Being a Better Writer: Descriptions and Character

Hello readers! Once again, we’re back with more Being a Better Writer! But first, how was your weekend?

Here on the site, things went pretty well. In fact, there was a surge of material posted here this weekend if you kept up with things. Friday saw the posting of a completely unexpected short story, Firstborn, which can now be found over at the writing sample page, while Saturday saw the once-again return of Fireteam Freelance with a new episode (number six), Mandatory Takeout. Meaning that the series is now halfway done!

And still completely free. Kind of like BaBW.

Anyway, if you missed either of those updates this weekend, you can still catch up at their respective pages (or you could just scroll down if you’re reading this post day of). With that said, let’s get into today’s post topic: Descriptions in writing.

Now, some of you may already be looking up at the title and wondering “what gives?” since the title had and extra bit in there, but don’t worry, we’ll get to that. For now, let’s just start with descriptions.

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Being a Better Writer: Ambiguous Stories

Today’s topic is going to be a bit of a vague one, I’m afraid. At least initially.

No, that wasn’t a deliberate play on words (okay, maybe a little), but more as a starting admission of my own limited experience with this topic.  Which makes it sound like I’m admitting a lack of knowledge on it. Which isn’t true. It’s just that I (and my posts) tend to have come at this topic with a different approach than what has been asked after for this one.

What am I talking about? Well, the request for this was “Ambiguous characters and plots” IE characters and stories that are “vague” about what’s actually going on. An ambiguous character, for example, is a character where the reader is unsure of their motivations or objectives, or even facts about the character themselves. Likewise, an ambiguous story is one where the reader is unsure about what’s really happening, even as the story is being told, such as a story told by an untrustworthy or unstable narrator being ambiguous because we don’t know for certain if events happened the way that they’ve claimed, or if the narrator is “fictionalizing” their own account.

There can exist a certain bit of charm to these types of stories and characters (which is both why they’re written and why they’ve been asked after as a topic here). A story in which events or even the characters are ambiguous, when written well, can be exciting and teasing at the same time, constantly keeping the reader guessing and striving to put the clues together on their own to separate fact from fiction to discover the real story.

At the same time however, that’s written well. A poorly written ambiguous story or character, by contrast, will confuse and irritate its audience, often to the point that many of them will put the book down and find something else to read.

The trick, then, is being the former and not the latter. But in truth … it’s really hard to be the former. And unfortunately easy to be the latter. Because ambiguity is more than just cutting out certain details so that the audience doesn’t know what’s going on. Sure, you’ll end up with an ambiguous story … but one that’s also a mess of cut content at best, a disaster of confusing elements at the worst. No, crafting an ambiguous story (or an ambiguous character) involves careful cutting and replacing in such a way as to keep things balanced on the edge of a knife.

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Being a Better Writer: Unreliable Narrators

Whoo boy. This is what I get for taking requests on topics. Unreliable/untrustworthy/unstable Narrators (from here on out I’ll just call them unstable, but I refer to both). I’ll be honest, I actually held off on this one for a while, waiting until I could crystallize some thoughts on it that felt solid enough to write up. Unstable narrators are a tricky topic, as well as a tricky tool in the writer’s toolbox, and I wanted to make sure that if I tackled it, I had some advice to give.

Well, thanks to some good thinking, as well a recent hands-on experience with using one (not my first, I assure you), I think now is the time.

Unstable narrators. Here we go.

So, simplest place to start: What is an unstable narrator? They’re a PoV character or a narrator (as sometimes a character is not necessarily the narrator) who’s view of things is not entirely correct. We also sometimes call this an untrustworthy narrator.

Simpler? All right. This is a character whose perspective of—or a narrator whose telling of —events cannot be trusted. They are either flavored, faulty, biased, incorrect, or in some other manner not honest with the reader.

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