Characters Loom Large Behind a Veil of Smoke

by Sharleen Jonsson on August 24, 2010

Last week, my husband and I drove through the interior of British Columbia. There were over two hundred forest fires raging in my home province and we traveled awfully close to a lot of them. Along a fairly deserted highway, we saw thick smoke ahead. What was around the bend? I felt alarm, forgetting for a moment that this highway would be closed (surely?) if it was dangerous. I soon got used to the murk and for the next eight hours, as visibility ranged from one to five kilometers, I amused myself from the passenger seat by taking pictures of smoky landscapes. And it occurred to me, as we passed through one familiar valley, that I’d never given such close attention to the wooded mountains across the river or to the horses in the pastures. Not being able to see something clearly made me focus intensely on it.

I was reminded of that smoky journey when I read a post on Writer Unboxed by literary agent Donald Maass. Maass writes about the power of what’s not there. He’s speaking of characters who aren’t present (as opposed to clouded mountains and horses) and the point of his post is to give writers tips on how to conjure an unmet character, one of them being to show the reader evidence of that character’s existence. One thing Maass doesn’t mention is that the “presence” of a character can be more powerful because they aren’t there.

Just as I was far more aware of the surrounding country because much of it was hidden, a reader may attend more to a character when that character is not wholly in view. The trick, I think, is to make sure there’s just enough revealed to capture the imagination. If, for example, I had been unable to make out the outlines and muted colors of horses and mountains, there would not now be a hundred pictures of that drive through the Cariboo in my digital camera.

The same principle can be applied to writing. I’ve got a character who’s missing (ie., dead) at the beginning of my story, and I’ve decided that if I give the reader a hint of her “color” and the general shape of her character, she will be increasingly intriguing. Well, that’s the plan. Sometimes writing can seem like heading out on a long journey with limited visibility and you gotta keep goin’ even when the smoke gets in your eyes…

Okay, enough with the smoke metaphor. But as I sit, red-eyed, at my computer, there’s a winding, gauzy highway in my mind.

Donald Maass on Writer Unboxed and more on BC fires.

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