Nancy Kress On How To Avoid Cardboard Characters

Dynamic CharactersI finally read Nancy Kress’s Dynamic Characters.  Now, the thing about books on how-to-write —or about self-help books in general— is that once you’ve read a few, you’ve basically got it.  At least that’s been my experience.

Everyone has had the experience of reading The Right Book At The Right Time.  It’s an eye-opener.  A game-changer.  A world-shaker.  And it’s different books for different people.  I think it often boils down to which book of a certain type happens to fall into your hands when you’re mentally and emotionally prepared for that sort of book.

An example in my personal life was Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People.  If I read that book now, I wouldn’t get much out of it.  But as young man ready for a handbook telling me how to take over the world, it was big.  I remember especially two ideas:  1) don’t just make to-do lists; put chores specifically on your calendar and assign an exact time for them;  and  2) take time to get your head on straight and your materials in order, just like a lumberjack would stop cutting trees so he can SHARPEN HIS SAW—you’ll actually be more efficient if you take the time to prepare yourself properly.

Okay… that was all aside.  I was actually writing about another book, Kress’s Dynamic Characters.  My point is that maybe if I’d read Kress’s book earlier, I would’ve gotten more out of it.  As it stands, I found little that was new.  This is understandable.  She’s writing a book on the writing craft, and well, the basics of good writing don’t exactly change overnight, and writers being writers, there’s been, over the centuries, a hell of a lot ink used to discuss the art of writing.

One of the most important points Kress makes, I think, is one of the golden rules of scriptwriting:  Character IS Plot.  If you’ve ever written a script, you know that a good screenplay needs be so uber-condensed that it is almost like writing poetry.  And it can be much the same with a novel worth its pulp.  As Kress points out: the emotional growth of the main character is bound up with the story, itself.

I’ve found that a good plot provides the situations needed by the character to facilitate his change, and that the character’s need to change tells the writer what the plot points must be.  That’s why Kress can boldly advise with warranted conviction: “scenes in fiction, especially short fiction, should do two things:  deepen character AND advance the plot.”  She calls it, “that inescapable interweaving of plot and character.”

The recognition that Character IS Plot, also helps a writer to efficiently describe the main characters.  Kress instructs us to highlight those character traits that are related to the story and skip the rest.  Using my own example: if it’s not important to the character/story what brand of toothpaste your protagonist uses, then (hissing whisper here:) don’t tell us.

What we, your readers, do need, according to Kress, is for you, the writer, to do– or rather, NOT do– a few simple things.  If you’re going to take up our time describing a character’s appearance, make sure those details indicate the personality of the character.  Otherwise, don’t tell us.  If you want to describe all the cool gadgets that a character possesses, and yet the gadgets don’t shine a light on the character’s soul, don’t tell us.  If you find yourself wanting go on at length about how a character looks different in this scene from the previous one, but the details don’t tell us how the character is feeling, don’t tell us.  If you think padding the character description with strange mannerisms will make the character more interesting or memorable, and yet the mannerisms do not indicate in some way the personality of the character, then—you guessed it—don’t tell us.

And then there’s the little things that we writers might already know, but that are important enough to suffer reminders:

1) don’t make dialogue and attributions repetitive, as in, to use Kress’s example:  “Damn you!” he shouted angrily.

2) oh, here’s another trick for stories that is also important in drama:  sometimes you might want a character’s words and actions to be IN OPPOSITION TO his true inner thoughts.  This can create great tension.  In plays –unless you’re pulling out the ol’ soliloquy trick like that hack Shakespeare– audience members have to surmise the true thoughts of a character.  But on the written page, readers can see the thinking of the character right before their eyes.

3) this is a nice piece of wisdom, too:  Kress advises us, that when we come to a problem in our plot that we can’t seem to work out, a writer can often send in a secondary character to play Mister Fix-It.  As she explains… if the main character has some special skill that he will use later in the book but you want the reader to know he possesses it beforehand…  Well, just have him talk about that skill to, or demonstrate it in front of, some secondary character.  Works like a charm!

4) I think this piece of Kressian advice is pretty commonplace, but it is so very important:  your villains must have, as she puts it, “sufficient and heartfelt self-justification.”  I think of it like this:  nobody is the villain in his own life.  We’re all the hero of our own story, right?  I’m the good guy here!  Well, most every villain in history has felt the same way.  I find this exquisitely deliciously interesting.

Kress offers much more in her book, and I’d recommend it on two levels:  1) if you haven’t yet read your full dosage of how-to-write books, then throw this one in your cart.  It’s as good a place to start as any;  and 2) if, like me, you just want to make sure you haven’t forgotten any of the lessons learned about your craft, then it’s worth a skim.  I’m also more likely to take advice from someone who has actually had success with her writing, and Nancy Kress certainly has.


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