Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Character's Class Schedule: Physical Education

Physical Education: Action & Movement & Monotony? XD

You wanna know something I’ve noticed about epic quests that involve traversing plains, mountains, and deserts to rescue an imprisoned princess or retrieve the Ultimate Magic Object?

They all involve a lot of walking.

Characters are constantly struggling to get from Point A to Point B, whether the gap between the two is made up of physical distance, or the more intangible divider of Time, or all the mundane things that need to happen before the story can move forward.

Example: The Main Character needs to descend into a seemingly bottomless canyon, rescue the love of her life, and then live happily ever after.

The Mundane Obstacles: First, she needs to climb a ladder. A really, really long ladder. Then she needs to find the tunnel where the love of her life is being held. And there are lots of tunnels down there that look exactly the same. And then of course there’s the matter of climbing back up the really, really long ladder.

Most obstacles like this only get a couple of lines at the start or finish, and then a time jump to skip over the Mundane, but there are certain things that you can’t always avoid. If your characters travel a lot, they’re going to be doing a lot of walking.

A lot of walking.

And this isn’t like the movies, where you can just play a musical montage to move things along lickety-split.

Speaking as someone who’s currently in the process of revising a ‘Quest’-ey type of novel, I am more than familiar with growing monotony (my sea-faring characters don’t do much walking, but they do a lot of riding in boats). A time jump or a montage to skip over it all would be lovely, but unfortunately there are things that I need to happen in that span of time where nothing really exciting is going on.

My main characters need to grow closer together as a group. They need to have important conversations. They need to sink deeper into dedication for the mission they’re on.

I can’t just make them set sail from their home country all disjointed and doubtful, then slip in a scene transition to three weeks later and automatically have them united, excited, and eager. I want to show that development, and for that I need to show the monotonous stuff.

And that’s the key, isn’t it? Making things happen, even when the only physical action taking place is walking, or sailing, or riding horseback through field after field. We can’t just poke our heads in at every monster attack or enemy war machine in their path.

So how to make the repetitive, boring, monotonous scenes more interesting?

I’ll let you know once I figure it out for myself.  -_-

But here are a few tips that I’m going to try to apply to my own writing:

Conversations & Character Development: If you need your characters to talk, make them talk as they walk down the road. Show us growing changes in the characters, and let us listen in on a character’s thought process during the journey. Don’t your thoughts ever wander when you’re on the road, or mowing the lawn, or in the shower? Your characters’ thoughts will be wandering too, and hopefully they’ll be a little deeper than, “Left foot. Right foot. Step. Step. Watch out for that little rock.”

Background Entertainment: If you watch movies, chances are you’re familiar with this method. Characters are going about their business, walking or driving along the road on a long trip, everyone too tired to really say anything, when the character in the back does something hilarious. Their mount tries to devour their clothing or hair. They suffer continuous torture a la the local insects. They regale their traveling companions with every song they even kinda know. In my better last post I talked about how little happy or humorous moments can break up Scenes of Eternal Despair? Well, they can also break up Scenes of Eternal Boredom.

Word Choice: It can even make a trip to the grocery store sound exciting (“I lunged for the solitary carton of orange juice, fending off the advances of an elderly woman bound and determined to get her daily serving of citrus.”) See, here’s the thing, folks. In our day to day lives, we don’t just ‘walk’ or ‘look’ or ‘go’ places. We laugh, we cry, we beg, we sing, we gamble, we yell – and we walk.

Even if your characters are ‘just’ walking, that’s not all that’s going on. Things are happening. Big things, little things, serious things and hilarious things. As the saying goes, “It’s not where you’re going. It’s how you get there.”

And finally, one last tip that I probably should’ve come up with before writing the rough draft of the novel I’m currently revising.

Don’t Let the Journey Get Monotonous in the First Place: Don’t give your characters more than a few seconds or a single evening to relax before the next obstacle has them on their feet and moving again. Let each obstacle bring them to the foot of the next obstacle, and let that carry them all the way to their goal.

My only problem at the moment is figuring out how to do that while covering a time period of weeks, if not months. >:|

Also, a tip for the bloggers among you. If you decide to do a series of blog posts following a certain theme, and you announce those themes beforehand, I recommend having the posts written first, or you may find yourself not as interested/helpful in the topic as you thought you’d be. And then you might go off on a tangent that you weren’t thinking of when you came up with a title for the thing. XD

So. The following questions aren’t just a conversation starter. They are honestly things that I’m trying to figure out in my own writing at the moment. Help? XD

Have your characters ever gotten bogged down in some mundane, but necessary activity? How do you avoid putting them in such situations, or how do you take them through one without making things boring? Any tips for me on this subject? XD

And, finally, the (optional) homework assignment: Write a scene describing a mundane activity (a long trip either walking or in the car, shopping for groceries, mowing the lawn) and make it interesting. :)

The next post will be better, I swear. XD


  1. I thought this was quite interesting, really! (And you really do have a thing for tunnels, don't you? lol!)

    I always think it's such a cheat to read a book - or watch a movie - where the characters are on a long journey and all you get is a time jump.

    I think another way of breaking up the monotony is remembering that your characters are walking/riding/sailing for a LONG time. Unless your characters are superhuman (and yeah, they might be, depending on the genre) their bodies are going to suffer. Their feet are going to blister, they'll get ... err... saddle sore, they'll be stuck on the same ship with a dwindling supply of water and food. The physical consequences of a long journey should really never be overlooked.

    And it provides a lot of possibility for character development. If you have two characters that don't get a long, have one of them be forced to support the other after he twists his ankle or forced to share a horse after one of the horses runs away or gets hurt.

    Wow... long comment is long! I'll end this now. XD

  2. I DO have a thing for tunnels. I really do. XD They're just so convenient! Fitting for every occasion! XD Sometimes I notice that I'm doing it again... But by that time the tunnel's presence has become a crucial plot point. XD

    Physical consequences are a good thing to keep in mind,along with where they get/keep food in the first place. XD

    I've also seen in numerous articles that the 'stew' medieval travelers seem to favor on their journey? It actually takes a really long time to make and isn't convenient for travelers at all. XD Lots of little details to keep in mind...

    And yes. Character Development galore. ^^ Take for instance, the trio in the book I'm currently revising. Imagine the drama when I put them into a tiny, tiny, one-room submarine-type ship, after a bodyguard just left his master & friend in a perilous situation to save my girl MC... >:) I love being cruel to my characters. XD

    Long comments = My Thing. You shall never dethrone me. >:)

  3. Love this! I'm writing a quest-y type of novel as well, and it's easy to let the boring parts take over (much to your own and readers' dismay). Great advice though! I'm a fellow Sparkfest participant, by the way. Nice to meet you! :)

  4. The best advice I have is the one that's easy to say, and harder to pull off: Conflict.

    Have your characters fight with each other, or the environment. Throw storms at them, whether the rainy type or the friendship-breaking one. Force them in situations that'll create sparks.

    Yes, weeks of travelling together will strengthen relationships. It'll also highlights differences and stretch everyone's patience. Too much time with the same person can bring a lot of unsaid secrets to the surface.

    One thing's sure, and it's that you can't keep to chit-chat and scenery description. Find a way to move the plot forward through the travelling scenes in more ways than the distance covered. It's kind of the only option.

    And yeah, I do have those areas in my novel. My current WIP has two characters stuck together in a hot air balloon for months. The rest of the crew is trying to survive in underground tunnels (that should please you!), or crisscrossing the country. Lots of travel in the second half. ^^

    And there. I can do long comments too. :P

  5. YES. Excellent points, Claudie. ^^ I think you touched on everything that I was kind of thinking, but not really sure how to express... Thanks. ^^ I completely forgot about the environment working against the characters...

    Executing those tips is definitely the hard part, though. XD

    And yeah. Tunnels, man. They just WORK for things, don't they? XD It's ridiculous.

    Though this comment is shorter than others, I am still the empress. ;p


  6. I'm very tempted to ramble on just to make a very long comment.

    But I won't. XD

    I'm also tempted to stop reading your blog though because little ideas are sparking for one of my WIPs... and I beat that one back into submission so I could work on just one thing for once! (But I won't stop reading, of course!)