One thing that the writer of fiction needs to be able to do on occasion is move forward through time in a fairly quick manner. That is, the writer needs to be able to “fast-forward” the narrative without losing the reader. One way to do this is to select a specific quirk about a character—a physical anomaly, for example, or a nervous tick, or even one of the “small humiliations” that you developed in Exercise One—and to make that quirk the axis around which a series of quick vignettes rotates. This strategy can be effective in several ways:
Focus: When you want to carry your reader across a couple of decades, it’s very easy to get sidetracked with all of the different incidents that happen to a character over that period of time. Although this may be fine in some cases, there are also times when you want to give the character just a brief bit of back story before getting on with the rest of the novel. Using a single quirk as an anchor can give you the focus you need to stop yourself from wandering too far afield.
Character Development: Another great thing about giving the character a quirk or a handicap is that you get to show the reader how your character deals with the quirk or compensates for the handicap in different situations. This, in turn, gives your reader a better sense of who the character is. It can also allow your reader to see your character grow over time. Maybe she hides the fact that one leg is shorter than the other as a teen by staying seated all the time, but later, as she comes into her own as an adult, she stops caring so much about what other people think and becomes a marathon runner or someone who loves to dance.
Handle: Once you’ve established the quirk, you’ve also given your character a handle, something readers can readily identify. My seventh grade teacher would call this synecdoche—part for the whole. But that “part” is so much more than a physical part, because it also carries a lot of emotional weight or baggage as well, especially if the quirk is intimately tied into the character’s development.
Activity: First, identify a quirk for one of your characters. It can be physical, psychological, or social. Next take your reader through several years or several decades of your character’s life, but be sure to keep the focus on the quirk and your character’s relationship with it. How does it hold the character back? How does the character overcome it? How does it help to flesh out the character?
Towards the end of the exercise, slow things down a bit by giving the reader a scene from the present tense of your novel or short story. Think about the ways in which the quirk has led the character to become who she is today, and use the quirk as your entrée into the larger narrative of the piece. If you want it to remain prominent, that’s fine, but the quirk can also fade very rapidly into the background. The idea is to use it as a transition into your novel’s main action, so it can figure as largely or marginally into the main action as you wish.
It’s not the torment of the flamesThat finally sees your flesh corrupted—It’s the small humiliations that your memory piles up. -Elvis Costello, “This is Hell”
One of the strengths of fiction is the sense of intimacy that grows between its characters and the reader. Our challenge as writers, then, is to create this sense of intimacy. We need to make readers fall in love with our characters—or at least to feel a kinship with our characters, to feel like their confidantes. One way to do this is to let our readers in on the flaws of our characters.
Though we may admire acts of heroism in our protagonists, these acts don’t make us fall in love with them as characters. What really makes us identify with characters is the fact that they’re flawed. To put it another way, flaws make fictional characters human. Indeed, much of what makes for a good story can revolve around a protagonist overcoming his or her flaws. With this notion in mind, I’d like everyone to try a writing exercise I call “Small Humiliations.”
Step One. Come up with a list of things your character doesn’t want other people to know about him or herself. Some examples might include the following:
“What if…” Obsession
Moment of Private Shame
A lie the characters has had to live with
Keep in mind that these don’t have to be serious. In fact, it’s great if some of them are humorous. As a reader, I love when I can see a little bit of myself in a character’s odd little obsessions, and it’s always great when these obsessions can help me laugh at my own quirks.
Step Two. Take one of the items that you’ve listed above and design a scene or passage around it. You can have the weakness interfering with some mundane task in the character’s daily life, or you can depict, in the case of an embarrassing moment, the actual incident that led the character to carry the burden of a private shame. Don’t worry too much about getting it perfect; this is just a sketch to help you get to know your character a little bit better. You can always go back and polish it a bit if you want to work it back into a larger narrative.
In addition to writing and teaching, I’ve sat on the editorial boards of a few different literary journals, and I’ve also served as the acquisitions editor for a small literary press. One common thread through all of these endeavors has been the use of a review sheet to help the editorial staff keep track of what they like and what they don’t like about submissions under consideration.
Some of the most common terms I’ve seen on editorial review sheets over the years are defined below. If you belong to a writers’ group or are thinking of starting one, you might want to use these terms to discuss the work that members of your group submit for review. Using these terms can help members of your group provide specific feedback to each other and move beyond general comments like, “It was good, but something was missing.”
Character Development: Basically, readers want to be able to believe in the characters you’ve created. This goes beyond being able to picture them in our minds; it’s more a matter of getting to know them as “people.” What do your characters want? What makes them tick? How have events in the story changed them? By the end of the story, we want to miss the characters in some way. We want to wonder what happens next in their lives. We want to care about your characters.
Plot: Plot refers, as most writers know, to rising action, climax, and resolution. But in character-driven fiction, plot is not just a matter of forcing a plot on a character (or a character into a plot). In many ways, the plot and character need to depend upon each other. In other words, don’t just give your character an obstacle (or set of obstacles) to overcome. (That’s how video games work, not short stories.) Give us an obstacle that’s meaningful to your character; make sure your character’s sense of self is somehow relevant to (and preferably changed by) the events that occur in the story.
Language: Another word for language is “style.” By and large, readers want stories that are told in a clear fashion. Flowery prose is okay in some instances, but not if it gets in the way of the story. Along similar lines, your grammar also needs to be polished. A proliferation of grammatical, punctuation, and spelling errors (and by a “proliferation,” I mean more than two or three in a manuscript), will make readers less likely to enjoy your story.
Voice: In many ways, voice is similar to language. One way to draw a distinction is to think of language as how the story is told and voice as who is telling it. The best advice I can give in terms of voice is to avoid putting on airs. In other words, don’t pretend to be an Elmore Leonard when at heart you’re a Leonard Cohen. Many journals and magazines aren’t necessarily looking for a specific style, but the editors and their readership do expect you to be consistent in the kind of language you use. In other words, if you start off using the Queen’s English, then shift into vernacular, and then end with a more academic tone, you’ll confuse your reader.
Flow: When you consider flow, think about whether all of the parts of your story build upon each other. If there’s a “detour” of sorts, you should probably take it out. In many instances, the flow of a story can be disrupted by pieces of trivia or other matters that the author may have found fascinating but that don’t advance the story.
Subject Matter: Just as different readers have different interests and tastes, editors (and, by extension, journals) look for different kinds of material. The best way to know if you’re writing about the kinds of things a specific editor or journal likes to publish is to read that journal.Keep in mind, though, that it’s best not to write about a subject because you think an editor will be interested in it. It’s best to write about things that matter to you and find journals that are interested in those subjects. If you’re commenting on a submission for a writers’ group, this could be a good place to suggest that the author submit to a particular journal based on its usual content.
Overall Impression: This category can allow you to sum up your feelings about a particular submission that you’ve been asked to read. Here, you can talk about the ways in which all of the other factors in the story come together to create a unified whole. Alternately, you can talk in more general terms about how making changes in one category might improve the story as a whole.
By discussing work in terms of these categories, your writers’ group can have more focused, nuanced, and, ultimately, productive sessions.