Tag Archives: character

Keeping it Simple

So, I know nobody’s doing anything today but watching the internet for the first mention of the arrival of the Royal Baby (TM); my blog post will have nothing to do with that august personage, whoever he or she may turn out to be, so you might want to stop reading now if that’s what you’re hoping to find.

I couldn't resist this, though... Image: akg-images.co.uk

I couldn’t resist this, though…
Image: akg-images.co.uk

Today, what’s on my mind is story, and how keeping things uncomplicated can sometimes be the best thing you can do for whatever it is you’re writing.

At the weekend, my husband and I watched a film we’d never seen before, despite the fact it’s been in our DVD collection for many a moon. It’s a Coen Brothers movie, so we knew we were settling in for something good; I’ve since discovered it’s actually Joel Coen’s directorial debut, which (having watched the movie) is astounding. It dates from 1984, and it’s called ‘Blood Simple’.

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

This movie has one of the most straightforward, yet gripping, storylines I’ve ever come across. We have an unhappily married couple, the husband of which is a jealous and controlling type; we have a handsome ‘other man’, devoted to the wife of the unhappy couple, and we have a private eye turned ruthless assassin, who is a lot more astute than he looks. The film begins when the husband, Marty, suspects his wife (Abby) is having an affair, and hires the PI to keep an eye on her. When proof of her infidelity is found, Marty orders the PI to kill his wife and her lover, and to burn their bodies in the incinerator near his property. The PI, however, fools Marty into thinking he has fulfilled his duties by handing him a doctored photograph of his wife and Ray, her lover, covered in blood as they lie sleeping. He then shoots Marty with Abby’s small, pearl-handled gun, which he has already stolen from her, and absconds with his $10,000 fee and a perfect cover story. When Ray comes calling on Marty, looking for money he is owed, he comes across his body – and Abby’s gun. Thinking his lover has killed her estranged husband, he gets himself involved in the whole mess by trying to hide the body… and so the tangle tightens.

It’s not a complicated plot – it’s been done before. Love triangles, faithless marital partners, jealous husbands, wily private detectives, hapless lovers – none of this is new ground. What made ‘Blood Simple’ so good had, of course, a lot to do with the Coen Brothers’ direction and cinematography and the amazing performances of the actors, particularly Frances McDormand (Abby), but it also had a lot to do with the fact that the story was tight, controlled, and uncomplicated. It hinges on a number of misunderstandings and assumptions, perhaps (if I’m being honest) one or two coincidences, and the fact – used to wonderful effect – that people never do what you expect they will. There are also some moments of high tension, particularly around the scenes in which Ray is disposing of Marty’s body, which don’t really do a lot to move the plot along but which are nerve-tinglingly good. It’s a movie where you feel like shouting at the screen, because you know what the characters don’t, and you can see them heading for doom because they’ve simply misunderstood one another. So simple, but so brilliantly effective.

I also loved it because Abby, the wife, is a strong and intelligent woman who makes her own choices and is answerable to nobody. That’s an amazing female character now, let alone in 1984. I wish there were more characters like her in popular culture. Incredibly, her role as Abby was also Frances McDormand’s debut as a film actress.

Frances McDormand as Abby in a still from 'Blood Simple' Image: moviemaker.com

Frances McDormand as Abby in a still from ‘Blood Simple’
Image: moviemaker.com

What I learned from watching this movie was this: sometimes, a strong central plot is good enough by itself. You don’t always need interlocking subplots going back generations or overcomplicated relationships between characters – long-lost siblings, or secretly estranged couples, or one-time best friends turned mortal enemies, or whatever – and you certainly can’t ‘make up for’ poor characterisation by complicating the plot. ‘Blood Simple’ had excellent, strong characters as well as a solid plot, characters who stood individually and who were well-rounded and well-developed, characters who could each have carried a movie by themselves. I had written Marty off as a stereotype of a jealous husband – but there’s a lot more to him than that, as I learned. Abby is far from being the wilting housewife. Ray acts out of compassion and love, and is much softer than he appears, and Visser, the PI, is calculating and ever-so-slightly sadistic in his thinking, completely at odds with his bumbling, inefficient persona. Another interesting thing about the movie is the fact that these four characters, along with Marvin (a barman who works for Marty) are the main players, and the action is entirely focused on them. So, you don’t need a cast of thousands to tell a good story, either – it can be good to have a small ensemble and focus tightly on what they’re doing.

I tend to overcomplicate and overthink everything. I always have more people in a scene than I really need. I always worry that my plots are too simple and that they’ll be easily unravelled by even the least astute of readers. I’m not saying I’m a talent on a par with the Coen brothers, but even so – maybe, sometimes, less really is more.

As they say – Keep It Simple, Stupid. Perhaps this really is the best advice!

It’s the End of the Week as We Know It…

…and I feel (largely) fine!

This is despite the fact that – of course – my hubris has caught up with me again.

Ah, yes... she's coming! I, Hubris, will throw this pie in her big silly face and show her who's in charge around here! Image: wordswewomenwrite.wordpress.com

Ah, yes… she’s coming! I, Hubris, will throw this pie in her big silly face and show her who’s in charge around here!
Image: wordswewomenwrite.wordpress.com

I was supposed to start the querying process by the end of this week. You might remember I said so, in black and white, right here on this very blog. Putting things in writing here is sort of like creating a contract with myself, a means of shaming myself into doing stuff in a timely fashion. If I write it here, I have to follow through with it.

It works well, a lot of the time.

Not, however, when the book I want to query is undercooked, as ‘Eldritch’ definitely was – and, perhaps, still is. Although, I really hope not.

I’ve spent this week working through the book again, reading carefully, editing (6, 500 words fell beneath my ruthless blade!), fixing problems, keeping an eye out for things like ‘jumpy’ scenes – in other words, when reading something makes you feel like you’re listening to a CD skipping* – and something I tend to do a lot, I’ve noticed: writing unrealistic reactions.

What I mean by ‘writing unrealistic reactions’, of course, is having a character go completely nuts with rage when it’s, actually, a vast overreaction to the situation at that time, or say something which is logically unconnected to what’s gone before, or seem too calm when another character drops a bombshell of bad news on their head, or whatever it might be. I can’t really explain why I did this so often during the course of the book, particularly near the end, without even realising it; on this, most recent read-through, all these ‘clanging’ moments jumped out at me like samba dancers wearing neon headdresses, but up to this point I’d entirely missed them.

I think, somehow, it might go back to an age-old conflict in the world of fiction-writing: plot vs. character.

Take that, you bounder! Image: nancylauzon.com

Take that, you bounder!
Image: nancylauzon.com

I’ve a feeling what happened was this, or something like it. On the first few drafts, I was too busy getting the plot of ‘Eldritch’ out onto the page, unravelled, exposed, explained, resolved and told to focus sufficiently on keeping my characters consistent. This, of course, is a silly, silly thing to do. A book should rest on the shoulders of its characters. They should drive it, they should shape and mould it, their reactions should be true to their personalities (because, yes, even fictional people have personalities!); in short, a collection of things happening is a story; characters living through that story makes a plot. But, at all times, a writer must be mindful that their characters are the focus. People don’t (generally) act wildly ‘out of character’, unless they have an excellent reason – so, why would it be different for a fictional person?

If this is forgotten, what we have are wooden-seeming characters, who move about jerkily like Thunderbird puppets, waiting for a string to be pulled before they can take any action. If we have prioritised story over character, then it’s natural that reactions will be unbelievable and ‘unreal’, unnatural, and clunky. And, of course, this is not something which will go unnoticed by a reader. It will scream out from the page, and make a reader very unhappy indeed, and may even lead to them (gasp) not finishing the book. That, of course, is a nightmare scenario. I know, as a reader myself, that what I look for in a story more than anything else is characters so real I feel I can reach into my book and touch them, characters with whom I can imagine having a conversation (or a beer, depending on the book), characters who are fully rounded, fully realised and true to themselves, and who act at all times in accordance with their personalities and the circumstances in which they find themselves. So, it upsets me that as a writer, I should fall into the trap of prioritising plot over people.

The only good thing in this situation is, of course, that I’ve spotted my mistakes now, and not three weeks after I’d started querying the manuscript. I also know that the draft of ‘Eldritch’ currently saved on my various computer files and disks is a better version of the book than that which existed two weeks, even one week, ago; after it’s settled for a few days in my mind, I’ll go back to it again and make sure it still holds water. It’s by no means a perfect book, but I dare to hope it’s reasonably good. In its own small way.

And then. And then it’ll be time to send it away into the big bad world. I hope it doesn’t come back until it’s encased within covers.

*I’ve just realised how many people reading this will now be thinking ‘What an old-fashioned fuddy duddy stick in the mud! CDs? I don’t even know what they are anymore.’ Well, sorry about that. I’m a troglodyte.