrative careers doing this).
Yes, you read the title of this post correctly. Dean Koontz wrote a craft book. Please let that statement sink fully into your consciousness, so that you’re prepared for the wild ride we’re about to embark on together.
Now, one thing I want to make clear from the start is that it is not the intention of this review to “bash” or otherwise diminish Mr. Koontz. On the contrary; he’s exactly the sort of person who should be writing a how-to book. Unlike some of the half-baked yahoos out there handing out writing advice, he has a specific talent, is demonstrably good at it, and can articulate his method with extreme clarity. It’s just that, given the nature of Koontz and his work, one needs to set certain expectations as to what is to be learned. Writing Popular Fiction does have some information about the process of putting together sentences and paragraphs, but its main concern is writing to a market. Meaning: understanding what the market wants, and how an author who actually wants to make a living from writing can focus themselves on producing the right kind of work to actually accomplish it.
That being said, there are a couple of twists involved that make this book especially fun to read. For one thing, it was published in 1974. There’s no mention of self-publishing (obviously), and lots of talk about subjects like whether or not it’s wise to use carbon paper in one’s typewriter (Koontz says yes). Essentially, the book is a time capsule from the wild world of publishing in the mid-1970s, and you’ll probably be amazed at how much has stayed the same even more than how much has changed.
The second twist element is Koontz himself; from the first page, where he admonishes the reader not to send him feedback saying he missed anything, he comes off as a man who has too many other things to be doing to put up with any of your bullshit. Even at such an early phase in his career, he’s clearly put in an astonishing amount of time in front of the typewriter, and he knows it. When he says something, he’s not gonna mince around with “maybes” or “shoulds.” Take his advice and reap the benefits, or don’t take it and end up penniless and ignored—just don’t ask him to repeat himself–he’s got too many other books to write.
Gather ’round and saddle up kids, it’s time I shared my dirty little secret: I love craft books. While this may not sound like such a strange thing to the uninitiated, trust me when I say that books that purport to teach people how to write often take lots of flack on author’s forums. Some will say that they’re no substitute for getting your work critiqued by peers, or that they will use up time that would better be spent writing. Others will point to the fact that writing ostensibly has no “rules,” and worry that such guides will turn their beautifully artistic Garfield slash fiction into robotic, paint-by-numbers prose.
But personally, I’ve never ran with the “just write, write, write,” crowd. In my experience, most craft books read very quickly; I can usually polish one off in a day or two, and I’m not a particularly fast reader. They make an excellent diversion when waiting for a manuscript to cool, and they can help give you a fresh perspective when you do go back to attack that eighth revision. Of course, not all craft books are created equal, and that’s where the Craft Book Round-Up comes in: sorting out the good, the bad, and the ugly for your studying pleasure. Because hey, writing craft books is a craft unto itself, right?
For the first entry, I’ve chosen a book that falls squarely into the “good” column: Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. To be honest, one doesn’t really need to “find” this book; it’s sure to be handed to you sooner or later, because it comes up on every single Amazon frequently purchased list ever. And not without good reason: Browne and King have written an extremely helpful guide to self-editing, one which I wish I had read years before I “found” it.
In multiplayer online roleplaying games, designers and players often make a distinction between two modes of interaction:
- Player vs. Environment, or PvE. In this mode, a player must overcome challenges posed by the environment in order to progress. This can mean “static” obstacles such as terrain, weather, hunger and thirst, etc., but is more often used to describe encounters with computer-controlled entities, such as monsters and NPCs (non-player characters). Players choose to team up with each other or go alone, and get enjoyment by exploring the world, collecting items, defeating particularly difficult monsters, etc.
- Player vs. Player, or PvP. Players in this mode (usually) face the same challenges present in PvE mode, but with the additional caveat that other players in the game may be hostile, and they must be prepared to defend themselves from attack (or perhaps to initiate attacks, if the mood strikes them). Even if there are few or no secondary rewards to be gained from such an attack, some players will invariably choose this mode of play and spend lots of time and effort on the “meta game” of figuring out the best way of ambushing others, leveling up their fighting techniques, etc.
It so happens that in fiction writing, we can make a similar distinction between two types of conflict, sometimes called “man vs nature” and “man vs man.” It should be easy to guess what these terms mean: in man vs man, two or more characters are in conflict with each other. Each of them have their own goals or values, and when brought into contact with one another they will clash until their issues are somehow resolved (note: the “clash” here is usually figurative; wars of words or wills are often more interesting than physical battles). In man vs nature, a character (or group of characters) struggle against something in their environment: pits full of spikes, the vacuum of space, man-eating sharks—pretty much anything without a brain.
Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action. - Kurt Vonnegut
Yesterday I started re-editing my novel after putting it away for six months. It was good to put it aside to gain “distance” from it, but the real benefit was what I learned from all the projects I did in the interim, especially EPIC FANTASY 0.9b. Lack of confidence can be a big problem for new writers; we revise and revise, but always wonder if the changes we’ve made are actually making our stories worse instead of better, sometimes even to the point of going around in circles. But compared to six months ago, I feel much more capable of looking at my own writing and deciding on absolute terms whether it’s where I want it to be, and if not, what it will take to get there. It feels great to bring that knowledge to bear on improving this novel, because I’ve found that even after all this time, I still love its characters and plot just as much as I did when I was writing them. I’m excited to make it as perfect as it possibly can be so that I can share it with others.
In that spirit, the following is my personal editing checklist, which I compiled over the past six months from various sources (mainly craft books, corrections from professional editors and my own experiences). Of course, my list may not fit you perfectly; everyone has their own peculiar set of problems to deal with. But I’ve tried to make it general and included some common issues that I don’t personally struggle with that often. In any case, hopefully someone out there will find it useful.
"Bill and Arlene Miller were a happy couple." - Raymond Carver, "Neighbors," opening sentence.
The passive voice seems to be a common sticking point for new writers. Is there a specific reason for this? Why would the passive voice be any harder to grasp than any other straightforward grammatical rule?