A sizeable portion of unpublished stories I’ve been reading recently involve their characters travelling somewhere they’ve never visited before. In a couple of cases, this was due to relocation, but in most the characters were tourists. Most of these stories bored me, even when the characters were travelling to places I had never seen so the boredom wasn’t down to familiarity. Usually a tourist visiting a place you’re familiar with sees it with a fresh set of eyes or queries something you’ve taken for granted. That was the problem, none of these travelling characters were seeing their scenery with fresh eyes. I was bored because I felt as if I was reading a tourist brochure and it made me query why I was reading the story.
How do writers avoid their characters sounding like tourist brochures?
Why is your character making this journey?
If they are relocating, are they anxious about it or keen to leave their current location behind? If they’re anxious, they will notice signs of authority such as police uniforms, street signposts, fire escapes, narrow alleyways, how crowded/empty the streets are. If optimistic, they’ll notice open spaces, bars and cafes, places they’ll want to visit.
If it’s a holiday or business trip, how prepared are they? Do they see it as a break, change to recharge, or is it a source of anxiety? Is your character the type to triple check they’ve packed their passport, have a packed itinerary with no chance of spare time or have already checked out the best locations for Instagram photos before they get there? Or is your character more likely to sling a few outfits in a weekend bag and plan to figure out their plan when they get there?
Are they travelling alone?
If so, did they organise the trip themselves or did someone else organise it for them? Do they spent the journey picturing themselves at their destination or worrying about what they’ve left behind?
If not, how do they feel about their travelling companions? If a business trip, are their fellow travellers talking about business non-stop or do they see it as a break and chance to relax? If with family members, how responsible for the others does your character feel? Is your character the one checking timetables, making sure everyone sits near each other and is comfortable? Or does someone else in the group do this, giving your character time to daydream?
Do you need to include the journey at all?
If the journey’s boring and uneventful, skip it. If disaster strikes or your character has an epiphany, include it.
When your character arrives
Are they due to meet someone and does that someone turn up on time with a welcome and reassurance or are they late and hostile? Does your character want to sight-see straightaway or head to a hotel and unpack? Is the place they’re staying better or worse than they expected? A hotel room might be gloomy or bright and airy, does it match or contrast with your character’s mood?
Character A in story A visits attraction 1, attraction 2 and attraction 3. They take some photos, pick the best to upload to social media, take a break for a coffee and then visit attraction 4. Next day they do the same, except they visit attraction 5, attraction 6 and attraction 7, saving attraction 8, attraction 9 and attraction 10 for the day after. They give as much insight into what they’re seeing as a tourist information brochure. The visits go smoothly and nothing untoward happens. Nothing dramatic happens until they visit attraction 11.
Character B in story B goes to visit attraction 1, supposedly the most popular tourist attraction, but finds it closed for refurbishment. They check their schedule and decide to move on to attraction 2, figuring they can stay longer and move on to attraction 3 at the scheduled time. At attraction 2, there’s a huge crowd and they can’t get close enough to the attraction to get a good look. When they push their way through the crowd, the attraction’s smaller then they thought it would be and the shadows make it impossible to get a decent photo. They push their way back out of the crowd and get to the bus stop to move on to attraction 3 only find their wallet’s been stolen. They slump to the kerb. Not speaking the local language, they see no point in reporting the theft. Storm clouds gather.
Character C in story C picks attraction 1 because of their interest in the artifacts/ history of the attraction and finds it exceeds their expectations, moreover they meet someone who seems interested in them and agrees to a dinner date. Their date then tells them an amusing story not in the guidebooks and offers to show them the real treasures of the place, taking them off the beaten tourist paths. Not only do they learn more about the place then they would have done through an official guide, they learn even more about their date. Character C hurries back to their hotel, eager to ensure they look their best and carry on their earlier conversation. By the end of the date, they decide that love at first sight really is a thing.
Which story would you read and why?
I bet none of you chose story A or at least you’d have skipped the sightseeing episodes in the hope that something really did happen at attraction 11.
What’s missing from story A (at least in the first 10 attractions) is the character. We don’t know their motivations for picking the sites they visit, we don’t know how they feel or what they observe at those attractions and they’re doing typical tourist actions. Moreover, the visits aren’t moving the plot on or laying foundations for future drama. Not readers would bother sticking around to find out what happens at attraction 11.
In stories where the character relocates, some writers chose to start with the main character in their original location, explain the need for relocation, describe the journey (often boring unless something happens that’s relevant to the story) and have their character arrive, often using bland observations so readers aren’t seeing the journey though the character’s eyes. Of course the story actually starts at the point of relocation so the explanation about the need for relocation is backstory and the writer’s started in the wrong place. An error they’ve compounded by making the journey boring and lacking in insight.