Back (For Reals This Time) – and Description Advice!

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So… I fell off the face of the Earth. Again. Sorry about that, folks, but circumstances were not with me once again. Fingers crossed I can steam through any further problems life tries to throw at me. But, onto the main topic of this blog’s renewal post!

During my months lurking in cyberspace, haunting my usual writing forums, I kept coming across the same question raised in numerous threads: that of describing characters without being cliched or boring. Finally, I tore myself free and added my two cents. Here’s what I wrote:

Always try and find dynamic ways to introduce descriptions that are interesting and natural to the narrative.

For example, in my first MS I briefly introduced a policeman who was rather portly… But rather than coming right out and saying “Here’s a fat old copper”, I slipped lines like “bloated sausage fingers thumbed through a notepad”,  “he sat down as gracefully as he could, the unfortunate chair groaning under the pressure regardless”, and “he patted his stomach, which continued to ripple and bounce a good five seconds after” into the narrative, each hinting that he’s amusingly round yet not ashamed of his appearance.

If you practice this method of description, it not only seems natural as, just like in real life, the reader will notice different things about your characters over time, but it also allows them to fill in the blanks and personalise the characters – again, for example, I never mention what colour or style hair the policeman had, if any; that’s something minor left to the reader’s imagination.

Avoiding info dumps isn’t just a lesson in exorcising laziness, it also helps freshen narrative and pace. Gone are the days of Dickens & Austen, where one could get away with spending pages describing a miserly man or a pair of curtains. Readers don’t want to feel like they’re being forced to read a detailed biography before being allowed to go on enjoying the story, they want to enjoy it at a natural pace, and that’s what dynamic description can do.

Just be careful not to take it to the extreme and fall into the old trap of only mentioning something important about a character JUST when they need to utilise it, as that too can appear like a lazy cop out. For example, the Doctor’s sonic screwdriver: it was introduced years ago as a highly advanced multipurpose tool that can do just about anything (except work on wood), so we as the audience accept it when it’s utilised to deal with a situation or baddie. But if we’d never heard of the darn thing until the Doctor was faced with a room full of activating Daleks and a ticking timebomb, it comes across as a cheap trick, a deus ex machina, a storytelling cheat (of course, the screwdriver is so overused these days that it’s become just as much a lazy problem solution device, but it’s kinda earned the right by this point, even if it means the writers get a bit unoriginal. But I digress…)

Instead, try for the opposite effect, that of Chekhov’s Gun. It’s a term that means if a gun is shown in Act 1, someone is probably going to use it by the end of the story, and character description can utilise this. Give your character(s) a random, seemingly useless item, trait, skill, etc that appears to just be thrown in to make them original. Only, of course, you know differently, and plan to have said item/trait/skill come into good effect later down the line.

This can also tie into foreshadowing: if you mention in passing that “Character A was surprisingly strong for his age”, then maybe that could be a subtle hint that, sometime in the future, there’s going to be a serious problem that only Character A’s strength can solve. Maybe Character B falls off a cliff, and only A was strong enough to pull him back up to safety, you get the idea…

Anyways, I’ll stop rambling now. Hopefully I’ve helped a little bit in understanding ways to utilise more than just stock descriptions. But no matter what, just enjoy writing and it’ll show – that’s the most important thing 🙂

Take care,
Dave

…. So yeah, that’s my input. Hope it helped! I might make more advice posts like this in future if this proved popular!

Dave

Day 13 – My Problem with NIER (Drafted AGAIN)

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Guess my app just has weird days. This blog has been drafted for a day or two, so apologies for that…

Completed a game called NIER just now. I’m not usually one for action-rpgs – I’m an old-fashioned turn-based guy at heart – but I found myself really enjoying the game. The mix of hack and slash fighting, dark magic and even some ingenious use of “bullet-hell” spell dodging made NIER a game unlike anything I’ve played before.

It had it’s downsides, though; sometimes the game would bog itself down in too much narrative. And by ‘narrative’, I mean the entire screen would fade to black and pages and pages and PAGES of text would follow. As each block of text scrolled to the bottom, I found myself praying that would be the end of it… Only to have the game go “Nope – surprise, asshat!”, and spew forth even more annoying WERDS 😦

Also, there seemed to be an awful lot of character-hate for the only female member on your team. Character-hate, for those that might be confused, is when the character’s creators go out of their way to brutalise the poor thing.

Now, as a writer, I know ‘Hurt your heroes’ is pretty much a commandment. But there’s hurting your hero, and then there’s kicking the crap out of them, repeatedly, with a rusty shovel of HATE. Seriously, this poor girl took so much punishment it’s no wonder she’s such a hard-ass.

But that’s not the problem – sure, by showing the hardships she’s had to endure, and continues to endure, we come to appreciate her attitude. We accept she’s a tough as nails survivor. But there are two other people in the party. Do you see what I’m getting at, yet?

Let me elaborate: another rule of writing, which goes hand in hand with “Hurt your heroes”, is the fact that conflict and peril builds character. We get to see our heroes overcome obstacles, watch them learn and evolve from the situation, whilst at the same time appreciating how they’ve changed, what they’ve become, etc.

BUT… Too much of anything is bad for you. And overplaying these writing rules is no different; when this female character was placed in peril the first time, our natural reaction is “*gasp* Oh no!”, followed by a sigh of relief when she pulls through.

The second time, we’re like “*gasp* Not again! How could she possibly survive THIS?!” Again, this is followed by relief when she pulls through, albeit maybe less so, because we’ve already seen her survive worse.

The THIRD time, your reaction is something like “*yawn* Oh, come ON! There’s two other guys, you know!” Because, just like that, the danger and the shock value is gone. We were expecting it because it’s happened too many times already. The sensation of peril has been irreversibly diluted.

When you’re dealing with a single MC, it’s natural that the majority of the bad stuff is going to happen to them. But when you have 3 main characters in the party, and all the terrible stuff happens to just one? It takes the sense of uncertainty away – we KNOW things are going to get worse, which is good. Peril needs to escalate towards the climax. But we also know most of the bad stuff is going to happen to her, which is bad. It damages the other characters when the chance of danger is stripped from them, and that’s a sad loss.

So, yes, NIER was good, but writing wise it had it’s flaws. Still, I’d recommend it to any fan of RPGs who’s looking for something a little different.

Rating: 4/5

Til tomorrow!

Dave