Writing — Creating Characters in Small Spaces

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I am away on family business this weekend and will be unable to respond to comments until Sunday evening.  But I’m sure the rest of the MWers have opinions to share!

So, here I am working hard at my WIP, barreling down the final stretch, feeling the light at the end warming my skin, when all of a sudden my team of heroes comes up against the Big Bad.  The Big Bad has been talked about throughout the whole book.  We’ve heard about him from other characters and seen the devastating results of his handiwork.  We’ve come to know him as the dark specter lurking in the shadows waiting to strike.

But now we actually meet him.  Now, as a writer, I have to create a full, three-dimensional character with very little space left in the book.  The big question: how?

For the answer, I turn to my training as a short story writer.  In short stories, you face this question with every character.  From the beginning to the end you have limited space and must learn to convey large amounts of information as concisely as possible.  The tools at your disposal are the same as that of the novel writer — description, dialogue, action, thoughts, etc.  The only real difference is the space allotted.

Using patented Faith-o-vision, below is the opening page of my short story “A Final Battle” from the Rum and Runestones anthology in which I must create the two main characters and establish the world in less than 200 words:

George Worthington groaned as he clambered back to his feet, his ears ringing with the echoes of cannon fire.  Remnants of the battle covered the ocean in a milky fog and the familiar tang of gunpowder filled the air.  A blood splotch near the staysails marked where Captain Taggart fell — his body had been removed to his cabin.  Straightening his red waistcoat, the short, stout Worthington headed toward the foredeck.

Butler rushed up beside him and said, “Sir, sir, they’ve run.  They’re gone.”

“Of course they’re gone, Mr. Butler.  They’re lucky if they don’t sink by sundown.”

“Aye, sir,” Butler said, moving back and forth on his feet like a child that has to pee.  “Um, a question, sir.”

Worthington ignored the man and stared at the fog.  Their enemy, His Majesty’s frigate Osprey, had not suffered serious damage and would not be sinking anytime soon — it just left.  Why?  They had killed Captain Taggart.  They had blasted an enormous hole in the Annabelle’s side — a little lower and the brigantine would have sunk.  Why leave with victory so close?

Now, let’s go through it again, this time with my notes:

George Worthington groaned as he clambered back to his feet, his ears ringing with the echoes of cannon fire.  Remnants of the battle covered the ocean in a milky fog and the familiar tang of gunpowder filled the air.  A blood splotch near the staysails marked where Captain Taggart fell — his body had been removed to his cabin.  Straightening his red waistcoat, the short, stout Worthington headed toward the foredeck.  This paragraph clues us into the world (one of cannon fire, staysails, and foredecks) and two crucial events (a battle has just ended and the Captain is dead).  We also learn the name of our main character and get a bit of description — short, stout.  But the key item is “Straightening his red waistcoat”.  While the cannon fire is still echoing, Worthington is not running around screaming orders or hiding or anything big — he’s making sure he looks proper.  The reader may not consciously pick up on that, but she will visualize the moment and in doing so, she starts to see Worthington.  That’s how to use an action to create a character.

Butler rushed up beside him and said, “Sir, sir, they’ve run.  They’re gone.”  Butler, the other major character, is introduced in contrast.  Contrasting characters gives us information about both at the same time — two for one!  By having Butler rush up, it underscores the previous waistcoat bit showing both Butler’s panic and Worthington’s calm.  Next, I use dialogue to further both characters.  Butler speaks in unsure and stumbling ways (“Sir, Sir” or later “Um”) while Worthington is very proper and confident.

“Of course they’re gone, Mr. Butler.  They’re lucky if they don’t sink by sundown.”

“Aye, sir,” Butler said, moving back and forth on his feet like a child that has to pee.  Here again is an action that shows us more of Butler.  In explaining the action, I not only create a visual that adds to the character but I use it to describe both action and character — “like a child”. “Um, a question, sir.”

Worthington ignored the man and stared at the fog.  Worthington‘s reaction to Butler establishes their relationship and adds to both characters — he is capable of ignoring Butler and Butler doesn’t appear to take offense. Their enemy, His Majesty’s frigate Osprey, had not suffered serious damage and would not be sinking anytime soon — it just left.  Why?  They had killed Captain Taggart.  They had blasted an enormous hole in the Annabelle’s side — a little lower and the brigantine would have sunk.  Why leave with victory so close?  This last paragraph gives us Worthington’s thoughts.  Like contrasting, showing thoughts can serve more than one purpose.  Here, we get more of Worthington’s character by seeing how the man thinks in contrast with how he has spoken, but we also receive world-building and even get a bit of plot.

The key, then, is to make each sentence carry as much weight as possible, and to realize that the readers will fill-in enormous chunks of detail if you point them in the right direction.  Look at that excerpt again and pay particular attention to the character of Butler.  Nowhere is he physically described.  All we get is a little voice and two actions — all showing, not telling.  The more he appears in the story the more opportunities exist to flesh him out further, but by placing him in contrast to Worthington and by carefully crafting his speech, he is already real enough to imagine.  If the reader can imagine him, the reader starts filling in the details.  Pretty soon, between the two of you, a full character is born.  And that’s the ultimate goal.

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20 comments to Writing — Creating Characters in Small Spaces

  • >>The key, then, is to make each sentence carry as much weight as possible, and to realize that the readers will fill-in enormous chunks of detail if you point them in the right direction.

    So true, Stuart. Well said. And you also made each sentence, each snatch of dialogue do more than one thing. Lovely piece of writing!

    >>pay particular attention to the character of Butler. Nowhere is he physically described.

    Yet, I *see* him as frightened, scruffy, soiled, short, smelly, slender, pale, pasty, with thinned hair and calloused filthy hands. Not too bright. Just lovely!

  • Er…. the writing is just lovely. Not the character…

  • I like how you didn’t spend five lines describing Butler when he arrived. Authors do that all the time, and unless the description tells us something about the character I can do without. Details are useful when they mean something, like Worthington’s straightening his clothes because his appearance is important and he’s trying to show his calm control.

    The crutch laundry list of useless information bores me to tears.

  • NGDave, I totally agree. Character description info dumps work only seldom, as in police proceedurals, where you know the main character has been trained to view all people in a specific manner, as if taking down details of a crime scene or criminal suspect. And even then I get sooo tired of,
    “He was five-five, blonde and green, and walked with a limp.”
    “She was six-two, dark-skinned, mixed African, close-cropped hair, maybe a skinny 150.”
    “She was average height, two hundred pounds overweight, black and brown, and breathed like she had a leak somewhere.”
    Oy…

  • Nicely done, Stuart. I’ll add to this by mentioning that Stuart’s point about the reader filling in their own images is SO true that you have to be careful with it. Because they fill their own image in so quickly, if you add physical description of the character too late in the story, it frequently ends up contradicting the readers mental image, which is jarring and counter-productive.

  • This is a terrific post, Stuart, and I love the story opening. You manage to convey so much so quickly. Well done. I could use that kind of economy in my own writing. That said, I would like to respond to Faith and NGD by rising in defense of detailed character descriptions. I love reading them and I love writing them. I have a description of a key character in the new book that goes on for a while, and I think it is absolutely essential in filling out who she is and how she figures into my MC’s life. A good character introduction can make the difference between a person readers visualize and one they carry around with them all day long, even when they’re not reading the cook. Perhaps I’ll post about this in a couple of weeks.

  • I should add that personally I prefer reading books, to reading cooks. Though a good e-cook is hard to resist….

  • (E-cook. snicker)
    David there is that most important rule about writing: All rules get broken. And as long as it works, everyone is happy.

    I totally agree that there are times when a long description is vital to a story. I’ve been accused of long descriptive passages in my writing life, and defended them as necessary to the style and tone of the story.

    What I have trouble with is what I *think* NGDave was saying — interupting the story flow with character descriptions, ones that all sound alike, that all have the same pace and intensity and a jarring sense of sameness. My feeling is that Stuart was talking about what parts of the descriptive process are absolutely necessary in the small space, and what parts can be left to the reader’s imagination.

    That said, I love the way you describe your characters, and I look forward to a post on that subject.

  • Amen, David. Your perspective/counterpoint would be appreciated. Stuart is talking about creating charcaters in small spaces (short stories and the end of novels). A post on defining/describing characters at the beginning of a novel would round out the picture brilliantly. Please do.

  • Ryl

    Wow, talk about maximizing a first impression!

    Stuart, you provided a strong example of what one of my profs called ‘the practice of an economy of words’ — all meat, no gristle, no fat — then followed it up with a solid analysis. And you’ve reminded me why I like *good* short fiction. There was a time when short fiction was the only kind I read.

    Thanks for the shift in perspective. I’ll be looking at my own works, now, through that same lens.

  • Thank you for your version of the Faith-o-vision. Very nice. So much is delivered in such a short space. I think the efficiency and economy of words in a short story is something that more writers should employ in novel length stories. Stretching out is a nice luxury in novel format, but there are many great lessons to be learned from the short story! Thank you Stuart for the excellent example.

  • Beatriz

    Stuart, after reading this I’m stunned at just how tight your writing is. There’s not a single syllable that doesn’t add to your story. Is this a natural talent or something at which you work? If you work at it, care to share sometime just how you do it?

    The copy of Rum and Runestones you signed for me may not ever get to its intended reader. I think I need to crack the book tonight and read the rest of your story.

  • Faith and David, I think you’re both onto something and I think this would make a great supplemental post to what Stuart has here.

    I was referring to the laundry list of description that doesn’t tell us more than the clothes, weapons, and armor a character is wearing. Alazar strode into the room, his green cape flowing behind him. He wore a vest of silver brocade over a soft cream tunic, and gray leggings tucked into polished boots. His eyes were a… *boring*

    However, when a character is being described by another, and the the physical description comes with some kind of analysis to give us insight, even if tainted by the viewer’s attitudes, that’s great.
    “Alazar strode into the room, primping the entire time. He threw back his green cloak so that his silver brocade vest glittered in the lantern light. That wasn’t enough, so he adjusted his ceremonial sword at his hip to ensure everybody noticed the jewel encrusted pommel.”

    Sorry if that’s not a good example, I just made it up and I’m still a bit sleepy.
    Cheers,
    NGD

  • Bill Hause

    Stuart, this was great…WE NEED MORE FAITH O VISION! Its like getting the DVD commentary to your favorite novel. I think there are things that I inherently like and dislike about writing but this helps me to roecognize what they are…thank you so much…

  • Well, my flight home got cancelled, so instead of being home around dinner time, it’s now 11:15 pm. Argh!!! Anyway, I promised to answer your comments on Sunday, and I still got 45 minutes, so here it goes:

    First off, thank you to all who gave such nice comments about the post and my writing. Hey, I’m a writer — I love a little praise. 🙂 Also, I’m glad the post was so helpful to you all.

    David, Ed, Faith — I agree that it comes down to what the piece demands. Sometimes a lengthier description is useful, appropriate, and effective. Of course, even lengthy descriptions can’t be the laundry list variety — they should say something of value beyond what everything looked like.

    Ryl — The practice of an economy of words. I like that. I might steal that.

    Alistair — Thanks. As I wrote in a post on revisions, if you cut out the useless words, you’ve got more room for the good stuff!

  • Beatriz — I’d love to say this is all natural talent, but it’s not. This opening page (and the whole story that follows it) took about a month of thinking about it, two weeks of writing it, and another month of revisions. I forget the original word count, but I’m pretty sure I cut out near a thousand words when all was said and done. A lot of the How-To I’ve covered in the Revisions posts, but I’ll see if I can come up with some more analysis for future posts. Enjoy the rest of the story!

    NGD — Whoops, sorry. Meant to include you in my response to the discussion you had with David and Faith and Ed. Thanks for your insights and inputs.

  • Stuart, thanks for the example. Getting back to your original point about creating the Big Bad in a small space, do you find that any of this is changed by the fact that meeting the Big Bad takes place toward the end?

    As you’ve said, the reader has by this point heard plenty *about* the Big Bad, but this is the first time we actually get to see him face to face. So unlike the beginning of a story (and that was a beautiful example, by the way), we already know *something* of his character, even if it’s only second hand. There have been chances throughout the novel to get to know what everyone else thinks of him.

    So I think what you’re saying is that when we finally get to meet him, this is the writer’s chance to show his character in person, to see the proof that he is as bad as he is (or to learn that he isn’t what we were expecting). Should we also balance that with whatever has already been established in the readers’ assumptions, or should we treat it like the beginning of a story, since it’s the first time we’ve met him?

  • Moira — You’re absolutely right. At the end, we’ve been given some details which have already formed a character in mind. Those details can be utilized when we meet the character for real through comparisons and contrasts. Perhaps the Big Bad that everyone is afraid of turns out to be a little man hiding behind a curtain. Perhaps the Big Bad is far worse than anyone imagined. Perhaps the stories of the Big Bad were spot on. Since the writer is in control of the amount and accuracy of the information doled out during the book, the writer controls many of the reader’s assumptions about a character — at the very least, the writer can “guide” those assumptions. So really, writing a character at the end is a tiny bit easier than the opening pages because you have one more layer of detail already in place and it’s merely a matter of what you do with it.

  • Mikaela

    Thank you! You just gave me clue how to revise the opening scene of the novellette I am editing. 😀

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