A Character with Any Other Name – Description, Action, Dialogue
When writing fiction, the writer sees the action in the mind, and there’s some question whether the characters-in-action really have a unique look. Of course, some are men, some women, and some are strong or old or weak. But, like a dream, they are shadowy forms, and a direct transcription on paper reveals events, not fully developed characters. Too often, for the beginning writer, all characters look, sound, and act just like the writer – and that’s not good.
Try this first draft, direct from a writer’s imagination.
Herb and his wife were sitting in chairs by the window.
Suddenly two men beat in the door and rushed in.
Herb came to his feet to stop them.
But they grabbed his wife and lifted her from the chair, screaming.
How is that good writing? Well, it does have continuing action, and it would be expected to fill the reader with empathy for the beleaguered couple. But something is clearly missing. If you had written this, what would you have built in?
More words? Yes. After all, this is just a first draft. However, in terms of getting an event down on paper, maybe it’s an OK start. Remember – the “white heat of creativity” is very real, and it’s important for a writer to get the action down first – adding details later.
(This is like grammar. If a beginning writer who needs help with grammar would focus on grammatical perfection in each sentence as the writing goes along, it will take so long to write the document that the original purpose and meaning would be likely to get lost along the way.)
So what, exactly, is missing? Look at the passage from the reader’s point of view. (If there is any axiom here, it that the reader’s point of view is the most important consideration.)
Does the reader really see the couple? Are they sitting in chairs and reading by the window (that’s my guess)? Or are they twiddling their thumbs or clapping their hands in glee? Really, there’s no way to know.
Then, when the thugs enter, are they young and strong (that’s my guess). Or are they obese wrestlers from next door or a comedy team from a local television station? Who knows?
And, when they enter and grab the lady, how is the reader seeing the scene? From the man’s point of view (that’s my guess)? Or does the woman see them as friends from work and laugh at the prank as she enjoys her husband’s shock? Your guess is as good as mine.
This can be a fun vignette but it has a point. Any event, at least in fiction, is firmly embedded in context, and it is essential for the reader to share that context with the writer. If not, the scene above is open to multiple interpretations. (Remember – multiple impressions are welcome in poetry, less welcome in fiction.)
Let’s try changing the scene, filling in just a portion of what would be needed to properly flesh out the scene.
Herb and his wife were sitting in chairs by the window. “I’m sorry,” Herb breathed again as he shook his head in regret. His flabby cheeks bulged and reddened as he gritted his teeth in dismay.
Gloria’s face tightened and her eyes narrowed as she tried to understand what Herb had just confessed. Her blue eyes, usually bright and optimistic, began to narrow in fear. She looked down as her thin fingers still struggled to keep her place in the Bible she had been reading this morning. Still in shock, she gazed out the window.
Suddenly two men beat on the door.
“They’re here!” wailed Herb.
“No!” she moaned.
As fists thundered on the door Herb found himself thinking of the thick oak doors he had admired two weeks ago at the home store in town. If he had only arranged to have an oak door installed. That would have protected them.
But no, as he suspected, their door yielded in splinters and the gang members he had met that morning entered.
The tallest thug entered first, bald head bleeding from its not-so-gentle encounter with the thin veneer of the door. Sweating, bulging body-builder shoulders burst through wooden shards like paper as he stepped into the room and glared at Gloria. He hesitated for a short moment, studying the situation, as his partner came through door from behind, distractedly pulling debris from his curly red air and his 2004 USA T-shirt.
“Go away!” Gloria shrieked, her eyes narrowing in fear as the men descended on her chair and lifted her away.
Hearing her shrill scream, the tall man circled her mouth with his sinewy arm.
Barely noticed by the men, Herb slipped the letter opener from its place on the side table and launched his pudgy body at the pair. He focused on his only advantages – surprise and weapon. Mercilessly he drove the weapon into the belly of tall man even as he drove his knee into the abdomen of the other.
Enraged, the men dropped their prize and turned on him.
Is that enough?
As a writer, I dislike the scene but I enjoy its vivid picture. In the first, I pitied the woman. In the second, I gave Herb a lot more credit. But I’m never going to be satisfied until I know what Herb was apologizing about.
However, as a writer’s exercise, let’s ask the technical question. What was added? Character description was a real help. But action also had to be added. And dialogue too.
As a lesson in fiction writing, keep these tools in mind as you create unforgettable scenes. In fact, it may be said the character description alone – without supporting action and dialogue – can dilute the strength of writing.
And hopefully your scenes will have more purpose than the writer’s exercise presented above.
I think Herb will win. What do you think?