I’ve come across a few “styles” since the beginning of this year that tick me off.
Of course, I should start with a disclaimer: I know I’m not a perfect writer. And because I’m not yet published, you may pretend I’m merely a reader. But as a reader, I’m allowed to have opinions and be annoyed at things. As long as I have the ability to back this up, my opinions care be valuable.
Let’s get to it. These are two things that have been ticking me off lately.
1) What is everyone’s obsession with eye color?
Profiles are important. There’s no doubt about this. We want to visualize each person in a scene, especially if that person is or will become important to the story. When a writer finds eye color to be more important than what’s going on in the scene, especially when there are over three characters present, I either lose sight of what’s going on or get everyone’s eyes mixed up.
“I really like this cake,” John said, taking a huge bite and smiling. His eyes were green.
In the above sample, eye color is an afterthought.
“I really like this cake,” John said. He took a huge bite, green eyes smiling.
I fixed it for you. Now we have some context. Now we can remember the color in relation to an action instead of trying to remember the color after it was awkwardly tacked onto the end. “But taking a bite backs up John’s statement about the cake,” you might say. No, the fact that John voiced his opinion makes it stronger. Watching how he smiles when he eats the cake backs up his statement.
When creative writing teachers tell you to be more descriptive, it doesn’t mean they want useless information. I have over twenty co-workers that I see every day, and I can’t recall the eye color of any of them. It’s not as important as their stature or vocal quality to me.
2) Please stop having your protagonist ask the reader what’s going to happen.
I’m hungry. Should I eat something? I could make a sandwich or eat the leftover pasta. Would a sandwich be as filling? If the pasta tasted bad yesterday, would it be worse today? Should I add better spices to the pasta or eat the sandwich more slowly so it can fill me better? Who else will eat the pasta if I don’t?
If you were a little frustrated by the speaker the end of that paragraph, welcome to the club. I’m aware these are supposed to be rhetorical questions, but it gets to a point where the more questions there are, the less I care about what happens. Go outside and eat dirt for all I care! If the speaker is contemplating a more complex problem, the questions he/she asks can potentially give away what ends up happening. When I’m not surprised by a story, I don’t usually find it it to be a good book.
Some authors might defend that the protagonist is asking these questions to him- or herself. Unless some actual answers are provided, I believe a paragraph such as the one above is evidence of the author running around going, “Hell if I know!” because they haven’t figured out their own plot yet.
I’m hungry. Should I eat now? A sandwich sounds good, but there’s a lot of leftover pasta in the fridge. A sandwich might not be as filling, but given how awful the pasta was yesterday I think I should stick with the tastier option. I try to think of what spices to add to the pasta that would overpower the awful rosemary and come up with nothing. I make myself a sandwich, planning to chew slowly so it fills me better. Someone else can take the leftovers.
That’s a little better. We see how the speaker comes to the conclusion to make a sandwich. Although I happen to love leftover pasta, I can agree with this decision based on the evidence provided.
I kid you not, I’ve read published fiction very similar to the first example in each point. I have also made these mistakes myself, and I’m working on them. This is why multiple drafts are so important. Each time you edit, you’re getting a more complete look of the protagonist’s thoughts and perceptions.
I’m hungry again. All that talk about food. Should I eat now? I’m looking around the room with my blue eyes.
On the way out of a Kroger after one shopping trip, I passed a man with the angelic poise of John Lithgow. He seemed more familiar as I approached him, and with the giddiness of a new crush, I realized why. Was it really him? One of my favorite characters in my new series? I studied his hair, his face, his posture, and soon found my steps leading me directly to him. He turned his head to meet my gaze and trapped me in the pure blue eyes of Henry Czerny.
I approached him short of breath, open-mouthed and ready to gasp, “It’s you!” It had to be my favorite villain, or so I believed. Although it was impossible to be true, I wanted to ask even if it meant confusing a complete stranger. I would re-enter the store with him if it meant discovering who he was.
But before I could embarrass myself, my family called to me to cross the street with them. I tore myself from the doorway and left.
He wasn’t who I hoped; I knew so without asking. It was silly of me to think so. My character’s hair has less white in it, and he wouldn’t do his own grocery shopping because he’s stinking rich. The following week, I saw the same man at Kroger in a uniform. Apparently, my villain is a supervisor. (I said nothing to him then and was relieved he didn’t recognize me.)
The funny thing is this wasn’t an odd occurrence. A few months before, I saw another of my beloved villains at work. Of course, this one didn’t look exactly as he should either, but a gal can dream. I began to watch his movements for character inspiration, and thankfully I didn’t open my big mouth and tell any of my co-workers about my enthusiasm for the potentially evil clown making copies in our library.
I know this is somewhat delusional. I know characters don’t walk around in real life. Sometimes, you consume enough of something that it’s all you see in the world. For example: when you marathon one show for a whole week, everything in your day-to-day life reminds you of that one episode or that set or a quirk of some actress. I’ve been enjoying the writing process, much to my surprise, and I’m happy to be reminded of the lovely world I’ve created. It must mean I’m doing something right.
Someday, in the near future, I’ll see another character in real life. Like the others, I’ll be struck with inconceivable adoration and may even have the balls to approach him or her or you. It will be very embarrassing and we’ll both laugh it off when I explain why I approached you. As I work more with my novel’s characters, they become more real to me. So real, it won’t seem strange that they’re no longer in my imagination. I won’t risk the chance that, in some other universe, they could be real people.
If you who are reading this recall a complete stranger looking on you with awe, that stranger was probably a writer, and that writer was probably me, and you—yes, you—are a beloved character in someone else’s imagination. (If this is true and you are one of my characters, sorry about the crap I put you through. It was needed for your personal development.)