The Sweet Spot – How Much Detail Does A Character Need?

This topic jumped at me after thinking about a post I replied to in Facebook. Bear with me with some background information.

The posting was about the revelation that JRR Tolkien was nominated for the Nobel Prize in literature by C.S. Lewis in 1961, and poor Tolkien was discounted early in the selection process – apparently for poor storytelling, or something similar. This article was topical because of the fame of LOTR, and in particular by Peter Jackson's screen adaptations. Many people 'ooed and ahhed' because they viewed him as a master writer, but a friend of mine, John Hughes, pointed out that Tolkien was far from being a literary genius. Nuances apply here. Setting aside whether a reader likes LOTR or not (or Tolkien or not), a successful storyteller he is, and given the generations and multitudes of people who read, and reread LOTR, he is in my mind a master storyteller. There is a distinction between master writer versus master storyteller, when it comes to the assessment of literary excellence. While I'm not saying the Nobel Committee are the doyens of literary assessment, I think they got it right with Tolkien, from a literary point of view, and especially in 1961.

Now, to the thoughts I really wanted to share with you. If LOTR isn't a literary masterpiece, by some high standards, why is it so successful, including in pre-Jackson days? I think it's because it is a darn good yarn. Tolkien himself stated that his objective was to write a really long tale and sustain interest – he scoffed all his life at efforts to dissect his work, to find meaningful allegory. He most certainly did succeed in writing a sustained yarn. But are his characters written well – with depth and insight? More importantly, did they need to be?

I think we come to an area of fiction writing that applies universally, but in different ways depending on the writer, the genre/style, and the audience: even the most 'literary' writers don't spell everything out when it comes to character portrayal. The most difficult, and rewarding part of writing, in my experience, is being able not just to describe what needs to be described, but in a way use absence of information to enable readers to fill in the gaps. The art of illusion. Some writers spend a lot of time on character description – by show and tell, preferably more by show. These works are often centrally concerned with characters – this is what these writer's readers want – and is often motivated to draw out emotions, states of mind, etc, that simply cannot be invoked by pure, plot-driven narrative. This is goodness. On the other hand, there are works of literature that might want to emphasize theme, or, like Tolkien, plot (a tale, a yarn). Needless to say the permutations of what lies between are virtually limitless.

Regardless of how much characterization a writer wants to drive, in combination with the many other elements of what makes a piece of fiction, there is nevertheless a balance required, and good craftsmanship. LOTR wasn't devoid of characterization, and there certainly are many characters who come across vividly. But a lot of it comes from Tolkien's skill as a writer who knows how to craft 'absence' of information. Tolkien liked the narrative style (hey, have a go at the Silmarillion), and he stuck to his brand of voice. The key here, is that he found, within his voice, the sweet point – the balance, in LOTR (and the Hobbit, and fragments of work he did not publish).

Does this mean Tolkien should have won the Nobel Prize? No. I don't believe so. I think the Nobel Prize isn't geared toward the type of fiction Tolkien wrote – it represents, ideally, a lifetime's work in experimentation and exercising of skills in virtually all facets of fiction. It is also, quite frankly, a literary award in the most pure, snobbish sense. The Hugos, Nebulas, Bram Stokers, etc etc cater for genre fiction, and where there is a little (and I emphasize, little) more flexibility with regard to where along the literary spectrum the sweet spot is required (I think of Paulo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, as a perfect example of all the ideals of 'literary' fiction in genre fiction).

So, how much detail does a character need? Answer, it depends. But to achieve the 'sweet spot', there is just as much effort in determining what is written, from what can be drawn from what is not.

Six Common Writing Issues In Submitted Manuscripts: An Editor’s Perspective

I have been Chief Editor for IFWG Publishing for nearly two years and in the 1.5 million published words I have edited, I have observed common patterns of issues with submitted manuscripts, particularly from (as then) unpublished writers. I thought I might outline six of them below.

I will not talk about SPAG, typos, or simple stylistic mistakes – from my perspective if these are endemic in a manuscript, they would never have got to the editor's desk. The odd error isn't an issue, and it never will be – although I would recommend strongly to authors trying to break into the market to place some emphasis on these fundamentals in your synopses, submitted chapters, queries, etc. From a selection perspective, it is hard to ignore basic errors in submissions. Tsk Tsk.

So here goes the more common, interesting issues:

1. Conversation Style Versus Formal Narrative

A writer should understand to a point where it is second nature that writing a piece of fiction is the art of simulating everyday language, not realistically capturing it. With the exception of dialogue – where the writing can get closer to 'real world', it is important to write in a more formal mode than what would be expressed in ordinary conversation. When I relate some incident of the past to a person who I am talking to, there will be ums and ers and repetition, and iteration, and so forth. But this isn't a mode you would want to use in your writing, as it would bore the reader to death, if not confuse – this is an extreme example but more subtle examples can often be found in raw manuscripts.

A few words that are often overused in narrative are 'but' and 'then', and to a lesser extent, 'so'. These are words that spring from conversation, and perhaps idiom. They are not good words to heavily use in fiction, and it is truly amazing how often they are employed. I can spot a mature writer 9 out of 10 times by the near-absence of these words, alone.

If there is any category of mine that urges writers to write a lot, get peer reviewed a lot, and read a lot, it is this one. There are many styles to choose from, well covered in creative writing theory, but they are all simulation constructs of reality. I repeat, it must be second nature to a writer to enable maturity in fiction writing.

2. Stage Direction Versus Trusting The Reader

Many new writers feel it is necessary to spell out every eye glance, turning of the head, body position etc of every character in their manuscripts. Especially around dialogue. Yaaaaaargh!!!!  That is pretty much what I say when I read it. It is almost like the writer has constructed her story like a play, or a film, and has then taken over the role of director and has added directorial notes to each scene in the script. MARK STARES DOWN AT HIS PLATE – "I don't know what to say… it felt cool at the time." HE THEN LOOKS UP AND STARES AT FRED, THEN JENNY. "I'm real sorry." Ad infinitum.

What makes fiction such a wonderful medium is that can be (should be) constructed so that the reader can fill gaps – the mundane stuff. Keep eye glances to a minimum – if not, it becomes boring, and probably irritating. Same goes for turning of bodies, opening and closing of doors constantly, marking every foot of movement within a scene. Yaaaaaargh!!!  Trust the reader.

3. Chaos Versus Order for Point of View (POV)

With some small exceptions, it is sinful to change POV within a chapter, or between breaks within chapters. Sinful.

For narrative to flow, at a micro and macro level, the reader needs some degree of stability in the sentences and paragraphs. Something to anchor the flow. Order. I wont go into POV in any detail, but within the third person mode of writing, particularly in past tense, the writer has amazing control of the universe and can have anything happen, any time and any place. The switching of scenes is pretty easy, but within each chapter, or subsection of chapter, the flow hinges on how the information is delivered – it is rare to have a large passages written without a POV – the protagonist, a side-kick, whoever.

And this is where I often find issues. Writers will naturally write with POV from an intuitive perspective – and not realize that they will change it in mid-stride – often mid paragraph. This disrupts the flow for the reader, and can often confuse them. If it seems 'right' to change POV, do it with breaks within chapters, or even better, by having these switches occur between chapters.  Don't get me wrong, changes of POV can enrich a novel, but not done haphazardly.

4. Tell Versus Show

An old chestnut – Creative Writing 101 and all that. And yet writers will fall into the trap so many times. This can't be a 100% rule, and there are cases where large passages deserve the tell mode, but in typical fiction it is critical to let the action, the words, the inferences, show the reader what is going on instead of treating them like young school children. This hearkens back to Issue #2 – trust the reader.

5. KISS Versus Complexity

Another old chestnut, and with the same provisos as Issue #4. However, I am not so much interested in the redundant half chapters, or even whole chapters that need to be eradicated – again, they are pretty self-evident. I am referring to the micro – the sentences that have too many words, or even clauses, again echoing the non-compliance with the 'trust the reader' epithet. I sometimes feel that certain sentences which are clumsy and hard to follow (often too long) exist because the author liked the start, and when confronted with painting herself into a corner, announces "damn the torpedoes!". With a little thought, perhaps a bit of a break, a rewrite will clear it up and it may or may not require a complete rework or splitting into multiple sentences. I amazes me how often just shaving off a few (or more words) is enough to turn a poor sentence into something sparkling and fresh (and most importantly, flowing).

6. Echo Versus Flow

I know I said I wouldn't talk about the absolute fundamentals, but I have to say something about the prevalence of word echo – repetition of words (or roots of words) in close proximity. There is no exacting science in determining some, but I can put my hand on my heart and say I can spot them every time, unfailingly. As a writer, I can miss a few, but a reread will usually pick them up. This is one of those 'intuitive' traits of being a writer – one of those skills that make up the craft.

And there you go. I might add another six down the track, but I can safely say the list above represents the lion's share of editing work that I carry out with new (and less than new) writers in my daily activity.

Comfort #2

This continues an earlier discussion (thread really) regarding my story conception of The Comfort of Beanbags, which I originally wrote as a short story. Here is the earlier discussion.

In line with the most basic of writing tenets, I know that this story should not be longer than what is needed in the telling, and with more time spent conceptualising this story than any other, I believe it should be more like novella – perhaps (gut feeling) around 30k. I have come up with lots of ideas on world building, and I am happy how it has settled. Very happy. However, I have never had to take so much time coming to this final form.

Now to do it. 🙂