Characters live in my head and from time to time, I let them out to play on paper. All the characters in my head are happy, fun-loving people. I would be friends with my characters. This presents a problem in my writing because I don’t like creating antagonists. I don’t like the guy who causes conflict or creates a problem for my happy people. I don’t want to go there which often makes my stories go nowhere.
Looking back at some of my work, the bad guy is the least developed character if he is even there at all. Many times, the source of conflict in my works is a vague idea of potential turmoil but not really tangible. I am just too nice.
Take Mr. Orville in my barn story. The story is suspenseful but Mr. Orville…not so much. He is the shadow of a bad guy. He’s a little grumpy but who wouldn’t be when his neighbor is snooping around on his property. So I am issuing myself a challenge…
Some of my favorite books include scenes where people are eating. The description of food adds such richness to the storytelling and often reveals something about the characters doing the eating. I love the food descriptions in John Grisham’s A Painted House. Not only does Grisham describe the prepared food itself in a way that makes cold biscuits sound delicious, but because his characters are poor cotton farmers he reveals the energy required just to put food on the table. He describes the whole family rising before dawn to tend to the farm animals, collecting eggs and feeding the livestock. He describes the women working in the garden behind the house and baking biscuits and pie and frying chicken all morning to have lunch ready for the crew working in the fields. In the first chapter, Grisham’s protagonist, a 7-year-old boy, is seen savoring a Tootsie Roll by taking a small bite and wrapping the rest of the penny candy in its wrapper for later. That attention to detail left me hungry after every chapter.
Stephen King uses food in a different way in his book Song of Susannah. The title character Susannah suffers from a fractured personality and her alter ego Mia is pregnant with demon spawn. King sets up scenes in which Mia, in control of Susannah’s mind and having midnight cravings, envisions banquet tables filled with aromatic roasted meat and pastries. In reality, Susannah is grabbing pond toads from out of the muck and crunching them live. In this way, King creates a world out of control and stirs the reader’s imagination with repulsion and sometimes even stimulates the gag reflex. He brilliantly uses these scenes to help the reader form an unfavorable opinion about Mia and sympathize with Susannah who is sometimes captive in her own body.
Lack of food is another technique writers use to emotionally connect the reader to characters. Anne Rice tends to tease her vampire characters by putting them smack in the middle of scenes where humans are enjoying Creole cuisine and French wine but the vampires are only tempted by the scent of the humans. Another example is Yann Martel’s Life of Pi in which a 16-year old boy is stranded on a lifeboat at sea with a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Not only does Pi have to solve the problem of his own starvation but he has to find a way to keep the belly of the tiger full so as not to become a meal himself. Martel captures the surrender required to survive 227 days at sea on a diet consisting mainly of raw fish.
Writers, if you find yourself stuck in a scene, why not go back and serve your characters a meal. It might reveal something new and take the scene in a whole new direction. Readers, go pick up a good book and really appreciate those food scenes. I’ve got to go make a snack.
My husband doesn’t ever want to see a movie a second time. If I pop in an old classic, he will walk in the room and declare, “Seen it!” and then go upstairs to play Halo. Actually, I’m pretty sure he’s not a movie fan at all. He commonly tells our friends after a night out at the local AMC theatre, “Well, I just paid nine bucks for a nap.” I give him points for going with the flow to make me happy.
I love movies and I like to watch the same ones again and again. The first time is purely for entertainment. The second time, I’m looking for elements I originally missed, and the third time I actually start to appreciate the work of the people behind the scenes.
I read books the same way. It’s actually become a problem around the house because I can’t seem to let go of any of my books and we’re running out of space. I don’t enjoy checking books out of the library because I never want to give them back. After the first reading, the characters become my friends. I put the book on a shelf and walk away but then I start to miss my friends. I start reading a new book and become distracted by my new friends for a while and even start to forget about the old ones on the shelf. Eventually, I have to dust that shelf and before you know it, the old book is back in my hand and then back on my night stand for another read.
For a writer, there are benefits to re-reading a good book, especially a book that has inspired you in a profound way. The second reading can be done with a critical eye to see how the writer achieved making a connection with you, the reader, allowing your own writing to grow. I’ve noticed since I’ve made writing a priority in my life, I look at things from a writer’s perspective. Certain subtleties that I once might have overlooked now catch my eye. While watching a sitcom on TV, I now take note of clever or stale dialogue. When reading a book, heavy on location description, I find myself skimming over an entire paragraph and nod my head. That paragraph could have been left out.
Taking note of these strengths and weaknesses in the works of others may seem arrogant, but only if I don’t apply what I’ve learned to my own writing. I invite you to take some time to revisit an old friend. Even if you’re not a writer, you may find that the life you’ve experienced since your last read brings a fresh perspective and you’ll enjoy the book even more.
Have you ever read a scene in a story and been transported to the location you’re reading about? Not actually transported but so involved in the story you could almost close your eyes and picture yourself there. Fred refers to the opening scene of George Orwell’s 1984 in which the reader finds himself in what Fred describes as, “a dystopia where military time is kept, where propaganda reigns, and where springtime feels more like midwinter.” For me, an exceptional example of setting up atmosphere is in the opening scene of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible. She describes the trees with, “brindled bark like muscular animals overgrown beyond all reason.” We see in her African jungle, “A single-file army of ants biting a mammoth tree into uniform grains and hauling it down to the dark for their ravenous queen.” This girl can set a scene!
Rich description involves the senses, all of them. To really transport the reader, the writer has to put himself there first. Today Fred challenges us to set up some atmosphere for our characters so I’m going back to my neighbor’s barn. Since I’ve never been inside I get to imagine what it might be like. Here goes:
Bent over in the hot sun, I hear the crunch of tires on gravel as the little black truck passes by. I straighten my back and offer a neighborly wave. He’s gone. Mr. Orville is headed to town so it’s now or never.
I drop my trowel and handful of weeds onto the dirt and turn slowly to confront the barn. The boards are worn and faded, weathered by eons of sun and rain and frost. A ghost of the red beauty it once was, cracks in the gray slats show slices of sky near the hay loft door. I take a step into the pasture. The tall brown grass crackles underneath my boots. Orville cuts the grass in the pasture a few times every summer, but he was sick last fall and winter hit before he got in the final mowing. As I move closer, the shiny tin roof looms overhead. It’s strange. Orville keeps the roof of the barn in immaculate condition, but the walls seem to be rotting away. “What is he keeping in there?”
I approach the corner of the barn furthest from the view from Orville’s house. He’s gone but maybe his wife is on watch today. The earth around the barn’s foundation is mounded up. I have to climb to put my face against the wall. The boards are rough with age. Leaning in pressing my hands against the wall to steady myself on the raised earth, I peer through a crack in the board. I squint and close one eye trying to see into the darkness.
Well, that’s a start. Duty calls and my writing time is up for today. I think I’ll come back to this later to see where it goes. It’s true that scheduling time to write every day and sticking to it is inspiring. Now, it’s stopping to go to work that is hard.