LESTER DENT’S WAVE THOSE TAGS, PART 3: FIND SOMETHING TO GO INSIDE

If you haven’t read the first post in this series, Lester Dent’s Wave Those Tags, Part 1: Find a Name, go back there now to get caught up. Otherwise, we’ll press on with the third part of pulp icon Lester Dent’s look at characters…

 

FIND SOMETHING TO GO INSIDE

This seems to be a tougher one.

But it’s important.

The something inside the character isn’t solid and readily grasped, as are the external tags. Abstract is probably the word to use. So an attempt to explain what goes inside may do one of three things—fail to explain anything, ball it all up, or sound asinine.

Sometimes an approach to the problem can be made by going back and thinking about the character, starting at birth and following right through, so as to get the feeling of knowing just how the character happened to be a certain kind of person.

In the pulps, seems this doesn’t have to be very subtle. The hero’s sister is killed by crooks, and so he turns detective and is ever-after the implacable enemy of crooks. Slight variations of this old one are run ragged in the pulps, and in a slightly refined state, again run ragged in the slicks.

The whole idea is to dope out some reason for the character acting like a hero, a villain, or whatever.

While this is being done, it may prove convenient to concoct a reason for the character carrying the external tags which had been previously devised. In the pulps, the reason can be simple. Clancy, the cop, has walked a beat so long he’s got flat feet, and therefor foot trouble—and because he’s walked the beat so long, he has a consuming ambition to get in the detective bureau and show up these young school-trained cops who lack the Clancy experience. The ambition is what drives Clancy to do the things he does in the yarn. Now and then somebody even dresses this one up and sells it to the slicks.

What is inside the character seems to be highly vital. It will probably tie in with the motivation of the story, help furnish the reasons for things happening.

The higher the quality of the story, the more important what is inside apparently becomes.

Maybe the less said about this the better, because it is an abstract process, and probably the only thing to do is to sit down there and dope it out.

 

—Lester Dent

This part is particularly fascinating to me as we see Lester Dent, co-creator and principle author of Doc Savage—a character not know for his internal subtlety and nuance—essentially punting on what is actually the most important aspect of creating a character worth reading. And yet, people are still reading the old Doc Savage stories, so what do we take from that? That Dent managed to “sit down there and dope it out,” in a way he couldn’t explain, even to himself? Maybe, but let’s get to breaking this down and reassembling it after we finish up with the essay itself:

Next week… PART 4: NOW MAKE USE OF CHARACTERIZATION TRICKS IN WRITING THE STORY

 

 

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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One Response to LESTER DENT’S WAVE THOSE TAGS, PART 3: FIND SOMETHING TO GO INSIDE

  1. Tristworthy says:

    Ah yes. This immediately made me think of fantasy villains who do ‘bad’ things simply because they are evil. That never convinces me these days.

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