Be Your Character

My knees and arms are crossed and I’m trying to breathe slowly and evenly.  My fingers are cold, and I’m gritting my teeth.  Shoulders tight.  Mind buzzing furiously–put something down.  Now.

I just did.

Be in your character.  Write the emotion.  Write from where you dream.

I closed my eyes and went into my dreamspace.  I had no idea how to begin this blog, so I connected to the place I was in and wrote about that.

Sometimes the ideas come whirling out from mind to fingers to keys, and sometimes writing is like, well, pulling teeth.  I am sure you know what I mean.

What I am blogging about today is:  Don’t merely write about your character, be your character–particularly in what are, or should be, emotion-filled moments or scenes.  If you ever wanted to be an actor, this is your chance.  I close my eyes, relax, breathe deep and slow, and imagine I am that person in the situation I have created.  How do I feel?  What do I feel?  What is my body doing?  What am I thinking?  Can I think?  What do I hear, smell, see?

Being your character is handy for other scenes, as well.  Your character is lying in the grass.  How does the world look from down there?  Does she see a ladybug crawling up a blade?  Is the grass green with spring or dry in summer?  What do you smell?  Does she have allergies that make her nose tickle or make her sneeze, her eyes water?  What else does she feel?  Is the grass damp from early morning dew?

Of course, you can’t bring this kind of detail into every scene.  Detail only the scenes where such moments are important to character development, mood, plot, etc.  Choosing which moments are important is part of what good writing is all about–when to show and when to tell.  For example, perhaps you have a male character who, so far, has shown only aggression, anger, and contempt toward everyone.  You might have a key scene where, when alone, he  shows kindness and compassion for a hurt animal.  This scene would be best written in great detail in order to impress it upon your reader’s mind.  Aha, this character has more to him than he shows to the world–what does this scene mean?  You have made a flat, one-dimensional character intriguing.  Readers like mysteries and surprises, as long as they make sense.

How do I describe all these emotions?  Every serious writer should have a good Thesaurus.  Mine is a big, fat Roget’s International Thesaurus, and I have sticky-tagged much of it for quick reference.  Even better, a couple awesome ladies have just published The Emotion Thesaurus for all us writers which you can find on their blog here.  For a limited time they are giving away an Emotion Amplifier download.  Check it out–their blog is one of the best on the web for writers.

I watched Game of Thrones last night and what a scene between Lady Stark and Jamie Lanister!  I watched her as he went on about Ned Stark’s betrayal of her with another woman and imagined how I would write the emotions she was feeling at that moment.  Powerful stuff!

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Can’t Get Excited About Your Scene?

I have done the worst thing a blogger can do.  Disappear.

Everything has changed.  Nothing has changed.  No one cares, I bet.

I think I have become a better writer.  I am still learning.  Maybe I can help you to become a better writer, too.  Or at least write something interesting here, mainly for the beginning writer like me.  Still beginning, though I have been at this for five years.

I am self-taught.  That means I don’t have a Masters in Writing.  I have taken classes.  I read books and blogs on writing.  I have subscribed to The Writer magazine all these years, and I study it, keep all the articles in appropriate files and refer to them often.  The Writer is one hundred twenty-five years old this year!

Notice how I wrote that number out?  Please do.  Unless your number is abnormally long, like 1,346, or a year, or . . . it’s best to check a good dictionary, which will tell you which numbers should be written out.  If you don’t have one, get one.  Get a good thesaurus, too.  Don’t depend on an on-line synonym guide.

Today the most important thing I learned was:  If you can’t get excited about writing a scene, don’t write it.  If you aren’t excited about writing it, your reader won’t be excited about reading it.  Why did it take me all this time to figure that out?

It’s important information I have to get across to the reader.  The character, in this case, She, thinks about a past instance that began her life search for information about her mysterious family.  She can’t her mom or anyone to talk about it, so she’s going to get her best friend, He, to help her.  Boring to write, boring to read–all those thoughts, and where do I put her while thinking them, etc., etc., etc.?

Put this stuff in the action, in the dialogue.  Bit by bit it comes out when She explains to He why She needs his help.  Simple, huh?

Readers like dialogue more than description.  Readers like action even more.  Add a little action to your dialogue.  Put some conflict in there, too.  Voila–it’s no longer boring.  It was fun to write, too.

Where do you put your boring stuff to give it punch?

Show and Tell

Remember Show and Tell from Elementary School?  It wasn’t Show versus Tell, or Show instead of Tell, it was Show and Tell.

Show, don’t Tell, is what the writer is continually told, and this is good advice . . . usually.  Do not tell us your character is afraid; show us his fear.

As P. Bradley Robb says, every rule has an exception.   Knowing when to show and when to tell is the sign of a writer who has learned her craft, of a writer who has found his voice.

One instance telling makes sense is when showing will slow down the pace when it is appropriate to speed it along.  It always takes more time, more words to show a thing than to tell it.  Sometimes showing can get wrapped up in unnecessary detail, relating a writer’s knowledge, knowledge that is not necessary to the plot, the scene or the character.

Another would be filling in background information, description or events that are not as important as scenes that you want to stand out, those which you will show.

It is always a case of:  Is this scene, description, character trait important enough that it must be shown? How will showing affect the tension and pace of the story?  If important showing slows down the pace too much, perhaps it is misplaced.

Back to my own novel now — hope I have shown everything at the right time and place.

More Joy of Writing Sex

Here is more from The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict, and whatever else comes to mind.

  • Narrate from with the characters’ bodies and minds and connect them with their physical surroundings.  A buttock in warm sand (or cold), the bite of a mosquito – something or anything that contributes to the mood you want to create.
  • They may not speak, but they might.  Dialogue can reveal your characters, create conflict, resolve conflict, reveal attitudes toward sex.  Perhaps a little humor?  Talk leading up to sex can be more fun and interesting than the sex, itself.
  • Be specific and add a little detail, but not necessarily explicit.  Use details that reveal emotion or distinguish one character from another, time, place, status.
  • Surprise!  Something about the scene the reader remembers, which is not necessarily a great orgasm.  What happened that was unexpected?

In writing about sex, remember the realities of the world in which you are writing.  Today we must consider AIDS, how the characters feel about it, safe sex – are they reckless, restrained, what controls their decisions?  There is a great deal of exploration to be done here when writing about the gay community, in particular.  As the author states, “Gay characters, and the primarily gay writers who create them, live in an environment in many ways defined by the ravages and repercussions of AIDS.  Illness and death have an inescapable immediacy and weight for the infected and uninfected alike; fictional characters, like their real-life counterparts, often exist in extremis, forced at every turn to explore the fusion of love, sex, mortality, and grief.”

Because of AIDS, the year and location in which you set your characters is crucial and will vary between gay and straight couples.

  • In our current time, most gays take practicing safe sex for granted.
  • You can use the preparation for safe sex between straight couples for further revelations about your characters.  Embarrassment about the condom?  Use it.

Here are titles of following chapters:  “Losing Your Cherry and Other First times to Remember; Great Expectations: The Wedding Night and the Honeymoon; Life Sentences: Husbands and Wives; Three Cheers for Adultery; Your Place or Mine: Recreational Sex; The Illicit: Sex Forbidden by Law, History, and Politics; Solo Sex: Alone, on the Phone, and on the Internet.”

You get the picture.

We love to talk about it, don’t we?  Now write and have fun.  This can be the most fun writing of all.  Truly.

That Vexing Sex Scene

Many writers have commented on various sites about their difficulties with writing a good sex scene.  I have found the best book on this subject to be The Joy of Writing Sex by Elizabeth Benedict.  She has authored four novels, one of which was a finalist for the American Book Award.  She knows from where she writes, and I highly recommend this guide for your writing book shelf.

She states that there is a difference between porn, or erotic writing, and literary sex writing.  “In pornography, consumers will demand their money back if the sex is lousy . . . or the girl cries when it’s over.  This other kind of sex writing thrives on all the things that nourish good fiction:  tension, dramatic conflict, character development, insights, metaphors, and surprises.”  The best fiction writing is not a sex manual of what happens, but who it happens to, the characters’ inner lives, and must engage the reader on all levels, not just the physical.

  • The orgasm is not what is important.  What is important is the connection or lack of connection.
  • Sex is in the realm of the mind.  What are your characters thinking during their encounter?  Robert Owen Butler’s recent book, Intercourse, is full of excellent examples of couples’ thoughts.
  • For many, “suggestion, suppression, and sublimation are more potent aphrodisiacs than the real thing.”
  • Set a tone of heightened erotic tension by using sensual description of your location and/or items within it.  Anne Rice is an expert at sensual and lush description.
  • Sex can be scary.  One person never truly knows what the other is thinking.
  • Do both want the same thing out of this encounter?  Always remember that a good character must yearn and yearn intensely.  Here is another opportunity for dramatic conflict.
  • I love this, from the book:  “Sex can be an expression of affection, love, fear, vulnerability, anger, power, rage, submission–or nearly all of these at once.  Sex strips us of our defenses, leaving us vulnerable to feelings that are often repressed.”
  • A good sex scene is not necessarily about good sex.  Consider what this means for your characters, how it might send your story off into an exciting new direction, how it might show something about each of them.  It might express your theme, be a symbol or a metaphor for something within your story.

There is more for next time.

I want to leave you with one of my favorite sex scenes from Barbara Kinsolver’s novel, Prodigal Summer:

“Carefully she took both his hands off of her, raised them above his shoulders, and rolled over him and pinned him like a wrestler.  Straddling his thighs this way, looking down on his face, she felt stunned to her core by this human presence so close to her.  He smiled, that odd parenthetic grin she already knew to look for.  It’s that simple, then, she thought.  It’s that possible.  She best down to him, tasting the salt skin of his chest with the sensitive tip of her tongue, and then exploring the tight drum of his abdomen.  He shuddered at the touch of her warm breath on his skin, giving her to know that she could take and own Eddie Bondo.  It was the body’s decision, a body with no more choice of its natural history than an orchid has, or the bee it needs, and so they would both get lost here, she would let him in, anywhere he wanted to go.  In the last full hour of daylight, while lacewings sought solace for their brief lives in the forest’s bright upper air, and the husk of her empty nylon parka lay tangled with his in the mud, their two soft-skinned bodies completed their introductions on the floor of her porch.  A breeze shook rain out of new leaves onto their hair, but in their pursuit of eternity they never noticed the chill.”