I want to talk about two of my favorite subjects. (My freshman English teacher would be pulling her hair out if she heard me begin a paper like that. Still, I’m going to use it.)
I want to talk to you about two of my favorite subjects: music and . . . Wait, what? My editor’s putting her two cents in. Or at least she is in my head. Great. My old teacher and my editor. All I need now is—
Fine, fine. You win. I’ll do this “write.” Hehehehe . . . You see what I did there. OUCH! All right. I’ll do this correctly.
I want you to do me a favor. Listen to the song below. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of Billy Joel or if you’ve never heard it before. Take a moment. Listen. It’s important.
Ok. Now that you’ve disregarded it, go back and listen. I’ll wait.
“Piano Man” is a fantastic example of characterization and setting a scene. Because—yes—this song tells a story. And it could be argued that every story, this one included, needs some sort of action. And it does. So I ask you this: where’s the action?
At first, it seems that it’s right there—the first verse:
“The usual crowd shuffles in.”
But as the song progresses, you find there’s no action there after all. The action doesn’t actually appear until the end, when Joel talks about performing. So what’s the beginning about then? He’s setting the stage, explaining who’s part of the “usual crowd.” Joel goes on to prove this when he talks about the old man:
“. . . making love to his tonic and gin.”
Joel then goes on to explain just who this guy is by giving you a few lines about lost memories. The old gent is in a piano bar, asking about sad, sweet songs of his youth. We all know that guy. He’s our grandfathers or great-grandfathers. He’s the old guy down at the VFW Hall who served in Korea. He’s us, talking with old friends about days gone by. We relate. Boom! Character defined just in time for Joel to move on to John at the bar:
“He gets me my drinks for free.”
Does Joel need to say that John’s his friend? No. But in this world Joel’s created, it means something to say that he’s a friend. In fact, John’s the only one he refers to as a friend, even though he knows Davy and Paul and the waitress, plus the manager. So why mention it? Cause it means something. Telling us about free drinks only goes to further show how good a guy John is.
“He’s quick with a joke or to light up your smoke, but there’s someplace that he’d rather be.”
And, again, we relate. I’d be a writer if I only had the chance. My wife would work with movie props. One of my friends would be a voice actor. If only, if only, if only. We know that dream and that need. You feel for him. Then we move on and continue to meet the people who populate this bar.
Next up are Paul and Davy. Only one line is needed about them, but why? Two reasons. One: Joel’s already established his credibility with us. With everyone he’s mentioned previously, he has them fit to a T. Now we feel we can trust his judgment and understanding of the regulars and just let his opinion lie. B: That’s all there is to them:
“Paul . . . never had time for a wife, and . . . Davy’s still in the navy and probably will be for life.”
Read between the lines. Their careers are their lives. From our perspective as multifaceted human beings, we may know there’s more to them than that, but it sure doesn’t seem that way. We, Joel, and everyone else have pigeonholed them. And right now, that’s all right.
“The waitress is practicing politics as the businessman slowly gets stoned.”
Do I really need to go into that? No, you see it now. How about the manager? According to Joel’s point of view, he cares only about the bar. Which fits, considering how large his role is in the song. It’s not that unrealistic. Drinks still need to get poured, whether Joel plays or not. So why say more?
Then there’s Joel himself. And yes, this whole song talks about him. Let’s rewind.
The old man:
“Can you play me a memory?”
“Bill, I believe this is killing me.”
And then there’s the refrain:
“Sing us a song, you’re the Piano Man.”
“You’ve got us feeling all right.”
What does that say about Joel’s character’s mindset? He reinforces it every refrain. He keeps distracting you, but then at the end, the entire song centers on him. His manager “knows that it’s me(Joel) they’ve been coming to see.” He describes his playing as a carnival—something which brings happiness and joy. I’m not a fan of carnivals, but it’s hard to be depressed at one. Of course, this impression is also deepened by the music itself, which sounds vaguely carnival-esque. Everyone’s sober or depressed until Joel starts to play. Then it’s better. They love him, and he tells you by saying:
“. . . they put bread in my jar and say ‘Man, what are you doin’ here?’.”
You know exactly who Joel is. He’s the narrator, but an unreliable one. His views are tempered by the colored glasses he wears. It’s about the music and always will be. And again, we can relate through people we already know.
Now, if you haven’t done it, go back and listen to the song, keeping this all in mind. A picture’s painted with depth and color using only the broadest strokes of the brush, but you know everything you need to know. You have it all in your head. You interpret the music, the characters, and the bar in your own way. Though I’ve attached it, you don’t need the music video to show you any of these people. Frankly, my opinions and impressions differ from those presented. Especially about the “practicing politics.”
So why do I bring this up? As writers, we look at characterization as some daunting task. Every time we introduce a character, we feel the need to create everything about him or her. Our thoughts become centered on the twitch of the hand, the color and brand of their clothes, how they speak. What food they love. The thing is, we don’t need to share all those characteristics. 95% of that information will never have any practical use. So why worry about it?
I love Robert Jordan, and he will always be one of my favorite authors. But one of his weaknesses is the amount of detail he expects you to remember each time he introduces a city, a character, or anything else. Someday read The Wheel of Time. It’s a fantastic story with a great narrative, but the characterization can get heavy-handed. And I’ll admit it. Sometimes I ignore his descriptions and move on, making it all up in my head.
Now consider Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Give me the description of Ender, Graff, or Peter. It’s simple: Ender—shorter than average; Graff—thin, then fat, then thin again; Peter—taller than Ender, but otherwise an older version of his little brother.
Simple. Broad. Strokes.
I realize this is mostly a stylistic thing, but it’s something you should think on. Everyday people and places don’t need paragraphs of description. Yet the more fantastical the concept, the more attention it deserves. The one exception to this rule that I’ve made up in my head is if what you’re describing holds a special significance—a wedding chapel, the murder weapon, that hobo who saw everything. But even still, you have to be careful to balance everything so that your description doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb. It takes some doing.
Myself, I tend to walk the middle ground. My main characters are hardly ever described. Stephanie has red hair and Daniel finds her beautiful. James has grey hair and a moustache. Daniel? Good luck figuring that one out, though he has a habit of comparing others to himself (i.e. thinner than him, taller than him, etc). I spend paragraphs describing an apartment where a body’s found, but write almost nothing about Daniel and Stephanie’s office. Mind you, this is also characterization of the speaker. How often would you describe every detail of your home to a stranger, compared to someplace unusual? It doesn’t happen. Your house is every day, mundane, but that murder room? Oh, that’s interesting.
I’ll leave you with this. It’s an actual description for one of the characters in my book. One of the whole two lines I spent on him. And it’s about all you need to know about him:
“The mousy speech sounded from behind me, and I turned to see exactly the type of man you would expect to own such a voice.”