This one is more rantish and opinionated than the others…probably because I’ve finally figured out just what it is that bothers me about things like sudden flashes of character intuition and “unconscious” thoughts.
My biases are obvious. I tend to write deep third person, completely in the character’s head and part of that character’s personality. I use first-person, too, but not nearly as often, and I despise the omniscient voice, having seen it used so sloppily. (Almost every amateur fantasy book starts in it, for example, and some authors wander from character’s head to character’s head as if they’re unable to control their own actions). This leads to body-centered writing.
That means that I cannot, while the character, know more than the character does, especially physically. Reading too much of authors who interject their characters with knowledge they shouldn’t have pisses me off.
1) Keep in mind which way your character is facing.
Too often I’ve read a scene where Character A is yelling at Character B, facing her, while Character C stands behind A. The scene is in A’s point of view. Character C rolls his eyes, and A yells at him about it.
Problem: How did Character A know that Character C rolled his eyes? The author will know, but Character A’s physical eyes are pointing the other way. (If he has magical rolling eyes like Mad-Eye Moody, you should mention it long before the middle of the story).
I don’t think this is a problem when Character A knows C well enough to think that he probably would be rolling his eyes, and thus the sentence is phrased something like:
“Stop rolling your eyes, Selten,” said Syelli, knowing full well the younger woman would be doing so. “This lecture applies to you, too.”
I hiss when I encounter this:
Selten rolled her eyes. “Be careful,” Syelli said, not even turning to face her. “This lecture applies to you, too.”
That is particularly heinous; not only does it imply knowledge Syelli could not possibly have had for certain, but it wanders out of Syelli’s point of view and into something that could be Selten’s or could be the narrator’s. Then it probably snaps right back into Syelli’s.
Lazy, lazy, lazy. Deep third person requires you to keep track of where your characters are looking. In a scene like this, give them prior knowledge of the other character, have Character C make some kind of disgusted sound, or do something else that will not be a purely visual signal by a stranger behind their heads that they couldn’t possibly know about.
2) Keep track of whether the character’s eyes are open or closed.
It is a little-known fact in Fantasyland that when people have their eyes closed, they cannot see. Or, at least, it must be a little-known fact in Fantasyland judging how eager some authors are to have their characters close their eyes and see anyway.
Tenya closed her eyes.
“And why are you doing that?” Hessen snapped at her.
“The better not to see you,” said Tenya, glaring at the smug grin on his face.
I don’t care how tiresome “She closed her eyes” and “She opened her eyes” gets. If you really don’t like writing them, find synonyms (shut instead of closed, for example) or let the character spend a while with her eyes closed before you open them for her. Don’t expect me to believe that your character can see Hessen’s smug grin when she hasn’t opened her eyes.
3) Right is not left, and vice versa.
Character A is facing Character B again. This time, though, Character C is creeping up on him with a knife, and the first two are so embroiled in their argument neither notices. Character C manages to stab Character A in the shoulder.
If he stabs him in the right shoulder, then when Character A feels the pain and whirls around to face Character C, that means the wound is now on the opposite side from where it was before. Character C will have to stab upwards and across Character A’s body to go on driving the knife into the same wound.
Too many fantasy authors fail to realize this, just as they realize how hard it would be to draw a knife from a sheath on the same side. If your character is right-handed, you’ll probably want the sheath on the left side, so that he can just reach across his body and draw the knife quickly instead of awkwardly reaching his arm down, grasping the hilt, and drawing it out. If he fights double-handed, the hands would most likely pull knives from sheaths on the opposite side each. Speed can mean life in a battle situation, so unless the character is exceptionally tall, the weapon is very short, and he has enough room to just reach down and pull the blade free without jamming his elbow into his side, a cross-body draw is the best solution.
4) If you’re using human or human-like characters traversing a normal world, there are some directions they should not expect attacks from.
Above is one of them. I’ve heard people watching horror movies scream at the screen when a character wanders, apparently witlessly, under the giant spider or other attacker hanging from the ceiling, but that’s because the audience in this case shares the camera’s perspective. The character is behaving with complete normality. Most people don’t look for attacks from above or spend a great deal of time studying the sky unless we have some reason, such as looking for rain. Don’t have your character look straight up into the sky just because you want him to see the attacker in time.
Likewise, we don’t think about attacks from below. Put your human-based character in the sky, perhaps riding a dragon, and have an enemy rise from the ground and attack that way. The dragon would likely see it in time to react, but the human shouldn’t expect it. Same thing happens underwater. Humans aren’t used to a three-dimensional world, and human characters underwater for the first time would probably gape at all the coral next to them and never notice the shark hurtling up from beneath their bellies.
5) They shouldn’t just ignore bodily sensations.
It’s perfectly acceptable to have the character not notice his hunger for a while if he’s used to ignoring it, or forget about it when the bandits suddenly leap out on the path and start attacking him. But it annoys me incredibly when the character breaks an ankle and yet stops noticing the pain in a few pages (usually in the middle of a daring escape) or when she hasn’t had anything to eat for days and yet doesn’t drop. This is a sign that the author is not writing while centered in the body. He or she is drifting above, keeping to mind-centered, and that reminds me that the characters are not real people, only constructions of the author’s mind.
Disbelief falls from its suspension chain and shatters all over the floor at that point.
Painful sensations in particular (hunger, thirst, wounds) should be noticed. They nag. They don’t go away because people just want them to go away. If your characters have gone without food for days, it should make their bellies ache. If they’ve gone without sleep, they should start stumbling and giggling at odd moments and having hallucinations. This might be waived if you have non-human characters, but again, that needs to be mentioned. Don’t just make your audience assume that all your characters are superhuman.
6) Your character needs his own reactions and reflexes.
There are some weak motions to include this when the character has suffered intense trauma, such as making him scream if he’s left alone in a dark room, but it’s rarely up to the level of what ordinary people perform every day of their lives. Give your character his own gestures. If he tends to smile when he’s being threatening, don’t forget to mention that sometimes. Eventually, you can simply write, “Hawthorn smiled,” and your readers will shudder. It’s an excellent way to use empathy without having to explain all the character’s emotions and the reason behind every action.
This can be taken to extremes, of course. Terry Goodkind, may he rot, has his Mary Sue character Kahlan give a “tight-lipped smile” to her Gary Stu boyfriend, Richard Rahl, as a special signal of friendship. Aside from the description tight-lipped not being very flattering, this begins happening every five pages or so, and is almost always described as “the tight-lipped smile she saved just for him.” AIIIEEE. Don’t overuse the special gesture, and especially don’t overuse the explanation of its meaning.
7) The character is not you.
Really. I know all the arguments about taking bits of yourself and putting them in your characters, and if the characters didn’t have those bits they wouldn’t be believable. Fine. But the characters should be more than bits, and they should notbe you or your love interest implanted into the story. This does not end happily. Ask Laurell K. Hamilton.
This means that making your character do or like something that’s completely extraneous or possibly even contradictory to his established personality just because you do or like that same thing is ridiculous. In body-centered writing, you become the character; the character does not become you. If you’ve already written him as a person who doesn’t appreciate loud noises because of occurrences in his past, then having him fall in love with Nirvana’s music and blast it at full volume because you like Nirvana’s music blasted at full volume is moronic. Find some other character who can more believably express that love, if it will wilt your little soul not to have it in there, and give it to that character.