“A” is for Assholes
Here is the first post for the intended new column, “The Writer’s Alphabet” wherein I will take a letter of the alphabet and pick a word to profile that starts with that letter and how that word applies in the writing world. So, why not start with “A”?
What can “A” stand for? Assholes, of course.
Assholes: Everyone has one and everyone can be one. They can be hilarious and they can be evil. Let’s cover two aspects of the asshole. First let’s discuss actual people you might work with, or you possibly being an asshole yourself. Then, we can discuss characters.
So, people/colleagues/you. When it comes to this aspect of asshole-ness some people might think that being an asshole will get you further in the industry than being meek and mild. I argue against both of these perceptions and suggest following the “No Asshole Rule” that Bill Lawrence had on his successful show Scrubs. It ran on NBC for 9 seasons so I think Bill knew what he was talking about with this one. With the “No Asshole Rule”, Bill said if you want to work on this show, no matter your resume or pedigree we will not tolerate being an asshole. No diva behaviour, and no complaining. And, again, Scrubs ran for 9 seasons, so I think this rule worked out. When it comes to working with or being an asshole, I suggest grinning and bearing it and never going back with the former and simply not doing it with the latter. In my fledgling amount of experience in the writing and entertainment industry the best advice I can come up with for being a good writer/performer/entertainer is first, cut out all of the bullshit that is holding you back and second, be professional. Being professional begets becoming a professional and thus, working with other professionals. Following that train of thought, being an asshole…
As for assholes and characters? The bigger the better. Why? Because the bigger the assholes the more conflict they create and conflict, even in minute amounts, is the life blood of every story.
Consider this: Jimmy wants to go for a picnic with Janey. Jimmy looks outside and sees that it is raining. Jimmy throws the picnic basket at the wall and spills mustard, wine and delicious cheese everywhere. Janey ponders what the hell he was thinking because “that was some damn delicious cheese damnit.” Jimmy yells at the weather and then at the cheese and then at Janey and storms off to pout while Janey stares at the mess he made and ponders all of her life decisions.
So we have Jimmy being an asshole in his reaction to the weather (also an asshole in a way), his yelling at everything and his pouting. This has created conflict with Janey and himself and if the weather is sentient in this story then he has also most likely angered it as well, because the weather is just doing its job. If Jimmy simply said, “Hey Janey, let’s be awesome and have a picnic in the living room and maybe play a round of twister afterwards”, we have no conflict, and no story beyond a good “campfire” moment…before the tornado comes through and blows both of these non-assholes half-way across the province.
And I think that covers it for the most part.
To conclude, Being an asshole: BAD! Writing assholes: GOOD!
Thanks for reading.
“B” is for Bastards
Bastards. What are we dealing with here? According to the Google Dictionary a bastard can be anyone of the following:
“a person born of parents not married to each other”; “an unpleasant or despicable person”; “a scoundrel, villain, rogue, rascal, weasel, snake, miscreant, reprobate”; et cetera…
According to my other online source of entertaining information, Wikipedia, a bastard can mean all those things and more.
So what do bastards have to do with writing, writers, and the writing life? Quite a bit actually. First, we as writers can be, and have known to have been, fucking bastards of the 1st degree. Bukowski, Hemingway, Thompson, et al, are all well known bastards and according to my research for the first article in this series, also assholes. But bastard is the word of the day, so we’ll stick to that. Being a bastard as a writer is not uncommon, but also not entirely necessary. Being a bastard also means being stubborn and sticking to an ideal, for example, the ideal of a story or character. By keeping your head firmly up your ass, as only the best of the bastards are wont to do, you as a writer can fight for your version of a story. This is only recommended in extreme circumstances when you actually have the leverage in name to negotiate while your head is entrenched inside yourself. Not having any cache will get you nowhere and just have possible agents, publishers, and producers wondering, “who was that bastard that was yelling with his head up his ass. I’ve never heard of him and now no one else ever will.” The moral? Being a stubborn bastard only works when your name carries some weight in the industry so that the sight of you bent over yourself and mumbling into your colon can be overlooked. Though being professional always wins out in the end.
Characters as bastards. Similar to characters as assholes, writing a character who is a bastard in the “scoundrel, villain, rogue, rascal, weasel, snake, miscreant, reprobate” way is vital to a great story. Obviously having your antagonist as these things works, but try writing your protagonist this way. I find that I’m leaning towards more protagonists that aren’t entirely lovable. Or at least, if people love them, they don’t love themselves which makes for great conflict and tension because then the character is acting in spite of themselves for the good of those around them. The internal conflict and tension is so great that it can’t help but spill over into the external world of the character, leading to many different layers of build-ups and payoffs. I believe the term “anti-hero” is appropriate here.
All in all, bastards. They add to any story, however, being one yourself is only recommended if your name precedes your words. Even then, why?
“C” is for Characters
What is character? Is it what we do when we know no one is watching? Well, yes, it is, but it is also something entirely different. As for being a writer, we spend the majority of our time alone, where no one can watch us, or if they are and we notice we give them a look like, “Are you jealous? Get a hobby you lurker!” Unless they are another writer and are observing us because they are writing about writers. I guess that’s okay and spares us from calling them out on their lurking.
All that being said, character…what the hell…
I guess what I want to speak about in terms of character(s) is make them authentic. When creating characters, research them. Yes, a lot of what we do, specifically as fiction writers, is make shit up, make people up, but that doesn’t make them entirely fictional. The best characters are relatable in some way. Even characters that are serial killers can be relatable. One simply has to ask how the book series and subsequent TV show Dexter was so popular? It was because on some levels Dexter Morgan was a relatable character. I personally can’t relate to his innate need to kill, but I can relate to his need for acceptance, his love for his family, and his moral code of punishing those that deserve punishment. Do I believe he should have murdered them? On the whole? No. But the character and the plot lines did have me questioning that sometimes.
Another aspect of character relatability and research is a character’s backround. For example, the character’s vocabulary. I’m not sure how many friends you have that are from the U.K. or Australia but they sometimes use a particular word that can be defined as offensive but can also be a term of endearment. That word is “cunt.” Like all words it depends how it is used. When referring to someone in a derogatory way, “cunt” is extremely offensive. When my Irish friend called me a cunt, I felt as though we had established a new level of friendship. That is because it was used as a term of endearment meaning friendship as it is sometimes used within that culture. So what I’m basically saying is that if you are writing a character from a culture, research their slang, both “good” and “bad”, and use both because both establish character in the proper ways it should be established. Another example is my Australian friend and his use of the word “mate.” His usage is meant in the way that a “mate” is a friend. It’s authentic to him, his culture, and his character.
All in all, make your characters your characters. Delve deep into yourself and the people you know. One thing I like to do is the reverse of what happens when a story gets adapted from page to screen. Often when adapting a book, a screenwriter will, through want or need, meld different characters into one. I like to take a person I know and break them into their component parts and then create characters from that point. Just take one aspect, like they play guitar and go from there. On this note, the one question I love to ask when creating a character is “what do they have in their pockets and why?” It creates so many possibilities. And finally, it’s important to remember and continually ask three questions: 1) What does this character want? 2) How are they going to get/achieve it? and 3) What’s going to happen if they don’t get it? All three are common to both the writing and the acting world, but they help keep you focused and on point with each specific character and they will also help you, the writer, form original, authentic characters that are yours.
“D” is for Denial
Alright. So we’ve reached D in the writer’s alphabet saga. What can we do with D? Seeing as I live my life in a constant state of denial, let’s rock that one.
What is denial and how does it relate to a writer’s life? Some would argue writer’s don’t deny themselves of anything. The famous examples are those who lived lives of excess and wrote epic prose that inspired many generations to take the reins of their only existences and spend it on the road or at the end of a bar or in the arms of various “muses”. Those examples are pretty damn glorious. Who wouldn’t want to be able to make that decision and go and quaff froth from a glass, while picking up the next day and moving onto the next town and experience and muse? Okay. Best get to the point of this post otherwise I’m going to toss my laptop in the garbage and hitch a ride with the next car I see. Which could be hilarious, especially if it was a cab and while he/she kept asking me my destination I kept answering with, “why do we need one?”, and “what is this would ‘fare’ you keep speaking of?”
Denial. Should we as writers deny ourselves anything? Yes and no.
I’ll start with “no” because my “yes” side rebuttal is the easier conclusion. See? I didn’t deny myself the easiest route. As writers, within our means – or beyond them, gulp – we shouldn’t deny ourselves any experience. Any and all experiences are to be had as they fuel our imaginations and thus, fuel plots and characters. From the minor and seemingly inconsequential, such as grabbing a coffee during our morning routine, to the more epic, like accepting an invitation to a party where we only know one person and that person bails and we are left standing by ourselves doing what we do best (observing people) all experiences should be had. They are what keeps us interesting but more importantly interested in humanity and thus, writing. Writers spend a lot of time alone, even if we have “day” jobs. We need experience in all forms to – I’ll say it again – fuel our creativity, and our desire to translate that into productivity. What better way to do that than give every opportunity its full and best chance to entertain and educate us?
I thought that went pretty well. I only used the word fuel twice and both times I feel it worked. Now for the “yes” side.
Why we should deny. Because sometimes some offers, opportunities and experiences aren’t what we are looking for. You get invited to something. You aren’t 19 so you’ve been to things like this before. You can plot out the entirety of the night’s/day’s/afternoon’s/evening’s events before you have time to take your next breath. I argue, if it’s something you don’t want to do, don’t do it. Deny it. Why? Because you are not open to the full experience anyway so why waste your time going somewhere and doing something you have already mentally shunned? Yes, there is the ethos of “you never know” and that’s entirely valid, however, if you would rather stay home and read or go do something else, then deny what you don’t want and embrace what you do. You will at least gain something from having an interest in participating rather than feeling forced and, most likely, anxious about it. If I say anymore I’ll most likely be repeating myself, so that’s it for the “yes” side.
Now…denial. I think everyone lives in a state of denial about certain parts of their lives. Whether it be work, love, friends, addictions, regrets, successes, the past, the present, and/or the future. Writers are no different. The one thing I would say is don’t be in denial about writing. It takes work, dedication, an open heart, and an open mind. Don’t be in denial about feedback and its importance to your work and don’t deny feedback ever. Even if it’s not constructive and it literally is just a mean-spirited asshole being an asshole, you can ask yourself, “what has made this person become such an asshole?” and then BAM!, you just asked a pertinent question that leads to building a new and exciting asshole character for your next project.
Well, I wouldn’t exactly say I nailed that one. I tried. Hope it wasn’t entirely shit. I feel like I used a lot of adverbs in this post. If Stephen King ever reads it I do hope he doesn’t vomit at that last fact. Damn.
“E” is for Eulogies
E is for Eulogies.
I like to write eulogies. Not for people I know, but for my characters. It allows me to synthesize a character’s life in 500 words or less. Writing eulogies for your characters gives you the chance to write a different kind of profile. It plays with perspective and in this respect gives you the chance to view your character(s) in retrospective. A lot of what we do when creating characters is we think about how their pasts impact their futures as told in the plot, whereas with a eulogy it allows for the entirety of the character’s life – in its most important parts – to be profiled, both the portions that occur and impact the story and the parts that are external to it. It can be argued that the parts of the character that are external to the story don’t matter and this has some merit, however, writers must know their characters beyond how they relate to the plot. As Hemingway said – I’m paraphrasing here – a good writer knows what to leave out. This applies to description of setting but also characters. With respect to character, what matters in one story might not matter in the next, but it might matter further on depending how many times this character comes up in your writing – see prequels and sequels.
I keep the eulogies short because it provides a challenge but also it keeps things basic and to the only the most pertinent facts about the character and that character’s life. What mattered most? What were his/her biggest accomplishments? What would this character like to be known for? This gives me great starting points to expand on every aspect of this character and his/her life.
I don’t do this all the time but whenever I do it works and is a fun exercise. Good luck and enjoy! And if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it! Also, I feel I used the words “parts” too much in this post. If you can pick the time I used the thesaurus because this annoyed me, you win absolutely nothing. It can be a fun exercise nonetheless though, no?
“F” is for Fuck
Since I started this column I have been looking forward to writing this piece. Fuck, it’s the galactic president of words. Many arguments could be made as to why this is the case but I will stick to one or maybe two. Three if I get really inspired. Fuck is the grand champion because it is the most versatile word in any language in the universe. Is it a “bad” word? Sure, that could be true. I would say though, it is the greatest because of its versatility and is only bad if you use fuck with reckless abandon because it is a lazy choice. It can be used in so many different ways that it loses its meaning after a while.
Fuck you, you fucking fuck. A great sentence that also makes for a great t-shirt – one I am proud to say I own – but that sentence is also lazy as fuck because it simply relies on one (two) word(s). However! Brevity is the soul of wit and less is more and so it is also a beauty piece of prose because it doesn’t use more words than need be.
Due to its somewhat taboo nature, fuck is best used when it is least expected. Tossing a random fuck into an otherwise innocuous sentence will no doubt spice it up and keep your audience more intrigued by what might come out of your mouth or your page.
George Carlin wrote a piece about seven words you can’t say on television. While crude, I think it proves the point that fuck is the king can. The words are, “Fuck, shit, piss, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits.” First off, fuck comes first. Second, it’s mentioned twice and can also be used as a prefix or suffix to any of the other words, even motherfucker!
And on another unrelated note with respect to fuck. I took a writing class a few years back. It was a journalism course and the teacher posed a question in relation to point-of-view when it came to writing articles. “Who the fuck are you?” Is fuck necessary in this query? I would say yes, because it emphasizes the point being made. In good journalism, the writer should not be present. In a column – which is what I am writing right now – the writer is a part of the writing and thus, the use of “I” can be acceptable. But in writing about a subject, say a war for example, the writer should keep themselves out of it. Who the fuck is that writer to say, “I think (insert opinion here),” unless it is the very point of the article? So with respect to this column I will ask, “Who the fuck am I?” I am a writer working on a career by posting columns, links, and articles to this blog based on my experience in writing. It is up to you, the reader, to deem whether my experience and opinions hold any weight. I am jtkwriting and this is my blog so it is my voice. Thus, using “I” is acceptable. The only remaining question is, “Who the fuck are you?”
Having looked forward to writing this for so long I thought I would have more to say. Them’s the fucks of it I guess. Ah well. Fuck it.
“G” is for God
Anyway, the idea of God, religion, fiction, writing, and narration all play in together. According to some religions – and question me all you want on this, I went to Catholic school for over a decade – God is supposedly the omniscient creator, or narrator of our life stories. We as writers, especially fiction writers are very much the same. The biggest difference being that fiction needs to make sense. And this is really the only argument I have in defence of religion as a real thing: it doesn’t make sense and leaves out the biggest question fiction must answer: “why?”
As writers and narrators the why of something is the most important question anyone will have when picking up your work and also the most important question we can ask when we sit down to write. Why are we writing this? And then, why did our character act that way? If we don’t have an intelligent answer that makes sense for that character then we need to hit the backspace button and try again. What I’m saying is be better than (the) God(s) and answer the most important question because if you don’t your fiction will be frustrating and unreadable for all of those except the people that have the most “faith” in you. And for those readers, they don’t need an answer, just some words to grab and hold dear even as common sense stares them in the face.
“Don’t be a prick, explain that shit.” That is a jtkwriting original. I think.
“H” is for History
A common belief is that if you don’t know history you are doomed to repeat it. Even the good stuff. History is especially important with characters and plots. If you are writing a historical piece, for the love of the facepalm, do the research! If not, history is still important. Before sitting down to write or edit, you should know the history of the characters you are writing about. It is this history that informs the character’s actions. Not only will this help to create believable characters it will make you look like far less of an idiot. More important, it will keep people interested in the story as opposed to having their eyes ripped from the page and into their brains wondering why this character did this inane thing that makes no sense. Unless there is an awesome explanation, but that awesome explanation must also make sense with respect to character and plot and thus, history can be a tremendous help in making this happen.
“Know the history, don’t put others through misery!” Wow, another jtkwriting original quote to end a piece. I need to write these down. Somewhere other than this blog. Unless the internet is here to stay, then, well, all is good!
“I” is for Interconnection
This column is more of a web as opposed to a list because interconnection is like that. Every letter is connected to every other letter because everything I write about here is all connected to writing. And everything in writing is all connected as well. Characters, settings, time periods, yup all are, or should be connected. Why a story happens during a certain year matters for the characters you have created for that story, and the places they interact also should play a huge role. Otherwise why the hell did you choose that person in that place at that time?
One of my favourite aspects of interconnection occurs when an author with some cache interconnects characters or places from one story to another. Christopher Moore does this with brilliance in his novels You Suck and A Dirty Job. To elaborate would ruin it. Read the trilogy that includes You Suck and then read A Dirty Job and you’ll get what I’m saying. Or read them the other way around as I did, it doesn’t matter, just read the friggin’ awesome books. Another example is Castle Rock, Maine, a fictional town that is the setting for many of Stephen King’s stories.
Interconnection at its most basic is necessary because it helps clearly define the “why” behind your story. At its most glamourous it’s a nice “easter egg” for readers that won’t drag them away from the page for too long. Even if it does it will be because they are thinking about another piece of your writing as opposed to whispering “what the fuck?” to themselves before they heave your hard work against the wall and pick up another book by someone who gave a damn about interconnection.
“J” is for Jerkstore
Do we all remember the Seinfeld episode where George gets slammed by a co-worker for eating too many shrimp and George being George can’t think of a good comeback so George being George again spends way too much time trying to think of a witty comeback to shoot down this co-worker but then fails again when his comeback, while funny, shits the bed because his co-worker has a better comeback? I need to take a breath before continuing. Okay. We can say two things about this in terms of writing.
The first is that this is brilliant writing for character. Only George Costanza would be so riled up by something such as this to spend an umpteenth amount of time dissecting words, society, and culture and the dynamics of the “comeback line”. Can you picture Jerry, Elaine, or Kramer doing the same thing? Definitely not. Jerry would have a great comeback, Elaine would probably stare at the person with a classic Elaine look of disdain, and Kramer would just keep eating the shrimp because who cares who called, these shrimp are great! The writers for this show knew their characters well and that is why it succeeded as it did because the audience was never drawn away from the story by questioning the characters behaviour. And it was just ridiculous and funny.
The second is about second looks with respect to the initial stages of telling a story. Early drafts are and should be crap, and sometimes incomplete. The suckage level of an early draft of any piece of writing should directly relate to the greatness level of the final product. I have zero statistics on this “fact” beyond the big assumption that if a writer starts out with a terrible first draft they will put in the hard work necessary to make it better in every way conceivable. They will seek any means to make it the best it can be. Unless they quit. But quitting is for quitters. Anyway, second looks. Every piece of writing needs a second (third, fourth…twentieth) look, because as writers we read, and experience things every day that inform our work and have the ability to enhance it. Detraction is also a possibility but I’m stubborn and I choose to focus on enhancing. Anyway, maybe it’s best you didn’t come up with everything all at once because you needed to live and experience to get more perspective to write the scene, story, or article.
How does that relate to George Costanza? George’s first draft of his comeback was non-existent. He didn’t have one. So he went and used his brain power and worked hard at crafting the greatest retort in human history. One that would be recorded in the Annals of Being an Asshole. He worked hard and it paid off, except George being George, his co-worker did better and the whole thing fell flat. But he did work hard and came up with something that was better than the nothing he originally had. He was outduelled by a quicker wit. That happens. Some writers need thirty drafts and some only need ten, but every writer needs a second look, draft, beer, or helping of shrimp. All I know is, “(T)hese pretzels are making me thirsty.”
“K” is for “Kill Your Babies”
Before the ruckus starts, notice the quotations around “kill your babies” in the title. It’s an editing phrase, not a suggestion for murder. Okay, well, yes, the murdering of words, but not of people, babies or otherwise. I’m going to stop talking about murder now.
Picture this! You sit down at your desk and have nothing coming from your brain hole. Nothing. You stare out the window behind you because you didn’t have the foresight to place your desk in front of said window. Instead, you placed your desk facing the wall because you felt the faltering stucco would be more of an inspiration. Questionable furniture placement aside, you turn from the window and stare back at the blank page and occasionally glancing at the worst stucco job ever that lives behind. You feel like all of those times you railed against writer’s block have now come back to haunt you, because when you railed you railed hard. Harder than you’ve ever railed against anything in your life. Harder than when you railed against the people that were prostesting water. (Sidenote: I am a time traveler and in the future people will protest water. I’m still hazy on this because it happened the day I left as I couldn’t deal with the water haters anymore.) Anyway, you sit and stare. Even when you close your eyes after rubbing them as though you had a raging case of pink eye, you are staring. Staring at the blank, dead canvas that used to hold all of your great ideas. Then. THEN! Then you feel it. You actually feel it in every cavity before you see it and before it floods your brain with its amazingness. It’s an idea. It’s THE idea. The greatest idea you have ever had. The greatest idea anyone with a pulse has ever had. The best damn thing since sliced bread. (In the future pre-sliced bread is still one of the best we’ve come up with.) And you start typing. The first twenty words are spelled so poorly that when you stop to read them and make sure you aren’t dreaming you re-write them and then keep the momentum up because this idea just keeps coming. And then, you finish. You thought it would have been more than just a scene with a few lines of dialogue and some awesome conflict, but you read it for what feels like thirty different times. Each time it has you laughing, crying, peeing and filled with love and then you realize this might be THE GREATEST CREATION SINCE YOU WERE CONCEIVED!
Here’s where things go to shit and the killing has to begin. “Kill your babies” is a literary and editing term and it refers to a piece of writing that the writer so adores they would never consider cutting it to make the overall work better. To the writer, these pages or paragraphs are the best they have ever and will ever write. But they don’t work for the overall project. They might be great, but they just don’t work. Take the advice of your trusted beta-readers and editors. Cut the words. “Kill your babies.” You don’t have to erase them altogether. Maybe this “baby” will work in another project. But for the love of great writing everywhere, cease and desist! Cut (and paste elsewhere)! “Kill!” Edit!
To be more precise – which goes against my own advice in the previous paragraphs of this column – keeping the part you love in the piece is the difference between the work being known as a shitface and being known as a face, and isn’t a face better without shit on it?
“L” is for Love
Love, much like religion, is a bullshit pursuit that leaves those that believe in it and strive for it feeling worse off than if they had never heard of the word or concept. That is why it is perfect for stories. Love is simply just another way of saying the word conflict and conflict is the life blood of any and all stories, fiction or otherwise. Love and love stories are meant to have us feeling good and full of hope but really they are the bill of goods that drives conflict around the world, and at home as well. Let’s think about that for a second or sixty. People love too much? Conflict. People aren’t loved enough? Conflict. Love triangles? Triple the conflict! Forbidden love? Stories that involve people with names like Montague and Capulet and possibly illicit conflict! Unrequited love and all the pathetic adoration that comes with it? Conflict with lots of masturbation!
I could go on for a while about the stupidity of love, so let’s focus on the writing aspect with a bit more depth, specifically with respect to unorthodox and/or unique love stories. Yes, traditional “boy meets girl, they love, they fight, they fall apart and get back together” stories will never fail but at the same time they are as stale as the PG under-the-covers-bra-still-on-missionary-guy-must-have-a-really-long-penis-to-be-in-that-position sex that occurs between their pages or credit scenes. What about adding a LGBTQ element? Or a sexual fetish? What about an age difference? Or a non-sexual fetish? Using fetish twice in the same post is enough I think, so what about adding or subtracting something to or from the story. Adding something more than one person’s unwillingness to commit or a character’s need for maturity can only enhance the love story and, by extension, the story overall. A romantic (love) subplot with a non-traditional or unorthodox element can be a brilliant move for a story because it fleshes things out while keeping things
fetish, I mean, fresh.
In the last 5-7 years, I have noticed more films being made with the non-traditional love twist. Food, cars, running, addiction, tattoos, height, weight, multiple partners, open relationships, pegging, voyeurism, and BDSM are all becoming more a part of the mainstream with respect to sex and love in non-pornographic film. At first I was reluctant to watch some of them because I need to relate to characters in the media I consume. In books, because there is more internal thought taking place, I can relate to a character that lives in Barcelona and grew up the son of a bookseller. In film, because everything is much more visual with less time for intense introspection, I find it harder to relate to characters with more unique tendencies. Regardless of how I relate – because remember, who the fuck am I? – adding what used to be called “spice” to your characters’ lives, relationships, and sexual antics will only enhance the story because it adds depth and will speak to more people than you think.
Love is bullshit. No, wait, love is conflict and conflict is awesome so I guess love is awesome then as well. There has to be some faulty logic there. Before I search for the logic gap, I’m off to read Savage Love – an amazing column coordinated by Dan Savage – for inspiration but also provides great insight into what really goes on in people’s hearts, minds, and bedrooms. Thank you Dan!
“M” is for Meaning
What is the meaning of this?!?!?!?!?!?!? What means something to someone can have no meaning to someone else. Meaning is subjective, or is it? The definition of something is empirical and is also its meaning. Though what that means differs from person to person to animal to animal to person. A ball means something different to a dog than it does to a person but its dictionary definition doesn’t change. The same thing goes for objects in a story.
Let’s look at the example of a scrap of paper with a phone number on it, but no name. To one character it could just be a scrap of paper without a name. This character could think that the person who wrote down his phone number without his name could be the biggest idiot flying around on the planet. The character thinks: Why the bloody hell would someone write down their number and not put down their goddamn identifier? What possible reason could exist for this? What if I were to call this idiot and then what? Hey fuckface, you didn’t leave your name on this scrap of paper. So ya, that’s one way it could go. Though it might end up with these characters falling in love over some shared antagonism and then they get married and instead of confetti the guests throw scraps of paper with random phone numbers on them and the couple worry about eye paper cuts. Because eye paper cuts might mean something great to one person, but to this couple, eye paper cuts are the worst thing since the bad yelp review they got at the restaurant they started.
Another character might think: I’m really glad I gave that new restaurant a bad yelp review. The whole thing was lined with scraps of paper with random phone numbers and because I am the loneliest fuck in the world I decided to call some of them. Some of the numbers were out of order and some were long distance. The ones that did go through just ended in screaming matches with the person on the other end because people keep calling the number and pranking them. I’m not pranking you, I yelled at each of them, I’m really just looking for a friend. They would usually say, good luck and go fuck yourself while you’re at it, to which I would reply, I’ll take that advice with a hunk of salt you dickhead. Who cares this much about scraps of paper? Assholes! That’s who! The burger was good though.
And another character might think: This is it. I’ve found it. This is the place with the phone numbers. It only took a year and three plane rides, but I’m here. Before this character walks in the door he stares through the windows at the majesty of the one place he has wanted to visit since he read about it in a magazine a couple years ago. They had to fact check the phone numbers that line the walls because of a rash of complaints and a lawsuit, but the idea behind the whole thing was magic. He had arrived and now that he was here all he could do is stare. Who’s that cute girl eating the soup and sandwich?
And finally: This lawsuit was the best idea I ever had. Mr. & Mrs. Owners, I thank you for settling with me. Free food for life? I’ll take it! Mmmmmm, soup. On Sundays this character liked soup and a sandwich. I liked the concept but who doesn’t check if the numbers are real? She takes a bite of her sandwich and looks up out the window at the guy who has been standing there for almost ten minutes. Holy shit man! What the fuck are you staring at? Go away you freak, I’m trying to eat this free soup!
I think I went on a bit of a tangent there but meaning means different things to different people. The most important thing is that what means something to a character means something to them for a reason. An emotional connection has the biggest stakes, but as long as there is a distinct meaning then all will be well. If not, it won’t make sense and then, well, just erase the whole story and start again. Yes, even if you have 130,000 words. Chances are you’ll have to do some major editing so just start over. Just kidding! Edit it!!!