Thursday, February 15, 2007

Good Advice, Poorly Handled

I just finished reading an advice article on developing characters. I won't mention the writer's name because I don't personally know this person and I'm sure they meant well, but the article was terribly mishandled and I will not be reading any more of this writer's work, fiction or non-fiction. I just don't have the time to waste.

The writer's first point is to create three dimensional characters instead of cardboard cutouts. Wow, there's a news flash. Surely no writer starts out to create cardboard cutouts. The question is how to avoid it. Some good advice we get is to use real people as inspiration, to create character sketches, and to let your characters talk to you. I use 1 and 3, but character sketches are a double-edged sword. They have to be organic to work. I've found that if you sketch your character in too much detail early that it actually interferes with the character's growth during the book. In other words, it can promote cardboard characters.

Later, the article writer tells us how to introduce material from our character sketches into the story. "Show, don't tell," the writer admonishes us, then proceeds to give an example from their own work where they "tell" everything. What is this, "Do as I say, not as I do" advice?

To top it all off, the entire article is written with a smug, "I'm smarter than you" attitude. I wouldn't like getting that kind of tone from Dean Koontz or Stephen King, much less someone who hasn't even published as much stuff as I have. Hey, if you're writing a tip article then keep the smugness for your bathroom mirror. The readers are not there to serve your ego. They're expecting a return on their investment of money and time.

(Note: subject-verb disagreements intended to protect the gender of the article's author.)

9 comments:

Erik Donald France said...

Very funny -- and good points on your part. How much do you blend characteristics of real people? If you do, does it come naturally/organically, or do you introduce elements deliberately, or accidentally?

Lucas Pederson said...

I've bought a couple advice books on writing, only one of the two are worth the money. The one that sucked, to put it bluntly, did the same thing about "show, don't tell". Where he told everything in the exapmple paragraph.
Teh good one I bought is Stephen King's On Writing. Now this was terrific in my opinion. It was easy to understand and follow, plus he gave such good advice. I love most of Stephen King's work, but this was magnificant.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Charles, I would love to know who the author was, and my curiosity is only ignited because you went through such great lengths to conceal it. I hope it wasn't me.

Seriously, maybe the author was attempting to address beginning writers. I have found that some of the stuff on writing that I have read must have been aimed at neophytes.

One thing I'll say is I've enjoyed your postings on writing. I feel that I've learned or rethought some things based on your statements on character development etc. I especially liked the element table for writing. That would make for a great article on its own.

By the way, even though I have come to say it once or twice myself, I HATE "Show don't tell". I cringe each time I utter those words. They have become the worst cliche.

Ultimately my battlecry is usually "ECONOMY!!!!"

Charles Gramlich said...

Erik, most of the time introducing elements of real people is done consciously, but I wouldn't call it deliberate as much as say that "it just feels right." I guess naturally/organically would work as a phrase to explain it.

Lucas, I enjoyed King's book except for his piece on getting an agent. Otherwise I found it very helpful.

Stewart, it wasn't you. The article wasn't from any blog or online source. I'm glad you've liked my postings. Yeah, "show don't tell" is kind of vague advice when you think about it. Sometimes you have to "tell" because the information doesn't need to be dramatized and needs to be provided so you can get on with the story. But you shouldn't use "telling" to illustrate why "showing" is more important.

Susan Miller said...

I, too, enjoy your recommendations on writing, Charles. Very intelligent and not at all pretentious or codescending, which is what it sounds like the writer of that article was. Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge.

Sidney said...

For a character sketch should you use charcoal or pen and ink?

Charles Gramlich said...

Thanks Susan. Sid, I use macaroni and glue on looseleaf paper.

JR's Thumbprints said...

Macaroni and glue helps to make the character's smells more vivid.

Michelle's Spell said...

I am a writing book junkie -- even the worst usually give me something I can use -- but I know what you mean about tone! It can be SO pretentious. As for characters, I usually use the worst parts of myself which aren't too hard to find and the best parts of my friends which are easy to find. I love when a character does something that scares me -- that's how I know they've become real.