Monday, May 22, 2006

Fish With Feet

Proofed my rough draft the other day and found something very disturbing -- fish with feet.

Many of us amateurs don't really understand when somebody says our characters aren't well defined. Our characters seem defined to us. We've transferred their attributes and flaws to paper. Therefore, they must be defined. Fatbottomed Fred is a male floozy and Penthouse Pamela is a self important jerk. See? They're defined.

There are countless varieties of floozy and jerk and there are countless ways to portray a floozy or jerk. The method we choose to demonstrate the floozie-ness or jerky-ness of our characters conjures up different mental images for different people. We have to define them more specifically than just calling them a jerk or floozy.

I DID define them specifically, you argue with your critique. Penthouse Pamela has road rage, cusses out waitresses, steals cookies from Girl Scouts, and pinches babies to make them cry. She's defined. She's a jerk. Fatbottomed Fred wears Daisy Dukes stuffed with Jimmy Deans. How much more defined can you get?

A couple of minutes ago, the title of this post planted a mental image in your head. Now, what kind of fish did you picture? Is it a catfish? A goldfish? A pirahna? Did I mean one fish? Two fish? Red fish? Blue fish?

"Jerk" is a very broad and subjective term. One person's jerk is another person's savior. Maybe that waitress needed a good scolding because she never washes her hands after her potty breaks and her supervisors' reprimands fall on deaf ears. And, do tight shorts and breakfast sausage really make a man a "floozy"? Maybe the sausage is an outward display of inward insecurity over being born with one testicle. The reader needs a little more than lumpy shorts to agree that Fred is a floozy.

No, says you, I didn't write them that way. Okay, then, show the reader how you wrote them. Don't give your character a lot of random bad behaviors just so you can say she's a jerk. Pick a specific kind of jerk and demonstrate that in your situational environment but don't stop the story by tossing in haphazard jerky behavior. Show the character as a jerk within the story taking place.

For example, maybe Penthouse Pamela is a jerk because she thinks her time is more valuable than anyone else's. That's a specific kind of jerk. She's a time hog. She hogs up your time for her benefit. Don't have her simply flip the bird at people on the highway because she's in a hurry. Even non-jerks have been known to do that. Instead, give her a combination of actions that individually might mean nothing, but combined demonstrate her wreckless disregard for other people's time and her own self importance. And yeah, maybe flipping people off is one of them. But maybe she also --

  • Skips appointments to shop for shoes
  • Makes her 11:00 a.m. appointment wait in the corridor until Noon with nothing to do but count ceiling tiles and the receptionist's assaults on the English language
  • Forgets people she put on hold but complains if she, herself is ever put on hold
  • Has a dummy in her passenger seat so she can drive in the HOV lane
  • Cuts in lines - grocery stores, banks, drive throughs, blood drives
  • Pays $35 for next day delivery when standard shipping would have been free
  • Cuts out of work early and leaves her secretary working late to finish a project
  • Doesn't cancel restaurant reservations

  • There was a time when I didn't see the fish with feet in my own drafts. So, while I'm disturbed that I have so much character defining still to do, at least I know my skills are improving when I look at my own words and the fish with feet jump out at me.

    Guess that makes them flying fish.

    4 comments:

    The Moviequill said...

    I once knew a grouper who looked great in silver f-me pumps (smiles)... great tips Mary An, thanks as always

    Chris Soth said...

    McKee has some great stuff on how our movie characters behave much more consistently than real-life folk, who are SO full w/contradictions...

    ...also, I spell it "flooZy". That's right, a capital right in the middle of the word...what's that say about me?

    MaryAn Batchellor said...

    Okay, so looked that word up in the dictionary and yeah, it's there. Who knew? Changing my spelling, but the capital Z? Think I'll just let that be your signature.

    I can see McKee's point but not having read him, I need somebody to enlighten me on whether he is defending or disputing the need for consistency in characters.

    Chesher Cat said...

    I've done the McKee weekend + the thriller day + the comedy day and readmost of his book.

    And I still can't answer your question...What does that say about me?