Comments on Craft: Characters with Conflict

The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson CoverThe most interesting characters aren’t necessarily the ones with super-awesome skills or the best backstory. Most times, they’re the ones with the most internal conflict. One example of such a character is Joel from Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist and his co-star, Melody. In this YA novel, magic is restricted to a chosen few, and Joel is not one of them. He is, however, incredibly skilled in every facet of a rithmatist’s skills: geometry and other mathematics, the foundation of the magical system, are Joel’s forte. Melody is a rithmatist but is rubbish at mathematics. Both characters, regardless of any other plot points, are already set in conflict. Conflict is the core of plot, so Sanderson sets himself up for success right out of the gate.

Comments on Craft is a growing collection of examples of artful and well-constructed writing and storytelling and a discussion of why they work.

Comments on Craft: Double Duty & Show, Don’t Tell

River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay CoverWhat I’ve read of Guy Gabriel Kay is long and winding (and enjoyable, provided I’m not in the mood for a breakneck thriller). Characters don’t follow a linear plot progression; events unfold. One technique of Kay’s impressed me when I read River of Stars. Although many people tell writers to show, not tell, the advice is sometimes difficult to follow. I find that examples are best. In the following scene, Kay’s character Wengao watches reactions when his friend Chen enters a room.

[E]very man with a connection to the literary or the political world knew Lu Chen–and his current fate. [Wengao] wondered for a moment if the daughter [Shan] would, then he saw the expression on her face.

He felt a flicker of envy, like a long tongue from an old fire. She hadn’t looked at him that way. But he was old, really old. Could barely stand from a chair without wincing. Chen wasn’t a young man—his hair under the black felt hat and his narrow, neat beard were both greying—but he didn’t have knees that made walking an ambitious exercise. He was straight-backed, still a handsome young man, if thinner-faced than he ought to be, and seeming tired now, if you knew him and looked closely.

And he was the man who had written “Lines On the Cold Food Festival” and the “Red Cliff” poems, among others.

This excerpt shows how Shan reacts to Chen, even though there is very little text dedicated to her. It shows us (without telling) she is infatuated or even describing her features or reaction (despite common newbie misconceptions, showing doesn’t mean using flowery similes all the time). It shows by giving the reader a view of Wengao’s reaction to Shan’s infatuation. The paragraphs also do triple duty by characterizing Shan and Wengao and describing Chen’s physical appearance and renown as a poet. It shows Chen’s poems are famous and well received without telling you they are: by listing his poems as a reason why Shan, a well-read woman, would be smitten and by setting them off in a paragraph of their own, Kay skillfully conveys these poems’ cultural weight in the world of his novel.

Comments on Craft is a growing collection of examples of artful and well-constructed writing and storytelling and a discussion of why they work.

Comments on Craft: Awe & Otherworldliness

The Last Unicorn 40th Anniversary CoverI’ve decided to stop reviewing novels on this blog—the reviews aren’t necessarily helpful for writers. Instead, as I read well-crafted and artful fiction, I’ll excerpt passages or highlight techniques I find particularly skillful, beautiful, or useful.

I’ll start this new series, Comments on Craft, with a book my son recently asked me to read to him, even though he’s two years old and it doesn’t have many illustrations. He even sat still through two thirds of the first chapter!

I mention The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle a lot, but I refuse to apologize for the repetition. It has many facets worth emulating, but today I’ll highlight a paragraph from page 1, when Beagle is introducing his unicorn and setting her up as an awe-inspiring and otherworldly entity.

She did not look anything like a horned horse, as unicorns are often pictured, being smaller and cloven-hoofed, and possessing that oldest, wildest grace that horses have never had, that deer have only in a shy, thin imitation and goats in dancing mockery. […] She had pointed ears and thin legs, with feathers of white hair at the ankles; and the long horn above her eyes shone and shivered with its own seashell light even in the deepest midnight. She had killed dragons with it, and healed a king whose poisoned wound would not close, and knocked down ripe chestnuts for bear cubs.

After I read that last line, my son said, “That so nice!” He zeroed in on the part he understood: giving food to baby animals. This final line in the paragraph does more than list things the unicorn does: it both elevates caring for less-capable creatures to the same level as dragon slaying and gives a fairytale texture to the novel. New writers sometimes have a hard time making things feel epic or awe-inspiring and try to accomplish that goal by using grandiose, overly extravagant descriptions. Beagle gives his unicorn’s story an awe-filled tone in many ways, but one is right here. He gives her depth and breadth. By showing grand events like a mythical healing next to an everyday one, it keeps the description from becoming overblown, cliché, or monotonous (a grand tone gets boring if it encounters no variety). Also the fact that, for a unicorn, these three tasks all belong together makes the unicorn seem other-than-human, which she is!

Comments on Craft is a growing collection of examples of artful and well-constructed writing and storytelling and a discussion of why they work.