How Not to Introduce Characters

Don’t introduce characters like this:

Lesbian transsexual Orcadian Konstantina Fulbright-Lebowski (KFL for short) swinging single and sole proprietor of Deli Smelly, San Francisco’s waterfront’s latest and tastiest locally sourced organic Wiccan charcuterie – because, hey, meat may be murder but business is business – backflipped her perfect twentysomething bubble butt into crouch position and then exploded into a bençao capoeira kick that sent the head of her android Sensei, Maximilian 3PO-Boombox, spinning off into the corner of her small but lavishly decorated cave dwelling on the far side of Ganymede. Where all earthlings and earthcities were now located. Cos of the Pulse.

Readers won’t know whether they’re reading Anna Karenina, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Rotary Spokes or a Culture novel. Mostly they’ll just be confused. The author of this kind of fiction is generally the graduate of a creative writing course whose enthusiastic teacher has encouraged the class to ‘create diverse characters’. The result is like one of those toys that switch heads, trunks and legs – and what is supposed to be entertaining ends up as incoherent. Add to this confusion a method of direct exposition from narrator to reader similar in style to the rapid reading of T&Cs on adverts, and enjoying this style of writing takes a lot of hard work.

I admit that the opening scene of the first book of the Bruno Benedetti Mysteries throws a lot at the reader all at once. However the reader is in the mind of the protagonist, and narrators are always unreliable. Tricks of the Mind is driven by a frustrated libido that makes Bruno mad, bad and dangerous to know. So when he enters, to find the object of his affection exercising on the hearthrug, his erudite consciousness is trying to focus on anything but the cheekily handsome face, glistening hard muscle and skimpy shorts of his cocky Cockney flatmate.

Readers hardly ever need to know a character’s surname, and the practice of varying between first name and surname (very common in thrillers) can cause them to lose the plot. Readers also don’t need to know everything at once. Let’s slow that example paragraph down:

Konstantina backflipped her perfect bubble butt into crouch position and then exploded into a kick that sent the head of her Sensei spinning off into the corner of her small but lavishly decorated cave dwelling on the far side of Ganymede.

Now it’s recognisably Sci-Fi girlpower chicklit. Let’s add some indirect exposition.

“Nice bençao!” rasped a metallic voice from the corner, “I told you the Terran martial art of capoeira was worth mastering.”

“Max it’s so creepy when you talk with your head off! Reattach!”

“And it’s very disrespectful when a student addresses her Sensei by its first name during training.”

“I mean no disrespect, Sensei 3PO-Boombox, I guess my mind is on the opening of the Deli tonight.”

The android reattached its head before replying. “Konstantina Fulbright-Lebowski, your ancestors from far-flung Terra did not colonise this moon for the sole purpose of the provision of charcuterie!”

Etc.

I still don’t want to read it because all it’s giving me is information. When I care (marginally) more about the Yodayadda of a robot than the preoccupations of a lovely young lady, something is clearly wrong. Let’s try another tack:

Konstantina was almost afraid to touch the shimmering green fabric. The fragile tunic, gift of her Orcadian grandmother, was one of the few remaining articles of clothing made on Terra. There were no silkworms on Ganymede. A silk tunic belonged in the Hall of Memory. It should not be worn by the sole proprietor of Deli Smelly on her opening night. Not even if Ivanya would be there. Not even if she would be sure to notice that the colour, exactly, matched Konstantina’s eyes.

She glanced at the chronograph, sighed, and replaced the garment in the alcove at the back of her cave. She just had time to fit in a combat training session with Max. It would clear her head.

Okay, now I care. I want to bomb the deli, for its silly name, I want to know how this tunic is expected to survive (in an alcove, in a cave, on a far-flung moon) and I also want to know what happened to Grannie and if there’s life on Earth. And more about Max. Cos he’s probably dead fit and I’m going to be terribly disappointed if I find out he’s made of silicon and not carbon. Maybe. I’m not that bothered about Ivanya (I mean why does our lovely girl have to work so hard?) but I might be if she’s Max’s fiancée. And he’s secretly planning a sex change but is kidnapped by the besotted Tyrant of Ganymede. I want to know now. I know it’s got silly but, admit it, so do you!

Don’t chuck everything at the reader all at once. You are the creator of this world and of these characters. Take the reader gently by the hand and lead on, leaving a trail of breadcrumbs as you go. Remember, if you write, you’re a writer. Even God put in the best part of an intensive week of practice before creating human characters. Let yourself make mistakes, and above all enjoy it.

I have to sign off, I’ve suddenly developed an interest in Sci-Fi…

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Thanks to Dawn Hudson for releasing her ‘Re digitized public domain illustration of a black and white human hand writing with a pen’ into the Public Domain.

Writing a Difference

I’ve previously praised Grey’s Anatomy for dealing wisely with tragedy, and given my opinion on its patronising portrayal of male (but not female) bonding. This American TV series won an award for its ‘colourblind’ casting and it’s refreshing to watch a series that deals with social issues and doesn’t making an issue out of (for example) a Black man running a hospital.

Suffering from (mild) medical colourblindness may perhaps make me less inclined to see social colourblindess in a totally positive light. I do, strongly, affirm its anti-racist intention. However when there seems to be an almost total absence of patient couples of the same ethnicity in Seattle, it is hardly something that viewers can be expected not to notice on a visual medium. Especially if we are also expected not to notice that the protagonist just happens to be a slim, blonde, able-bodied, monied, middle-class, middle American, tertiary educated, professional White cisgendered heterosexual female with no chronic mental health challenges and no police record. In other words, in every single dominant category apart from one. It’s this one we’re supposed to notice, as it puts her in a vulnerable position with all men. Obviously. And absolves her from any responsibility for being in all the others.

I’m not knocking the screenwriting or directing of Grey’s Anatomy. Other popular TV series could take a leaf out of their book. An episode of Murder She Wrote is set in an exclusively White Paris (Montmarte) that has never existed. Many American films set in ‘foggy London’ have exclusively White Anglo-Saxon characters, unless the protagonist happens to take a trip to meet a Scottish Highland laird, to consult a Gypsy fortune-teller, to visit an Irish bar or boxing club, a Jewish pawnbroker, a Chinese opium den (an addictive drug which Britain fought China to push) or a Black American jazz club. So the ethnicity of a character who isn’t a White Anglo-Saxon becomes their defining character trait and a convenient plot device.

When it comes to novel writing, which is not a visual medium (unless it happens to make it to the big or small screen) I tend to avoid explicitly labelling ethnicity but sometimes that’s not possible. In Shades of the Sun I drew on a mnemonic tradition of European occultism which functions precisely because of its strikingly memorable visual images. Among these are:

‘a woman, outwardly cloathed with a red garment, and under it a white, spreading abroad over her feet’

and

‘a black man, standing and cloathed in a white garment, girdled about, of a great body, with reddish eyes, and great strength and like one that is angry’.

The tradition seems to assume that the woman is White.

I tend to describe my main characters’ complexion and hair colour in every book of the Bruno Benedetti mysteries, which gives clues to their ethnicity, and I also at least indicate their age, nationality, familiar and romantic relationships, sexuality, friends, values, politics, occupation and interests. I’ve previously blogged about describing characters by their books, which is one way of doing some of that. An advantage I have is that my protagonist is also my (unreliable) narrator. So rather than suffer the death of a thousand qualifications, I allow Bruno to rant at will about a variety of causes and obsessions and let other characters argue with him.

This point of view is also useful when transcribing BSL (British Sign Language) which is the main means of communication of Simone who is deaf and a major character in both Shades and Qismet. As Bruno isn’t very fluent, he experiences this communication rather like a series of flashcards, so I write this in capital letters inside square brackets. A more assimilationist linguistic politics would translate BSL as any other language but I want to highlight how strikingly visual this experience is, as it’s this aspect which makes Bruno stop and think.

On the issue of sexuality, I see no need to visually describe heterosexual lovemaking. In Tìr nam Bàn, this was an option but it’s simply not necessary. Whatever our sexuality or sexual experience, we are flooded with heterosexuality daily and have been all our lives. Describing homosexuality is a different matter. I haven’t watched all the TV series, but the seven books of the (otherwise excellently-written) very graphic series of fantasy novels A Game of Thrones contain not one instance of gay male lovemaking and the two female characters who allow female lackeys to pleasure them are written as otherwise heterosexual.

Whereas romance in lesbian fiction tends to the political, that in gay male fiction tends to the erotic. These novelistic tendencies can both be read as empowering, especially by those in situations where neither personal political power nor social romantic expression is possible. They can also become rather annoying. Fiction that reads like a pre-Blair Labour Party manifesto, or a post-AIDS sex manual, is neither particularly entertaining (though some may find it stimulating!) nor moving. Fiction that portrays the lives and loves of people who are normally written out of the script can be both.

Writing difference is fraught with danger. Writing characters whose age, class, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality or ability differs from your own is difficult. Sometimes those attempts fail, and may attract criticism. I find writing the character Dave (who first appeared in The Lovers) challenging, not only because his working class Scotophone hyper(homo)sexuality is a shadow energy in the Scots assimilationist milieu but because that shadow is in my own psyche just as much as Clara’s upper middle class pretensions or Boris’s whacky conspiracy theories. It’s just that I find him more troubling. This recent blogpost may explain why.

Writing diverse characters, novelists reveal our own monsters from the Id, as explored in Tricks of the Mind. We can never truly write anything that is outside our own experience. But we can try.

And that makes a difference.

colored-pencils

Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo ‘Coloured Pencils’ into the Public Domain.

How to survive Christmas

(Contains blatant advertising, sage advice, bleeding hearts, stereotypes, humbug, nuts)

I don’t have the stats, but I imagine the number of Americans shooting family members goes up during the festive season. We can hardly blame them. This post focuses on that annual family horror called Christmas but some parts may be applicable to other feasts involving relentless and compulsory goodwill; the forced proximity of adult siblings, in-laws and outlaws; sleet; treacherous pavements; overindulgence in stodge, sugar and alcohol; and the worst TV.

So how can you survive Christmas?

  • Get the good food in first. That’s the basic advice of Body-Logic, so you don’t need to buy it now (but if you do, it’s available as an eBook). You’re less likely to nibble if you’ve feasted first. And let’s face it, it’s the one and only time of the year where anything as sickeningly nutritious as Brussels sprouts makes you feel sentimental.
  • Plan your TV/DVD/online watching. It can actually be enjoyable to watch a film all the way through with selected family or friends. It is even possible to do so without addictively checking your phone for such urgent texts as: wotcha doin am wachtin fillum sborin? This countercultural practice may even increase the attention span of your hyperactive progeny to a length marginally greater than that of goldfish.
  • Retreat to your room/ broom cupboard with a good book. Some discerning readers have decided to catch up on the Bruno Benedetti inclusive mystery series (in print or eBook). And who am I to stop them? The benefits of reading an up-and-coming author is that it’s dead cool and you can shame your friends who have never even imagined that a mystery series could be inclusive. This will then activate FOMO. So you can be quietly smug.
  • Announce to the festive fiends frequenting your living-room and drinking all your sherry that, unfortunately, you have a paper/report on [anything but try Education, Philosophy, Alchemy, Sports Science, Social Work, Renaissance Studies, Quantum Mechanics, Music, Art, Motorcycle Maintenance, Zen] to hand in at the start of the new year. So you just have to read Alchemy at the Chalkface: Pirsig, Pedagogy and the Metaphysics of Quality from cover to cover (in print or eBook). In the airing cupboard, the only place that’s warm.
  • Dance. Seriously. Relocate the coffee table, push back the chairs, forcibly remove all the headphones from all the teenyboppers under 50 and elect yourself DJ Dictator. Command the stereo/ space-age musical docking device and get the tunes on. Jumping up and down, even gently, is THE BEST THING for lymphatic drainage. It’s the new blood pressure. It sorts everything. Google it. Ask your doctor. Get with the programme.
  • Walk. Take the dog. Take the neighbour’s dog, if you don’t have one. Believe me, this is a very welcome gesture. Yes I know old Mrs Biddy next door has taken the trouble to clear the pavement outside her prefab and hasn’t put down salt so it’s now a popular neighbourhood slide. But (hu/wo)man up [told you I was inclusive] and cross the road where the pavement’s less treacherous. That’s sidewalk for our North American readers. You can even seasonally greet your neighbours. This is compulsory all over Scotland after midnight (AND NOT BEFORE!) on New Year’s Eve and voluntary during the year. It provides a nice alternative to shooting them.
  • Limit the time you spend together. Less is far, far more. Don’t say “come for Xmas”, say “come for Xmas dinner, we’re at church in the morning and out in the evening so we have the whole afternoon to spend with you”. Relief on the other end of the phone. Even the most trigger-happy relation should be able to keep it together for four hours. That includes time taken to unwrap presents and visitors and bundle them back into the car. God will forgive you for lying about church-going. She’s like that. And if you do do church, do one that preaches love, not hate.
  • Watch White Christmas or It’s a Wonderful Life if you must. Once you realise that one’s US military recruitment propaganda and the other a hymn to that oxymoron ‘compassionate capitalism’ it rather takes the sheen off the screen. I much prefer The Muppets’ Christmas Carol or The Bishop’s Wife for nostalgia. If anyone suggests The Grinch ask them, seriously, whether they would like to be trapped in a lift (elevator) with Jim Carrey. The correct answer is “no”. Don’t, whatever you do, make snow angels. This unbearably middleclass act of kinderkitsch is only allowable under coercion of a loaded firearm – and even then needs a careful weighing up of the pros and cons.
  • Act out your own murder mystery. Use one of those DVD & flashcard boxes if you wish, or use this wee festive freebie HERE. It may serve to sublimate those homicidal tendencies.
  • Give thanks. Use it as an alternative grace, sat round the table eyeing the fair-trade veggie feast (no harm to no fowl). Introduce it with “let’s all mention just one thing we’re grateful for this year. 10 seconds each. Clockwise. I’ll start”. If there’s 10 of you that’s already more than a minute and a half.
  • It’s only once a year.
  • Put these numbers on speed dial: 999/ 911; Childline; RSPCA; The Samaritans.

Good Luck.

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Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo ‘Christmas Crackers‘ into the Public Domain.

Describing characters by their books

People often reveal their inner lives through the kind of books they tend to read and when you live with people you have the opportunity to get to know what kind of books they tend to read. Cos people tend to leave the kind of books they tend to read lying around. Clara read long hardback novels with White English waifish young heroines of steady disposable income (usually of undisclosed source) written by substantial White English matrons (married to chartered accountants) who spent page after page in detailed description of understated emotion and luxuriant but restrained garden shrubbery. Often the modest heroine was unexpectedly valued, and a slightly unnerving chain of events (all of which took place in the ‘Home Counties’ with perhaps one trip to the West Country, East Anglia or even as far north as the Yorkshire moors) led to a slightly embarrassing confession of a hitherto undisclosed secret. And everyone still in London, and not already dead, ended up feeling strangely healed.

Imogen left ‘the greats’ lying around but never seemed to read them for more than five minutes before starting a texting marathon or launching into an extended account of whatever drama had lately occurred at school. I suspected she had a stash of chicklit up in her room. I knew what she read on the beach and it wasn’t Tolstoy. Justin wasn’t interested in books, he preferred me telling him about them, especially if I was preparing food for him at the time. That said, he was the only person I knew who got Men’s Health for the fitness advice. Dave, to move on to those who had lived in the flat temporarily, had surprised me. Instead of the sordid doings of sex-crazed young men and their sugar daddies, which his online and DVD viewing favoured, I knew he read spy thrillers and the Scottish novels (but not the science fiction) of Iain Banks.

When I’d visited Boris, I’d seen the usual pile of hippy classics from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and the works of Carlos Castaneda. Clara once let slip that he also, secretly, read Jane Austin. I had read Persuasion, because of a mention of its unrequited love in a movie, and Emma, because for some reason people find me interfering, and also Wide Sargasso Sea, because a guy with a Barbados accent of sugar and rum recommended it to me in a bookshop. O fortunate isle to have such accents in it! As well as anything esoteric, I also unashamedly read Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, Wilkie Collins and was occasionally (on the beach) seen with paperbacks featuring American werewolves who would change into singularly stunning mates of resourceful females with a penchant for coffee and blueberry muffins.

When Johnny had stayed with us he’d raided Imogen’s, immaculate, collection of Livres de Poche and read the adventures of Inspector Maigret aloud to Bernadette, explaining the police vocabulary, such as the Sûreté, as he went along. It seemed to calm them both during that hectic period when all our lives were in danger, and it must have helped brush up her French for both Belgium and the Congo. I didn’t know what kind of books Keith read and I hoped one day I’d care. Just not yet. Simone was either too tidy to leave books lying around or too busy to read. That was another thing I didn’t know about her.

(Qismet, Chapter  5)

Describing characters is a challenge for all authors but as this is the fourth book in the Bruno Benedetti Mysteries series, I wanted to vary the method of description. Another factor is that whereas Bruno (the narrator), Justin, Clara, Imogen, Boris and Johnny have featured in every book since the first, Tricks of the Mind, Bernadette and Dave are introduced in the second, The Lovers, and Simone doesn’t appear till the third: Shades of the Sun, during which Keith is increasingly mentioned and Johnny and Bernadette are entirely absent.

As well as being a way of presenting all the main characters in Qismet fairly early in the book (there are currently 16 chapters and the word count stands at 65K) on more or less equal terms, it’s also an excuse to have fun. People who like books tend to like reading about them and enjoy being in on the jokes about the various pretensions of bookish people. Some books are like old friends, and mentioning them brings in the memories of the reader and hopefully (a big word in this particular book) invites sympathy with characters who may share their fancies and their foibles.

Qismet will be out for Christmas. Hopefully. [And so it came to pass]

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Thanks to George Hodan who has released his photo, “Love of Books”, into the Public Domain