Saturday, January 2, 2016

Coloring Characters With Language from Their Professions: Learning from Robert Ludlum

People who tell writers to make their characters like real people irk me. As Kurt Vonnegut put it in his novel Timequake, “there are enough real, living and breathing human beings on earth. Why would I want to create another one?” Which means that no matter what, your character is not living and breathing, but rather an effect of a series of letters stamped together to create meaningful sentences, which turn into paragraphs, and that is what the writer uses to drive forth the plot, and to develop that mysterious and all-important “real” character.

engraved by Robert Thew
We all know that characters in books are just products of well-orchestrated information, but many writers’ characters lack the dynamic, fluid, and well-constructed quality that most of us readers crave in our heroes and antiheroes.

One obvious way to add depth and quality to your character is by giving him or her a unique profession, and then using that profession to color the insights the character has throughout the novel. This lends credibility to your character again and again, and it should heighten the prose as well as your character will dip into new pools of language that you, the writer, might not have naturally plumbed.

For example, in Robert Ludlum’s The Holocroft Covenant, we see the master pulp fiction writer craft an architect on a secret mission to South America. There are many characters in this novel, and many plot twists, but what comes through at the right times is the protagonist, Noel Holcroft’s perceptions being those of an architect. He doesn’t see the world as a writer or a commercial airplane pilot, he notices sound structures, pressure points in infrastructure, and how well buildings are built.

As the author, you don’t want to beat the reader over the head with these insights, but when it counts, you need to set the scene with details that your main character is witnessing…and more importantly, witnessing through his primary interest in life.

The Graff state was spectacular. The view was magnificient: plains nearby, mountains in the distance, and far to the east the hazy blue of the Atlantic. The house itself was three stories high. A series of balconies rose on both sides of the central entrance: a set of massive double doors—oiled mahogany, hinged with large, pitted triangles of black iron. The effect was Alpine, as if a geometric design of many Swiss chalets were welded into one and set down on a tropical mountain (85).

You might say, “That wasn’t so spectacular. Yes, he notices a few details about the large house, but so would any other character.”

But Holcraft goes just a bit further than a politician might, or a gardener. If Ludlum’s career wasn’t to write thrillers for the masses, he might have gone further with the particular language, and really laid it on thick for literary fiction lovers (or overdo it with hysterical realists like Zadie Smith or DFW), but he knows his trade, and that’s about as wild with language as he can get. He’s got a particular story to tell. 

It's up to you to determine how much decoration is needed in your literary landscape. Make your descriptive scenes count.

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