Welcome to February! I’ve been working hard on my goals for the year all January, and I am pleased to report there has been much progress! I feel more settled in myself as a person than I ever have, I’ve been tackling some deep-seated heart problems that need to go, and, most importantly for the sake of this post, I have been pushing hard on writing.
To be more specific, working from some of the writing resources I’ve been binging on lately (most specifically The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne, both the book and podcast), I’ve been taking a closer look at the novel I’ve been working on the most lately, whose terrible, sure-to-change working title is Sovereign. I’ve mentioned this book before on here, as well as the character we’ll be focusing on today, Kraven.
If you’ll remember from my last post about him, Kraven has always been one of the hardest characters to place in this book. Originally a frail, weak-willed pushover, for a while I considered cutting him completely. Then, after writing several failed openings for the book, I realized I still needed him there. And, to my surprise, he pushed me. The more I wrote him, in fact, the more I realized that, though peaceful by nature, he is far from a pushover. It was like I didn’t really know him at all.
That was three years ago.
Now, working on what might be some major changes to the book, he’s pushing back again.
The main reason? He wants to have a voice.
Allow me to explain. See, Kraven has always spoken French (Fransec in the novel). I wanted him to speak a different language, I already spoke decent French, and so, there you go.
And, for a while, it’s worked pretty well. Having him speak a different language than the main protagonist Mira caused strain on their relationship (and allowed for the convenient keeping of a secret I needed to stay hush hush for a while); having him need everything translated through Atlan, who Mira hates, put strain and mistrust on them all; and in general, it was just a cool quirk/world-building thing for me to add.
Which is all still true.
The problem is, as I’ve been working through filling out my Story Grid Spreadsheet, which in simple terms is a spreadsheet designed to help me capture details about the story/individual chapters at large (to learn more about this whole Story Grid thing, I’d suggest watching the five training videos on YouTube as a primer, as well as listening to their podcast from episode one), I’ve been realizing just how much time and effort–and how many words–are wasted just on Kraven being understood.
Worse, since Kraven can’t really join the conversation unless Atlan is actively translating, as the story goes on, he stops doing anything. Sure, he interrupts the other two when they get into squabbles, takes care of the two mounts, and plays pack mule, but other than that, he doesn’t really have any agency. He doesn’t understand what’s happening around him, so, as a narrator or a side character, he becomes useless.
Obviously, something needs to change.
More obviously, he needs to speak English.
The funny thing is, as I’ve been considering this, I’ve been surprised at how little having him speak English actually changes things, or rather, how much it’s going to change things for the better. The worries I had about screwing up the beginning or him not being able to keep his secret? All phantom concerns.
My worries about bogging down the reader with page-consuming translations between French and English, confusing them with untranslated text, or having them lose interest in Kraven’s chapters because nothing happens in them? Much more real.
The big takeaway I think I’ve learned from all of this, borrowed in part from lessons I’ve been learning in Larry Brooks’ Story Engineering, is don’t have quirks just for quirks’ sake.
To put it another way, make quirks serve the story, not the other way around.
This, as some highly absurd Neopets fanart of mine from middle school can attest, has been a lesson I’ve been long in learning. The reason it’s important is that adding extra junk into your book just for funsies distracts, bogs down, and confuses your reader.
Here’s an easy way to think of it: If you’re painting a landscape, adding a few birds here and there is tasteful. Adding in fourteen different kinds, each in exquisite detail–while it might be realistic to the number of bird species that actually live in that habitat–is going to be distracting.
Writing is the same way. Are there multiple languages spoken in the world in which my characters live? Of course. Does that mean I need to have someone speak in all of them? If it’s not important to the overall composition of the story, what I’m trying to get the reader to see or explore, no.
Now, of course there’s a balance to all of this. There are plenty of shows and books I can think of that have diverse and quirky casts and that do it exceptionally well (since I’m currently re-watching the series, Cowboy Bebop comes instantly to mind if you’re looking for an example). Or, if the point of the story is to explore things like differing cultures, language, or communication, keeping that element in would actually be really useful.
The main difference is that the stories on those shows aren’t having to fight around their character quirks like mine is having to work around Kraven’s French. Rather, their quirks are used to highlight what the show wants to tell, to feed into the story, message, or world, rather than obstructing it. For example, in one episode of Cowboy Bebop, it is revealed that Spike can swallow and regurgitate small items at will. This shows us something about Spike as a person, but also becomes valuable to the plot later in the episode. In this way, the quirk is both interesting and valuable, not just distracting.
Now of course this is still a skill I’m learning. Atlan, for example, still has a rather large trait/quirk himself that I’m still sorting out, though my hopes are high that I’ll be able to use that one to more effect/purpose than Kraven’s French.
In any case, it’s going to be a journey. I’ll try to keep you all posted on it along the way.
So, how about you? Have you ever had experience with stories that had too many or too few quirks? What about other forms of art? What about them did or didn’t you like? Do you have any examples of art that handled things like quirks, language differences, or miscommunication well? Let me know all about them in the comments below, and if you want more content like this, feel free to follow me here or on social media using the links below.