“As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,
They kill us for their sport.” (King Lear, William Shakespeare)
That’s rather how my poor characters must feel. And not a god they can appease, but the sort of rotten bastard whose divine purpose was to maintain the sacrificial stone knife industry.
But… until I give them breath, those paper characters do not live. Yes, they are our puppets, we make them dance –danse macabre – as often as not (and yes, sometimes they force us to let them choose a different path). However: It is not, of course, them that we authors are manipulating.
It’s the readers, via them. It’s an easy thing to forget. We’re so busy pushing these poor characters around, that ‘why’ sometimes slips away. Sometimes it works anyway: the readers have identified enough with the characters (or some of them) to care. That’s a win.
But of course – ‘but wait, there’s more’ (which in case you didn’t recognize it is manipulation of the reader through using a key phrase that elicits far more than just the words. It’s what is unseen, but thought or imagined that is important – far more than just the words and their literal meaning. And the same applies of course to the character you are using to manipulate your reader with, or the scene you set, or the dialogue you put in there.
Too many writers confuse shock value (and it has a place) with precise, gross detail: Sex scenes with information enough for an Ikea manual, fight scenes with every move, every cut and bleed, described in anatomical detail. It’s an easy trap to fall into: you’re moving the character around.
But you’re not: you’re moving the reader around via the character. And the character may care and not know unless you describe it in the fullness of detail: but odds are the reader CAN imagine it (at precisely the length and detail they want – and they will ascribe that to your genius. Um. Which it is, just not in the way they meant). You just need those touches and frames to the scene (which in themselves can be very detailed and precise) to make them fill in the gaps (just ‘but wait, there’s more’ does.)
Call now. The first 100 callers not only get my deafless prose, but they also get images like this.
It’s not a claw coming up through the sand to pull hapless beach-combers to the underworld. It’s actually an entirely harmless detritivore, about 6 inches long, a Holothurian of the order Molpadiida. Now the holothurians include some species that spew part of their respiratory organs (also part of the coelom) and toxin out of the anus to put off predators. Sometimes these tangle predators, and sometimes the taste puts them off. I hate his guts takes on a new meaning here (although there is a Japanese food made by fermenting their guts). Many Holothurians provide shelters within their body cavity for other species – but not all find this acceptable – the genus Actinopyga have anal teeth to deal with unwelcome visitors. I could go on a while: they’re weird creatures. They’d make good sf monsters except for being too weird for plausible fiction. But the point of this venture into the sea-cucumber’s nether regions, is that the details here ruin the image and manipulation of the reader into the maw of a quick-sand monster.
It’s not what the reader sees, but what the reader sees part of – and creates the rest of the monster in the sand.
Images are photographs I have taken on the low tide of this rather secretive creature.