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…

writing-hand-1443450529gzn

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.

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]

love-of-books

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