When characters collide

Face_Off copy
Consider the possible basic conflicts in fiction:  man against environment, man against man, man against society, and man against self.  In most plots the conflicts are between people.  Even in Robinson Caruso and Castaway, tales of man surviving in isolation, the fact that the protagonist  learned to survive  on his own didn’t bring the story to an end.  The goal was to get back to people, and in both stories contact with people brought new conflicts.

What causes the conflict between fictional characters is often simple. Typically character A and character B want the same thing, but they don’t want to share. This love triangle plot is played over and over again with competition not necessarily for the affection of a person but  for a coveted prize, a position of power, or a piece of land handed down by the family. However, there needs to be another conflict, one of personality which keeps the two characters from compromising to work out this difficulty.

I am sure you have seen personality conflicts played out in real life before.  One person is emotional, but sensitive and the other logical, but cold. One person is quick to take offense when another offers criticism, but the critique is meant to point out a problem that really does exist.  A subtle war starts because one person perceives that another is getting the special privileges, which very well maybe true because people who treat others equitably are very rare. So a collision of characters can often be drawn from real life.

In fiction authors often play heavy favorites with characters, creating heroes with admirable qualities and villains that are evil simply because they are.  However, intriguing antagonists have real personalities that cause them to want to block the hero from reaching the goal. The personality conflict in which neither one is the shining knight or the dragon makes the conflict more compelling.

Creating memorable conflict between characters requires also requires an understanding of modus operandi.  M.O. s don’t just belong to criminals. M.O.s are the identifying methods that characters use to get what they want.  If two clashing characters want the same thing, how they go about obtaining it separates them.  This gives clues into the internal motivations so authors do not have to blatantly describe characters as “good” or “bad.”  Modeling characters on real personality conflicts results in heroes and villains whose life like immediacy draws the interest of real readers.

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What makes a character, a character?

tape_warrior cRecently I was following a thread of writers discussing how to find names that make characters memorable.  Honestly I believe that writers should be looking at the reverse situation.  It is the skillful creation of a character whose strengths and weaknesses  strike a chord of truth in the reader that make the character’s name memorable. Names like Scarlet, Sherlock, Romeo and Ulysses invoke images of their fictional counterparts.

People seek out empathetic protagonists when they read. These characters are constructed so that people can relate to them and  even feel an emotional connection with them. One critical thing to remember is not everybody will identify with the same kind of character, which is fortunate because I would hate to be reading about the same person over and over again. It’s fairly clear that the ideal fictional character is a mix of strengths and weakness  – neither perfect or perfectly rotten – but it’s not as clear how to create a mix that enables people to empathize with a character.

If your characters care about no one else, readers probably will not care about them. In  a recent study done at Princeton University loyalty and dependability were high on the positive characteristics that both men and women should exhibit.  But not surprisingly most of the desirable traits for males and females differed.  When I compared those listed for females and males I found the following items high on both the studies done with the general population and college student:

Desirable females traits                                Desirable male traits 
friendly                                                                      high self-esteem
cheerful                                                                      strong personality
attention to appearance (attractive)                  athletic
warm & kind                                                            self reliant
sensitive                                                                    ambitious


Most people studied were fairly tolerant of people showing a trait associated with the opposite gender as long as it was positive. But the male traits that were less acceptable were seen as downright objectionable in a female, and vice versa. So be careful with the faults that round out your hero and/or heroine to make them more real.  Readers are more likely to reject a male character that has negative traits connected with females and more likely to condemn a female exhibiting typically male faults. So what did the researchers find as the most undesirable traits?

Most undesirable females traits          Most undesirable males traits                    
stubborn                                                               shy
controlling                                                           moody
cynical                                                                  naive
promiscuous                                                       melodramatic
self-righteous                                                      gullible
arrogant                                                              weak


Now flip these around and apply them to the other gender, and most people will not judge them nearly as harshly.  There exists a sprinkling of protagonists that do have these negative traits in well known books. You may be even be able to name a few. The key is to have the protagonist become aware of the fault and willing change, unless you want a tragic ending (like that of the moody Heathcliff) or intend to show satire (as with the naive Candide). However, the challenge remains of making characters with these faults appeal to a wider audience.

Prentice, D.A, and Carranza, E. (2002) What Women and Men Should Be, Shouldn’t Be, Are Allowed to Be and Don’t Have to Be: The Contents of Prescriptive Gender Stereotypes. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 26, 269-281. Blackwell Publishing, USA
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What makes a classic, a classic?

AIC copyWhen a person refers to classic sculpture or architecture, you automatically assume it is the style derived from classic Greek art, the style of art associated with a small Mediterranean peninsula beginning about 500 B.C. and ending 323 B.C., at the death of Alexander the Great. There are other civilizations with other classic periods, blooms in culture that led to their height of artistic expression. Why do we assume that the culture is automatically Greek when it is not identified?  One clue is the ending date, the death of the Alexander the Great, who adopted this artistic style and spread it through his conquests to lands of other more ancient empires.  When the Romans took over this vast area ruled by the descendants of his Greek generals, they were too busy building roads and outposts to maintain a huge empire to come up with a unique artistic style.

Fast forward several hundred years and you have Europeans during the renaissance rediscovering this “classic” style. But the renaissance wasn’t just about architecture and sculpture. It was also about literature, a period in which a creativity would occur in writing. So what makes classic literature classic? Largely it’s acceptance by professors at major universities.  One of these, Harold Bloom of Yale University, is known for his book about books, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages . This discussion of classic books has  become surprisingly popular.  Bloom credits William Shakespeare’s plays and poetry with giving rise to the bloom of writing that continued to inspire the great works of European literature.

Most students do not realize that Shakespeare was not an “academic” a person who wrote for other highly educated people, but rather a producer of popular entertainment. Common people paid a small amount to go stand for hours and watch his plays just like teenagers crowd to the theater today. Also many students also do not realize that Shakespeare’s plays contain quite a bit of suggestive language. As one student said, If you don’t understand a particular phrase in a Shakespearean play, it is probably R-rated. However, the fact that his work has lasted so long is an indication of its general appeal and quality. It also an indication of Shakespeare’s esteem by the other actors who contributed to getting his work published.

However, what seems to contribute the most to being considered a classic is to be work produced in a growing power, a nation which exchanges its culture for wealth from other nations to enrich its treasuries. It helped that Shakespeare started writing in the Elizabethan period, the dawn of Britain as an empire. It seems as if the ego of the nation is as important as the worth of individual work when identifying creative periods in art and literature.

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Letting students read what they want?

reading2Reading literature in education may be on the way out. It is one of the many previous foundational skills that have been thrown aside to find a place for all the additional science, math and technology that a “competitive” county in the world economy. In a recent discussion with English teachers I found many who thought there was no problem with exposing secondary students to works written only in the last fifty years or less. Some preferred an even more recent time frame and choose nonfiction or new popular novels to give students books that they found easier to read, those that  didn’t require much interpretation because the author basically told the story.

So what will we lose when we no longer require students to read works that are not as easily read but have with stood the test of time? Perhaps we will be robbing students of a chance to increase empathy and social skills. Being able to grasp the mental state of other people is valuable for functioning in society. Researchers and scientists do not know a lot about what contributes to this skill. However, two recent studies show that reading fiction, and in particular literary fiction, increases it.

A study by Mar and Oatley (2010)  from York University found that individual who choose to read fiction often (no division was made between literature and popular fiction) were more able to empathize with others and understand the world from their perspective.[1] A more recent study by Kidd and Castano (2013) indicates that reading literary fiction at least temporarily increase people’s ability to understand that others have different beliefs, values, goals and desires than they do.[2]

Kidd and Castano , researchers from the New School for Social Research, conducted experiments to test participant’s accuracy in identifying the emotions of others after they had been reading popular fiction, non-fiction, literary texts or nothing at all. They found those that had read literary texts were able to accurately identify the emotions than those who had been reading popular fiction or non-fiction.

So what exactly is the difference between popular fiction and literature?

According to the literary theory put forward by Roland Barthe fictional text is divided into two types. He describes “readerly” text as those in which the reader is mostly passive, and does not have to make much effort to receiving the text. This type of text is largely entertaining and the author tells you what you are experiencing. On the other hand “writerly” text require that the reader engage with the writer. This text requires greater effort to read and comprehend the codes of meaning.[3]

You open a book of what we call popular fiction and you know from the get-go who is going to be the good guy and the bad guy.[4]

Emanuele Castano

We tend to see ‘readerly’ more in genre fiction like adventure, romance and thrillers, where the author dictates your experience as a reader. Literary [writerly] fiction lets you go into a new environment and you have to find your own way.[5]

David Comer Kidd

Of course there is not a rigid line of demarcation between the two.  However, literature is usually marked by an in depth focus on characters inner feelings and thoughts. Also, characters tend not to remain static so the reader has to make a effort, and construct their own frame of reference. This is something students may not want to do, but it has its benefit.


[1] Paul, A. M. “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer” Time. June 03, 2013
[2] Kidd, D.C. and Emanuele C., “Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind” Science 18 October 2013 Vol. 342 no. 6156 pp. 377-380, Published Online October 3 2013
[3] Barthe, R. The Pleasure of the Text. Straus and Giroux, Inc. Originally published in French as Le Plaisir du texte 1973 by Editions du Seuil, Paris
[4] Greenfieldboyce, N. “Want To Read Others’ Thoughts? Try Reading Literary Fiction” NPR. October 04, 2013 4:24 PM ET
[5] Bury, L.  “Reading literary fiction improves empathy, study finds”  The Guardian. Tuesday 8 October 2013 03.00 EDT


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Delusion and Imagery

NY toll road (1) _a copyImagery is one of the harder to pinpoint concepts in poetry. What exactly is the difference between describing something in poetry and creating imagery?  This concept is not always easy to explain.  So I looked at what some experts in the fields of communication and language said about imagery.

Marshall McLuhan, a modern philosopher well known for his communication and media theories, was particularly in the application of these theories. He wrote extensively on how marketing and advertisement appeals to people. He stepped into the realm of politics to comment:

Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery. The politician will be only too happy to abdicate in favor of his image, because the image will be much more powerful than he could ever be.

Noam Chomsky, a linguist and cognitive scientist, who is known for his political involvement looked at McLuhan’s area of expertise, how the public perceives advertisements. According to Chomsky:

Everyone knows that when you look at a television ad, you do not expect to get information. You expect to see delusion and imagery.

There is a similar theme running through both of these quotes, the idea that imagery provides more than actually exists in the object or person being described.  The literary device of imagery can be defined as using words to create a mental picture. However, the mental picture is not simply what exists, but what exists at a more intense level.  A simple cookie dipped in tea takes on a taste, texture and color that make it magically memorable, or an ordinary machine become monstrously frightening.  In a way imagery is description on steroids.

Some of the techniques that move imagery to this level comparisons known as similes and metaphors.  Similes typically deal with more superficial appearances (the sky is gray like slate), while metaphors deal with deeper structural similarities (the sky is an ocean of air)  and can be extended into complex extended metaphors. However in each case the writer is adding nuances to the description that are beyond simply what is observed. Imagery adds connotations which builds another level of perception and results something being more appealing or distasteful.

In the end what reader of a poem desires is not simply to feel like they are present with the author but able to see the intangibles, the feelings, desires and very beliefs that drive the words on the written page. Remember the imagery in commercials: the man standing stalwart in front of flapping flag sells stability not the candidate, and the car rushing down the open road sells freedom, rather than a brand of automobile. People do  not want poetry to show them reality, but something beyond it.

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What makes poetry, poetry?

Barbara_Fritchie_House 2As a young child I assumed poetry must rhyme.  Meter was beyond my comprehension. It was only that constant repetition of ending sounds that mattered. In fifth grade, the teacher encouraged us all to enter a poetry recitation contest.  The selection had to be memorized.  In a conscious attempt to be an over achiever, I choose a poem longer than any other student, a ballad by John Greenleaf Whittier called Barbara Fritchie.

In what seemed to be a monumental task, I spent the next week committing to memory the story of an old Quaker woman confronting Stonewall Jackson as he marched into Frederick, Maryland.  I didn’t care much about the history behind the poem, but I loved chanting the neat rhyming couplets. Each ended on a single syllable accented word so I could really punch out those rhymes.

However, I did have a bit of a quandary what to do about the couplet that read:

” All day long that free flag tost

Over the heads of the rebel host.”

Should I pronounce the end of the first line as “tossed” indicating the flag flapped in the wind, or force the rhyme?  If I said “toast” the poor listeners might think the flag was performing a ritual honor or baking in the sun.  In the end meaning won out I pronounce the Whittier’s made up word as “tossed.”

This was not a traditional competitive contest with a few winners. Rather it was a blatant attempt to foist a little culture on grader schoolers. The judges had a criteria for excellent, good and fair. Everyone received a ribbon.  On the day of the contest I managed to rattle of the entire ballad without a single error. Unfortunately for me, everyone else that participated in my class brought home a blue ribbon for excellent recitation, while I was given the lowest level, a white.

I entered the kitchen mournful, showing my feeble white ribbons and declaring I would never enter a contest that required speaking again. My mother dismissed the judge’s decision by saying, “It was a sing-song poem. Next year, choose one that doesn’t rhyme. You’ll do better.”  I hadn’t realized that reciting tightly rhymed poetry with its sometimes awkward syntax was harder that reading blank verse.

Later, in high school English class, when we were given assignments to write poetry, I asked about writing blank verse and the teachers were generally okay with it. The other students thought I was cheating, writing poetry without having the complication of making it rhyme.  In this day much of the published poetry is free verse, which has follows neither the conventions of a rhyming or regular meter. This departure from traditional poetry leaves many with the question: What makes poetry, poetry?

The basic answer is repetition.  When I write prose I search for synonyms so I am not always repeating the same words. Early on my mother pointed out that repeating the same words was the sign of a very amateurish writer. I also vary the syntax. Using both short direct sentences and longer ones with subjective clauses improves the flow.  Free verse breaks all these conventions of “good” writing by using intentional repetition. It may not be the repeated end sounds of rhyme, but the other sounds such as alliteration, assonance and consonance. Similar words, phrases and parallel construction are used over and over again. The challenge with free verse is creating a new structure, not an already established poetic form and repeating it so the new form has a recognizable pattern, a pattern with enough variation to keep it interesting.

One of my favorite poets, Robert Frost, said writing free verse was “‘like playing tennis without a net.'”(1) This changes the game, but it can be done. One of my students said poetry was expressing his ideas indirectly. He liked writing it because he could say things that he wanted to without letting people know precisely who and what he was discussing. That is not necessarily what makes poetry, poetry.  But it is part of what makes poetry good.

Photo -By Hal Jespersen at en.wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
  1. Ellman, Richard and Robert O’Clair. The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, Second Edition. New York: Norton, 1988.
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saturnAfter watching a fifth grader standing confident before a class full of peers and parents to deliver a poised speech on Tennessee, I got to watch my own son mumble through a presentation on Maryland. Now, his was actually more organized, including economy, geography, major cities, types of population and educational institutions that he had gleaned from the Internet, and an atlas at the local library. These comprehensive details were missing from the disconnected facts and “places I visited” presentation made by the more poised student. If the presentations had been written, his would have been considered superior and the teacher did notice.

Years later when developing a technical training program, a coworker with years of experience in leadership development confided to me that he really didn’t feel comfortable with technology. Most of the leaders he had dealt with tended towards the inspirational, big picture persona. They like to lead people, and leave the details to others. So they didn’t really comprehend how to find trends in data through crunching numbers, or the use the technology available for planning and scoping out possible courses of action.

What do these two vignettes have in common? Use of technology is changing society, education, work and who we consider to be leaders. If you paid attention, you may have noticed the rise in many tech companies was engineered by a pair, the vocal spokesman and the less noticeable creative “brain” – one to inspire people, the other to invent things that actually worked.  In the past when people shared ideas (and source codes) freely over the Internet, some vocal promoters had a wealth of new products/ideas to choose from without working with the geek who could pull all the details together. We probably never will learn the real inventor in many cases.

But leadership is changing, a lot of people tell you (or sell you) their idea in the new practice of leadership coaching. It is a rising business in which people try to teach social skill to the techies who seem to lack them, or encourage the confident speaker that he really does understand things when he doesn’t know what to do with pile of data. We may soon rethink who is good at doing what based on a whole new criteria, especially our leaders.


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What is the purpose of education?

Gaylord Texan 120What exactly is the purpose of obtaining an education? If you answer “to learn” that is obvious, but that answer also side steps the question. It says nothing about what you are going to learn or the why you are going to learn it.  About 15 years ago as I sat at a university commencement,  the keynote speaker said the purpose of education was to make students “change agents.” This was the lingo of the time to say education was given the lofty goal of changing the world to make it a better place.

Roll forward a few years and post secondary educators are challenged to figure out if their graduates are going to know what they need to get a decent job. I have seen numerous articles directing students into majors that will actually results in careers based on their studies and allow them to pay back their student loans. Recently my daughter had a discussion with a philosophy major at a medium large state university. He was one of only two philosophy majors,  and after their discussion, it seems like he is bailing out, leaving one lone philosopher. It looks like making the world a better place will have to be put on hold for a while.

I thought it might be interesting to look back at some notable people in United States history to see what they had to say about the purpose of education. Benjamin Franklin said “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”  This definitely falls into education equals earning power camp. You may protest that interpretation saying that the founding fathers were noble seekers of freedom. However, you need to realize the Thomas Jefferson had considered using pursuit of “property” rather than “happiness” in the declaration of independence.  What did our first president George Washington say about education? He said that he owed great thanks to his mother for teaching him all that she did.

Abraham Lincoln noted that “The philosophy of the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.” Although this president did not provide a lot of insight into what he thought should be the philosophy taught in the school room, he did make an astute observation. Philosophy is taught in school, even if there are no more philosophy majors. Text book writers, teachers, coaches professors all present morals and values as they instruct, and these do not all agree. If we think that can teaching without teaching beliefs we leave students awash with detailed minutia of facts and no coherence. However philosophy is often presented by behavior rather than the words we say, which makes me cringe every time I see someone in education getting arrested. This does affect how the next generation of leaders will lead. (It is interesting that both Washington and Lincoln praised their mothers for teaching them.)

However, my favorite presidential quote about education has to be the words of Theodore Roosevelt. He grew up in the gilded age, when the industrial age brought opportunity for men to make more of themselves, even if it meant building big business at the expense of others. Roosevelt said “A man who has never gone to school may steal from a freight car; but if he has a university education, he may steal the whole railroad.”

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Creating a team-like atmosphere in classes

football_edited-1Imagine a group of athletes from different sport that all have a  general idea about playing positions in the other sports. However, they  have little  to no idea how their skills stack up against other in their group, whom they barely know. They have never played together, and they are told “You are now a team; you decide who plays what position. This week we will play baseball, next week we’ll mix up the teams and play football.”  Most class group assignments are actually based on this model. Much of the work required is deciding how to organize the team before anyone actually gets anything done.

Encouraging students to work as teams in class has many shades of difference from getting a group of athletes to work as a team. Sports teams are formed to wage athletic “war” and win against other teams. In classes the goal is to create a viable product rather than to win. The decision making that goes into teamwork to achieve specific goals by creating products are often removed from the athlete. They do not decide what position they play, who directs the team,  or how much practice is required.  Often even eating, sleeping and exercise habits are prescribed by others to ensure peak physical performance. Students expect coaches to be concerned with their activities outside of sports. After all, school grades and behavior are often tied to whether or not a student is allowed to compete.

However there are some commonalities. I have seen some groups in which one or two students do most of the work, just like star athletes that carry a team. Only the rest of the team gains nothing from this because the objective is to learn rather than win. However, this is also what happens in the real world on the job, and the people slacking do reap benefits.

Try setting student teams at competition with each other for a limited number of passing grades – like a strict curve in which as many students must fail as those that receive A’s. This is the academic version of tryouts for limited slots. Students who could do the work would be cut because the class had a limited size, or those would could not might remain if there were no excelling students. However, determining which students should be in a particular level class doesn’t work the same way as determining who should be playing on a team. If it was you would probably find not so much an increase in effort as a sudden rash of cheating, sort of like the rise in performance enhancing drugs in sports when athletes must do well to keep their jobs.


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Who is responsible for learning?

swimmerOne of my friends mentions the local swim team as a possible activity for my children in the summer.  For the first one it was a good fit. When younger he had taken a swim class, which due to the overlap with the beginning of school, had only two students.  He had opportunity to practice frequently at a friend’s pools with encouragement from adults.  When the second child was the same age, it was a different story. The initial swimming class had been over crowded and useless; the friend with a pool had moved away.  It was fine to put the older child on a team with coaches.  But the second one needed a swimming teacher.

How many times have you overheard  teacher discussing a class say the words “they should already know how to…”  For students who just require coaching to learn, that is probably true. They have already been exposed to the many things that students are supposed to know by the time they get to school. They are familiar with the concepts of letters and reading, numbers and math, locations and maps.  But for students who do not have easily accessible books, maps and calculators (let alone computers) these are foreign concepts.

As the number of lower socio-economic status students increase in the country, so does the challenge of teaching. This is compounded by the lengthening of years required for education. Not too long ago in the last century, teachers had lower expectations of students coming to school. The teachers themselves were not as highly educated as today. Students stayed  beyond sixth grade in if they liked learning and their parents could afford to not have them working.  Parents and the children themselves where considered the ones responsible for knowing how much education was necessary.

Be we have gotten it backwards.  Recently I read an article with the following quote. “Although teachers play the predominant role in student achievement, substantial research has confirmed that parents play an important supportive role.”

This statement reverses the relative importance of the parent and teachers in the success of the students.  Teachers resist having the quality of their instruction quantified based on student achievement, because they realize they cannot always successfully overcome the handicaps last result from a students’ background, such as poverty or unstable family life. There is no one to make sure that students learn what “they should already know how to …” unless they are taught somewhere else than at school. Be honest, and let parents know that they play the primary part in their child’s success in school, and they will become more involved.

But beyond that needs to come the realization that some students just need a lot more personalized in depth instruction and not just guidance along the way. The same class, with same teacher will not suffice for both the student receiving an abundance of enrichment and support at home, and the one that has to struggle to find food. When my child took the swimming lessons, she had individual instruction, she was the only student. As unrealistic as that kind of one on one attention seems for schools, it is exactly what the parents provide that makes the difference in student achievement.

 “Those Persistent Gaps” by Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley  Educational Leadership, December 2009/January 2010 (Health and learning Issue).
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