The right word and the almost.
Mark Twain said the difference between the right word and the nearly right word was the different between lightning and a lightning bug. But sometimes the nearly right can also land you in a pile of poop. In the below true story, see if you can guess the right word from the nearly right.
One year when they were expecting a flu season that promised to be particularly virulent, one government agency ordered all its employees to receive a flu shot. This was way back when they could do such things.
So it fell to a newly appointed branch chief to call his people together for the announcement. Aware this would be his first address since being promoted, and in full fear of screwing up, he ran things over in his mind to chose the precise words to proceed together down to the nurse’s office to be inoculated.
“Okay men, in accordance–and women, in accordance with agency orders, we are all going down to the nurse’s office for a mass ejaculation.”
Okay,true story, but in breaking it down in the telling, two things made the story effective. First, using inoculated only once and then in juxtaposition to the ejaculation statement. Second and more important, the description of the branch chief.
That is to say, the characterization.
In some ways we should probably talk about characterization before plot. A lot of writers work on characterization before they do anything. They find out who their characters are, put them in a place of confrontation, and see how they react. Nothing wrong with that. It allows us to add a character’s bits and pieces as we go along.
I usually work on characterization after I finish the first draft. I used to think I was alone in approaching it this way, but after making an unscientific poll, I’ve concluded it’s about half and half. Mystery writer, Barbra D’Amato, told me she does it this way, as did the British writer, John Braine.
It probably depends on whether your mind is character-oriented or plot-oriented. Are you writing this story because you visualize a few characters that you’d like to know? Or do you visualize your story starting from a situation? I think literary writers generally work out their characters first, action writers hang in until after the first draft. Just a guess.
Either way, like death and taxes, we have to we have to work out the development of our characters. If we can’t make them seem real, our story will never seem real. Remember Protag ups and downs? Unless we develop life-like characters with hopes and fears, strengths and weaknesses, how can we elicit a Protag response in our readers? If we draw cardboard characters, who will care what happens to them?
What’s our reaction if we hear an old time movie star has died? Probably a big ho-hum.
But suppose that star had stopped and talked to us? Suppose we met her again, tell her some of our life experiences and hear some of hers? That she was orphaned at four, shuffled from place to place as a child, waited tables to earn money for acting lessons, and that men treated her badly before her big break. We identify with those ups and downs, admire her tenacity, and swap jokes and laughter along with our stories. Now we know her. She is a friend. Then we find she has been murdered.
What is our reaction now? Shock. Disbelief. Rage. Loss. Maybe we’ll cry.
That’s the reaction we want from our readers, folks. That’s the difference between cardboard characters and those with substance. Between ho-hum and an Protag response. And that’s what will plug readers into our writing, and what will keep them coming back like a long-time friend.
If you’ll forgive me for using a personal example, I once got note from a fan who told me she liked one of my books up until page one hundred and something, when the protagonist, Jim Dandy, used that word, meaning the big F. She went on to tell me she knew Jim Dandy and he would not have used that word. Which was news to me. But what it did tell me was that I had developed the character to where she regarded him as a friend.
In the five following BookMarcs we’ll investigate how to bring our character to life so our readers will know them, hate ‘em or love ‘em, but know them.
By the way, I only keep four or five posts up at one time so if you what to see them all either sign up to be notified or check back every four weeks,
Peter E. Abresch – BookMarc© February 13, 1998. Updated September 20, 2014