Friday, July 07, 2006

Ask Mr. Writing Person: Cardboard Development

In this week's Ask Mr. Writing Person, we discover how to invent cardboard cutout characters by turning friends and family into giant slugs. [Ed: Giant, angry slugs.] Heather Blassin from Muck City, Alabama starts us off with a problem about a businessman:

Q. I have problems--

A. Really?

Q. Yeah. With a character. My main character, Denny, meets up with a businessman, but I'm drawing a total blank on the businessman.

A. Can you give us a couple sentences lead-in to when Denny first meets him?

Q. Sure. Here's the trouble spot:
The secretary smiled and fingered a friendly toodles at Denny as he approached the great oak doors. Denny took a deep breath and pushed them open.

Directly in front of him was...

... and that's where I'm stuck.

A. This is easy. You need to finish that last sentence.

Q. I know--

A. What have you determined about the businessman?

Q. Uh, that he's important to the plot, but he doesn't really need much development. He should be quite simple, actually.

A. Like a cardboard cutout. Okay, first, he's vile.

Q. Vile?

A. Sure. All businessmen are vile. In fact, I'm fairly sure that most of them are raised by wolves.

Q. Okay...

A. Or otters, at least. Otters are pretty vile. Second, if you're having problems inventing a character, just throw in a real person that you know, and--

Q. And I should make him different enough that nobody can tell, right?

A. No, you shouldn't, young grasshopper. You don't want to lie to your readers, do you?

Q. Of course I don't.

A. It's best to leave them as they are, except to change the name a little so you have a defense in case lawyers show up. That happens sometimes. Have you got a businessman friend?

Q. Yeah, a guy named--don't laugh--Bubba Hughes. So can I just drop Bubba into the story?

A. Sure you can. Now, the first thing Denny discovers about Bubba is his appearance, so let's start with that.

Q. Alright. Bubba's tall, and a little chubby--

A. That's perfect! Let's add that:
The secretary smiled and fingered a friendly toodles at Denny as he approached the great oak doors. Denny took a deep breath and pushed them open.

Directly in front of him was Bubba the Hutt, the largest, saggiest human being Denny had ever--

Q. Bubba the Hutt??

A. Do not interrupt me, young Philistine!

Q. I said he was a little chubby!

A. Such impudence! I shall forgive but once, so be forewarned. I've made Bubba into a whalish blob by taking artistic license, which is an industry term that means "exaggerating beyond all rational belief." Storytelling is an exercise in contrasts, and Bubba contrasts nicely with Denny, who is an anorexic waif.

Q. Denny's not an--

A. Whatever. The other reason I made Bubba into a whale is to emphasize his vileness. This is something writers like to call "show, don't tell." The best way to show that a character isn't a nice person is to make him fat, ugly, or albino.

Q. I know lots of nice--

A. Yes, I know. You know a lot of nice albinos. But this is fiction, grasshopper. You will allow me to finish this time:
Directly in front of him was Bubba the Hutt, the largest, saggiest human being Denny had ever had the misfortune of laying his eyes on. He immediately removed them, fearing that they might be squashed.

Bubba shifted in his seat, causing the floor and the four chairs he was draped over to creak under the strain.

Now, isn't that just perfect?

Q. So Denny actually puts his eyes on Bubba?

A. It's artistic license. Specifically, it's an instance of a corpus iocus, which is Greek for "yes, he literally put his eyes on him." Of course, anyone who doesn't immediately understand that it's corpus iocus is an illiterate Philistine.

Q. What if Bubba reads this and figures out that it's him?

A. Hopefully, he will, and, finally understanding how his friends see him, decide he wants to lose some weight. If he's offended, he wasn't really your friend anyway.

Q. Um...

A. We need to continue. Denny will then discover a bit of Bubba's personality. What's Bubba like?

Q. He's kind, and--

A. Kind schmind. Who cares? There are only a few ways of being virtuous, and millions of vices. Simply by definition, nice people are boring. Let's hear about the vices.

Q. Well, he is nice, but he can have sort of a short temper at times.

A. Wonderful. I have a brilliant idea for this. Remember "show, don't tell?" We'll show Bubba's short temper, like this:
Directly in front of him was Bubba the Hutt, the largest, saggiest human being Denny had ever had the misfortune of laying his eyes on. He immediately removed them, fearing that they might be squashed.

Bubba shifted in his seat, causing the floor and the four chairs he was draped over to creak under the strain.

"Denny!" he boomed, his bloated neck jiggling. A smile broke out on his face, folding it over itself in several places.

Feeling a bit more pluck, Denny shuffled into the exquisite office.

Just then, a man burst through the door behind him, breathless. He dashed to Bubba, pried apart a crack in the folds of fat (exposing an ear), and whispered something to him. It was obviously bad news, judging by the vermilion tones creeping up Bubba's neck.

Bubba quickly beat the man up and thrust him between a couple of huge rolls of blubber, suffocating him.

"I told him two years ago not to interrupt me again," he said. "Now, what's your problem?"

Q. He's really not that fat. Or angry.

A. Bubba Hughes isn't, but Bubba the Hutt is. You really need to differentiate. However, we can hope that Bubba will identify himself and determine to lengthen his fuse.

Q. He'd probably rip the book in half.

A. His loss, of course. I think we've mostly finished. You should employ this technique a lot. If you put all your friends and family in your books, you'll never find yourself wanting for another cardboard cutout again.

Q. I'll never find myself wanting to be friendless again, either.

A. Oh, pish posh, Heather. When you have women and fame and glory and millions in advertising revenue, you'll discover friends in places you didn't know you had places. For instance, I'll bet your friend Bubba has a few friends hiding on his person, living like hermits in an epidermal wilderness. If he'd ever wash himself--

Q. That's it! THAT IS IT! Bubba is NOT fat, he SMELLS FINE, he's the NICEST--

A. Whatever. I'm uninterested in virtues. That's twice you've interrupted me, young Philistine. You'll be in my next novel as Hagatha Blassin, character assassin. From Muck City. Ha ha. Has a nice ring, doesn't it?

Q. I don't--

A. Hagatha disagrees.

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