you know my methods, watson

I recently discovered Jo Eberhardt's blog The Happy Logophile, and this post particularly caught my attention: "Crafting Characters – Where Did I Come From?."

My reactions were too complex to fit into a comment, since I both agreed and disagreed, so I decided to respond here.

I agree completely that this is a ridiculous outline for a story:

  • Bob grew up with loving parents. He had 3 siblings – all sisters, and all older than him. He was always his mother’s “little boy” and was spoiled by her and his sisters for most of his childhood. He had a great relationship with his father, and they spent a lot of time fishing and throwing a football around.
  • It was really hard for Bob to leave his family home and go off to college, but he really wanted to be a lawyer. He spent every break with his parents, and one or another of his sisters would often visit as well.
  • When Bob graduated, he went to work at a law firm, and was incredibly successful.
  • Bob decided to become a serial killer, and started hunting down and killing prostitutes.

There are two problems with this. One is that, as it stands, it's a really stupid idea. The other is that it is, in essence, "Richard Cory."

Nevertheless, in every writing class I was ever in, somebody wrote "Richard Cory." Well, they didn't call it that, but that's what it was. I remember the feeling of sitting in the class listening to each person reading their latest story, trying to figure out if this was the "Richard Cory" for this semester. I realize that everybody starts by imitating, but imitating a style or structure is different from writing an obvious rip-off of a very famous poem and song.

Rant over.

On the other hand, I don't pre-plan or make notes about any of my characters. I don't advise against it (everybody has to find the methods that work for them), but it's not the only way to work.

When I first wrote Randi, I just wrote (basically), "A guy walks into a bar talking to himself," and then I started to think that it would be more interesting if he was talking to somebody, somebody that nobody else could see. When I first wrote Daphne, I just thought it would be nice if some of my characters had a pet. I have no idea why she lives her life as a dog. I imagine we'll find out at some point. As I said somewhere, if you ever pressed her for an answer she'd probably do something unpleasant on your leg.

And, most significantly, starling. She has murdered a lot of people, and I have never given an explanation. There is no indication that she was abused in any way growing up (which is pretty much a cliche at this point), and I hope I have made it clear that her tendency toward uncontrollable violence is nothing to do with the fact that she is a woman – that's even more of a cliche. My best explanation is that, as Kurt Vonnegut put it in Breakfast of Champions, there was some sort of imbalance of chemicals in her brain.

Shakespeare famously gave no explanation of why Iago was such a shit. Did Shakespeare himself know the explanation? I wonder. I detailed Orson Welles' thoughts about Iago in this post.

Not that I'm against explanations for behavior, but they don't always have to be revealed, any more than we always know why people act as they do in life. Also, if we rely on some explanation from a character's childhood to explain some unusual actions taken later in life, what about all the other children who suffered something similar but didn't end up murdering prostitutes or whatever other horrendous crime we're describing?

Events have causes, certainly, but those causes are usually very complex, and one of the worst things you can do in fiction is oversimplify things which are not at all simple. Stieg Larsson had some definite weaknesses as a novelist, but one mistake he didn't make in The Girl with the Dragon Tatttoo was to give a pat answer for why Lisbeth Salander is the way she is. More is revealed in the other books (from what I gather from the movies, and I'm certainly not going to read the books to find out for sure), but it's not necessary for the enjoyment of the character.

As I wrote in response to an earlier post on Jo's blog, "Characters reveal themselves slowly, and some aspects they never reveal. A major character in my second novel didn’t reveal her sexuality until the last page. It’s not something she would talk about under most circumstances, and she wasn’t in a relationship at that time. I had an idea of her preference, but didn’t know for sure until it was revealed in the story. I have two characters who were abused growing up, and the details haven’t come out because they don’t talk about it..."

This way of working is only possible when you're a "pantser," of course (one who writes by the seat of his or her pants). When I introduce characters, I usually have no idea whether they'll be major characters or not. The ones that work, that turn out to have a lot of interesting and useful qualities, they stick around. The others fade away. When Ron was first introduced, I knew she'd be back, but I had no idea she'd end up as important as she is. As I wrote about before, Popeye was originally supposed to be a minor character in the comic strip which was eventually renamed after him.

If you're going to plan ahead, with predetermined Major and Minor characters, I'm sure you would deal with this question differently. Which is the point. Different people work differently, and Jo's methods work for her and mine for me, and neither inherently superior to the other. As my father used to say, there is only one rule for writing: Write well.

And I think we can all agree that, whatever processes we use, they are almost certainly less fun than Sonje Jones' process, as she describes here and here.

Oh, and speaking of one project seducing a writer away from another, I have been feeling that, once The Mystery of the Quiet People is done (and new parts begin here), it's time to put the mystery stories aside for now and go back to my actual work-in-progress, my third novel. It's been resting for about four years, and I wouldn't exactly say it's patting the bed and murmuring sweet nothings, but I think this is a good time to give it some concentrated attention.

I have a specific reason for thinking this, not unrelated to this post, which is that I figured out something today. In my first draft, I think I concentrated too much on tying up loose ends from the other novels, explaining things, giving backstory.

I think a better approach is to Tell a Good Story. To hell with explanations, unless they make that story better.

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21 Responses to you know my methods, watson

  1. sonje says:

    Haha, yes, well, my “process” only works because I’m a pantser like you. If I knew of the seduction attempts ahead of time, they wouldn’t be nearly as much fun, would they? :)

    In all seriousness though, I do not cross-examine my characters beforehand either. Perhaps I put more thought into them than you do as I generally have an idea of the size of their role in the book with maybe as much of a paragraph of information (not written down, just in my mind) about a major character, although I might have even less than you do about minor characters. Minor characters generally enter my fiction this way: “Shit, I need a minor character. I’ll name him… oh crap, let’s find a name… Fine, this will do. Did the last minor character have brown hair? Then this one is blond. And, um, nervous, sure why not? Done.” And then I write.

  2. I will confess I give them more thought now, since (as you’ve also experienced, moving to mystery stories), the darn thing has to make sense at the end, so you do have to make sure it will. My entire writing life has been a gradual move away from being a pure pantser.

    Oh, and I do the “diferent hair from the last minor character” thing, too. And I named my most recent character Jake, since you said you’d stopped using it so much. :-)

  3. I have one or two main characters and a few minors in mind when I start out writing a novel or even a story. Other than that, I let them direct me. I wrote about it under a post on my own blog “There’s Nothing Like a ‘Why Did You Do That?’ Moment.”

    I like it when my characters take over their own destiny. If they’re predetermined, they can’t move about freely in my opinion, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t work well for others when they determine who is a major and minor character or what their lives were down to the letter.

    I don’t even write a definitely outline for my stories. I just let my ideas flow. I do write down a few ideas, but that’s about it. So much changes while you’re writing that personally, I just don’t feel like it’s worth the hassle.

    I loved what you wrote about not revealing the past. I have been struggling with finding a reason a murderer murders in an idea I have for a novel. I always thought that he needed a reason, but I don’t suppose he really does. I don’t like to deal with the cliches of a tortured past. I have read my fair share of those of novels, and after a while, they just get old unless of course they’re well written novels that make me forget about the reasons entirely.

  4. I think it depends on what kind of story you’re telling. I’m just re-reading the Sarah Caudwell mysteries, and everything in them is pre-planned, there is a lot of relying on coincidence, but the writing itself is so good and the story so satisfying and solidly consructed that it’s fine.

    It’s similar to what I wrote about the movie Laurel Canyon (see here: u-town.com/collins/?p=964, last three paragraphs).

  5. I definitely agree. Some books are better when you realize how much planning has gone into them. Mine has just ended up better by not planning. It’s like you said, some people have their way of doing things that work for them and then I have the way that works for me, and you, for you. It’s all about the story in the end. :)

  6. Jo Eberhardt says:

    It’s taken me a couple of days to respond, because (like you) I both strongly agree and disagree with what you’ve written.

    First of all, let me just say that I had to google Richard Cory to find out what you were talking about. I managed to come up with a hideously bad outline all on my own. :)

    I agree that the reasons behind behaviour don’t have to be revealed (I think I said that in my original post), and also that those reasons are usually very complex. And “brain chemistry” is a valid reason for psychosis. However, either there are signs that something’s amiss long before they turn to murder, or there’s an inciting incident that throws them in the deep end. We don’t need to come up with a whole psychological profile for our characters, but characters need to make sense.

    As Chuck Wendig says quite eloquently “a heroic fireman doesn’t one day save a cat from a tree and the next day decide to cook and eat a baby”. (http://terribleminds.com/ramble/2011/06/07/25-things-you-should-know-about-character/) These things need to make sense. If you’ve got a cannabilistic fireman as your antagonist, then there should be some clues to his behaviour somewhere – either in backstory if you’re that way inclined, or in interaction with him during the plot.

    The thing that drives me batty is when there’s NO SIGN of this type of behaviour until all is revealed at the end of the book. Then it seems like the author is purposefully trying to trick you, and make you feel stupid.

  7. First of all (going backwards through your comment, I guess), I agree completely with your last point. That’s classic bad mystery writing, where you pull something out of your hat at the end. It can be something psychological, it can be “Oh, he had a twin brother than nobody knew about ,” or any of a number of other things. A real cheat, I agree.

    The best is when the writer has very clearly showed you everything you’ve needed to know, all the way along, but in such a way that you never saw the significance until it was revealed, at which point it seems completely obvious.

    I do agree that characters need to make sense, but there are a lot of ways to get from the blank page to the complete character, mine obviously very different from yours.

    But your comment made me realize something about my writing that I’d never thought of before. Let me see if I can explain this. I guess it is similar to Lisbeth Salander, in that when you meet them, when they are introduced, they are already as damaged as they are going to be (not that my characters are all damaged — far from it — but the ones who are eccentric, like Daphne as I mentioned in my initial post, are already as eccentric as they are going to be, too).

    So, there is never the heroic fireman who we see rescuing cats and then he suddenly goes around the bend, with or without reasons and hints along the way. He’ll already be around the bend when we meet him, and then we’ll slowly learn why (or at least we’ll probably learn someting, if not the whole story).

    I think, and I never thought of this before as a general trend, that my characters are, overall, in different ways, getting better, sometimes from pretty dark places. So, if starlng has murdered a lot of people, I’m actually a lot more interested in what she does next, how she deals with that, her slow and careful reconnecting with other human beings.

    I may have no clear idea why she went off the rails to begin with, but the trajectory of her recovery was actually suggested by a series of conversations with a therapist of my acquaintance. And his focus (with his patients) was not so much on the causes as on the methods of cure, which I applied to her story.

    Very interesting. I never really thought about that before.

    Oh, as to your first point, Richard Cory is probably quite obscure by now, but it was much better known when I was in college because of the Simon & Garfunkel song. But I think there is something about the story that causes people to write versions of it even if they’ve never read or heard the original. I’ve never quite figured out why.

  8. Jo Eberhardt says:

    I feel that I’ve been literarily enhanced (try saying that three times fast) by being introduced to Richard Cory, reading the poem, and listening to the song. So thanks for that. :) Maybe it’s one of those plots that shows up all over the place out of a bit of “wish fulfillment” mentality. I suppose on some level, a lot of people would like to think that the guy who seems to have everything is really less happy than them.

    Perhaps, in line with your revelation about your character arcs, the quote should be more along the lines of “a sociopathic arsonist doesn’t one day burn a kindergarten to the ground, and the next risk his life to save a baby”? I stand by my convictions that a good writer will have a character change due to situations, not just “because it would be cool” or “because it would be a surprise”. But that seems to what you were saying as well.

    (I have a confession to make. I’m totally a pantser as well. I just over-analyse my characters AFTER I’ve written the first draft.)

  9. Tiyana says:

    Hey, Anthony. I can’t believe I’m just now making it over here! (I thought I’d already subscribed to your blog then realized nothing was popping up in my reader, lol. Fixed that.)

    Anyways.

    “Tying up [all] loose ends” is something I’m also trying to avoid in my WIP, especially since I want to write a trilogy. I love a little mystery in all of my characters, some more so than others. (I have one that I intentionally don’t reveal certain big-time information about because I don’t want to explore that part of him until I get to the sequel. And understanding that aspect of him isn’t incumbent on resolving the main plot, so it works out, me thinks.)

    I tend to be the kind of writer that spews just about everything onto the page the first time around then has to come back and clean up the mess and salvage what bits and pieces I think are still worthwhile and necessary to tell that good story I’m looking for. I subconsciously keep a loose outline for the protagonist’s plot progression in mind—and I mean really loose, like “girl discovers truth about herself, denies the truth, runs and hides from the truth, struggles with the truth then ultimately faces the truth and deals with it; amen” loose—and allow this to dictate what stays and what goes. And since my story is more character-driven, the revelation and development of character dictates most decisions. (Though, I seem to be developing two plots at once to serve the more action-y/adventure side of the story, whose entire arc will stretch over the trilogy, so I have a general outline in mind for that side, as well.)

    What I’m trying out now while editing is to just cut stuff that I suspect may feel too expository/infodumpish (and that goes for setting and plot info in addition to character details) and ask myself, “From a reading standpoint, can the story still function/make sense without that tidbit?” If yes, then I know it’s probably best to cut it; if not, then I keep it though try to find more subtle ways of revealing what is otherwise a big fat, all-too-conveniently included expository splurge.

    It isn’t easy, but it does help keep things in focus while trimming down the fat. (And my beloved beast has lots to spare.)

  10. Jo: I think you’re right, people do like the idea that the rich and popular are really miserable under it all. Not true, of course, but I see the appeal. And I agree that surprises for the sake of surprises are a cheat. This is particularly true if the surprise helps the writer out of a plot difficulty. Minor characters can behave unpredictably from time to time, but obviously major plot developments have to be well supported.

    I’ve talked about how. in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the detective’s daughter shows up out of nowhere in the middle of the book with the one key piece of evidence that he needs. The character has barely been mentioned until then, so it’s a real deus ex machina.

    Tiyana, welcome! I’m glad you decided to visit.

    I agree about characters having some mystery. I think that’s where my WIP went off the rails a bit. For example, I have one character who has superhuman strength, and in the earlier book it’s never explained why. (And, yes, Jo, I do know exactly why. :-) ) Nobody has ever complained about that, and I think it’s better to leave it that way.

    I complained about Steig Larsson’s infodumps (http://u-town.com/collins/?p=801), I shouldn’t perpetrate my own.

  11. Jo Eberhardt says:

    ” And, yes, Jo, I do know exactly why. ”

    Hahahaha. That made me laugh. Thank you. :)

  12. Well, to be completely honest, when I first introduced Vicki (http://u-town.com/collins/?p=1642), I had no idea why she was so strong, or fast, or short. I figured it out later.

  13. averildean says:

    I’m a pantser too. With my last project, I tried to plot the whole thing ahead of time. I even had index cards. So fancy! But when it came time to write it, the story felt like a movie I’d already seen. I was bored to tears.

  14. Averil, I used to tell people, “You know, writing is a lot like reading. A lot of times I’m on the edge of my seat, wondering, ‘Wow, what’s going to happen next?'”

    Nobody ever believed me, so I stopped saying it.

  15. Stephen A. Watkins says:

    I’m coming into this as a planner/plotter, so I have a different, though not generally disagreeable, perspective.

    But I first wanted to say that I do disagree that a character who performs vile or evil acts (like murder) having a tortured past might be sort of cliched. I disagree because… well… that’s how things work, largely, in real life. Sure, some murderers or other vile people may come from stable and comfortable backgrounds – but that’s not the norm. There is usually violence in the past that’s part of what makes a person violent. So using that mechanism as part of the full understanding of a particularly violent character shouldn’t come off as cliched – it’s something that makes intuitive sense. Avoiding something like that, just because you think it’s cliched, is just asking for an out-of-nowhere and nonsensical “Richard Cory” as you call it. Now, that’s the only part I want to say I disagree with.

    The rest… well… I’m a planner, as I said. And you’re kind of coming around to the point that the characters have to make sense in the context of the story and vice versa. I think this is absolutely true. Character and plot are intertwined.

    But there are multiple approaches to reaching that point. Pantsers learn who the character is as they go along, and the plot grows organically from that learning process. For me, as a planner, I have to know who the character is before I start writing. I build the plot, beforehand, around that knowledge. The process is different, but the end result, if executed effectively, is still the same: an organic intertwining of plot and character.

  16. Stephen, I’m glad you dropped by.

    Fasten your seatbelt, because I’m going to use Steig Larsson as an example of good writing for a change.

    In the backstory of Lisbeth Salander, there is fairly horrendous abuse and violence, and the specific forms that this took have a lot to do with how she is when we meet her. Not only violence, but her never trusting anybody in a position of authority, for example, and Larsson even throws in a possible diagnosis of Aspergers Syndrome to explain some other things. In a word, it’s complex, and I think it works.

    Larsson wasn’t a really good writer, but he understood a lot about the world, as I wrote about here (warning, there are spoilers).

    What becomes a cliche is the straight-line over-simplified “abuse –> violence” shorthand which I see from time to time. It’s nowhere near that simple, obviously, and that’s how things become cliches: something with some amount of truth gets flattened out and oversimplified and overused by lazy writers.

    Of course, if Salander were here, she’d say that this is all nonsense, that everybody has a choice about how they act, no matter what they themselves have experienced. In her view of the world, this kind of cause and effect is simply an excuse.

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  18. tpaulin says:

    Loved reading this post and your dialog with Jo!

    I have a copy of Writer’s Guide to Character Traits by Dr. Linda Edelstein, and it’s a fascinating read. It actually gave me a lot of insight into the people around me, not just the pretend people in my books!

    When I’m weaving the first materials of a new character, I take a single facet of the main character and cast someone who is the opposite. Selfless – selfish. Spontaneous – careful. Then I have to work back a reason they are the way they are.

    But here’s my secret, secret trick: I pretend the book is a movie and I try to make every character one that an actor would be excited to play. The smaller the appearance, the wackier and more eccentric the side character.

  19. Jo Eberhardt says:

    “I pretend the book is a movie and I try to make every character one that an actor would be excited to play.”

    I love this. I really, really do.

  20. Tamara, that’s interesting, the idea of balance between the opposite characteristics. It reminds me of the Roger Zelazny book To Die in Italbar. The idea for that book came to him as “A good man going bad, and a bad man going good.” But of course it ended up more complex than that.

    As for the movie idea, I’ve never done that. I am very influenced by movies (more than by books, as I’ve talked about here before), but I’ve never though of the books as actual movies. Of course, when I introduce a character, I usually don’t know if they’re a main character or a side character anyway.

    Well, mostly I do know, but I’m often wrong. But I do think that ifa character is one that an actor would be excited to play, it will be one that will make an impression on the reader, too.

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