Q is for Quintessence
Why quintessence, you ask? Well, it begins with q and I didn’t think I could spend a whole article talking about quests, quarrels or quandaries. What is quintessence, you ask? (You sure ask a lot of questions.) Quintessence means ‘fifth element,’ which, as we all know, is one of the greatest movies ever made.
Quintessence also means ‘the essential element,’ which is not love, as the otherwise excellent movie would have us believe, or at least, it isn’t always love. It’s the single word or phrase that most completely sums something up. A while back, I posted here about the lady at a writer’s convention who lectured us all on the importance of having an overarching theme throughout your books. That would be the quintessence of your writing voice. Likewise, each book should have a core message uniquely its own. Ideally, so should each character, but a cast of dozens of quirky standouts can be overwhelming to the reader, so just make sure your main characters are covered.
“But R Lee!” you cry. “You’ve been telling me all this time to give my characters dimension and depth! Now you’re telling me to make them oversimplified stereotypes? What’s wrong with you?!”
Ah, if I only had a nickel for every time someone’s asked me that…but listen, don’t think of your character’s essence as the start and stopping point of their whole personality. Think of it, oh, as more of a shadow. Even when your hero is in the spotlight at his most intricate and colorful, that shadow is right there, silently influencing all his thoughts and actions.
My theme as a writer is, as I’ve mentioned, Family. In my Lords of Arcadia series, each book could be summed up as Leaving Home (The Care and Feeding of Griffins), Finding Home (The Wizard in the Woods), Growing Apart (The Roads of Taryn MacTavish) and Coming Together (The Army of Mab). Taryn, for all the many facets of her personality—cheerful, stubborn, maternal, sensual, hot-tempered, compassionate—can also be summed up under one word: Peace. She seeks it, makes it, longs for it, and although she’s not a pacifist in the strictest sense of the word, whenever she has a choice, will always choose the path that seems to lead to peace. I tried not to hit the reader in the face with these things, but at the same time keep it present, like the shadow no one notices that is nevertheless always with you…watching…hungering….
But that’s just one person. Let’s talk briefly about using quintessence as it applies to a group of people. The good folks at TVTropes.com have a beautifully bitchy page devoted to calling bullshit on writers who use one quality to define an entire race and I can’t really blame them. Look at Star Trek. Vulcans are emotionless and logical; Ferengi are greedy; Klingons adhere strictly to their own hyperviolent code of honor. Only human characters are allowed true diversity, with complex dimensions and involved story arcs. But is that really bad writing? When you’ve only got one hour each week to introduce characters, play out some exciting story and come to a satisfying resolution, let me tell you, short cuts have to be made. When you’re writing, unless you want to stop the book for a full backstory every time a new character walks off the page, the same is true. Since I’ve already brought up Arcadia, I’ll bring out some more examples from that series: stoic Farasai, lordly Cerosan, beastial lycan, child-like fauns, tragic sluagh. Of course characters can and should develop as the story progresses—Lily the sluagh is probably the bravest character in the series for all her wretchedness—but whether adhering to their nature or rising above it, their actions should always reflect who they were and who they are.
I mentioned up there that I try not to be too obvious when I’m dealing with a character’s inner nature and I am the first person to admit it can be tricky to represent without looking like you’re representing.
In my misspent youth, at yet another writer’s panel, I was once advised by an extremely well-known douche of a writer to write at no more than an eighth-grade level (sixth-grade was even better), re-introduce any information learned more than a chapter ago if it’s pertinent to the present scene, never to have more than nine named characters in any book because the reader won’t be able to keep them all straight, and above all, never try to make the reader think too hard about what they’re reading. I found that insulting then and I find it even more insulting now. Long before I was writing, I was reading and I liked to think about a story, share it, discuss it with others to see what they thought. I think that at our core (our quintessence, if you will), readers are thinkers. I want to write books that make people think, even if all they’re thinking is, “She’s not really going to have sex with that, is she?” I understand that, especially in books as long as mine tend to be, it’s easy to forget the finer details, but I don’t think that characters should just say what they’re feeling all the time and I don’t think that the whole story needs to be rehashed every time a new plot-point is introduced. Subtlety should be a key element to any story and it should not be defined as hitting your reader with a brick instead of the whole wall. Find your Voice, but speak softly. Let your characters’ actions speak for them. Don’t pay more attention to the formula of writing than to the story you’re telling. Respect your readers, but write for you. Write something that makes you think and you will never fail.