Tuesday, May 1, 2012

We Are Onions Not Turnips

When we first meet someone, whether we intentionally mean to or not, we automatically do an analysis of the other person and categorize them. First impressions put that new person into a slot based on what they are wearing, the sound of their voice, the shape of their face, or even what they are doing. Most people we meet only receive the benefit of a first impression. What about subsequent impressions then?

On a second meeting with a person, our category sorter goes to work again. This time maybe, we get to talk longer to that person or have a completely different exchange with them. These can be either positive or negative. Maybe the person looks very different in their dress or hairstyle than before. Maybe they are doing an activity that shoves them out of the category our first impression put them in.

The more you interact with someone, the more you discover that person doesn't deserve a single category or even the first one you put them in. First impressions are what I like to call turnip impressions. When you cut into a turnip it pretty much looks the same the entire way through. It's a bland, solid, single-factor vegetable. Our turnip impressions of people, in a big picture sort of way, are unfair, unjust, and often far off the mark. The reason is that people are actually onions. We have layers and those layers go deep. We have different sides, some of which polarize each other. While we think we may have someone pegged and boxed-in neatly into a category or two or three categories, the truth is, no one can ever completely know someone else. Even if you've spent years with someone. It's impossible to uncover all of the layers within another.

The same holds true for writing about your characters. Our initial ideas of a story and the people or creatures that inhabit them are turnip impressions. And, sad to say, sometimes we leave them in those turnip impression slots. Think how much more enjoyment you'd get from writing about someone after uncovering a few of their layers in an onion evaluation. In good, character-driven stories, the author takes the time to do an onion analysis of their characters. And then, using that knowledge, she uses those layers to drive the story. The same can hold true in a story which is meant to be mostly plot-driven. You don't have to leave your characters at the turnip stage. If you unpeel a few of their layers and include some strong inner growth or motivation to add tension, plot twists, or even outright conflict, you've also added depth to your story.

The next trick is to use those multiple layers to your advantage. You don't spell them all out at once for the reader. Readers need mystery and surprise. This is one reason why giving a character's entire fact sheet at the beginning of a story is so frowned upon. Give the reader a first impression and only a first impression. Let them draw the wrong conclusions, and don't fret. Because if you're smart, you'll give them also a second impression, and a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and so on throughout the book. This can be done in a number of ways, not limited to:

1) Change of appearance.
2) Relevant backstory inserted at the right moment.
3) Reactions to events and other characters in the story.
4) Needs and wants.
5) What motivates them, pushes them, and forces them to make hard decisions.
6) Quirks, weaknesses, and strengths.
7) Choices they make in both action, thought, and speech.

There's nothing wrong with fluffy, popcorn fiction. Sometimes a light read hits the spot. There are a lot of books out there that come and hit big because they are fun or thrilling. Then they drift away from the public view. They were last year's sensation. Are they really books you'd pick up and read again and again? Probably not, unless they have something you're addicted to.

If you want to create a book that people will talk about years after it's published and will go back to and read more than once, it needs depth. One way to ensure some longevity for the story is to create onion people rather than turnip people.


  1. I could so make a Shrek comment here. The Parfait comment to be exact (lol) but in truth the point hits home here. I like the breakdown. Thanks Clipper. :)

  2. Excellent post! I think characters are so much more interesting if you slowly reveal things about them.

  3. Glad you're back, Clipper. Are you saying we're all vegetables one way or another? :) Can I be the potato?