Monday, August 01, 2005

Micromanaging Your Characters

I was in the National Gallery in Washington D.C. a couple years ago. As I walked into a large, open gallery, I looked at the nearest painting. I saw smears of muted browns and thought, "What an ungodly mess."

I moved on to look at the other paintings. For a time, I sat on the benches in the center of the room and refreshed my eyes by staring at the stark white of the walls. Then I walked around the gallery again. Across the room, I looked back at the "ungodly mess," saw Monet's Waterloo Bridge at Sunset, and was smitten.

Feeling like an idiot, I moved closer. I stood directly in front of the painting, at arm's length as Monet must have while he painted, and the subtle brushstroke by brushstroke changes in color were even more awesome, because the artist didn't have the luxury of painting his canvas from across a gallery where the distinctions were clear. He had to be right up against the "ungodly mess" and make sense of it.

In a way, writers need to be able to do the same thing. Many of us "see" our stories like movies in our minds, and we try to translate that visual into words. The problem comes in the translation. Many beginning writers (I will not except myself from this. I am guilty, or was.) feel the need to take the reader by the hand and show every small detail of the scene.

What they deliver is the engineer's blueprint for Waterloo Bridge. Technically detailed, but souless.

I don't need to read:

"He unlocked the door to his hotel room and opened it. The blue door swung into the room. She swept past him into the room. He followed her into the room, closed the door behind him, locked it, and bolted it. With his left hand, he flicked on the switch for the small brass lamp that sat on the small cherry desk with the graceful cabriolet legs. They kissed, at first lightly, and then with more passion. His left hand pressed at the small of her back, pulling her tight against him as his right hand tangled into her long blonde mane of curls. She (I'm so tempted to write "whilst, and at the same time" since I'm writing bad on purpose.) gazed deep into his sapphire blue eyes that dominated her and kicked off her shoes, using her toes to pull down the heelstraps. He took glasses from the sink in the bathroom to the small honor bar. He opened the black refrigerator. Inside, he found an airplane sized bottle of his favorite scotch-- a brand that showed he was a man of wealth and taste. Twisting the cap off using his right hand, he poured the amber fire (I'm having too much fun here) into the glasses. He carried the glasses in one hand as he crossed the room to her with a predatory prowl. He handed her one glass with his left hand. She took it with her right. Her pink tongue snaked over the rim of the glass, tasting the liqueur that burned in her mouth. She set her empty glass down on the dresser between a pile of loose change and his hotel room key, where he'd tossed it. They moved onto the bed. He pulled down the covers with both hands as she threw the pillows into the narrow space between the Cal-King sized bed and the wall to the bathroom with an impertinent toss of her head."

Still with me? Do you even care what they do after this mind-numbing entrance?

Damn, I forget to mention her blazing emerald eyes and 36DDs.

Characters who are micromanaged through every move soon have readers scanning. Honestly, did you suffer through my entire paragraph? Or did your brain shut down? Detail clutters the picture and obscures the meaning of the scene. Details pull the reader out of the story, because the exact measures you put in don't fit the reader's imagination. Besides - they're dull.

What we should aim for is an impression of the scene. Highlight the important aspects such as emotion, arousal, etc., and cut away everything else. Think nuanced brushstrokes, not technical diagrams. Sure, anchor the reader in the scene by giving them some details of setting, but don't explain the carpet color or every step of every move. If you're resorting to right or left hand descriptions, you're micromanaging. Prime the pump of your reader's imagination and then trust them to fill in the details. Their hotel room won't look like yours, but if it doesn't change the plot, who cares?

Think of it this way- if a reader invests their imagination in your story, they're much more willing to stay with it because they've internalized it. They are part of the story. They participate in the fantasy. If you give them everything, they won't appreciate it.

So set down your pen, or keyboard, and step back from your work. Get some distance. Maybe refresh your brain before looking at your work again. Then try to see with a reader's eyes. You might be amazed to see what develops.

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