Note #12: Break Free of the Matrix Space

Jason Schwartzman
Mar 3, 2020 · 2 min read

Neo isn’t the only one who needs liberating

When describing a character or subject, it’s natural to mention characteristics like age and style of dress, but one thing that’s often forgotten is to put the person in space, ideally performing an action. Otherwise, they’re stuck in what I think of as the Matrix Space — that white construct where Morpheus takes Neo to show him reality.

When describing someone, you want the reader to intuit the essence of a character themselves. Adjectives alone are not always effective — more like a mini bio packet handed to an actor while learning a part (i.e. they’re angry / loud). That’s classic telling, not showing, which can make the descriptions feel tacked on rather than experienced.

Instead, try putting the person into an activity. It’s easier in fiction because you can make a scene. The introduction of Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones is a particularly good example. When we first meet him, he’s talking war strategy while gutting a stag, rolling back its skin and removing its vital organs. He’s a brutal man, and the scene clues us into that right away.

In nonfiction, it can be useful as a background interview question to ask the subject to take you through an average day…or different activities they often do. It’s part of the reason why so many magazine profiles take place during an “activity” like painting or archery. The activities humanize them.

Matrix Space: Mike loved to hunt down pesky cane toads.

Matrix Space: Mike announced he’d killed another cane toad.

Better: Mike spends his mornings behind the wheel of his hummer, patrolling for the pesky cane toads that swarm Australian roads.

***

Matrix Space: Angela was a meticulous bartender.

Better: At 2AM, Angela was invariably still behind the bar, pouring herself one last drink. Even with no audience, she shook the shaker above her head, like she was playing an ancient tambourine.

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