“How do you create such believable monsters?” A woman from the audience asked me this while I was on a panel at a convention last month. “And your characters…I feel as though I actually know them. They are real people!”
As a horror writer, I take great pride in creating lifelike monsters readers fret over. I also like to think my characters have tremendous depth and development.
My answer to the woman’s question was simple: “I’m not sure. I guess I’ve had a lot of practice.”
Well, I’ve given the question a lot of thought since, and I think the answer is in the trees.
“When you write a book, you spend day after day scanning and identifying the trees. When you’re done, you have to step back and look at the forest.”—Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
When it comes to developing characters and set pieces, I can’t help but think of the late Bob Ross on his PBS television program, The Joy of Painting, as he painted what he called “happy little trees.” With a soft voice and relaxed pace, he offered viewers insights into execution and theory as he effortlessly produced breathtaking scenery. The more I learn about the craft of writing, the more I think I know why Ross’s little trees were so happy.
Ross used the wet-on-wet oil-painting technique. He would add fresh paint on top of still-wet paint rather than waiting for each layer to dry, which allowed him to paint trees, bodies of water, cloud formations, and mountains in a matter of minutes. And he didn’t simply paint each element in a single layer. Each began with simple strokes, little more than colorful smudges. Adding layer after layer, Ross transformed blotches of paint into intricate, lifelike formations; bit by bit, stroke by stroke, layer by layer, smudges of paint became trees, mountains, entire landscapes.
With the same patience, you must focus on every little detail for each individual tree (think, character or set piece) when writing your story, but your character is a collective entity—made up of hundreds (possibly thousands) of details. He or she is like an onion—shaped entirely from multiple layers. Individually, these layers are so thin you could literally read a newspaper through one. But with an adequate number of them, you have something powerful enough to not only spice up the mundane, but also bring tears to the eyes.
Let me introduce you to Billy Bob (layer). He lives in Harlan, Kentucky (layer). His favorite pastime is hunting and fishing (layer). He chews tobacco (layer) and loves flannel shirts with the sleeves ripped off (layer). Think you have this guy sized up? What if I told you Billy Bob is a neurosurgeon? The character you just had in your mind has changed completely. Adding a fresh layer of paint to another layer of fresh paint is important because the two elements mingle, adding realistic dimensions and depths. This is one type of what I call relational influence, which can be as simple as adding that one detail that turns a stereotype into a unique individual. Remember, every detail should contribute to the whole.
But even with complex, layered characters or set pieces, you can’t just focus on a single tree without considering its regional copse—just as you can’t focus solely on a single branch without imagining the entire tree. That doesn’t mean you can’t see the tree because you are focused on the forest, but that you need to notice, as you write, how each specific element blends with all the others.
Once each individual is fleshed out with appropriate layering, it is time to examine the forest. That’s when all your trees, clouds, and rivers work together to become the fascinating scenes you intended from the beginning. Relational influence also describes two (or more) individual entities sharing multiple layers.
Think of each scene as a single canvas in a series of paintings that, when placed next to one another, create a complete panoramic experience. It’s a good way to examine how the continuity of the forest depends on the intricate layering of the individual trees: wet paint on wet, in Bob Ross’s scenes; word on word and paragraph on paragraph in your writing. If you fail to properly flesh out characters and small details, you will more than likely fail to properly flesh out the story and its themes.
The last thing you want is a character standing out from the background like she’d obviously been Photoshopped into the scene. Good Photoshopping (as well as painting and writing) requires elements to reflect or affect one another.
When Bob Ross painted a mountain range behind a lake, you could be sure the mountain was mirrored in the water. And just as placement of the sun will affect shadows on everything else in the scene, each character (or story element) in your tale will affect all other characters and set pieces in some way.
Let’s take another look at Billy Bob. What if we learn his father took him hunting and fishing when he was younger? Gave him his first chaw of tobacco? And then we learn this was the only time he really connected with his dad. Billy Bob didn’t just develop a love for these things on his own; it is a direct result of specific influence from a relationship in his life.
What if we learn the death of his father (who passed away from complications of a neurological disorder) was the impetus for him going into the medical field? It’s easy to see that the shadow of his father’s death (and life) still influences him. We may not always recognize it, but the people in our lives can have great influence on us…why would we not show this in the characters and set pieces in our fiction?
This means relational influence ensures the writer is showing rather than just telling. To be honest, I think Bob Ross nailed it when he said, “If I paint something, I don’t want to have to explain what it is.”
Relational influence allows the reader to size up the characters and set pieces for herself, evaluate the clues (layers), and then form calculated perceptions. In other words, it allows her to appreciate the depth of the forest while examining every individual tree.
Michael Knost is a Bram Stoker Award®-winning editor and author of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and supernatural thrillers. He has written in various genres and helmed several anthologies. His Writers Workshop of Horror won the 2009 Bram Stoker Award® in England for superior achievement in non-fiction. His critically acclaimed Writers Workshop of Science Fiction & Fantasy is an Amazon #1 bestseller. His novel, Return of the Mothman was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award® for superior achievement in first novel. His Author’s Guide to Marketing with Teeth was a finalist for the Bram Stoker Award® for superior achievement in non-fiction. Michael has taught writing classes and workshops at several colleges, conventions, and online, and currently resides in Chapmanville, West Virginia with his wife, daughter, and a zombie goldfish. To find out more, visit www.MichaelKnost.com.