Character Writing: Bringing Your Words to Life

My friend Nathan has been turning his hand to writing of late, because he has an idea and he’s damn well going to run with it. Now, he’s the first person to tell you that he’s not a great writer, and very sensibly and admirably turned to myself and Kim from Later Levels for advice on writing form, but after years of gaming with Nathan I can say that he has an excellent grasp of character and motivation, the impact of a character on narrative, the impact of a character’s history on their decisions, and he also has a perverse sense of humour.

Enter the character of Tom Permahorn, typically “Nathan” in that the character has an odd brutish nobility, a family tie to a clan of orcs (he really likes his orcs) and a uniqueness that sets him apart from your typical sword-and-sorcery brute. Despite the wall of text unfettered with paragraphs, the faltering pace, and some difficulty surpassing the grammar and choice of words, it took very little effort for me to see the bones of something of great quality. Nathan sent me the first few thousand words of The Misadventures of Thomas Permahorn, a fantasy farce with the eponymous Permahorn as the questionable protagonist.

The piece began in medias res, the barbarian undertaking his first ambitious quest, to topple a far larger opponent with reckless abandon because the payout at the end would be incredibly high, and would help build a reputation for him as a mighty warrior. Here I have grabbed a snippet that I loved for what it could be:

Nathan wrote:

Pulling himself up off the floor, Tom grabbed his trusty sword which he had named “thunk” this was an intricate sword carved from the spine of the Snozdangler, Thomas’s first kill, and charged back towards the ogre. The ogre itself stood there at a menacing twelve foot tall brandishing an oak tree for a weapon. Tom then slid beneath and sliced the ankles, dropping the ogre to its knees. He then took his blade and plunged it into the ogre’s neck, causing Toms blade to shatter! The ogre let out a mighty roar, reached back and grabbed Tom by the leg. Still in disbelief from his sword breaking and the ogre still being alive, didn’t process himself being grabbed by the leg and swung upwards. Now dangling in front of a very pissed off ogre, it stood up and roared into Toms face splattering him with a mixture of blood and saliva, the smell of rotted meat and death overcame him, disorientating him briefly. The ogre then swung Tom smacking him against the cavern wall, breaking Toms left arm along with a few of his ribs.

Strong movements from the outset, already I could tell that Nathan had the strength and flow of Permahorn in his mind, and being of a generation raised on film, television, and comics, it’s an easy thing to transpose words into images, this is a scene of motion and action, and there is no ambiguity to what is happening moment by moment. He’s descriptive and clear, without being uncomfortably blunt and stilted. Removing the description of the sword would leave us with a fairly straight forward and dynamic action scene, but tells us nothing but what happened.

I wanted to focus on the sword.

Clearly there is importance in that weapon, it’s a trophy – and Permahorn takes pride in his trophies as is made clear later in the passage – and yet for Nathan’s pace I found that the moment of it’s breakage was glossed over to dig into the action. A shift in focus takes the attention away from the fight, plunges you into the mind and heart of the “hero”, gives us a reason to tell the story of the sword in the middle of combat, and makes the moment it breaks more poignant.

I wrote:

Tom drew his blade as he rose from the ground, the sword he’d fashioned himself from the spine of a Snozdangler, working tirelessly for days to transform the bones into a single, honed edge, “Thunk”, so named for the satisfying sound it made when it claimed its first meaty victim, his greatest trophy. Charging the ogre, he dropped into a slide that grated his knees, but brought Thunk level with the trampling beast’s ankles!

The giant howled in agony as Thunk spread blood across the cavern floor, and Tom was already climbing its back as it fell unsteadily forward, ready to drive the charnel blade deep into the ogre’s neck. The edge opened flesh, freeing blood to fill the air! Tom’s pride was immeasurable, he could still feel the warm smile of his fellow Toofless when he first swung Thunk, all his effort, all his toil rewarded by the feeling of success, of victory…

It broke.

Tom didn’t notice the ogre grabbing his ankle to dangle him upside down, too busy staring at the stumpy hilt in his hands to notice the stench of festering meat on the beast’s breath. He noticed his ribs breaking as he hit the wall, and that was really too many things to break in one afternoon.

Hi Nathan.

Here’s what I did:

From the first sentence I have shifted the attention from movement to the object, just by changing the order of words. Notice as well that I use the sword’s name more frequently, in fact I use it four times to Tom’s name four times, whereas you use Tom’s name seven times, to Thunk’s one. They have a relationship, in this moment they are as important as one another, working together in concert. I’ve thrown in a little more detail on their history together, nothing I didn’t already find in your work (like the name of the orc warband that adopted him) and tied it together, without ever breaking flow of the fight. Why else would he be fighting if not for his past?

I isolated the moment where Thunk breaks. You used beautiful language, that word “shatter” is evocative, but read it aloud. In fact, read that sentence aloud and you’ll find it quite long and flowing compared to the act it’s describing, this is an abrupt action, heartbreaking, isolated and alone. I used two short syllables, sharp at one end, sharp at the other, it almost sounds like what’s happening, and there is weight to it coming from the history I built into it in a very short space of time. Depending on the context it can be tragic, or it can be comedic, better yet it can be both, and I tried to achieve that with my far slower final paragraph, in contrast to the speed of the action.

Notice as well that our word counts are practically the same in this short section, but has the scene changed at all? All of the action you described is there, so take note of what is missing, what wasn’t needed to conjure the same motion, the same flow of action, while adding context, emotion, and sensation. You mention the oak-tree club once in your passage, and it is never used or mentioned again, the same with the broken arm, in fact he does a few things afterwards where a broken arm would have been a huge issue, the ribs can wait a while.

A few other points on trimming erroneous language. Avoid then, you used it three times in that section, I used it once. Nothing makes action sound more mechanical than “and then this happened, and then so did another thing, then it was all over”, it’s an exaggeration, but you take my point. Change repeated nouns for something more descriptive, notice how I describe the ogre as “the giant” or “the beast”. I don’t need to tell you that it’s twelve foot tall, or intimidating, I don’t need the tree to highlight it’s barbaric nature or monstrous size, I’ve told you without ever pointing it out.

Your character’s voice is clear, you might be surprised how clearly his attitude comes through (although that may be because I know you too well) from what little you have written about him already. The adventures of Tom Permahorn could become a reality, something of superb calibre, or it could become your first throwaway idea, a practice piece that wasn’t practice until you realised that it was going nowhere, then it was practice the whole time… honestly. Keep working, and keep asking other people how to improve, because you always can, and you help make us better in the process.