Monday, December 22, 2014

Characterization with a Bit of Music

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.”

Monday, December 8, 2014

Between Work and Sacrifice


I’m back.

If you hadn’t noticed—and I bet most of you have—I’ve been sadly lacking in my blog posts for the past several weeks.  Six, to be precise.  That’s not something I’m particularly proud of.  Over these last weeks, I’ve had to make some sacrifices to stay sane.  Unfortunately, I decided to sacrifice the wrong thing.

You see, work—the thing that gave me a paycheck every other Friday—was dragging me down.  Stressing me out.  Something had to give, and I chose the writing.  Why?  Not because I wasn’t dedicated to my craft, but because I have responsibilities and the pay was good.  So I chose the thing that paid the bills, not what made me happy. 

Now, I sit here before you, unemployed.  I’ve been in many different states in my life, denial being the other one I’m particularly fond of.  Fond, of course, being used in a most sarcastic way.  Because, you see, I had myself fooled that this job was worth the time, effort, and sacrifice.  Clearly, that wasn’t the case.

That burns a little.  More than a little, if I’m to be honest.  I worked, sweated, cried, and sacrificed for nothing.  To make matters worse, I gave up all those things that make me who I am—my passions.  I became a robot and a fool.  No one likes to be made a fool of, even if it’s only in his own head.  There were days that I couldn’t make myself write more than a few lines or edit a page or two before stopping for the night.  Let’s forget about writing blog posts.

The thing was, I was all right with it.  My parents did a lot for me growing up.  The older I get, the more I learn they did for me.  That being said, one of those things they got through my thick skull was the importance of working hard, and, if you care enough for something, you sacrifice for it.  Before now, I’d been sacrificing everything for my writing.  I lost time with family and friends.  Money that could have been used for other things—some frivolous, some not—instead went to an editor or supplies.  Let’s not talk about my health.  But I was fine with it. 

You see, throughout my life, I’ve been smart enough to skate by.  As an adult, this isn’t something I’m proud of, but as a kid?  “Good enough” was, simply put, good enough.  But when things got hard, I stopped and gave up, moving on to other, easier things.  This bad habit has stuck with me into adulthood.  And even though I know I’m doing it, it’s hard to fight. 

Writing was one of the first things I didn’t stop doing when the going got tough.  I don’t know how many times I was knocked down, but each time I picked myself up and started at it again, pounding against that wall with fists, ink, or whatever else was available.  It’s made a difference.  Now, it’s a solace, a place of refuge.  I wouldn’t give it up for the world.

But I did.

That’s why it grinds so much.  I gave up a passion for a paycheck.  As a kid, way back when, I promised myself I’d never do that.  Yet, here as an adult . . . Yeah.

I betrayed myself.  I betrayed my family and friends.  I betrayed my dream.  The last is nearly impossible to live with.  So, despite my dreams, it feels blatantly wrong sitting here writing something for a blog when I have cover letters to type up.  What right do I have to spend my life enslaved to the written word if I’ll give it up, give up my dreams, at the promise of a paycheck?  Is any amount of money worth giving up your dreams?

I am a fan of trivia game shows.  For years, K has been trying to get me to sign up and get on one.  Various excuses have kept me away, the main one being pride.  Well, yesterday I had a realization forced upon me by a friend.  Pride only goes so far, and eventually you’ll be willing to sell it for the right price.  He pointed out to me that pride prevents me from going on a game show, but I’d do it if it meant my novel, my dream, would become a reality. 

And he’s right. 

Knowing the man, he’s probably the only person who could make me see it.  He’s sacrificed for a dream and now does what I want to do for a living.  Not running a comic store like he does, but rather making a living off my passion.  You will sacrifice so much if you’re able to do what you love for the rest of your life.  I don’t think anyone else could have made that connection and made me accept it as readily as he did.

If I’m to be honest, it makes a fatalistic sort of sense, too.  Everything since I took the first steps on The Red Dress has pointed my feet toward writing.  All roads lead to Rome.  Rome being writing.  I’ve met some great people doing this.  My friends and family are fully behind me.  Can I count the personal satisfaction and happiness, too?  Encouragement comes from too many directions to count.  It’s too late to give up.  I’m too caught up in it.  This is my life, and I only get one of those.

So I can’t feel guilty about it anymore.  I need to be focusing on this blog, editing The Red Dress, and writing the follow-up.  No, I can’t do it all the time.  I do need to find a job.  Cover letters need to be written, and bills need to be paid.  But all this feeling-bad-for-wasting-time nonsense has to go out the window.  This experience, if nothing else, has forced me to realize what’s important to me.  And while money’s nice, it sure as hell isn’t everything.  Peace of mind and happiness stack up for quite a bit.

It isn’t so much that I have to make amends for my time in the land of the misbegotten.  Rather, it’s another instance of picking yourself up after hardship, dusting yourself off, and going right back at it.  I never completely stopped writing, you see.  Just mostly.  And that was bad enough.  This was a learning experience.  Now I know what’s important.  Now I know what to sacrifice for.  And that’s just as important as the will and ability to give it all up for a greater cause.

I’ll never stop writing.  Not for the rest of my life.  But now, I’ll never let it get so far away, either.