Bring ‘Em On!

It’s one thing to spend time thinking about your cast of characters–especially your primary roles of protagonist and antagonist. You design them. You add nuance and dimension to their personalities. You give them flaws and virtues. You choose their eye color, whether they have any distinguishing birthmarks, and how tall they are. You give them limps and quirks. You decide one will possess superpowers. You make another a mutant outcast. You cook up backgrounds, nefarious pasts, abused childhoods, prison sentences, or stints serving as a mercenary in Africa. You choose who is redeemable and who will fall into the pit of destruction.

Yes, spending time on character design is tremendous fun. But once you’ve done all that, plus assigned each cast member a dominant impression, it’s another thing to insert that character into your story in a unique and memorable way.

Don’t be stymied. Instead, go a bit theatrical.

Ever attend a play that’s had a successful run for a long period of time? The star–or a popular second lead–enters with extra panache. The audience roars with delight. The play pauses until the audience recovers from its outburst and settles down again. It might be only for a few seconds, but the experienced actor waits–teetering on the finely edged balance of maintaining character while acknowledging the cheers and applause. The actor has learned how to make an entrance with flair, and the audience loves it.

So, also, should your prose character make a dramatic entrance. You want your lead character especially to attract reader attention and interest. But even secondary characters can stand out in a story by the way they are brought in.

Avoid sneaking your characters into the story with next to no tags, without a name, with nothing that will make them ignite reader imagination. What’s the point of such a mousy story person? If you’re trying to be realistic, then you should understand that in prose realism equates to boring. What you want instead of realistic is plausible or credible. Just remember that those qualities do not cancel flamboyant, vibrant, and colorful.

Now there are multiple ways of introducing characters:

Description works okay if it’s brief, focused on dominant impression, and vivid, but it requires breaking viewpoint if used for the protagonist.

Introduction through presentation of habitat works for certain genres such as mysteries, where the sleuth prowls around a suspect’s home or work space with a search warrant. It can supply readers with a different perspective or insight into the character.

Discussion of a character about to enter the story for the first time works occasionally in humor or if it’s dramatically important to create reader curiosity and anticipation regarding the character yet to appear. In humorous stories, often an unreliable character will say disparaging comments in an effort to force a negative opinion about the person being introduced. Then, when the new character does appear, readers can see that the information related in dialogue is false. This is very much a specialized introduction method and not one that can be used often.

Introduction through character action can be memorable, dramatically charged, vivid, and effective. It is where the character comes onto the page like a stage actor:  exaggerated, tags waving, strongly presented, doing some action that is characteristic of his or her personality yet also advances the story.

Such entry action is unique to the individual and creates a lasting first impression compatible with the dominant impression you want to establish in your readership’s minds.

For example:  let’s say we want to introduce a character named Randolph. We have designed him to be timid, unassertive, nervous with his boss, easily intimidated, kind, intelligent, and risk-adverse. We have decided that Randolph–while brilliant at his job–becomes hopelessly inarticulate and ineffectual when face-to-face with his manager.

Here we have a dimensional character possessing some contradictory qualities. We want to introduce him memorably. What should we focus on first? His smarts and efficiency? Or his nervous babbling in meetings?

The answer is that it depends on two factors:  Randolph’s story role and the dominant impression you want to convey.

If, for example, the dominant impression is brilliant but underappreciated, then you need to show Randolph at work in his corporate cubicle, finishing up a successful CAD design that will shine in tomorrow’s presentation and finally convince his boss that Randolph belongs on the team.

However, if the dominant impression is twitchy fool, then you would introduce Randolph in an inept, stammering conversation with his boss that has him dropping his folder of papers, scrambling on the floor to recover them, knocking over the waste can, and failing to describe his design in a convincing manner.

The only way character entry action fails to make a memorable impression is when a writer is too timid in utilizing the technique. Whatever qualities you assign a character, exaggerate them. Be bold. Be large. Don’t mute a character because you’re unsure of yourself. Err on the side of vividness.

 

 

 

 

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Tag That Character

Character design is one of the more intriguing and fun aspects of the writing process. After all, we can invent our story people to suit ourselves. We can make our hero tall and lithe, our villain capable of tossing deadly wizard fire, and our minions a small army of tiny, red-eyed, spider-folk capable of telepathic communication.

However, design can become a tar pit of pending decisions. Should I give her red hair or blue? Should she have tattoos? If I make her afraid of heights, does that mean my story has to be set in the Alps?

A simple, basic guide to organizing those decisions is to focus on the following basics:

Dominant Impression

Memorable Introduction

Reinforcement

In this post, I’ll focus on dominant impression. This is where you create the appearance, personality, background, and goal of a character then boil it all down to one or two words, such as ruthless killer, sweet innocent, drama queen, clown, diva, swindler, warrior prince, responsible, box-thinker, rule breaker, etc.

If you want to start with a dominant impression and then create the appearance and personality to support it, that’s perfectly fine. But dominant impression keeps the character clear and easy for readers to visualize. It also helps writers stay on track since, when we’re trying to create dimensional characters, we may muddle them unintentionally and fail to achieve the effect we want.

To show dominant impression to readers, we tag our characters by assigning them behaviors, actions, and dialogue that will demonstrate their personality.

For example, if you wish to demonstrate nervous Nellie as a character’s dominant impression, think about this individual’s traits, habits, tics, and behavior. Chronic nervous indicators can include nail biting, fidgeting, clumsiness, restless pacing, pencil gnawing, muttering, rapid-fire speech patterns, and high-pitched laughter.

Each time your character uses one of these indicators (which I call tags of personality), you’ve reminded readers of the dominant impression without author intrusion or telling.

It should be noted that other types of tags include a character’s name, appearance, clothing and possessions, habitat, pattern or style of dialogue, and mannerisms.

Each helps to remind readers of who this character is–distinct and separate from other characters in the cast–while also providing useful information.

While you don’t want to overuse the same tag to the point of exhausting reader patience, a variety of tags should be utilized often. My rule is at least one tag per character per page. Just using the character’s name will satisfy that rule, and if I can reinforce dominant impression at least once on the page then I feel I’m keeping that character vivid and easy for readers to remember.

My next post will address vivid, memorable character introduction.

 

 

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FICTION FORMULA PLOTTING

Just an update on the forthcoming books. I have finished preliminary edits on both my new book on plotting and its companion workbook of drills and exercises. I have both manuscripts in for another round of proofreading, and then I’ll be busy with cover design and other marketing details.

Although these projects have gone more slowly than expected, I hope to have them available within the next few weeks.

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Movies: A MAJORITY OF ONE

Over the weekend, I stumbled across a quiet little movie from 1961 called A MAJORITY OF ONE. Starring Rosalind Russell and Alec Guinness, it deals with cultural and generational differences as a Jewish woman and a Japanese man develop a friendship.

Russell built much of her film career on roles where women broke the mold in some way, either by pursuing a profession (such as the reporter Tildy in HIS GIRL FRIDAY) or by being a free thinker in an era of rigid conformity (as Auntie Mame). In A MAJORITY OF ONE, she plays an older widow, a Russian-Jew that immigrated to America as a child and has spent her life in Brooklyn. Her only son died in WWII’s Pacific theater, and her daughter is now married to an up-and-coming young diplomat. When her son-in-law is posted to Japan, Bertha is persuaded to go there with the young couple. During the ship’s crossing, she meets a Japanese man–a widower whose son also died in WWII and his daughter, a nurse, died in a Hiroshima hospital. Despite a rocky start, Bertha and Mr. Asano overcome misunderstandings, bigotry, and wrong advice from her daughter to establish a friendship.

This is a gentle story, with a message against bigotry that’s in favor of keeping an open mind and relating to people as people and not common stereotypes. I think it’s remarkable to find a film dealing with an older couple just as the Hollywood studio system was crumbling and the industry’s focus shifted toward youth.

I was struck most by the courtesy reflected in the film. Even Bertha and her best friend Essie are unfailingly polite to each other. While that was common at the time, it reflects a layer of civility that we seldom encounter now. We are too casual for such formalities. We are too busy, too rushed, to take the time to compliment the ice bucket a friend is loaning us for the little dinner party we’re giving.

Of course, the film’s stance against bigotry is undercut by the fact that Alec Guinness was cast as a Japanese man. Modern critics, quick to decry the practice of yellowface casting, point out that the choice of Guinness (never mind how good he is) is itself an act of Hollywood bigotry.

So I thought about that issue. The character Charlie Chan, created in the novels by Earl Derr Biggers and appearing on film for the first time in 1931, was designed to present the American moviegoers with a positive Chinese character to balance the portrayal of all Chinese men as an evil Fu Manchu. The role of Chan was played by three successive Caucasian actors–first by the Swedish actor Warner Oland (considered the best)–then by Sidney Toler, and finally by Roland Winters. Interestingly enough, Chan’s sons were played by Asian actors.

As for novelist Pearl S. Buck, she insisted that the film version of her book, THE GOOD EARTH, be played by Asian or Asian-American actors, but Hollywood could not deliver. Instead, big star Paul Muni was cast in the leading role. Who would play his wife, O-lan? Anna May Wong, the first Chinese star on the big screen and a strikingly beautiful actress who had started her film career in 1922, lobbied hard for the role. However, the Hays Code of censorship’s rules forbade her casting. Muni (being white) had to be cast with a white wife. Therefore, German-born actress Luise Rainer was given the role, and she played it exquisitely. Anna May Wong was offered instead the role of an evil dragon lady in the movie, but she turned it down because she didn’t want the only authentic Asian actress in the movie to play a villain.

In the 1932 film SHANGHAI EXPRESS, staring Marlene Dietrich, Anna May Wong plays a very strong supporting role in a film about prostitutes–both Asian and Caucasian–and manages to steal at least part of the movie away from Dietrich. But her role is secondary, not a lead part.

THE DRAGON SEED of 1944 improbably features Katharine Hepburn and Turhan Bey as an Asian couple. And in 1946, Rex Harrison was cast as the king in ANNA AND THE KING OF SIAM opposite Irene Dunne. An even bigger stretch of the imagination is Lee J. Cobb playing the Siamese prime minister in THE KING AND I with Yul Brynner. No amount of squinting and heavy eye makeup could make Cobb look Asian.

But I think the worst offense among all yellowface casting has to be the choice of John Wayne as Genghis Khan in the 1956 flop, THE CONQUEROR. Suffice it to say that this film is listed among the fifty worst movies ever made.

Hollywood did not set out to be bigoted. It did not intend to offend. It has always been driven by economics, and although in the 1920s Asian actors were sometimes utilized in major roles, the films that succeeded featured white actors as the leads. And so to guarantee box-office success, filmmakers moved Asian actors to supportive and minor parts with white stars playing the starring roles.

As for Alec Guinness, who spent six months in Japan observing the culture in order to prepare for his role in A MAJORITY OF ONE, is he to be blamed for taking the part of Mr. Asano?

Is Rosalind Russell to be criticized for playing a Jewess when that was not her actual religion?

If we can’t accept that–because it isn’t authentic–where is the justification for the producers of the BBC television program MERLIN to use a rainbow cast including blacks and Asian actors to play pre-medieval British roles? That’s hardly authentic either.

All I know is that–issues aside–A MAJORITY OF ONE remains a charming film that requires you to use your imagination and accept the casting. Just as you have to use your imagination and accept that Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon could not even remotely pass themselves off as women in SOME LIKE IT HOT.

It’s called “make-believe.” And while that doesn’t excuse the bigotry shown in a film thematically opposed to bigotry, at least the play ran and the movie was made and audiences were exposed to its message.

Give A MAJORITY OF ONE a chance. It has sweet things to say about how far kindness, honesty, good manners, and an open mind can take you.

 

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Quote for the Day

“Nothing will stop you from being creative as effectively as the fear of making a mistake.”

–John Cleese

How’s that for a piece of insight from a highly creative actor and writer? Fear is an enormous barrier, a hindrance that some of us never seem to move past. It doesn’t just affect newbies writing their first few stories. It can strike a writer at any time, at any stage in a professional career.

Let’s say you’re inspired by a new plot idea, one that excites you. As you plot it, however, doubts creep in. Is this plausible? Yeah, seems to be. Can I do it? Not sure, but I think so. Has anything like it been done before? Not that I recall. Is there a market for it? Uh, maybe not. Should I try it? Probably not. Why did I think it would work? No editor is going to buy this. Better put it aside for now.

How many good story ideas are lost forever because we’re afraid to write them? If they’re new and truly different, they don’t fit the market. And so we back away. Or we follow editorial hesitation and abandon what might make us a star.

Every huge hit or new genre in commercial fiction begins because a writer dared to be different.

Tom Clancy was an insurance guy that channeled his obsession with all things military into a novel that he wrote in his basement in his spare time. It was an era when the U.S. military was understaffed and underfunded. It had acquired a reputation for ineptitude. It was struggling and unappreciated. But Clancy dared to be different. He admired our people in uniform and wanted to celebrate what our military did right. Whether he ignored his fears or was unaware of the market, he wrote The Hunt for Red October and pushed it into the market in an unconventional way. It worked. The military embraced it first, then President Reagan read and praised it. Which meant every CO of every American military base read it. Word of mouth spread to the general public, and Clancy’s career was launched.

Jim Butcher admired the novels of Laurell K. Hamilton back in the fledgling days of urban fantasy. He wanted very much to emulate what she was doing, yet he came up with his own unique spin by inventing a wizard private detective. He combined noir mystery with fantasy, and forged a successful path for himself.

Alexander McCall Smith spent many years living in Botswana. After returning to Scotland, he created a female detective called Precious Ramotswe, the first lady PI in her community. Her cases are entwined with philosophical musings and ethical dilemmas; that, plus the African setting, are unlike anything else out there. Smith’s fans are now legion.

If any of these authors had allowed fear or doubt to hold them back, think of our loss.

I realize a lot of writing advice–mine included–focuses on the market, its ever-changing trends, and what editors or readers want. That’s necessary but writers also have to be willing to take risks and write what lies inside them. It is never easy. It can be downright scary, but even so, we have to trust ourselves and our innate story sense.

As for fear of the writing itself … years ago, I tried to coach a student with considerable talent, but she had made up her mind that every word she wrote had to be perfect. She was determined that her “first novel” be of bestseller quality. Now any writer should know that a first draft is a rough draft. It’s not precious. It’s not perfect. It will undergo many changes, tweaks, or rewrites before it’s ready to put before the public. Stubbornly, however, she clung to her fear of failure. She clung so hard that she could not accept constructive criticism or feedback of any kind. She wrote one chapter and quit, driven away by her fear of writing anything she perceived to be a mistake.

My view is, how can you ever learn or improve if you’re afraid to make mistakes? You have to try, fall short, try again, still fall short, keep trying in new ways, until you master it.

Years ago, I watched my small puppy try to climb the back porch steps. He happened to be a problem-solving breed, independent and stubborn. He made up his doggie mind that he would climb those steps. But his legs were too short. He could stretch enough to place his front paws on the bottom step, but he couldn’t wiggle the rest of himself onto it. So he would jump and jump with his hindquarters, to no avail. Except the following week–still trying–he got a hind foot on the step and was up. He had grown a little bigger and a little stronger. He immediately reached for the second step of three, and fell through the gap in the boards. Once he regained his breath from that thump, he went at it again. My point is that he never gave up until he mastered those steps. He was not afraid to fail, and he stuck with his objective until he achieved it.

When doubts sprout in your mind like weeds, what is their source? Is it the voice of some family member that has mocked you for even daring to dream of writing? Is it a memory of someone in a critique group that brutally eviscerated you in front of everyone? Is it your own inner critic at work–tearing you down psychologically before you have a chance to try?

Who–and what–holds you back?

And when–and how–will you break free?

As Franklin D. Roosevelt so famously said in his first inaugural address:  “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

 

 

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Quote for the Day

“The secret of getting ahead is getting started.”

— Mark Twain

 

How simple is that? How wise? Because he was absolutely right. Too often, people allow themselves to be intimidated when it comes to writing, or even starting a manuscript of any length.

I see twenty-year-old students afraid to write because they might do it wrong.

I meet seventy-year-olds afraid to write because they think it’s too late.

I chat with thirty-year-old moms afraid to write because it’s been so long since they took a writing course and now that their children are starting school and they finally have some spare time, they believe they are too rusty to try it.

I deal with fifty-year-old divorcees afraid to write because although they’ve always wanted to they no longer believe in themselves or in reaching for their dreams.

And I coach myself every time I’m about to start a new project, talking myself past being afraid to write it because I know I can do it if I’ll only try.

Early in my career as a novelist, I wrote books that I’m proud of and books that are quick, disposable reads that paid the bills. Either way, I wrote a lot of them and they were published. When I look back over my publication record, I am sometimes astonished at what I accomplished. But when I was a starry-eyed kid of nineteen and twenty and twenty-one, getting my first agent and my first publishing contract, I didn’t know I couldn’t do it.

And that’s the spirit we have to carry within us every day. We can’t know–or think about–what we cannot do.

We just have to set our sights on our objective . . . and start.

 

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The Censorship of Sensitivity

After a summer spent working on a new book on plotting, I am ready to begin a fiction project. I have been weighing the merits of writing a western versus a science fiction story. Not so much one instead of the other, but more of which one to begin first.

The western idea presently is developed more than the SF, largely because I plotted it at the beginning of my summer break, and it’s more ready to go. However, I set it aside in May to do the nonfiction manuscript. Now, especially in light of recent controversies and riots, I find myself pausing. Is my proposed manuscript insensitive to anyone? Is my story premise going to offend anyone? I don’t want to denigrate a person, a gender, or an ethnicity. I want people to enjoy my stories, not be hurt by them.

So I’ve begun to second-guess my idea. And now I’m second-guessing my second-guessing. My artistic temperament has flared up. I feel constricted and rebellious. Instead of concentrating on my characters and story events, here I am wondering if I’m going to hurt some random reader’s feelings by something a character does or says.

After all, a western has a historical setting. Behavior toward minorities was anything but sensitive in the 1870s.  Consequently, now there yawns before me the chasm of indecision. Do I stick with historical accuracy? Or do I sanitize history lest the wrath of someone come down on my head?

In a day and age so crazy-sensitive that some people think it’s wrong for a Caucasian to cook a burrito, here I am, in effect, censoring myself. I can ditch my western and just write the SF story instead, but does that make me a coward? I can toss my plot and start over, but does that do justice to a solid premise? I can jettison accuracy or omit an ethnicity altogether, but does that respect the setting?

And so I find myself tied in a Gordian knot of indecision and dithering.

When I was in high school, my Civics class taught us that our individual freedoms ended where another’s began. In other words, I have the right to say what I please, unless my words hurt another individual deliberately. I have the right to walk where I wish, unless I trespass on another person’s property. An individual has the right to criticize town property, but not destroy what taxpayers have paid for. A person has the right to conduct a civic protest, but not smash windows.

There is a quote in my campus office that says, “Closing books shuts out ideas.” It was issued in support of banned books and celebrating the freedom to read.

But if writers are shut down at the source, unsure or too timid to write what grips their imaginations, will there even be books to ban?

My mind goes to HUCKLEBERRY FINN by Mark Twain. This book has stirred controversy through much of the twentieth century. Yet was Twain trying to be insensitive? I don’t think so. His focus was elsewhere. His words, dialects, dialogue, and comments reflected the times in which he wrote. They were accurate to the era. They mirrored the general attitudes of the culture and place Twain knew. Does that hurt some readers today? Yes it does. Should the book be banned? Should we say, “Twain never should have written this racist book” and hate him because he did? No we shouldn’t. We don’t have to force anyone to read it, but neither do we have to avoid facing the hurt it has engendered or avoid discussing that openly.

When did the public become so weak that it cannot bear to face the mistakes and wrongness of the past? When did the public become so fearful that it cannot accept any opinion but its own? When did the public become so spineless that it allows suppression of expression and wants only carefully edited history lest anyone be embarrassed or offended?

If I decided that I wanted to write about the Mississippi River delta in the nineteenth-century, what would I mention? What would I leave out? Must I tiptoe past so-called trigger words or omit them altogether?

Writers of modern children’s fiction are facing such issues daily. They want to include diverse characters, yet they must avoid descriptive racial tags. Are there ways to do this? Somewhat, of course, but it’s challenging to say the least.

Writers of women’s fiction might long to address the topic of weight and body image, yet will they inadvertently generate fat shame if they do so? It’s a statistical fact that Americans are becoming increasingly overweight–to the endangerment of their health–yet no one is allowed today to criticize another individual regarding obesity. While fat shame can spawn extreme reactions such as anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, is it such a terrible thing if it keeps a mother from allowing her child to overeat and emulate Honey Boo-Boo?

How suppressed should writers be in the cause of sensitivity? I remember a time when people said what they thought and everyone rolled with the punch. Should writers be more sensitive, or should readers be less?

I know; I know–it’s all about balance. Which seems to be in short supply these days.

Meanwhile, I have a western to sanitize.

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