5.11.2017

Eulogy for the Living

When a loved one passes, it is time for reflection about what qualities the deceased possessed. A memorial service is held, and if you were close enough, you feel like you’d like to say some words about the person. Most of these remarks are fairly brief. The person shares a funny story or two. Some outstanding traits are cited as a way to remember the one now gone.

One of the biggest problems I see with writers is a lack of focused background information. A lawyer will tell a war story that was so hilarious in the corridor outside the courtroom. A doctor will tell a story about a patient with a curious malady. Real-life stories offered up as entertainment. That’s all fine, but it also reveals the distance of the author from what he’s writing. His feet are still anchored in the real world. 

That’s why a eulogy can be a useful guide when you are selecting background information about a character. Unless it is your protagonist, or other significant character, you want to be brief. A paragraph, maybe two, about the personality and then move on. A little later, perhaps a short past story that helps to frame what the character is going to do next. This material is dropped in on the way to the novel’s next big event. 

What if the character died? What would you say about her? To a large degree, that’s what you’re trying to get done with background material. You don’t have much time; most characters aren’t that important. Instead of the qualities that marked a dead person’s life, you think in terms of the qualities that make a character distinct from the others. What do I want from this character? You tell an anecdote because it so perfectly reveals what the character is like. 

Writing background material is, to a large degree, the art of compression. You compose a quick study and move on. When it is focused, the character jumps off the page. That’s what you want: an array of vivid characters. You can shape each background as just another tile in a well-composed mosaic.

Exercise: Examine your latest draft with a focus only on one character. What material have you assigned to her? If you were summing up her life, what would jump out at you? Then consider how that fits with all of your other characters. How are their eulogies different?

“Eulogy. Praise of a person who has either the advantages of wealth and power, or the consideration to be dead.” 
—Ambrose Bierce

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine



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