Narrative Tricks

An author writing a plot-driven book will rightfully claim that he does not have time for lengthy character explorations. They slow down the book’s pacing. Yet this approach also runs the risk of creating characters so ill-defined, they’re cartoon cutouts. The question for this author is: how do I create memorable characters in quick strokes? Here are a few tips:

First of all, your character has a memory. Let’s use a running example of an Ebola-like outbreak in a war-torn country in Africa. Let’s further posit that the protagonist is an American doctor trying to save patients. She arrives at a stricken village, and you provide a paragraph of description that fills in the harrowing details. All of this writing is exterior: that is, it could be described by anyone. So how do you make it an individual experience?

One way is to compare it to other outbreaks she has experienced. A doctor involved in infectious diseases usually is familiar with numerous types of these diseases. If she has served in other humanitarian crises, she would assess this one in terms of the previous ones. In other words, you’re using her memory to bind all of the sensory material in that descriptive paragraph to her.

Another trick is to put yourself in the character’s shoes at the moment she is experiencing action. Let’s say our doctor (we’ll switch to a man) steps out of his Jeep and approaches the door to what appears to be the village clinic. Again, you have a paragraph of description of approaching the closed door. Again, the writing is all exterior. How do you make it personal?

Ask the questions your character would ask. Start with: What does he fear is waiting on the other side of the closed door? That’s why you wrote all that descriptive stuff, isn’t it? You want to induce trepidation in the reader. So stick it inside the mind of the protagonist. Monkey see (the character), monkey do (the reader).

A third trick is to use description itself, only calibrated to the character. Let’s say the protagonist thinks she recognizes another doctor from back home, only he’s lying on one of the fetid clinic beds. You describe her first impressions, from a distance. Then, as she gets closer, she provides more pinpoint descriptions that she recognizes. All descriptions, but your character controls the focus.

Exercise: Here’s one more trick. If you have any emotional material at all, judge how impersonal it is. For example, when the woman doctor recognizes her friend:  “She experienced a rush of anxiety.” Do you mean: “She was terribly worried about him”? Try to use warmth in the emotional descriptions rather than accurately cataloging the state. You’re not using more words; you’re choosing the right words.

“Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart.” ― Fyodor Dostoyevsky 

Copyright @ 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.