Risk creates gorgeous prose, thrilling scenarios, and memorable characters. But risk without a means of protection is merely self-destructive. Neil Gaiman’s great talent is taking wild leaps, yet always landing safely.
The character Fat Charlie Nancy has endless troubles: his father, brother, job, fiancé, and future mother-in-law. It’s partly his fault, but mostly not. His troubles take place in a world both magical and realistic, both sensuous and scary. How many writers humanely combine mystery with wit, folklore with justice, creepy bad guys with music, mythology, and the essence of family, evil, storytelling, and silliness? It’s all here.
How’d he do it? What parachutes does he use?
~ Create a narrator who’ll let you say what you want to. It’s all about voice.
“Each person who ever was or is or will be has a song. It isn’t a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words. Very few people get to sing their song. Most of us fear that we cannot do it justice with our voices, or that our words are too foolish or too honest, or too odd. So people live their song instead.”
~ Invigorate familiar metaphors. This can surpass creating brand-new ones.
“Daisy looked up at him with the kind of expression that Jesus might have given someone who had just explained that he was probably allergic to bread and fishes, so could He possibly do him a quick chicken salad: there was pity in that expression, along with almost infinite compassion.”
~ Create character with dialogue. Spider and Charlie each sound unique.
“The ties of blood,” said Spider, “are stronger than water.”
“Water’s not strong,” objected Fat Charlie.
“Stronger than vodka, then. Or volcanoes. Or, or ammonia.”
~ Characterize quickly and concisely. Go for the sentence that speaks volumes.
“Ahh,” said Mrs. Dunwiddy. She could disapprove with just that one syllable.
~ Stay in voice when you shift time or offer transitions. Don’t freeze up.
“Like all sentient beings, Fat Charlie had a weirdness quotient. For some days the needle had been over in the red, occasionally banging jerkily against the pin. Now the meter broke.”
~ Go a little wild. Just know where your parachutes are.
“There was something about being in the vicinity of Grahame Coats that always made Fat Charlie (a) speak in clichés and (b) begin to daydream about huge black helicopters first opening fire upon, then dropping buckets of flaming napalm onto the offices of the Grahame Coats agency. Fat Charlie would not be in the office in those daydreams…”
Tip: Find your own parachute and take your own leaps. You can’t pull back from what you never wrote.