Monday, 29 July 2013

Solidity of Specification

I'm digging into the How To books again, so beware. These titles are from the reading list for a Creative Writing course, and the first, David Lodge's  The Art of Fiction, was a pleasant read but didn't teach me anything startlingly new. But then, it has been around for quite a while now. The book I'm looking at now is called The Road to Somewhere*...and I flicked to a chapter on Characters.

Here are a few nuggets: Characters are not just defined by what they do or say. The setting in which we find them may say a great deal about them. Hovel or palace? Yacht or rubber dinghy? Be careful about how you dress your character, as such things speak volumes, as do the cars they drive, the records they collect, where they shop. There's a phrase for this kind of thing - Solidity of specification. Ever heard of it? I hadn't either, but I already believe in what it's telling me. John drove his car to the shop tells us little about the character John. Tristram drove his Porsche 911Carrera 4 to Thomas Pink's in Jermyn Street tells us quite a lot about Tristram.(Well, it helps if you know Pink's is a designer-shirtmaker who's been around since seventeenth century and they make hand stitched expensive shirts. Something like that, anyway. I'm sure you get the drift...)

What a viewpoint character notices about another character can tell volumes, too. What they notice gives a reflection of their feelings as well the character. Sam may never notice Hilary's innate snobbishness, because she's snobbish herself. Harry will notice and hate it because he doesn't believe in boasting or putting down people who've made a genuine effort. Characters can undergo change, and their perceptions of  other characters may change.

There is a hint in this book that internal monologue is a turn off for the reader. When it is badly done it is boring, claustrophobic and unattractive. Nobody acts and nobody speaks. No reader wants to experience every little nuanced emotion and thought of the hero or heroine. They'd much prefer they got on with whatever is happening on the page. The other great turn off is simply describing a character unless it is done dramatically, in a way that will stop the reader in his/her tracks.

*Eds: Graham, Leach and Newall, 2005


Jen Black said...

Margaret wrote: "Beware of any author of a How-To Book on writing who says, anywhere, about anything, than "No reader likes..." because s/he will be dead wrong in more than one instance. I am, for example, a big fan of some internal dialogue, and despise short, choppy books with all action and no reflection. But you knew I was gonna say that, right?"

Jen Black said...

I expected something in that vein, Maggie. Internal monologue *done to death* is the turn off, not internal monologue per se.