Tag Archives: characterization

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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Story Genius: Agatha Christie and Billy Wilder

As many of you know, I’m a rabid old-movie buff. This week was exciting because I showed my students a 1957 courtroom thriller called WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION. Based on a play by Agatha Christie, the idea was subsequently translated to the screen by genius writer/director/producer Billy Wilder. Christie supplied the plot and the dynamite twists; Wilder fleshed out her characters. (I think I read somewhere that Christie was paid about $450,000 for the film rights. Not bad in 1950s-era money! Even today’s money would do.)

Over the years, whenever I have coached students wanting to write a courtroom drama, nine times out of ten they make the same mistake:  they establish the defendant as their protagonist. In theory, this should work. After all, the protagonist is supposed to have the most at stake and be at the heart of the story.

Well, the defendant has the most at stake, but otherwise is stuck passively in a jail cell, unable to drive the story action. Therefore, the defendant can not be an effective protagonist.

In WITNESS FOR THE PROSECUTION, the protagonist is Sir Wilfrid, an experienced and wily defense barrister considered to be the best in the Old Bailey, but he is recovering from a serious heart attack and his health remains uncertain. His doctors have forbidden him to conduct any more defense trials, yet he cannot resist taking on the case of Leonard Vole who has been accused of murder on circumstantial evidence.

Wilder, directing the film, is smart enough to take his time. We don’t meet the accused, Vole, right away. Instead, Sir Wilfrid is introduced first and shown pitted against his nurse who is determined to make him follow doctor’s orders to take it easy, get plenty of rest, and avoid cigars and brandy. Their conflict starts in the first movie frame and continues to arc over the entire duration of the movie. And that arc about whether Sir Wilfrid will achieve his goal of resuming his trial career is the spine of the story. The primary subplot centers on the trial itself and attempts to gather sufficient evidence to exonerate Sir Wilfrid’s client. And although the trial is gripping–not to mention twisty, thanks to the devious imagination of Dame Agatha–it is the characters that make this film stand out.

Therefore, it is these characters that I use as classroom examples of design, introduction, and revelation of true nature. They have vivid and distinctive entry actions, usually in plot conflict or in dramatic contradiction to audience expectation. They wave numerous distinctive tags–e.g. the nurse Miss Plimsoll in her uniform, carrying her small medical bag, wielding her syringe for Sir Wilfrid’s calcium injections; and Sir Wilfrid’s monocle, his wig, his thermos of coco, his pills, and his cigars. Each of them with possibly the exception of the murder victim is designed with complexity. True nature is revealed and concealed in various ways. At first we think of Sir Wilfrid as a sick old man long past his prime, even a bit of a mischievous buffoon who is rude and unnecessarily gruff, but then we learn how intelligent, how clever, how determined to save his client, how wily, and how caring he is. The characters’ clashing goals and motivations bring all of them to life.

Although several characters are introduced through characteristic entry action, some are brought in differently. One such alternative method is through discussion, whereby two characters are talking about a third character about to appear in the story for the first time. The introduction of the defendant’s wife is done through character discussion. Sir Wilfrid, before meeting her, makes an assumption about her that proves to be entirely erroneous the moment she first appears. His mistake emphasizes our dominant impression of her vividly and unforgettably.

The mystery clues are planted through dialogue and character behavior. In watching the film for the first time, you sense something is off and yet you find yourself doubting your judgment. Is it the actor’s performance? Is the character lying? What’s wrong? As Sir Wilfrid says in frustration, “It’s too symmetrical. Something is wrong, but I can’t put my finger on it!”

I love how the plot is put together. There is comedy and broad exaggeration. There is audience manipulation. There is the buildup of anticipation and the creation of suspense. The two ticking clocks–Sir Wilfrid’s worsening health and the trial’s verdict–keep your attention hooked to the finale. Even the flashback–always a risk to pacing–works beautifully in planting more clues and pointing to motivations.

I don’t know how many times I’ve watched this film. I don’t care, because every time I am struck anew with how well-written it is, how well-plotted and paced it is, how well-acted it is, and how well-directed it is without any reliance on fancy-schmancy special effects. The sets are limited and very tight–reflecting its origins as a play. I’ve read a modern-day review that pokes a hole in the storyline, criticizing it for allowing Vole to exclaim and interrupt during the trial, but I don’t know enough about British courtroom procedures in the 1950s to understand if this is a valid criticism or not. All I perceive as a writer is that Vole’s comments serve a specific plot purpose, and from that restricted perspective they work.

Beyond my enjoyment of the movie’s skillfully employed techniques, I love the reactions of my students. At first they’re delighted to watch a movie in class instead of sitting through a dull lecture. But then they realize it’s an old movie. Even worse, it’s in black and white. They’ve never heard of any of the actors–Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, Tyrone Power, Elsa Lanchester–and the cars are weird, the clothes are weird, the setting is a London from an era they don’t recognize so it’s also weird. I watch them stiffen in their seats, rolling their eyes and sighing a little. The movie starts with the comedic bit they find cheesy. I can feel them wishing they could ditch class and check their text messages. I know they’re wondering how long this torture will take.

(This time, one brash young man actually asked me if we were going to watch the whole movie. “Yes,” I replied firmly. “You have to stay with it to the end.”)

And then, as always, there comes that moment when I sense a change in the room. The silent intensity in the class tells me they’re absorbed. I know the movie has grabbed my young students by their throats. They are captured by the story question. They want to know what will happen and how it will turn out. And that capture has nothing to do with technicolor, a soaring soundtrack, special effects, wild stunts, exploding buildings, or CGI. It has everything to do with plot and characters–with story.

And that is what writing should be about.

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Fire and Passion

You come across a book by two authors you’ve never read before. You read the first one, and it’s like finding treasure. The characters spring to life on every page. The action is exciting. The suspense is hair-raising. You can’t bear the anticipation of reaching the story climax and yet you can’t stop turning pages. And when you reach the ending, you’re both exhilarated and sad that it’s over. You click online to see if this book is part of a series because you want more.

Then you read the second book you purchased. Your reaction is meh. It’s not bad, but it’s not good either. You find yourself trying to like the characters, but they’re merely okay. You can’t love them. You’re struggling to care about whether they’ll succeed. The story moves competently through its paces, and when you finish you’re mostly relieved that it’s over. Definitely you won’t seek any more of this author’s work.

Besides allowing for a reader’s personal taste, what’s the difference? Two authors with equal numbers of publications. Two authors with equal amounts of professional experience. Why is one writing copy that’s alive and one writing copy that’s flat?

Are their ideas that unequal?

Probably not. Very likely the difference lies not in the story premise but in their approach to their material. Writer One put her heart into her book. She wrote it because she had a passion for the story and her characters. She lived and breathed the emotions. Writer Two wrote because she had a contractual deadline to meet. She outlined a story in a competent way. She designed characters because they either fit a publisher’s guidelines or because she’s found certain characteristics sell better than others. She put her her characters into challenging situations, and then chose appropriate words to convey their emotional reactions.

One writer wrote with her heart. The other writer wrote with her mind.

Now in certain genres, such as hard science fiction or puzzle mysteries, the mind is what’s most needed. These books are focused on the story problem to be solved. They are not relying on intense character internalization and growth.

But for most genres, the heart is vital. Emotion in characters brings them alive. The writer must care about the character and the issue first. If the writer cares, then the character involved will care. If the character cares, then the reader will care. Investing emotion into a situation means stronger motivation, stronger attempts, stronger conflict, stronger confrontations, stronger reactions, and stronger determination to prevail from the story people.

Sure, writers have to think about their plots and work through the development of outlines, but once that foundation is laid, writers must then write the story from inside the protagonist’s viewpoint. That is what’s made to appear to drive the story forward.

But if a writer attempts to write fiction from the outside, the character will always seem flat and the authorial hand will sometimes be too evident in moving a puppet character here and there.

 

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Bring on the Sidekick

Which character role is your favorite to create and write about?

The protagonist?

The villain?

The mentor?

I love sidekicks. Something about them just makes me happy when I write. I don’t care if they’re good, evil, or somewhere in between. They are so useful in advancing plots.

They can be lazy creatures or as perennially busy as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. They can bumble and stumble, as comic relief. They can be smarter than the hero. (Think of P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and his manservant Jeeves.) They can think they’re smarter than the hero. (Think of Baldric and his “cunning plans” in the British TV series BLACKADDER.) They can be as loyal as Marshal Dillon’s deputy Festus. Or they can be shifty and unreliable, like the dognappers hired by Cruella de Ville. And, just as Darth Vader proves to his boss the emperor in RETURN OF THE JEDI, they are capable of changing their allegiance in a crisis.

Generally, sidekicks serve stories as the workerbees of the story. They possess skills and knowledge. Others gather intel or solve problems. If they are injured, kidnapped, killed, or incapacitated, the plot stakes go up because things become worse for the beleaguered hero.

The story role of sidekick can work for either the hero or the villain, because even the bad guys (and gals) need minions, too.

As a writer, I favor the sidekicks because I can relax with them and give my imagination free rein. So I like to assign quirks to the sidekick that might not be appropriate for a protagonist. Or make them grumblers, who argue, mutter, and disapprove of whatever the hero is about to do — while still pitching in and helping to make it possible. With that kind of personality, another — albeit mild — level of conflict can be injected into the story.

As a reader, I suppose I like best the sidekicks who are buddies. They have a history with the protagonist that reaches into the backstory. Maybe the characters grew up together. Maybe they forged a bond of friendship through a work crisis or in war’s dangers. But their relationship is stronger than a common cause or an employer/employee situation. They are not equals, but they are firm friends.

In the mysteries by Dorothy Sayers, the manservant Bunter works for Lord Peter Wimsey, but he’s more than a servant, more than an investigative assistant capable of taking photographs or carrying fingerprint powder. He served in the army with Lord Peter during WWI, and he best understands and knows how to cope with Lord Peter’s difficulties with shellshock. Although the two men live in two very different social levels, their bond is strong.

In Dashiell Hammett’s novel, THE GLASS KEY, Paul and Al have been friends since boyhood. Paul is a rough-around-the edges political boss, and Al is his trusty right arm. Even when the men’s friendship is threatened, Al goes to heroic lengths to save Paul’s neck.

Now, in the books you’ve read and the movies you’ve seen, who are your favorite sidekicks? Can you name the ones you’ve found most memorable? Why? What about them has appealed to you most?

Do they play only the sidekick role? Or do you prefer secondary characters who combine roles, such as sidekick and romantic interest or sidekick and confidant?

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Shortcuts to Character Design

For those of us who don’t arise with the morning lark with a full-blown character in mind, courtesy of a dream, character design can sometimes be intimidating.

After all, there are so many details to consider — from what this fellow looks like, to how many siblings he grew up with, to his years of military service, to his self-concept, etc. In previous posts, I’ve delved into numerous aspects of design to consider. (And in my forthcoming book, THE FANTASY FICTION FORMULA, there are a staggering number of questions that can help writers shape complex story people.) For the unwary writer, however, character design can become a tar pit of procrastination equally as dangerous as setting research.

After all, what if you don’t want to write a multi-volume epic? What if you’re intending instead to tackle a short story or novella?

Do you really want to be sidetracked into generating an elaborate, thousand-word background dossier for the protagonist of a two-thousand-word story?

Perhaps not!

Here are four shortcuts to utilize when you want to create a character quickly, or to deepen a character you already have:

FLAW

Your character should come with a built-in drawback or something inside that needs repair. The plot of your story will exacerbate this flaw enough to bring it out into the open, where the character can’t ignore it, conceal it, or deny it anymore.

Perhaps your character can’t commit to a new relationship because of trust issues. Perhaps your character is too stubborn and won’t accept change, good or bad. Perhaps your character is trying to overcome the temptation to embezzle from the company she works for.

FEAR

What is your character’s secret worry? What is vulnerable inside your character? Maybe it’s something from your character’s past that’s been kept hidden for years. Maybe it’s a fear of failure. Or maybe — like Indiana Jones — it’s a fear of snakes.

Whatever the fear may be, the story circumstances of your plot should put the character there, facing it, by the story’s climax.

DESIRE

What does your character want most of all? This element speaks more to motivation and a psychological/emotional goal than simply being the plot’s McGuffin. Harry Potter chases after the sorcerer’s stone, but inside he really wants to belong, to have a family that loves him.

OPPONENT

Who is your character’s enemy? Who stands in your character’s way? Who is determined to thwart your character’s desire, push your character into the situation she most fears, and take advantage of your character’s flaw?

Obviously you will have to flesh out a few details beyond these four elements, but use them as a foundation. Start with them and you should find the other details — such as name, hair color, and favorite foods — falling quickly into place.

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Love and Smother

How long have you known your characters in your current writing project?

Did you create them recently? Or have they been your companions for a very long time?

Perhaps a character came to you in the long distance of your memory and inspired you to build a story for him or her. Since then, have you created an entire world for this character to inhabit? And if so, how long have you been living there? A few months? Or several years?

If you and this character have been cohabiting for YEARS, then it’s time to re-evaluate the situation by asking yourself some questions:

a) Why are you still writing about this same character?

If it’s because you’re writing a series, fine. Good for you.

If it’s because you’re still writing the countless draft of the same manuscript that you began in 1983, then it’s time to try something new.

b) What about this character fascinates you so much?

If the character is nuanced, multi-dimensional, complex, fascinating, and dynamic, fine. If you have such a character and your story is stuck, chances are you haven’t developed sufficient writing skills worthy of your creation.

However, if you’re clinging to this character from a psychological or emotional need only, then it’s time to date a new protagonist.

c) Is this character based on a real person?

If you’ve gleaned a few personality traits from various people you know and combined them into one invented individual, okay.

If you’ve based this character solely on one real person or someone that experienced the plot events you’re trying to write about, then you’re going to be hindered or inhibited from writing your story to its best dramatic potential.

d) When a writing coach gives you constructive criticism about changing this character, do you become defensive or angry?

If you’re acting like a mama bear defending her cub, that hostility is a sure indication that you’ve grown too attached to the character, and the character is now smothering your creativity. It’s possible to become rooted in stone, too rigid to accept change.

It can be hard to break up with a protagonist you’ve cherished too long. Perhaps this imaginary individual was part of your first experience with creative inspiration. Perhaps this imaginary individual led you to becoming a writer.

You don’t have to stop cherishing this character in order to move on. You aren’t going to be a failure because you’ve never satisfactorily written this character’s story. You aren’t betraying this character just because you create another one.

You aren’t killing the character or destroying the character in any way. But you shouldn’t let your fascination with him or her impede your progress or growth as a writer.

When we become too enamored of a character yet we can’t complete that person’s story, we become stalled in a creative corner. In such cases, we don’t always realize what’s happened. We aren’t always aware that we’ve constructed a protective shield over the character, a shield that prevents us from altering the character’s behavior or even the plot.

Such a situation becomes a quagmire, especially if the character is based on a real person. You’re unwilling to change the character because that wouldn’t be what she’s really like, and yet until or unless you do, the story will remain stuck.

Keep in mind that real life and fiction aren’t the same thing. Fiction is art. It can mirror reality. It can replicate reality. But it’s never identical to reality or a true duplication of it. Things that happen in the real world may seem completely unbelievable on the page.

Solutions:
1) Remember that you’re the author. You’re in charge. You can create or delete a character. The character never controls you.

2) Set the character and your stalled story aside. If you feel as though you’re abandoning it, think of this move as a temporary shift to a new idea.

3) Divide your weekly writing time equally between the old character and plot and the new ones. For example, work on old story Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and new story on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Gradually apportion more days to the new story.

4) Even if you don’t much care for a new protagonist, play fair and give this character a chance. Devise personality traits, a background, tags of appearance and behavior, goals, and true nature. If it feels awkward, reassure yourself that you’re conducting drill exercises.

Practicing and experimenting with “temporary” characters is a better way to hone your craft anyway. Your cherished character isn’t threatened, and you don’t have to feel defensive.

5) Create one new protagonist a week. Sooner or later, you’ll invent one that ignites a spark of interest inside you. Write a short story featuring that protagonist.

6) If you still like the protagonist after completing a short story, then ask yourself if you could expand that story into a novel.

You will be on your way toward new growth as a writer.

You won’t feel defensive and threatened.

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Bonding with Your Characters

The relationship your readers feel for your characters shouldn’t be left to chance. You’re in charge of how readers respond to your story people.

Or you should be.

We want readers to either love or hate our characters. What we don’t want is a “meh” reaction. Or even worse, “Who? I don’t remember her.”

LOVE ME:

1) The best place to start in creating a likeable character is to think about the qualities you like, the traits that you respond to.

For example, you might admire someone who’s good, honest, loyal, sensitive/empathetic, intelligent, and has integrity.

2) Think about characters you’ve loved in books. Not just enjoyed, but loved. Can you remember their traits? What aspect of them did you admire most?

3) Combine these two lists into one and see if any or all of the qualities on it could apply to the character you’re designing.

4) Add some flaws, but make them endearing or provide shortcomings that readers can relate to.

5) How can you show your character demonstrating these qualities in action? Can you build scenes or show confrontations where integrity–for example–would be tested?

HATE ME:

1) Think about behavior you despise. Is it cheating, lying, being abusive or manipulative?

2) Consider the most vivid villains you’ve ever read. What made them stand out? What made them memorable to you?

3) As before, combine your lists and award your villain with some of these despicable qualities.

4) Make sure to give the bad guy a likable quality or a bit of charm because you don’t want a cartoonish Snidely Whiplash villain. In other words, this individual has the potential to be good but has chosen not to be.

5) Figure out opportunities for your less-than-likable characters to behave in ways that will make readers hate them.

For example, in Naomi Novik’s novel, HIS MAJESTY’S DRAGON, the protagonist meets a character who seems cheery, friendly, helpful, and refined at first but is in fact neglectful of his dragon. Again and again, readers are shown the valiant dragon drooping in his pen, depressed and insufficiently cared for. We see the man criticizing his dragon unjustly. And when the dragon is wounded and dying, his handler has to be coerced to pet the creature and give him a few kind words.

Character actions will have much more effective impact on readers than any amount of description.

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