2.28.2017

Ordinary Implants

When an author is trying to add depth to characters, increasing the number of their thoughts is a common technique. Readers marvel at how well a character’s thoughts echo our own, but how is that possible? To a degree, the credit goes to the author’s acuity of concentration. Yet one ingredient in the mixture can be mastered by any author: observation of what occurs day-to-day. Even better, you can use the quotidian details as a launching point for more distinctive insights.

For an author, “a life observed” is a maxim. You should be writing down all sorts of sights, smells, observations, etc., as you go through your daily routine. If you don’t, they remain in the province of hazy thoughts. Without them, your characters remain more hazy—because you are not inviting the reader to share those details.

I’ll use a trifling example to show what I mean. “He was so tired, it took him three tries to realize all of the toothpaste was at the bottom of the tube.” We have all experienced the exasperation of this common annoyance. The reader can identify, which means he is invited to participate.

Describing an everyday object is only the starting point, though. This is where so many writers fall short. An obstacle is identified from a clinical standpoint. The observer might as well be a robot. In real life we have thoughts, however fleeting, that guide how we view an object.

In the case of the toothpaste, you need to make associations. Who else uses that tube? If it’s the character’s husband, is he guilty of never squeezing from the bottom of the tube? Does this reflect a general neglect of domestic duties that drives the character crazy? Spinning off from there, does that mean the character is a neat freak? Is she sick of her husband in general and because of that notices the toothpaste? The word “always” looms into view: “he’s always . . .”

The annoyance about toothpaste, which isn’t really worth remarking upon, can lead to observations that help define a lead character and those around him. The one sentence of observation can provide a springboard for a sentence or a paragraph of associated reflections. That’s where your growth as a writer comes. You can refine those reflections into a viewpoint on life that is unique.

Exercise: Modern technology has proved a tremendous boon for a writer. You are no more than a click away from dictating your observations of a striking detail. You don’t have to be literary on the spot. Just get the thing down on paper, as it were. Once you’re back at your desk, the real can become fused with the imagined.

“There isn't any such thing as an ordinary life.”
—L. M. Montgomery

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


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