This is a somewhat disconnected essay. Then again, I’m in a disconnected mood.
1) Remember pain.
If your character’s run miles in one day, or lifted heavy burdens, or worn unfamiliar shoes and has a blister on her heel, the pain usually doesn’t just vanish because the next day she has to escape a villain. Mentioning muscle aches or the sudden blinding flash of pain on the heel when the blister pops doesn’t have to take up a lot of time. It does center the character—and the reader—on the body and remind them of past events, though, insuring that you’re not hitting the “reset” button to perfect physical condition after every chapter. It can also show character; some people will complain about every minor hurt, or complain about minor ones and keep silent about major ones, or think they have to suffer everything in stoic silence. Done right, it can even add to plot; there doesn’t need to be a random pit trap in the heroine’s way to keep her from escaping, because a long run the day before and a stitch in her side may very well insure she has to turn and fight.
I could say “remember other types of bodily sensation, too,” but pain seems to be one of the most called-on and least remembered. Characters can suffer the agony of torture to tug the reader’s heartstrings, but be up and walking around like normal in the next day (either because of a healer or because the author simply forgets that being tortured with red-hot iron is something that leaves marks. I’ve already had my say about healers, so I’ll leave them alone here). Give it its due.
2) Be creative with arrangements of people.
Where are two characters standing in relation to each other? Do you know? Or sitting? If two characters are seated and a third comes into the room, whom does he see first? Is there a subtle sign of precedence in the seating? If one character wants to lean over and slap the other upside the head, can she actually reach him, or has she miraculously become Inspector Gadget?
All of these are fun. All of these are good. All of these can provide a way of characterization and placing and plotting that’s often overlooked, even in fantasies where authors want very formal cultures that are obsessed with politeness. The usual substitute is gestures or titles. Body arrangement was important in plenty of cultures, though, including “modern” ones like Regency England. Who sat where, who entered a room first, where people went when a meal was done, who had to stand when someone else arrived, which door you could enter the house by, all mattered.
It may take a while to develop a visual imagination suited to this. It’s very far from impossible, however; many fantasy authors can learn to visualize sword-fights and the movements of armies. And once you’ve got it down, it’s another simple but effective way to remind the reader that your conversing characters actually do have bodies, and are not talking heads.
3) Have the characters feel their clothing.
Not necessarily in a restrictive way (though I could deal with clothing outside the inevitable formal ballgown that the heroine, of course, will not want to wear, because she is pure and virtuous, being uncomfortable). Have them sometimes notice the feel of cloth against their skin. It could be rain-soaked. It could be blood-soaked—and you don’t want to just merrily grasp blood-soaked cloth and peel it away from a wound, let me tell you. It could be heavy enough that their dramatic exit gets ruined because it gathers around their legs and trips them up. Clothes they’ve borrowed from someone else shouldn’t always fit perfectly. Shoes or boots can pinch. Clothing that was appropriate for one environment probably won’t protect them when they teleport to another one.
Because I increasingly want to know “Why?” for questions like “But where does the food come from?” and “Where does the waste go?”, another question I’m interested in is, “Where does the clothing come from?” That refers both to who makes it and what it’s made from. Another thing I think modern fantasy authors tend to forget is that their characters often won’t have access to the type of clothing they wear every day. Is theirs wool? Cotton? Muslin? Silk? (Less romantic than it’s portrayed; for one thing, it’s not good for traveling in wet weather). Leather? Chain armor? Animal hide? If they get all their clothes destroyed in a fire or a flood or by a roaming animal, or taken by a thief, where are they getting new ones?
A naked character shivering in the dawn because someone took his clothes while he was bathing gives a writer a whole new appreciation for body-centered writing.
4) Think of other ways to notice someone than by eye color and hair color.
I am, admittedly, oversensitive to this. Part of the problem is that I’ve run into far too many “descriptions” of characters that really just found five adjectives for eye color and spent three far-too-long sentences on the character’s hair, while telling me nothing more meaningful than that. Another part of the problem is that I’m faceblind, so I don’t, in real life, pay that much attention to people’s eye color, and would like to see stories that acknowledged there are other ways to recognize someone, or to distinguish them from other people/characters.
- Gait (including quickness and a particular sound of walking, which is one way I use to identify people before I can see them).
- A particular style of clothing.
- General range of motion, which would include arms and torso and head as well as legs.
- Set of shoulders.
- Hair style.
- Context (if I’m in the classroom, that narrows down the range of people who should be present there).
- Ornaments, such as jewelry and rosaries.
- Gestures, such as a hand-flip or a hair-toss or a finger-tap.
I deliberately didn’t include “unusual” features here, like large noses or catchphrases, because they have a tendency to be picked up and run into the ground; the only distinguishing factor of a character becomes that he says, “Brightness and breezes!” whenever he’s surprised. The others, especially if one person gets to have several that interact with one another, can build a more complete sense of a person, and/or an observer who pays attention to her perceptions.
5) Notice of the seasons.
I’ve talked before about how seasons can get ignored because, again, of authors’ living inside or not wanting to deal with the actual consequences of the characters’ traveling at a certain time of year (Frostbite! Fingers turning black and falling off! Spittle freezing before it hits the ground!) But this is a more positive essay, so instead of ranting about that I’ll just mention something:
You don’t have to keep to a mechanical, easily recognized round of the seasons. This is especially true if you’re not writing in a temperate climate, but they can have endless variations in the most forested, rainy, arable, generic Fantasyland possible. Spring doesn’t justbegin on the vernal equinox, nor summer on Midsummer Day; signs of all seasons often occur before or linger after their “proper” times, depending on latitude, weather, temperature, bioregion, and maybe magic in a fantasy world. And a character who lives in her body and her world and her place can recognize them.
Here’s another handy-dandy list, this time for ways to accentuate the rounds of the seasons and not have them mindlessly imitate conventions, so that autumn in your fantasy world is just like autumn in every other fantasy world ever invented:
- Sudden thaws.
- “False” migrations in which birds wheel round the neighborhood but don’t actually fly away.
- Relative dimness of fall foliage; it’s not equally bright everywhere.
- Slushy snow that survives in patches under tree-shade days after melting elsewhere.
- Breaking and refreezing of water, depending on how swiftly it moves.
- Springs of mud, rather than perfect transitions from snow to green grass.
- Arrival of a certain species of bird or flower.
- Non-migratory birds; they don’t all freeze or fly.
- Sudden denuding of trees, because of high windstorms.
- Trees blossoming a bit earlier in some places than elsewhere, especially cities, because of the extra warmth.
- Seasonal presence changing by altitude; spring and summer come later to the high mountains.
- Early or late snows or rains.
- Floods from sources other than rivers (storms make them too).
- Oversaturation of the ground after a rainstorm, resulting in puddles.
- Thin, starved animals after a winter of hibernation.
- Air thick with mating insects, like ants.
Obviously, this will need to be adjusted depending on what you’re working with, but it can help make a change from green springs, full summers, bountiful harvests with bright leaves, and dead cold winters. And if your characters are traveling great distances, the differences will often become more noticeable.
6) What stimuli does your character most respond to?
It can be visual, but it doesn’t have to be. Even among visual characters, people are different. One might notice the flash of a sunbeam in the river below the bridge he’s passing over, while another is more concerned with the fact that several people are standing around a stall in the market with long faces.
I’ve urged people to talk about food more before; I still think it helps. Of course, it also helps if you can describe taste. Here’s a description I particularly like, from Annie Dillard’s “The Deer at Providencia”:
Lunch, which was the second and better lunch we had that day, was hot and fried. There was a big fish called doncella, a kind of catfish, dipped whole in corn flour and beaten egg, then deep fried. With our fingers we pulled soft fragments of it from its sides to our plates, and ate; it was delicate fish-flesh, fresh and mild. Someone found the roe, and I ate of that too—it was fat and stronger, like egg yolk, naturally enough, and warm.
And here’s one from Steven Brust’s Dzur; Brust is one of the few fantasists I’ve read who goes into food in any detail:
I was able to concentrate on the wine. I will deny being any sort of wine expert, but I liked it. It was dry, of course, because sweet wines are for dessert, but it had all these hints underneath that made me think of grassy hills with orchards and wind blowing through them and poetical stuff like that. Knowing what was coming later in the meal, the wine was trying to set me up, trying to tell me that my mouth was safe, and I shouldn’t worry. Nasty, evil wine.
Rather a different effect, but it certainly gives the impression that Vlad Taltos is not a character who lives solely in his mind. Neither is Dillard’s first-person narrator (who is probably her, but why take chances?).
7) Think yourself into the situation.
I almost hesitated to include this one, for what may be contradictory reasons: it seems obvious, and while it works for me, I don’t know if it will work for other people. But hey, maybe it will, so here it is.
When writing a character in a situation I want to make intensely physical—usually one that the average reader will not have experienced, like riding a dragon or hanging on a cliff over a thousand-foot drop—I try as hard as I can to imagine myself into the character’s body. Not just emotions, which I try to share most of the time, and not just reactions, which can be common enough to make clichés of themselves (not looking down is one of those). Actually sharing the same skin, the motions, the body, the fears if possible—here my intense fear of heights comes in handy—and imagining what it would be like, feeling it so.
This is hard to describe, and I’m not sure I’m doing it justice. As well, it does involve cutting; sometimes something I would notice is not something the character would notice, so afterwards I need to edit that out. But throwing myself forcefully into the moment often works for me.
It will probably work for less desperate situations, too, though if your character is walking along a path or sitting in a chair, your readers’ memories can help a lot more than for a journey dragonback. I haven’t tried it there as often.