Writing Secrets: It’s not about you, it’s about your character

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

How do you feel about large forests in rural Sweden? Or deserts, for that matter, or large cities?

Actually, I really don’t care what you, the writer, feel about any of them. (Unless, of course, you’re writing a piece of non-fiction in which you are the main character.) What I do care about is your protagonist. I want to enter the world of your protagonist and feel your presence as little as possible.

That means that I want the details you provide about that world to show me more about your protagonist, her likes, dislikes and her worldview.

I was reminded of this while reading Will Dean’s debut Dark Pines (Which Richard has written about, as well), in which the protagonist is a young city woman who has ended up in a small village to be near her dying mother. She hates the rural landscape. Give her skyscrapers and street lights any day.

She’s terrified of the forest: it’s dark, dank and dangerous. Its scale is intimidating, “the size of an English country, bigger than New York City, the area of an inland fucking sea”.

When she’s in the forest, we are shown matter that squelches underfoot, moss that is brown, birches that are naked, and mushrooms past their prime and riddled with worms. We hear mosquitoes that whine and feel ticks which burrow into flesh.

She is also deaf, and entirely dependent on hearing aids to be aware of any sound at all, which means she is acutely aware of noises, particularly those that cause feedback. And we readers are intensely aware of moisture and rain because we’ve slipped inside her skin, and she notices anything that will damage or compromise her aids.

This is the best kind of detail. There’s nothing neutral about it. We don’t want to know what you, the author, think of the world of your book. We’re much more interested in what it tells us about your narrator and his or her state of mind.

One of our writers once had her character pass the Doric columns of a famous hotel and the tree soldiers lining the road. We’re all tempted to show off our knowledge and research, but… is your character the kind of person who will know the difference between Doric and Ionic? Will she see the trees as soldiers or as swaying dancers in formation?

You’re not there to show how “clever” you are with your research. Your job is to transport us.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: The many masks that writers wear

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