Character, voice and aardvarks

First, some background.

This post was going to be about my over-use of the phrase ‘for a moment’ in my writing. As in ‘She stared at the aardvark for a moment.’. It then occurred to me that this subject was probably of very little interest to just about anyone unless they happened to be an aardvark. (In which case they would have been thrilled to have been mentioned, because lets face it, aardvarks don’t get a lot of press.) The topic did, however, remind me of the time I went to see  (hear?) Reif Larsen talk about his wonderful novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet when he mentioned the exact number of times T.S. uses the word ‘perhaps’. 

Twelve-year-old T.S. is a genius mapmaker, the son of an eccentric scientist mother and a cowboy father so dry he makes the Marlboro Man look like Betty Crocker. Unaware to his young age, the Smithsonian Institution awards him a prize for his brilliant work, leading T.S. to journey across the country by freight train from the ranch where  he lives in Montana to collect the award.

He is easily one of my all-time favourite characters, beautifully and intricately drawn. And what was interesting about hearing Larsen talk was the way he spoke about T.S. as if he were a real person. Larsen didn’t talk about the number of times he the author had used the word ‘perhaps’, it was T.S.’s trait. And the kicker was that Larsen knew T.S.’s traits, he knew them well.

I would like to be able to say that I spend a lot of time with my characters in my head first before writing a word about them, but it’s just not the way it works for me. I work them out by writing, carving them out as I go. Inevitably I go back and rework over things I’ve written if they later seem inconsistent. I’ve also recently found that if I let them ‘talk’ for a bit, they reveal themselves more fully. This worked really well for one character in particular that I was struggling to flesh out. (I can’t remember exactly, but I think it was a tip garnered from Tristan Bancks’ blog.) The only way I could really figure her out was to write pages and pages of dialogue. Only a few lines have made it into the final draft but at the risk of sounding a bit Tobias Funke, it helped me figure out her motivation.

So perhaps I have to figure out whether ‘For a moment’ is my phrase or my character’s. In the meantime I shall begin a work which explores the inner conflict of aardvarks, clearly an untapped market.

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