In On Moral Fiction, John Gardner describes a game he used to play with his boffin friends, called ‘What Kind of Smoke?’ The object is to guess the well-known figure being described through abstract association. Let’s see how I do….
Q: What kind of smoke?
A: Earthy clouds rising from a crackling campfire.
Q: What kind of car?
A: An old pickup, a bit beaten up, but still going strong and looking good.
Q:What kind of animal?
A: An Alsatian dog.
Q: What kind of sport?
A: Cross-country skiing.
Q: What kind of fruit?
A: Hmm… cantaloupe (rock melon to us Antipodeans).
Q: What kind of dance?So who am I?
A: The classic waltz.
I’ll give you a clue: I opted for very individual ‘traits’ rather than the stereotypical associations, that is, all things western and cowboy.
Give up? I was thinking John Wayne. Agree? Disagree? Whether my answers are accurate or not depends on how your mind works, I guess. How would you answer the questions for the Duke?
So what’s the point of this exercise?
- We should know our characters well enough to know what sort of smoke they are;
- How we paint characters is limited only by our own creativity (as if that isn't stating the obvious); and
- We can trust the reader to associate creative images with the traits of an individual or type of person.
Let’s try again because this is kind of fun. Instead of me describing these people as manly, sexy, evil, and homely, try matching them up to their kind of smoke, or think of your own:
Osama bin Laden
A wisp of smoke that slinks from the tip of a panatella.
The black, odorous cloud from the tailpipe of an unmaintained lorry.
The steam from a fruity, homemade sauce simmering on the stove-top.
The heady smoke from a Cuban.
Exercise 82. Think about how you have described your characters. Are the descriptions original or unoriginal? Can creative word or image association, weaved into actions, dialogue, setting and narrative make the characters more real?
Next week, I will attempt to relate how and what travel can add to the writer’s toolbox (or not).