Elements of Critique: Zaftig

Here we are at the end of the A to Z Blog Challenge. This year, April caught me by surprise.

On March 30th or 31st, I saw a reference to the challenge and remembered how “fun” it was last year. I toyed with the idea of participating, and realized I could do a series on critiquing writing. Topics sprang to mind in a torrent, and I prepared my entire A to Z list in minutes…

Except for the Z.

What writing concept or element to critique falls under Z? I know, I can suggest people write “zany” things or whatever, but that felt lame.

I popped the Merriam-Webster dictionary app open and scrolled to Z to see if anything sparked an idea. And “zaftig” is the first thing that caught my eye, because I have no idea what that means.

“Zaftig” means (of a woman) slightly fat in an attractive way, pleasingly plump. A safe term might be “full-bodied.”

It comes by way of Yiddish from the German word for “sap.” Think of it as that which sets dead wood and wooden characters apart from something alive and meaningful.

Full-bodied, lively characters and meaningful articles are something I look for in critique.

For non-fiction, zaftig might mean that interesting angles are covered. When writing, I might have several analogies or personal recollections that would fit a given topic. But which of them are unique to the average reader? Which would present the most vivid picture?

I’ve tried over the course of this project to come up with examples that capture a reader’s interest as well as communicate a thought. I want to write something full-bodied and thorough, not emaciated and weak.

Word choice can reflect a “zaftig” mindset. Does the writer choose plain vanilla phrases to give the bare minimum detail, or do they select powerful words that evoke imagery and feeling in the reader? The letters on our screens and the ink on our pages should be ‘sappy’ — carrying life and energy to the reader.

And characters, most of all, embody this “zaftig” concept I look for when critiquing fiction. Are the actors in a story realistic people with dreams and goals or are they cardboard placeholders meant to call up a stereotype that will be forgotten one page later?

Our main characters usually get a lot of attention and thought. But what about the villains? Are they full-bodied, three-dimensional, reasonable and logical in their motivations? Or are they Snidely Whiplash, twisting an oiled mustache and cackling while tying yet another damsel in distress to the train tracks?

The villain should have some kind of redeeming or likable quality. It’s a rare person who has none at all. They should be as believable and thought-out as the hero, or they look like a caricature instead of a character.

Supporting characters are important too. Fictional worlds deserve to be populated with zaftig people, not the literary equivalent of Photoshopped crowds.

When I was young, my pastor always wore a three-piece suit to church. That was the only way I could picture him. One Saturday we drove past his house and I saw him mowing his yard in a T-shirt and shorts. I couldn’t believe my eyes; I thought he should be mowing in a suit because that’s the only way I knew him.

That’s what can happen to our supporting characters. They become one facet of their personality, to the exclusion of everything else. I think of friends with whom I only interact on Facebook or social media, compared to those with whom I experience the ups and downs of life in person. I “know” the Facebook friend, but I only see one dimension of them. It’s nothing like being face-to-face on a regular basis.

So I look for that character depth when critiquing writing. Or more likely, I note its absence.

For example, in my current project, I had two women watching the protagonist attempt to use divine healing. One was the motherly, kind-hearted, supportive encourager. The other was the scowling, stern, follow-the-rules, dissatisfied stickler. And they were going to maintain those roles for the foreseeable future.

They became wooden and lifeless, cardboard stereotypes.

When someone pointed this out to me, I realized I could switch their roles.

In a later scene, both women witness the protagonist using forbidden magic in an attempt to save lives. The motherly encourager becomes horrified and rejects the protagonist. The scowling stickler sees the pragmatic value of the deed, and approves of the choice. It’s a minor change, but it keeps the characters from staying in established and expected ruts.

Our writing is meant to take the reader somewhere, and our story arcs should force characters down a new path: Not one populated with faceless Facebook “friend” caricatures and deep grooves dug into the well-traveled route, but one with full-bodied characters and evocative writing to blaze an uncut trail into the unknown.

That sounds lively and interesting. That’s what I’m looking for, from those whose work I critique, and even more, from myself.

Thanks for hanging with me for these A to Z entries. On top of these posts, I have three extra elements of critique I will be adding to this series, covering the difference between subjective and objective advice, being a good participant, and the basics of an orderly critique group.

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