The Making of a Hero — Part 5

Description is a Silent Tool

The last several weeks I have written about The Making of a Hero, focusing on three of four ways a writer brings the protagonist to life: through action, dialogue, and thoughts. The fourth, and no less important aspect, is description.

Description—within the context of your hero—is the Silent Tool sprinkled through the narrative, interspersed between the action, dialogue, and thoughts in such a way that adds to the character’s personality.

The first thing to understand about describing the viewpoint character is not how they look. The reader will develop a mental picture of the character no matter what you say about their physical features . . . mostly.

The worst possible scenario is having a character look into a mirror or glassy pond and describe what they see:

Mary gazed into the bathroom mirror to see auburn-streaked hair falling around a face she thought too pudgy, the eyes too recessed, the smile more a smirk that appeared disingenuous.

Some of the description works, but looking into the mirror does not. Instead, leave out the mirror and the words effectively tell the reader how Mary feels about herself:

Mary thought her cheeks too pudgy, the eyes too recessed, the smile more a smirk that appeared disingenuous.

The physical features are the least important information revealed to the reader. What we want is for the reader to know the main character, feel what they feel, see what they see, and thus, what the character thinks about the world they occupy.

A man exited the bathroom and started across the basketball court. He wore shorts and flip-flops, with large tattoos on each calf—Wiley Coyote on the left, Yosemite Sam on the right—sunglasses pushed up onto his shaved head, and swaggered as if an exclamation point marking the words on the back of his shirt: Old Men Rule.

This description tells the reader as much about the viewpoint character’s perception of the man as the man himself. We “see” the man, but more importantly, the words “swagger” and “as if an exclamation point” speak more to the viewpoint character’s appraisal than the man himself.

Description can also be used to set the character’s tone. In the following example, the viewpoint character’s awareness of the world imprints his mood.

A dove’s mournful cooing broke the silence, followed by chirps and calls in a soothing musical symphony. A songbird’s lyrical, trilled melody beckoned a mate, silenced by a crow’s sudden cackle, echoed by other shrieking black birds until the calm morning lay shattered in angry tones.

Be cautious of using too much description within the narrative as it can pull the reader from the story’s forward movement. Some refer to too much description as Info-Dump or Back-fill Overload; the best way to avoid such problems is to sprinkle character description within the action of the story—an enhancer, not a distracter.

See you on the Next Page,

Rick

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The Making of a Hero — Part 4

Thoughts Whisper Truer Than Description

In the last post I wrote, “Heroes are not wimps, nor indecisive, and usually not overly inner-reflective.” Yet, people are all these things and more, so why shouldn’t the characters exhibit these traits?

Your hero (like real people) can and should have doubts, harbor prejudices, and even be a little self-absorbed . . . in their thoughts.

While the hero acts and speaks in ways demonstrating confident forward movement, inside their head they can be a tangled mess.

The contrast between “thoughts” and “actions” help illustrate a complex character, a person at odds with themselves, one rattled by internal conflict.

Conflict is critical within the fiction framework, and a superb way to show a character’s unsettled mental state is within the natural ebb and flow of confidence.

A person with internal fear and doubts about their abilities, the chance of success, or even a reason to continue, becomes a hero when they push aside debilitating emotions and battles to right a wrong, especially when one of the battles is against their very nature.

In my novel, The Returning, a disheartened and disillusioned immortal yearns to (finally) die the last time and sleep with the Fathers. The challenge was to show his inner struggle of having no purpose (that he recognizes), but still give him a strong constitution—the “hero touch.”

In the example below, the protagonist has died while a young soldier, and has just now realized he has “returned” to the body of a Prince.
——————-
Inhabiting a Prince, whose responsibility and future hinges on ruling an entire country. He wanted to run, to hide, to live this life—like most lives before—in seclusion, with the sole hope of dying one last time and leaving the emptiness of his pointless existence once and forever. Let me have rest.

He clenched his fists and forced his concentration outward. Thoughts shifted to what he must do to survive, what he had always done.
——————–
Inner thoughts are italicized. Even though much of the first paragraph in the example describes the character’s thoughts and feelings, I decided to only italicize the first and last sentence; I did this to make it easier for the reader. Reading an entire italicized paragraph can be tedious, and as shown, unnecessary—the reader understands the character is thinking “He wanted to run and hide . . . pointless existence once and forever.”

Although the story line is in third person past tense (He wanted to run . . .), the italicized thoughts are in first person, present. Using this altered viewpoint pulls the reader into the immediacy of the situation and the character, without the usual viewpoint-verb tense-switch distraction.

Another example of using italics to introduce the thought process, and how the “regular” type face that follows enhances the main character’s disposition:

What the hell am I doing? He shouldn’t have entered the bar, or even gotten out of his car, but knew it was too late now–Jared had spotted him.

Working on a character’s psyche can be great fun, and used intermittently, enhances the reader’s understanding of the “person” you created.

A warning: if the character’s “soul-searching” is explored too often or constitutes the same questions, your hero will (in the reader’s mind) turn into a brooding puddle of emotions whose actions will be derailed by the inner “poor me” syndrome, and nobody cares about heroes feeling sorry for themselves.

Make your hero strong, but vulnerable, and you are well on your way to making a character readers will identify with and cheer.

See you on the Next Page,

Rick

Don’t miss the next post. Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. As always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.

The Making of a Hero — Part 2

Writers create and bring characters to life in four ways: through action, dialogue, internal thoughts, and description. In order of importance,

Actions Speak Louder Than Words
Words Express Clearer Than Thoughts
Thoughts Whisper Truer Than Description
Description Is a Silent Tool

Although discussion will focus on each tool separately, two or more are often joined to enhance and clarify character depth: dialogue blended with movement “beats,” thoughts preceding action, etc.

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Characters begin as a skeleton. Many writers make a Character Sketch first, find an appropriate name, age, height, weight, job, world view, along with other traits and possessions—owning a sports car instead of a pick-up truck gives the reader a clearer glimpse of character—before sending their creation on their journey.

Next is time to add flesh to the skeleton to illustrate a character’s unique personality, along with a list of motivations, goals, and of course, a number of conflicts. The four tools accomplish this.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

I am most interested in the protagonist, but even secondary characters, in order to be well-rounded and true, will require the same attention—minus the internal thoughts to spare the dreaded “viewpoint switch.”

What the protagonist does, and why, is the lifeline the writer tosses the reader. When pulled taut, the character’s actions draw the reader ever nearer until the reader is inside the character, experiencing a life previously unknown. The character—and thus, the reader—becomes the hero of your story.

How does the reader gain such intimacy with the character? The first is through the character’s actions.

James Scott Bell in his book, Revision and Self-Editing, explains one way to gain the reader’s sympathy, respect, and pointed view of your protagonist: it’s a screen writer’s term called the Pet-The-Dog-Beat.

To illustrate, Bell uses (among others) the movie, The Fugitive, to describe the method: in the scene where Dr. Kimble (played by Harrison Ford) is on the run, chased by a determined lawman, he’s in the hospital on a mission to prove someone else killed his wife. As a doctor, he notices a patient in distress, and takes precious time to reroute the groaning patient into surgery to save their life.

Kimble’s act to save a less fortunate puts him at risk and the actions submerge him into deeper trouble—a perfect example of character action pushing the plot rather than the weaker reverse.

My last post used an early scene from the Masterpiece Theater production of Poldark where the recipient of the character’s help actually was a dog, which fit nicely, I think, with Bell’s name for this useful little tool.

There are many ways a character’s actions reveal who they are, what they want, and why.

Whether your character is saving a kingdom or helping a friend get a date, heroes tend to be selfless, and their actions (both right and wrong) deepen the reader’s accessibility to their personality.

Heroes are flawed, just like real people. Your character will make decisions prompting action, and many will be either wrong or wrought with difficulties unperceived prior to being “in-the-middle-of-it.” The character’s actions, prompted by moral self-worth, feelings of what is right and/or necessary, are determined by the portrayal you, the writer, provide.

Is your character forthright to a fault, or reserved?
Does he instigate an argument/fight, or maneuver for peaceful resolution?
Do they walk into a crowded room down the center aisle unabashed, or slip in to a nearby wall?
Does she bat her eyes at the handsome bartender, or is her look direct, intense, and unwavering?

How you define your protagonist (coupled with their view of the world) will be executed through the actions.

Consistency is key. In whatever circumstance you plunge your character, ask yourself a set of questions to determine their logical action:

What goal do they want to reach, and what actions will bring about the result they wish (even if they do not succeed)?

Which character flaw is exploited by making the decision and taking action?

How is their action different from the actions of another character? (This will help separate characters to make the protagonist unique by comparison).

What new danger does the current action cause the protagonist?

Answering these types of questions (develop others for your own story and scene) will shine light on your Lead and their heroic nature while highlighting traits that are problematic for their well-being. Keep your hero acting against the world and his own innate tendencies and you will be well on your way to creating a memorable character readers will want to follow.

Next Post: The Making of a Hero — Part Three: Words Express Clearer Than Thoughts

See You on the Next Page,

Rick

Don’t miss the next post. Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. As always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.

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