Bronzing the Imagination

THE iconic image of Doc painted by James Bama

Okay, I’m going to say what all the other Confabulators have either hinted at in emails to me or allowed to go unsaid on their blogs: this week’s topic was frustratingly hard to write. That is, until I understood the question (link to This Week’s topic blog post).

It doesn’t take much to put a vision of a character in a person’s head: The boy with the lightning-shaped scar. The bronze man with the gold-flecked eyes. The masked man on the white horse.

That’s Doc over there on the right in the picture but maybe you missed the Lone Ranger reference. With a certain group of fans you don’t have to say much more than that about some of the more iconic characters. The same would be true with the Harry Potter fans, I’m sure.

For instance with Doc Savage, his physical features are so amazing that they only bear mentioning once each time in the original supersagas. He’s very tall, very handsome and he has some interesting habits. One of the more famous ones is how he unconsciously makes a trilling sound when he’s working on a problem. He has a vest with a lot of pockets that he almost always wears and it’s when he’s dressed as a ‘normal’ person that his clothing is gone into with any detail. However, it’s when he’s in a room with others that his physical features are shown rather than described. People ‘look up’ to him, they ‘move around’ him, they are in awe of the force of his personality.

I’m going on about Doc Savage in particular not because Harry Potter or the Lone Ranger aren’t just as easily described, but because the showing in the supersagas is so subtle and that’s interesting in pulp stories that were written on such tight deadlines. Lester Dent and the others writing under the house name Kenneth Robeson all did a magnificent job with just a few words in each story of ensuring that the readers never forgot that Doc was more than any mere mortal. This is what influenced me as I have become more and more a writer.

I try to give as little physical description as possible in my stories because I want the reader to be able to fill in the blanks. I don’t really worry about describing clothing, either. As I write a story, I have an idea of what my characters look like and what they wear and I drop little bits into the story to clue the reader in but only enough to tell the story. My characters are pretty well-formed as I write them (at least that’s what I aim for, sometimes I’m more successful than others). I know enough about them to write them, but I don’t always tell the reader everything I know.

I think it’s important enough for the reader to be able to identify on some level with the characters I’m writing. I like, when I read fiction, to be able to see the characters in my head. I’m a writer and I don’t need much physical description from the writer to form that picture. I can often project myself into the main character (as long as he’s male, let’s be honest) and that’s what helps me like a story. However, with every character in every story that affects me, I need to identify with them and that comes in how they talk and act.

The reader should be able to see himself in the story, too, with enough detail to make it seem like a real, physical place but with enough components left out for him to finish the image in his head. A little more than a sketch. When you get into trying to write a story like it’s a photograph you took on a sunny day, you limit yourself. When I hear the name Doc Savage, I can see the bronze man in my head (his five famous friends, too) and when someone whose vision of the characters doesn’t match mine, I’m disappointed.

So I try to give some detail, but not too much, like Lester Dent and the other did. I hope I can give my readers the same leeway to have very personal visions of my characters. That would be the ultimate in interactivity, don’t you think?

 

Jason Arnett is a storyteller living in Kansas and writing in the plains of the fantastic. Some of his work can be found at www.jasonarnett.com

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