Friday, September 18, 2009

Paper Doll People

Multi-layering, or depth, in writing is as important as depth in painting. One-dimensional art is color-book drawing compared to the painting of, say, Rembrandt or Gauguin. In literature, the comparison may not be as stark on the surface, but the experience is just as flat.
Patti's comment to Bonnie's post on Monday gives us a great visual of what I mean. "Subtext is the difference between looking across a glinting lake, and swimming through the bottom weeds, letting them slide across your body." What a great analogy. But how do you add that kind of depth to your writing? How do you make it three-dimensional so that your readers want to dive in? Subtext, about which Bonnie so capably educated us on Monday, is one very important way. Conflict and unique plot--or a unique method of conveying the plot--are equally important. I'm about to begin life on the refrigerator door by Alice Kuipers, a story which consists entirely of notes between a mother and daughter, posted on their refrigerator. Unique? Absolutely. I can't wait to, well, dive in.
To me, one of the most important elements to three-dimensional writing is characterization, to follow Debbie's lead from Wednesday's post. This is true even in plot-driven stories. As Lajos Egri says in his book The Art of Creative Writing, "living, vibrating human beings are still the secret and magic formula of great and enduring writing." Does this mean we must never write about ordinary people? Certainly not. Lori Benton, in her comment Wednesday, made the point, "the characters that have touched me most deeply and stayed with me the longest...were ordinary folk placed into extraordinary circumstances, called upon to find the journey through those circumstances."
In fact, "ordinary people in extraordinary situations" is the hearbeat of good fiction. Nothing else allows us to dive into a character's world as deeply as relatability. That doesn't mean I only want to read about characters like myself; but it does mean the character that will hold me in their story world has to have flaws, fears and failures...because I do. They must be misunderstood, and have goals and desires they're willing to stake everything on. They can be young or old, male or female, human or hobbit--but what they must be is real.
Nothing kills a character or a story more completely than cliche. "Cliches are like fast food hamburgers. No matter what city you eat them in...the burgers taste the same." So says William Brohaugh in Write Tight. He's absolutely correct. And cliches are more than overused phrases. They're overused plots, overused character traits, overused anything; the complete opposite of fresh and inviting. The heroine isn't always beautiful. The bad guy doesn't always wear black. The protagonist's life isn't--cannot be--smooth sailing if I'm to care about them. Don't give me paper doll people, don't give me perfection, please. Give me someone to yell at, to cry with, to learn from, even to abhor, or I'll be a stone skipping over the surface of your book on my way to deeper water.
Who's the most unlikely character you've related to lately? Why? What have you learned from that?


Nicole said...

Lately, not so much, but awhile back I read Kristen Heitzmann's first two books Secrets and Unforgotten. The co-protag Lance Michelli captured "me". It was like I knew him from the inside out--but it wasn't like our circumstances were even close to the same (i.e. he was Catholic, I'm not). It was his heart--his passion for the Lord, his desire to do what Jesus wanted of him. Powerful character. I loved him. Those two novels are the only books I've read twice, and in fact I read them again the third time right after finishing them each time.

Nicole said...

(Sorry, I meant Kristen's first two books in that series; Echoes was the third one.)

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Hi, Sharon!

I love an ordinary person in an extraordinary situation. I love the possibility of the extraordinary happening today, not just in another world or a thousand years ago, but right now in September 2009.

I'm currently sitting on my floor, laptop in my lap, about to starting plotting my new story. So this series on subtext and characterization has come at the perfect time for me. As I've written this week, I've been really aware of the conversations here. I believe that because of this, my newest character will be stronger than ever. So, thank you!

Oh, characters... Perhaps the most surprising character I've ever liked is Ben from LOST. Can I admit that here? Or do all of y'all think I'm crazy now? There's just so much going on with his character that it makes the "writer lobe" in my brain light up with pleasure.

Anonymous said...


So glad we can help. Really, that's why we're here. I really recommend reading Between the Lines (sections on Subtext and Characterization especially) by Jessica Page Morrell. Excellent book. And Write Away (same sections) by Elizabeth George. They're excellent references, along with Stein on Writing as Debbie mentioned. Read them, then read them again!

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Thank you! I'm going to look for them now!

Kathleen Popa said...

Wow, it thrills me to know we are helping writers write better stories. Absolutely that's why we're here. Kristen, God bless your work.

Unlikely characters that I have loved? How about the angel of death in The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak? The world-weariness of him, the sadness of him, the way he loved one little girl for all of the right reasons.

How about Glendon Hale in Leif Enger's So Brave Young & Handsome, a fugitive murderer, putting his life up for grabs in a stubborn attempt to make amends to the wife he left behind?

How about Leo Gursky in Nicole Kraus's The History of Love, an old man no one ever sees, who wants to pose nude for art students, in order to have "so much looked at, by so many." I fell in love with the man's courage and self-sacrifice in the face of such crushing loneliness.

You could argue that the angel of death and an escaped murderer could not be described as ordinary people - though in each case, the writer makes them surprisingly relatable. But what is more ordinary than an old man no one looks at?

Which brings up again the point I made yesterday: do you know any ordinary people? Do you? Did you marry one?

Didn't think so.

Tina said...

Strangely I could relate to Henry in The Time Traveler's Wife. It proabably relates to the over all original story, but Henry's thoughts were often so unconventional and well, shocking. As Christians we don't always want to admit that we have questions about the bigger picture.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting, Tina, your connection to that character. (I haven't read the yet, but I keep hearing about it. I suppose I should.) You're right, Christians especially don't want to admit that we have questions. We know the basics from Scripture, but there's an infinity of things we don't know.