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Writer’s Craft #34 – What are Your Characters Consuming?

August 22, 2011
Kelly A. Harmon

Kelly A. Harmon

Kelly A. Harmon defines “Dischism” for us as this week’s guest on the Writer’s Craft. Kelly writes fantasy and dark fantasy with the occasional science fiction piece. See her list of publications and honors.


In the novel I’m shopping, one of the main characters, Karis, is distraught over having (perhaps) killed someone by accident. He’s served a meal as he’s waiting to hear the fate of the woman he’s injured, but doesn’t get to it until hours later, when someone finally comes around to tell him how the woman is faring:

Cooled sausage lay congealed in a mire of white lard. A mound of wilted greens rested on the left. On the right, sliced white and green cheeses, softened in the earlier heat, were crested with a slick of rising oil. He reached for a white chunk to satisfy the ache in his belly, and looked at Shailmissa with expectant eyes.

Ew!

In several workshops I’ve heard lectures saying that authors have to be careful when they’re writing not to project their current situation on their characters, specifically related to drinking and/or smoking. Apparently, there is a tendency that when it is an author’s habit to eat, drink or smoke when they’re writing, that their characters do so, too.

This has been noted in Hemingway’s work, particularly, but is referred to as “Dischism” in the Turkey City Lexicon ( a primer for science fiction and fantasy writers), attributed to Thomas M. Disch who first noted the inclination. A Dischism is the “unwitting intrusion of the author’s physical surroundings, or the author’s own mental state, into the text of the story. Authors who smoke or drink while writing often drown or choke their characters with an endless supply of booze and cigs” (from http://www.sfwa.org/2009/06/turkey-city-lexicon-a-primer-for-sf-workshops/)

I can assure you, I was not eating sausage and wilted greens when I wrote that passage!

But it’s easy to press a cup of tea on a character when I’m drinking one, especially when I’m writing fantasy.

Do any of your proclivities show up in your character’s habits, drinking or otherwise?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. Mishell Baker permalink*
    August 22, 2011 7:59 am

    Is it a bad thing if you are deliberately projecting your own mental state into your writing? Or only if it happens by accident? 🙂

    I will sometimes deliberately work on scenes in a story or novel that match my current surroundings, because it’s easier to write about the migraine induced by a jackhammer if there is actually a jackhammer outside your window at the time. It also gives me something constructive to do besides kill the guy with the jackhammer.

    • Kari T permalink
      August 22, 2011 8:27 am

      Note to self: do not read Mishell’s post when taking a sip of tea…
      Thanks for the laugh🙂

    • August 22, 2011 2:49 pm

      Hi Mishell

      I don’t necessarily believe it’s a bad thing either way….just something to be cognizant of.

      You could have a character with the perfectly legitimate habit of eating donuts three times a day…but if your office is right next door to the donut shop, that quirk might be less about the character and more about the wonderful smell of baking donuts you’re subjected to all day (regardless of whether or not *you* consume the donuts habitually). 🙂

      I love the idea of deliberately projecting your mental state into the writing…especially if you can turn a bad situation (jackhammer) into a good one!

      (I’ll have to try that the next time the neighbors are shooting their guns off the back porch!)

  2. Kari T permalink
    August 22, 2011 8:26 am

    ha! I’ve been reading ‘The sun also rises’ this summer and thinking, ‘what’s up with all the drinking???’

    But yes, my characters surprisingly share my love of red wine and fresh fruit, many are impatient and blunt, and all hate heat and humidity.

    I can’t help myself.

    • August 22, 2011 3:09 pm

      Hi Kari

      I’m with you! Why not write characters like ourselves? We know what we like and what we don’t like, how we speak, what we wear, etc. It’s almost too easy.

      And that’s the danger, I think, if we’re not careful… Look at Hemingway: alcoholism (or perhaps just plain drunkeness) shows up in several of his books and short stories.

      Maybe it’s unfair to use Hemingway is an example. He’s the extreme. He’s a noted alcoholic, so seeing it show up in his work time after time seems telling. It’s hard to come up with a ‘different’ character when you’re just talking about one trait.

      But if you have some characters who enjoy red wine and others who enjoy fresh fruit and are impatient, and still others characterized by bluntness….well, write on!🙂

      (I love the imagery of red wine and fresh fruit, by the way…there’s a story in there.)

  3. August 22, 2011 4:19 pm

    This is how a story I think I finished this morning opens:

    “The lamb chop speared on his filet knife dripped down Hosiah’s wrists. Thumb-thick, rosy, soaked in his best old combination of burgundy/garlic/rosemary, he reckoned it would be the tastiest in his life. A life of landing bass and snappers, in summer crabs, winter oysters he’d tonged. His catch, hoisted aboard his MARIANNE, he sold to the seafood truck. Himself, he ate mostly tinned sardines on white bread from Mom-‘n’-Pop’s a mile from Hosiah’s Marina, rare occasions leftover roast goat, or when a half-dozen city people paid him to take them fishing for the day and they brought fancy boxed picnics with fried chicken and slaw…”

    I the author am allergic to fish and don’t allow white bread in the house, have eaten goat in Malaysia, don’t eat fried chicken, –but love lamb chops.

    • August 22, 2011 5:47 pm

      HI Elisavietta

      That lamb chop sounds delicious!

      Is this a one-off, giving one of your characters your love of lamb chops? Or, have you done it before? Did you do it consciously, or unconsciously?

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      August 22, 2011 8:18 pm

      I’d say you are working a lot of characterization into the description.

  4. Lynda Williams permalink
    August 22, 2011 8:22 pm

    Here’s a description of Ranar’s first Gelack meal, from The Courtesan Prince:
    Ranar recognized nothing on his plate but the parsley sprig. There were slices of something red, and a fluffy sculpture made to resemble a berry bush. A drink was included, served in a glass horn with a metal holder.

    • August 25, 2011 2:11 pm

      My Husband of Awesome&8482; faced this same dilemma the first time he had Thanksgiving Dinner with my family! 🙂

  5. August 23, 2011 6:19 am

    I love to eat, and food keeps coming up in my stories. One, in fact, stars an ex-con who currently runs a noodle shop–and solves mysteries! There were plenty of times while writing that I’d make myself really hungry describing the noodles he was making. (Perhaps longingly, as I try not to eat so many carbs these days so I have to be really controlled about how many noodles I eat. *sadface*)

    I also had fun in a recent story having a character eat something I love–mac and cheese–but be totally grossed out by it (she grew up with a very different diet). An excerpt:

    Mendyk grinned. “Spoiled milk lumps? It’s good. C’mon, Captain, give it a shot.” He pushed the bowl towards her. “It’s not even real spoiled milk. Just synth stuff. I’ll even eat some of that–whatever it is–you’re eating.”

    Lin put on her most tolerant-captain face and took a mouthful of Mendyk’s supper. It was warm and soft and slick and greasy. She felt her gorge rising and swallowed hastily.

    “Ah,” she managed. “Very–warming.” The taste of the cheese clung to the inside of her mouth, and took several swallows of tea to begin clearing. She set her cup aside and said, “I won’t force you to try my stew–not even Szan will touch the stuff.”

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      August 25, 2011 7:39 am

      Switching perspective is a writerly art! I’d say you demonstrate it by describing sensations you’d find pleasurable as nauseating. Superior bit of business!

  6. August 23, 2011 11:12 am

    Sometimes. Usually scotch. I think about scotch a lot more than I drink it as I always have to have the good stuff. So I dream…and write. The other thing that tends to slip in is my love of the blues. Aside from that, I don’t really foist my food and drink proclivities upon my characters. I write my characters into places I’d rather be (or would hate to be in if I’m torturing them, which I’m fond of doing) rather than where I am while I’m writing. So I guess that’s reflective of my character, but not my immediate surroundings.

  7. August 23, 2011 1:17 pm

    Of course characters reflect our proclivities. Everything we write gets sifted through the filter of our personalities, and no matter what we write about, due to the nature of the game we are ultimately writing about ourselves. Me? Hippy past. Drugs, profligate sex, all kinds of weirdness. And later, as my family grew, family values. Also, the places I’ve lived: India, Bangladesh, Italy, Greece, and the West Coast of the United States. Sometimes my need to get personal gives way to memoir; sometimes a story will do the trick. In the beginning, I must confess, I had to fight the urge for all the characters to be like me – later, the coverup got easier.

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      August 25, 2011 7:45 am

      John, I think some of my characters are “slices” of me. This or that aspect. And although I haven’t had much in the way of extreme experiences, I think I’m good at thought experiments. The more I work at viewing the world from even an obnoxious perspective the easier it is to make the character plausible. Maybe the thought experiment is the opposite of sticking too close to direct experience.

    • August 26, 2011 7:21 am

      I think we all have a tendency to do this. I think what really matters is: does it work for the story?

      If it works, who cares if it’s dischism or not?

  8. August 23, 2011 3:17 pm

    The problem with declaring something a “Dischism” is that there is a large degree of presumption about the author and his/her real life. I once wrote a character who was a heavy smoker, for example, as well as an ex-alcoholic. The editor who first read the piece assumed that I would be a chain smoker in real life because I had captured the behavior on paper–but I have never been a habitual smoker OR a habitual drinker.

    Another character I’d written was a classic sex addict–he viewed all of the women on the planet Earth as potential partners in pleasure, and objectified the young and the old alike. Does the fact that I can capture the mindset mean that I am actually an unmarried white male photographer who sees the world through the lens of his camera and views all women in terms of his appetites? Does the fact that the character is in India and its bloody hot mean that I was in India or a suffering through heat wave as I was typing?

    Uh…no. I’m not a man–or even a gay woman–I was in Canada, and it was November. Best not to presume until you have a LOT of proof that your intuition about the author is correct.

    • August 26, 2011 7:18 am

      Hi Arinn

      I don’t think anyone actually ‘declares’ a dischism. It’s just something (as writers) we need to be aware of. I also don’t believe the average reader picks up a book and assumes the author is an inveterate liar, for example, just because the main character happens to be one.

      As for the editor who first read your story: I think he or she has some issues. 🙂 Those are some might big presumptions to make.

      I’m curious…for anyone else posting here: have you had similar experiences?

    • Lynda Williams permalink
      August 26, 2011 8:03 am

      Thank YOU Kelly! Hope you keep dropping in, and drop me a line when the next idea occurs to you. I’m booking Writer’s Craft pieces into the fall, now. Submissions always welcome at lynda@okalrel.org

  9. August 24, 2011 11:14 am

    Interesting, I haven’t ever noticed this in my writing, but I’ll have to go back and look for it.

  10. August 26, 2011 7:24 am

    Lynda: just want to say, “thank you,” for hosting me here…lots of ‘food for thought.” [I know, (groan): I couldn’t resist!] This has been a fun discussion.

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