I am not a number, I am a free… character
by Ulff Lehmann
or something like it. To be honest, it sounded wittier in my mind. The point the heading is supposed to make will become clear, I hope. Since I am writing this more stream of consciousness than I have everything figured out-lined I may hit some speed bumps, but as long as I get to a point I believe it’s cool.
Anyone with a bit of writing experience will surely have come across this particular issue: a friend asks you to review something and within the first few lines you stumble across a problem. A character is at a bar or some other place people usually only visit when they want to or already have performed a certain activity. The character’s mood is gloomy.
My first question is based upon a specific line of thought: why is the character at the bar? If they’ve been nursing a drink for a while, the author should have mentioned it. Were they supposed to meet someone? Has the person they were to meet already left? That sort of stuff, the proverbial egg or chicken question. To the newcomer writer this may not seem like a matter of importance, and maybe I am putting more emphasis on this sort of stuff than is necessary. But I don’t care — I don’t think so… you pick one.
The thing is this: as writer we don’t necessarily record every second of a character’s life, unless you write a Ulysses type story. In fact there are large portions we leave out, and while many of them are irrelevant to the story, to the character they are not. And if they are relevant to the character they are relevant to the writer. The newbie writers may now ask “If it’s not relevant for the story, why should I bother with it?” and that is a perfectly relevant question. Although I hope many of us have stumbled across the answer long ago, not necessarily in novels but in other forms, like audio dramas and movies.
Imagine you are following a group of people, they are talking about altering human behavior from birth on. The group enters a building, you follow, but you are too slow to catch them in the elevator. That door closes before you and you are forced to run upstairs to hear more of their nefarious plan.
Of course such a scenario is impossible in real life, but that is beside the point. The point is that the conversation will continue without you. It’s not the case of a tree crashing in the woods without anybody hearing it, yes it will make a sound, same as the occupants of the elevator will keep on talking. They won’t stop for your benefit.
Same goes for characters in novels. Since we writers don’t necessarily capture all of their actions on proverbial paper, it is only natural that we “miss” certain things for no other reason than dramaturgic effect. The reader benefits from such cuts as it elevates tension, but as writer we must know what has happened before in order to avoid gaps in character or logic.
So, our character Paul (I always name my random characters Paul nowadays, it used to be Ed, Ted, or Tom) sits in a bar nursing a drink. The reader doesn’t care why, he’s just meeting the fellow, but we as creators of Paul (don’t you feel all-powerful now? mwhahaha) know there is more going on. Or should know. If he’s just there waiting for a pal, him nursing a drink is nothing more than getting a pre-party buzz. If his date never showed up, that drink is about as much consolation as he will get. Why is he at the bar? The reader doesn’t care, the writer should always care. It’s not as if the characters stop acting as soon as we close a chapter. The scenes we describe are not like theater scenes where the actors remain motionless until the light comes on… Problem is, a lot of newbie writers don’t understand that. If Paul is at the bar distraught over his date not showing his mood will be different to the pre-buzz party mood.
The problem is that many newbies don’t see it that way, they see only what’s on the page, or try to avoid thinking about this stuff because they have never thought about it other than theater scenes. The light goes on, the scene begins… the chapter opens the scene begins. Mood is relevant to any scene and every character, and while we as writers do not have to explain why Paul is miserable, we writers need to know because it allows us to mold his behavior accordingly.
Some might disagree, and that is their right. To them I just say that the more you know about your characters, the better you can predict their actions. Always ask yourself “Why is that character doing this stuff?” even a psychopath has his reasons, they probably are so far beyond us that the answer will probably always be “He’s a fucking psychopath” but at the very least he is consistent in that.
A reader might not care about why a character is at a bar, and the majority might never care, but as author we should always care. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” doesn’t set much of a stage, but aside from the obvious question “wtf is a hobbit” we are immediately handed the answer to our second question: it ain’t no mud hole but a hobbit hole and we get all the explanation as to what that hole is, and quite frankly, it sounds nice, I wouldn’t mind living there. And since it is a home, we do not need anymore explanation why the hobbit lives there.
Another example: Paul sits at his table, brooding. Why does he sit at his table? Is the first question out of my mouth, and until I get an answer that makes sense, I will keep asking. Because he does makes as little sense as because it’s comfortable. Why do people sit at a table when there is an armchair or a sofa around? Supper, work, hobby would be answers, although while I don’t care what he had for supper, his work and/or hobby might be relevant as to why he is brooding. Maybe he likes to build world war models; maybe he was assembling a tank and is reminded of the misery the world is in, fuck knows that’s enough to get me brooding. Maybe he works as an accountant and has taken home some work he was unable to finish at his firm. Maybe this particular account belongs to a gang of human traffickers, a fact that he has just found out and he does not know what to do with that bit of info, once more reason enough for him to brood. Maybe the reason he is brooding has nothing to do with why he’s sitting at the table; a situation anyone familiar with mental illness will disagree with. Sure we might wake up cranky, or in a fouler mood even, but we do need a trigger to begin brooding. If depression is triggered in bed, we’ll stay there. And if we make it to the table only to start brooding there, there best be a damn good reason as to why.
Cause and effect, even on a book’s pages a necessity. If the warrior drives a blunt sword through someone else’s eye, they have to have a reason for using a blunt weapon and killing that person. The situation is more dramatic than Paul at a table, brooding, sure, but it requires the same questions: why do they hold a blunt sword? Why do they kill that person? In this case we better get an explanation in the previous pages, but the same logic applies. Be it brooding or stabbing, we need a reason for both… unless the character is a psychopath, in which case all reason is kind of useless.