All Things in Moderation and Some Things Hardly Ever

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When it comes to character development, there are certain things that have so much more impact when a character does them sparingly instead of frequently. Here are a few things that I think pack more punch when they aren’t happening all the time.

Smoking
Smoking has to be the number one activity that has more impact when it’s used infrequently. A cigarette to settle the nerves. A cigarette to show how the smoker’s hands are shaking uncontrollably. One last cigarette before the execution. Apart from anything else, if a character has enough time to be a pack a day smoker, then I doubt there is enough going on in the story. And it’s such a clichéd affectation for the bad guy, we might as well just put him in a black hat.

I read James Salter’s book, All That Is, last year (you can read my review here) and I was struck by the fact that everyone in it seemed to be smoking all the time. It reminded me of an old black-and-white movie from the forties when smoking was still the epitome of cool. Considering it was a much more recent novel and how smoking is perceived now, it felt strange to me.

Until a few months ago, I had never written a character smoking. I’m not a smoker and it has never really occurred to me to write a character smoking. And then I began to write the third part of my novel Trine, which is from the perspective of a character who spends a good deal of time stalking and simply watching another character. It’s not exactly eventful. When he steals a car and finds a pack of cigarettes in it, given he didn’t have much else to do, I thought, “Why not?”

But even that character isn’t a smoker as such. “I don’t smoke much unless someone offers me one – it costs too much – but there was a packet in the car when I took it,” he tells the reader. And later he offers, “I’d been smoking that pack of cigarettes for almost a week and my lungs couldn’t face another hike. I was almost glad it was nearly empty.”

Smoking can sometimes be used as a lazy type of character development as well because it implies so many other things – rebel, addictive personality, old school, death wish, hygiene deficient, peer pressure, irrational. I’d rather read about characters who have a real sense of distinctive personality about them.

Swearing
There are plenty of people out there in real life who pepper their language with swear words but I think our job as writers is to transcend reality, especially when it comes to dialogue. I couldn’t read an entire book that was composed of more than a handful of swear words but when I’m reading a book that has none and then one suddenly appears, it has an immense power. I know for sure that the character is in deep trouble.

Apart from anything else, a book littered with swear words is also limiting its potential audience. Most people don’t want to hear it, not even from the lips of a character they can close the book cover on. If they did, they’d buy tickets and sit in the cheap seats of a monster truck rally.

In fiction, a well thought out insult is so much more satisfying. Two prime examples are Hannibal Lecter and Hans Gruber. They are so much scarier because of how polite they are. Leave the swearing to the minions and keep it to a minimum in your dialogue.

Talking About Feelings
Everyone who has ever read a romance novel will know that the characters don’t talk about their true feelings until the very end of the story where it all spills out, unable to be held in any longer. Yes, it’s a trite formula but it’s one that works very well because we don’t want to listen to a bunch of whiners talking about their feelings for an entire book. We want action, we want sex, we want drama and uncertainty.

In real life, talking about your feelings and not bottling things up is important. In therapy, it’s compulsory. In fiction, holding it in until your character is about to burst creates wonderful tension. So spare us, at least until the last few pages.

Peeing, Pooping and Farting
Everyone poops (and pees and farts)! It’s a great children’s book as well as an excellent seduction technique (the book, not the pooping), as demonstrated so hilariously by Steve Carell in Dan In Real Life. However, peeing, pooping and farting are almost never crucial to any story. (Off the top of my head, the only instance I can remember of it being crucial to the story is in Red Dawn – the original, not the awful remake – when Danny pees in the radiator after the truck breaks down.)

For some reason, though, writers of modern literature are obsessed with peeing, pooping and farting as if it makes some kind of important statement about their characters. I don’t know about anybody else but I read to experience something different, not to experience the things we all do every single day. I’m not even requesting this be a rarity. Unless it’s an essential plot point, leave it out completely.

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