Monday, April 21, 2008

Sympathy is the very devil

As I close in on 100 rejections I can see a trend emerging in the letters and e-mails that accompany those stories that don't quite make it.

I can sense I'm making progress in that more rejections express the hope that I'll keep bothering those editors with my stories. Perhaps its rejectomancy to read too much in to that but given the thin nourishmnet from the big table I've had so far those crumbs taste pretty good. Cuspy? Look it up in the dictionary and it'll have my picture next to it.

Three of the rejections I got recently all mentioned failings of character. Those letters mean more than most because they do chime with what I think about where I am at. I now know I can handle setting, structure, dialogue and I'm getting a handle on action.

But character? Hmm - I know that the characters I write are pretty thin.

So I turned to the web and my collection of "how to write" reference books for help. To paint good characters SDL says I need to show them performing actions that are "habitual, purposeful and gratuitous". Reading that I realised the importance of action - in the sense of putting a character in places they must react rather than a sword or gunfight. People reveal themselves by their action otherwise they are just being shuffled from place to place and looking blankly on.

Also important, say folks like Orson Scott Card, are telling details - habits or incidents from a character's past to round them out. Then there are the elements revealed in dialog beats - reactions or additions to the words and the attitude a character brings to events.

I also found this great note by Jim Kelly about how to go about it. There's great stuff here - about how telling in a short story is okay but showing is important too. Probably the best advice he gives is to try it and keep on trying until it works. Writers learn by doing rather than be being told - they are not alone in that.

But I also came across the frightening information that Iris Murdoch felt she had never mastered the art of creating good, for which read sympathetic, characters. And that chimes with what I've felt reading Murdoch, her characters feel like exquisitely made mechanical people rather than living, breathing individuals. Where that leaves me I'm not sure. Perhaps I'd better go and find out. So, if you'll excuse me...

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