I’m now mid-way through a short summer course on theatre costume design, which involves considerable amounts of character and text analysis. It also requires a lot of drawing, which is unfortunate as my hands just don’t want to connect to my brain in that way. The thing about drawing that I do know, however, is kind of philosophical and can be applied to other things: don’t draw what you think you see. Draw what’s actually there. Ignore your brain’s expectation and don’t let it dictate to your eyes.
Same for writing. Cliches are the lines your brain thinks you see – the facts of life that are generally accepted to exist. That doesn’t make it true. Ignore the cliche – the expectation of your brain for what’s real, the words it thinks it needs – and see what’s actually true. Silence doesn’t fall, for example. There’s no gravity involved, no sense of something dropping on you. So how does silence really arrive?
Another interesting lesson from the course is the approach to other people’s opinions, and this ties into a discussion Andrew Knighton was having recently. How important is it for the audience / reader to get exactly the same ideas and thoughts out of your work as you put in? I rather enjoy it when readers see things in my writing that I didn’t intentionally put there – it gives it greater weight, and suggests the reader was involved enough in my story that they were really thinking about the words. I also deliberately put in little subtleties to reward those who are paying attention, and am working hard on Resisting the Urge to Explain. But the design approach is rather different: if other people don’t interpret the design as originally intended, then the designer hasn’t done their job and needs to do more work. I’m not sure if this too rigid, or a laudable attention to finishing detail. Still pondering this one.
But the most relevant thing for writing is the text analysis. It’s coming at the story from the other side, of course – looking at the finished article and trying to de-construct the subtext – but it’s a good reminder for how important the subtext is. There’s a lot of focus on who the characters are, and what makes them those people. If it isn’t in the text, the designer needs to extrapolate (i.e. invent) the back-story. Why does the landlord steal? Is his business failing or does he have gambling debts? Why does the father have anger management issues? There’s no mention of his wife in the story – perhaps she’s dead, and he’s had to bring up his children and run his business single-handedly for years, and is therefore constantly stressed. Now, character back-story in fantasy is almost always explained but actually it’s another one of those RUE things. You can just drop little hints and let your reader figure out the subtext for themselves. Current inter-character relationships will tell a detailed story about all their back-stories without ever leaving the action of the present. As will their clothes, it seems.