Overlooked aspects of character and theme

Whilst bearing the overwhelming importance of world inconsistency in mind we will now turn our attention to characters and their portrayal. A good fiction writer must be a good actor, his characters must not all be but mere extensions of his own idiosyncrasies, if so the characters will assume a kind of bland and unconvincing uniformity, becoming not separate entities, but rather, component parts of one overbearing hive mind with a totalizing consistency of thought. Characters should all have their own inner lives unless you have a reason within the story to portray them “flatly.” For example, you might wish to portray a nameless “random henchman” type character in a comedy tale to parody action genre-convention, with its seemingly endless host of utterly incompetent and drone-like shock-troopers who are curiously never daunted by the fact that their masters continuously send them up against foes girded by the indomitable power of plot-armor.

Two good examples to compare and contrast for the purposes of elucidating “well rounded” characters and “flat characters” can be found in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged respectively. In The Fountainhead all of the principal characters (and even most of the minor characters) are distinctive, both in terms of their thoughts, words and deeds whereas in Atlas Shrugged nearly all of the principal heroes are facsimiles of John Galt (with the sole exception of Dagny Taggart) and all of the principal villains are echoes of James Taggart (with the sole exception of Dr. Robert Stadler). A repetition of a certain character type is problematic because it necessitates a repetition of theme. In the case of Atlas Shrugged it is established that John Galt believes that a kind of enlightened selfishness is not only good, but the highest moral good. Since nearly all of his compatriots in the novel speak, act and think exactly like him (to the point of being indistinguishable upon the page without moniker) one knows precisely what they’re going to say and what they are going to do. Furthermore, this tendency breeds a (often unintentional) preachiness which is both extraneous and irksome; there is, after all, only so many times and ways one can repeat “selfishness is the highest good” before the reader is inclined to inwardly shout, “By the underbelly of Apophis, I get it already!”

If your purpose, in writing any particular story or portion thereof, is to convince your audience of something, it were better that you restrain from incessantly beating them over the head with your ideas, as that is about the least convincing thing you could do. Furthermore, regardless of your purpose, the aforementioned type of character repetition (and thus, theme repetition) breeds stilted and unbelievable characters who will utterly bore all as the reader has already met them a dozen or more times before! As with films, there are some books that are so profoundly bad they’re good precisely because they’re so humorously bad, but whoever heard of a book so boring that one simply must read it?


Overlooked Fundamentals of Fiction Writing (part I)

Fiction writing, like all other forms of art, is predicated upon communication.

First and foremost, a fiction writer should focus on ensuring he has the requisite ability to communicate his or her thoughts via the written word and to communicate them effectively. It doesn’t matter how extensive your lexicon, nor how captivating your style, if you cannot arrange sentences in such a way as to drive home the meaning contained therein. We shall not cover, in any depth, the rudiments of the English language nor of any other and will, instead, assume a certain degree of literary proficiency and creativity from the reader (one should be careful not be to too bound by forms which can sap the work of its vigor and inventiveness). Instead we will be turning our fevered imaginations towards the specific ways (the forms) in which the themes within a given work are communicated.

Pay particular attention to your opening sentences.

There is no more important section of a given story than the opening sentence(s), for if your audience does not find it sufficiently eye-catching they are like as not to read little further. Certainly, if the whole opening paragraph is either mundane, impenetrable or both, then one should not expect any sizable readership to follow. For instance, in my recently published short story The Chittering, the tale begins with a evocative description of the scene and the principal actors within it. I wrote:

Night fell like a blanket of smoke over the hunters, the clicking of crickets in the forest beyond the old bunker, the only sound, save for the rustling of the lonesome wind.

The purpose of this introduction was to provide a description of both the “stage” and the “actors” upon it as well as lay the snare which was to pull the reader deeper into the story. It was my hope that the mention of mysterious hunters, huddled in a old bunker would cause the reader to ponder, “Who are these hunters, what is this bunker? Why are they in it? What is all this about?” This is not to say that one should not begin with naming or detailing their characters (that’s perfectly fine), however, there is something to be said of cramming too much information into one particular place. Information overload (something author’s like DeLillo delight in, i.e. Underworld) occurs whenever you attempt to describe multiple events and/or characters all within the space of a single line of text. Something like, “Tim, the Freemason, was feeling queasy, he figured those lobster’s which Sherry, the cook, had given him for Clancy’s birthday, were the likely culprit.” The sentence is a little difficult to follow, but more than that, it is rather clunky and reads like a paint-by-numbers description (he did X, then he did Y because she did X, etc), which is not particularly interesting and can wax rather robotic.

Whilst we are on the topic of painting-by-numbers, another attribute of one’s story which will return dividends if cared for is the rhythm of the text itself.


The rhythm of a particular line of text is also of considerable importance not just for the “flow” of the story but also for the impact of particular portions thereof. Consider the way following passages:

His hands shook upon the handle of the smoking gun as he loomed over the twitching ruddy creature upon the ground, now twitching no more.

Chopping this sentence up (“changing the rhythm”) can be a method to place more emphasis upon particular actions, like so:

His hands shook upon the cool handle of the gun. Coils of smoke, like phantasmal worms, moved about the rafters. He looked down to behold his victim, twitching like some bird-rent crab.



Twitching no more.

The first description is more compact and more “correct” grammatically speaking, but it doesn’t have the same level of visceral impact as the second description. Neither is necessarily better, in any total and all-encompassing sense, but certainly, one or the other will be much better for certain types of scenarios and deftly navigating between the two kinds of descriptions (those being: “matter-of-fact” and “poetic”) will make for a much more enjoyable read, it will also allow you to explain certain segments of your story in a way the other will not.

World consistency.

Any cinephile worth his salt will have seen at least one film series wherein a character or place or theme is introduced and becomes important only to vanish in the next installment and never reappear again. I call this world inconsistency to differentiate it from a plot-hole as the two are not necessarily synonymous. World inconsistencies occur when one builds up a particular portion of their world(s) over a particular portion of one’s story and then suddenly and inexplicably glosses over or ignores everything there created. Such inconsistencies typically occur either through forgetfulness or a misbegotten desire towards flair (i.e. it just sounded good at the time). World inconsistencies often occur in sequels which are, in the current artistic climate, usually driven my market demand and are thus hastily cobbled together re-imaginings rather than detailed elaborations. A good example of this phenomenon can be found within the Hannibal Lecter (or Lecktor as Manhunter puts it) series of novels written by the notable and stylish crime author, Thomas Harris.

In the novel, Hannibal Rising (2006), the individual who is most formative to the budding serial killer is his fiery adoptive aunt, Lady Murasaki, a Japanese woman of considerable refinement and ability who I assume (though do not know) was patterned off of the 11th Century Japanese writer,  Murasaki Shikibu, known for her text, The Diary of Lady Murasaki. Despite her prominence in the sequel novel, Lady Murasaki is never mentioned or referenced in anyway in any of the other novels, those being: Red Dragon (1981), Silence of the Lambs (1988) and Hannibal (1999). Now we should forgive Harris this oversight due to the fact that, firstly, he did not want to write the book to begin with (Dino De Laurentiis forced him into it due to studio pressures; i.e. maintaining the franchise) and secondly, he couldn’t very well change his other previously written books right off the bat and would have had to have made additions to one or more of his previously released novels. Now what he should have done (other than just refusing to write the book to begin with) was write yet another novel or novella, occurring sometime after Hannibal Rising, but yet before the last book in the series, such that all the various strands of Hannibal Rising were tied together into the rest of the previously established Lecter mythos. Failing this, one is left with prominent thematic attributions which dissolve into utter nothingness.

[continued in part 2]


Sex, Violence, Death, Toil: A Brief Primer On Fiction Writing, Prt. 1

I like what I do. Some writers have said in print that they hated writing and it was just a chore and a burden. I certainly don’t feel that way about it. Sometimes it’s difficult. You know, you always have this image of the perfect thing which you can never achieve, but which you never stop trying to achieve. But I think … that’s your signpost and your guide. You’ll never get there, but without it you won’t get anywhere.

– Cormac McCarthy, Jun. 1, 2008

Fiction writing is often perceived, and subsequently spoken of, as if it were some magical art, some eldritch and impenetrable ability of numinous convocation which arrives and departs from the conscious mind like a furious blast of ball-lightening (which, interestingly enough, are theorized to be responsible for the numerous cases of real spontaneous combustion throughout history). Whilst reaching towards (and ultimately grasping) the numinous should be the end goal of all of the higher forms of fiction, it is a mistake to view the craft as solely the providence of arcane geniuses, as a venture which can only be undertook at the precise moment of inspiration.

Inspiration is all fine and dandy but it is wholly insufficient in and of itself to create a substantial work of art. A work of fiction which is nothing but inspirationally driven is one which is wholly impulsively driven; it is much the same as a grand and beautifully crafted ship without its rudder! It might well inspire a kind of awe but it won’t be able to move an inch and will invariably capsize in the coming storm, lost to all and every man beneath the thunderous swell of bio-hum. There is also the problem of time in relation to a work of fiction; whilst it is never wise to make haste when writing a novel or short story for the sake of speed itself there must also be reasonable timetables set forth for the writer if he or she is ever to finish the project upon which they are so arduously plying their talents. It is a highly romanticized conception of the writer as a powerfully minded yet tragically underappreciated soul which ultimately leads to nothing but stagnation. If you aren’t a genius or a consistent partaker in Ginsbergesque ritualism then it is highly unlikely that bold and evocative inspiration sufficient to carry the entirety of setting, plot, characters and theme will oft strike; this is, in no wise, a bad thing!

Contrary to the romanticized American conception of the fiction writer, he treats his work in much the same fashion as might a lumberjack or gas station clerk. He gets up early, takes notes, watches his time, writers consistently (preferably daily) and passionately and has a distinct objective in mind whilst he is doing so. That is, if he wishes to be a successful writer in the total sense of the term, meaning, successful both financially and, far more importantly, artistically. It is here I would offer some mild advice to those amongst you who aspire to write fiction in any wise (hopefully without being too boorish in so doing).

  • Purchase or borrow a note book or journal (I much prefer leather-bound journals for their superior aesthetic appeal and durability) and take notes whilst you are away from your computer (unless, that is, you still do the work on a typewriter!). This helps not only flesh out already established ideas, but also preserves new ideas that might otherwise perish in the bottomless marsh of forgetfulness
  • Don’t read whilst you write. Meaning: do not take up another work of fiction whilst you are engaging in your own work. The reason for this is simple; originality. Whilst one should most certainly shun originality for its own sake there is a tendency for the “voice” and style of more powerful and skilled writers to overtake the minds (and thus the page) of those, less versed in the craft. It is extremely important for the avid writer to read and read widely and deeply, but not at the same time he plies his trade as this threatens the authenticity of the piece.
  • Concentrate upon the theme of the story before everything else. A story, no matter how exciting the action, plot or characters will ultimately be nothing more than a mere confection of the intellect without philosophical grounding; without ideas which one wishes to build upon, expound, communicate and spread.
  • Don’t overly fret over grammar and instead focus on authenticity within the framework of the world which you are creating. That is to say, if you are writing a sentence and find it pleasing and perfectly suited to describing some situation crucial to the plot then do not there deviate to grammatical puritanism. After all, any true blunders you do make will be fixed by the editor upon the completion of the manuscript.
  • Most importantly, actually practice writing. Set a schedule and stick to it. The simplest, but hardest of “skills” for a writer to master (I include myself in this criticism!)

Now that we have that out of the way we shall turn our attention to the actual structure of a story and what it is that makes certain stories standout, that is, what makes them good. To speak not at all about any particular theme, a truly great work of art will always deal with three things: sex, violence and death. It is my opinion that any work of art which deals not at all with this omnipresent trio of human universals is not worthy of one’s time or, indeed, of really being called a work of art at all.

[to be continued in prt.2]