Sunday, March 28, 2010

Skiers and writers by Kathleen Delaney

Like just about every one else in the world, I watched the Olympic. The figure skating is my favorite, probably because, in the past, my oldest daughter was a competitive skater, went on to skate with Ice Capades when it was a popular show, then later became a skating school director for them. My appreciation for what those skaters do is immense, and made even more so by my little bit of knowledge of what they have to go through to achieve those dizzying heights of perfection.

That doesn’t take away any of my awe of what people in other sports achieve. For instance, I have just enough experience with skiing to know that the bunny hill is terrifying. The thought of going full tilt down those hills, either straight or weaving in and out of poles you can barely see, makes me slightly faint. And the bobsled/luge people! And—we could go on and on. They are all slightly nuts but just about the bravest and most skilled nuts I’ve ever seen.

There was a lot of commentary along those lines, but I was struck by one phrase in particular that came up often as we watched the skiers zoom down the hillsides. The commentators kept talking about “letting the skis run.” That phrase struck a cord.
So hold on, here’s where the writing analogy comes in.

Letting the skis run seems to be a sort of controlled form of pointing them downhill and hoping you stay upright until you get to the bottom.

Writing characters is a little like that. You start out with a character that seems integral to the vague idea you have for a story, and you start to build them. What is this person like? How do they look, walk, what do they sound like? What do they do for a living, why do they do that? Are they happy? Why not? Are they old? Young? Married? Dating? Athletic? A couch potato? Shy? Social? Mean? If so, does that make them evil? Or just mean? Or are they nice? Really nice, not just to impress people. What do they like to eat? And where do they like to eat it? Do they like horse racing? Or NASCAR?

Pretty soon we have a person we think we know. We may like them a lot, or not at all, but we think we know them, and we’d better. The action in our story is going to spring out of those characters, who they are and what they do in any given situation. Remember, no two people will ever act, or react, the same under the same circumstances, What will drive one person to murder may not phase another much at all. What will make one person courageous under stress may make another run for cover.

Stories are about conflict. They wouldn’t be very interesting if they weren’t. Only, sometimes, we don’t let our characters reach their full potential. We hold them back. We throw all kinds of stressful situations at them, murder, mayhem, danger of all sorts, yet we don’t let them react. There they are, little cardboard figures, going through the motions, but without the emotions so essential to telling the story.

So, when you are writing that next tense scene, let your heroine struggle to be brave. She really should be afraid to go down those cellar steps alone, so lets make sure she has a darn good reason to go, one that overrides her very justified reason to stay safely at the top. Lets see that struggle, let’s feel it. We also need to feel the reason the murderer did what he/she did, Maybe he/she is filled with rage at an injustice, perceived or real. Maybe the destructive effect of greed, or pride (remember pride goeth before a fall?) is the motive for murder, or perhaps the fear that for some reason they have boxed themselves into a corner and the only way out is murder.

Whoever they are, and whatever the motivation for their action, let your character sit on top of that hill. Let them take a deep breath, ready to take off and fly to the bottom of the hill, or the end of the story, with a heart stopping run. Go with them. Let those skis run. You’ll have a much better story, and you’ll have a lot more fun, too. So will the reader.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

Great tips on helping us get to know our characters, Kathleen! Thanks. :)

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder