Hinting at Character in your Writing

Autumn Oak

            In the space just before dawn, when the sun warms the eyelids, he climbed a vined trellis, slipped through rooms of sleeping maidens, and tiptoed across the threshold to the King’s bedroom. Descending stairs, he found himself in the library, where morning sun reflected off motes of dancing dust and was absorbed by leatherbound books. He sank into a large chair, having found his favorite.

            He would stay here.

I failed NaNoWriMo this year. It was during finals, I had a bunch of life stuff going on, and I didn’t get it finished. But what I did do was start writing again.

I found, with my recent studies in Joyce overflowing my head, that I constantly try to hint at important aspects in my writing soas to not info dump a character’s history, background, opinion when the dialogue didn’t call for it. Sticking to a Joycean/Homeric focus, I’m writing an “epic” story with a play on the dramatic, where the novel is filled with short stories that take no more than a “day” in the life via dreams, old shorts written for advertisement, etc. So my main character is developed, strong, rounded. I use metaphor sparingly, but with an emphasis on church and chastity.

But what about the secondary characters? He has a companion that has an Indian heritage, who is much more down to earth than him, and has a much more realistic view of the world they traverse. He has runners that periodically appear. Ants that stow the things he finds in his estate on the other side of the United States. How to develop them beyond “pockmarked face and a receding hairline”?

And what of the Sigismundo-esque antagonist and his lofty plans at a New America? What of his correspondence and growth? How to write a bloodied warlord with a messiah complex?

Given the story changes focus after the “Telemachiad” of the story from my main character to his companion, one subtle way I found to change the focus and highlight an Indian heritage was to change the chapter numbers from his “primo, segundo, tertio” to her “shuniye, ek, do.” It’s jarring enough that those who aren’t native Hindi speakers might want to look it up, but it’s also a single word that doesn’t take from the story. In a novel rife with side-stories and allegories and metaphors and dreams, a single word hints enough without having to write a full “my mother was from India and my father from Saudi Arabia; both Indian” story.

I mean, I might still. It’s a good story to tell. But not directly. Not early. Hints make the characters glow.

Using third person limited also improves on the person’s perspective, and highlights a character’s focus. Much as my main character is an idealist dreamer with one foot shakily in the real world and the other one firmly in the symbolic (think an educated, modern Don Quixote with the insight of Jung behind his thoughts), his warlike companion has one eye in the back of her head and another scanning the horizon. She has a foundation of mythology entirely unlike the other main character, with a much more limited eastern slant. I don’t have to to talk about it–she’s an American born post-apocalyptic–but the lens makes limited narration shine.

She knows a few words in Hindi, but not much. She knows her numbers; her mother taught her before she died. Her lens is tinted with Hinduism but not fully coloring the world. She knows her gods are no more real than the created gods of her traveling partner. With her foundation, she understands good and evil, understands the importance of survivability, and even rebels against the idea of Karma. That isn’t her.

Joyce showed the power of hint. The power of “oystered face” when he referred to pearls-as-eyes, a throwback to symbols used by Milton (Lycidas) and Shakespeare (Ariel from the Tempest) and Eliot (The Waste Land) (pearls-as-eyes referring to the dead and unchanging nature of stagnation and a lack of passion). Layer upon layer of word-use creates a tapestry.

I play my writing loose and fast, wholly unlike Grisham or Stephenson or Lovecraft. My words flow, and I give them free reign to graze on the hillside. They do their work while I work for them. They play with me like a happy golden retriever, or like the waves on a gulf shore. I also know this isn’t like most writers, who like to juice the words and then filter through a machine and finally chill for a day before these words see the light of another reader’s eyes. These hints are even more important to the distilling writers; third person omnipotent and first person both improve with ample hints or paralleled symbol-writing.

Finally, my dreamer character literally goes into a coma, and the reader gets to see his dreams at the beginning of each chapter, in italics, like a parallel story. It establishes a kind-of psychic connection between him and his companion, where her movements and goings on influence him. Writing these chapters “in tandem” like this allow for a clear delineation of time: one chapter for one day, marked by the main character’s dreams. While it’s possibly jarring or disinteresting for a reader who wishes an unbroken journey, it creates a great structure for improving on the chapters.

Two weeks: fourteen chapters.

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