Monday, April 16, 2012

People Watching

Not long ago while working through some difficult revisions, I noticed I was slacking in a certain area.  Over and over again, I avoided giving descriptors (other than names) to my secondary characters. 

With some flat characters this is okay.  Brief mention of a name might be all you need.  But if a character will be interacting more than once with your protagonist, you probably owe your reader more.  In my case, I avoided "showing" my characters because I'd run out of ideas for making them look, act, and speak differently from each other.

What can an author do when the characterization well runs dry?  A possible answer: People Watching.

"People watching" is one of my teenage daughter's favorite past times.  She shamelessly peeps at other drivers while they pick their noses, flirt with dates, and sing along with the radio.  (Next time you think you're safe in the privacy of your own vehicle, you might want to think again!)

It isn't just bored teenagers who can capitalize on other people's quirky behaviors.  Authors benefit from engaging in this activity by coming home with varied and vivid descriptions for their characters.  The woman at the corner table in Starbucks might lend unusual hand gestures to your new protagonist.  The unshaven man at the bus stop who hunches his shoulders while shoving his hands deep into his pockets might become the homeless man who witnessed the crime.
I decided to do a little people watching of my own, and, after giving several individuals a crawling sensation on the backs of their necks (You know the feeling.  You experienced it in junior high school when that creepy kid on the back row kept staring at you.), I came home with a helpful list of descriptions to flesh out my description-starved characters.

The intimidating character on page 150 inherited a cataract-scarred eye from the scruffy fellow at church who kept watching me. (If I find my doppelganger in your bestselling novel, you owe me a thank-you letter, buddy!)  The scholarly council member who makes his appearance a few pages later can thank a slender orthopedic surgeon for his height, build, and curly hair.  I added a few details of my own, of course, but those first visual impressions are what got the creative juices flowing.

If you decide to dive into people watching, here are a few friendly suggestions:

Suggestion Number 1:  Wear a pair of mirrored sunglasses.  You can stare a little longer without getting dirty looks.

Suggestion Number 2:  Take a small notebook to record your impressions.  You can also use it to write down those priceless phrases you overhear like, "Take a picture, Loser!  It will last longer!"

Good luck and happy watching!

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Untold Secret of Great Dystopian Fiction

There's a secret to writing great dystopian fiction.  They don't tell you about it in writer's books, but someone needs to spill the beans.  Are you ready for it?  All right.  Here it is:  The crucial ingredient for dystopia is a society populated with weird and unusually named occupations.

You don't believe me?  Let's take a look at a best-selling novel or two.  We'll start with The Maze Runner by James Dashner.

Track-Hoe, Med-jack, Blood Houser, Slopper, Runner, Bagger.  Ever heard of these?  (Okay, for that last one you might be mentally picturing the friendly boy at the grocery store checkout; but, trust me, you're wrong!)  In the Glade -- the isolated society where Dashner's characters reside -- a Track-Hoe is a trench digger and garden weeder.  Med-jacks are teenage kids who work as paramedics without medical licensing.  A Blood Houser slaughters the other Gladers' evening meal, and a Slopper is the "shank" who cleans toilets and scrubs down the slaughter house at the end of kill day.  (I've had that last job.  Believe me, kill day is a sight better left unseen.)

Where were we?  Oh, yeah!  Runner!  These boys run around a giant maze all day trying to avoid "Grievers."  And don't forget the Bagger.  This has nothing to do with groceries.  He's the creepy dystopian version of a teenage undertaker.

Here are a few more strange jobs from Allie Condie's Matched, Philip Reeve's Fever Crumb, and Lois Lowry's The Giver:  Sorter, Skinner, Giver, Receiver.  You won't find these listed at Work Force Services, but they might pop up in a government-controlled future near you.

To practice, I've decided to predict a few dystopian occupations from the year 2113.  Check out my top five picks for the weird jobs of our great-grandchildren's dystopian future:

  1. Mediocrity Monitor:  This will be the government official responsible for making sure no self-motivated individual rises above the norm.  It's kind of like the "bucket full of crabs" philosophy.  Any time one crab gets too close to the bucket's top, the other crabs take the wind out of its sails by quickly pulling it back.
  2. Opinion Setter:  If you want to keep people in line, it's always good to remind them about what they're allowed and not allowed to think.  After all, dystopia can't afford to have an opinionated and potentially rebellious citizenry.  The Opinion Setter will be the official liaison between the government's Department of Belief and Thought Control and the general public.
  3. Problem Adjuster:  There are bound to be a few people who slip through the cracks and manage to spread dangerous ideas.  The Problem Adjuster will "adjust" these misguided people to help them repent of their erroneous ways.
  4. Genetic Match-Maker:  Because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, this official will ensure no bad genes slip into the genetic pool.  "Big Brother" will carefully screen and select marriage partners in an ongoing effort to eliminate disease, French mimes, beatnik poetry, and other "undesirable" outcomes.
  5. Education Officer:  The youth of today are tomorrow's leaders.  Any dystopian government worth its salt needs a zealous individual who spends all day (even on holidays) ensuring the "proper" government agenda filters into young people's brains.  As you can see, it takes hard work and dedication to keep a dystopian society truly dystopian.
There you have it.  The secret to an excellent dystopian novel!  (Bonus points if you can say how many times "dystopian" or any other form of the word was used in this post.)