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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You could do it better

          Say it so they try
          keep on trying harder.
          But if they succeed 
          remember there’s always 
          something wrong
          never perfect.
          Keep them off balance
          And if you don’t know 
          how to make it better
          don’t let it let them know.
          ‘It should be obvious’
          ‘Not going to do your work for you’
          excellent ways
          to weasel out
          of actually knowing
          And if, no when
          they grow weary, 
          tired and ready
          to give up
          remind them of
          that one time 
          they did it right.
          They may smile
          weakly, or look
          confused at this
          belated recognition. 
          Because of course
          you never told them
          it was right
          at the time.
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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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Life on the shoulder

roadside 022
Speeding ahead barely glancing
I was the  momentary observer
at the edge of my vision,
of a child-sized, plastic  vanity,
spurned by an overloaded car.
And a pink coat with shreds 
of wrapping paper still clinging.
Left  for the world to watch,
a yet to be marred celebration
slowly soiled by gravel spray.
Further down the freeway
lipstick tubes, cheap make-up,
spilling from cheaper plastic bins,
intended to beautify,
now unintended refuse.
Then I spied the book,
open pages, still pristine,
flapping in the draft of cars, 
I could not resist, braking hard
screeching down the shoulder.
Running back, recklessly
to rescue the words, anxious
to peer at the choice of escape.
From this too all too gritty,
world that steal our things
Things that will decay,
or may be outgrown first,
still I read the words, hoping
they would reveal more
than the unplanned exhibit
of the unmade-up face.
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What makes poetry, poetry?

As 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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“Never Better”

               Jupiter 040_edited-2                 
                         According to
                         surface politeness,
                         preferred by the world,
                         I inquire of another’s
                         well being,
                         a simple
                         “How are you doing?”
                         I am answered by
                         a booming,
                         over confident
                         “Great, never better”
                         and I cringe
                         A strange response
                         to the reply of someone,
                          obviously doing well
                         and sure of it.
                         how is it, that I have grown
                         to dread hearing it? 
                         It is the surety
                         that seems in question
                         as the evening rolls on.
                         “Never better,” means
                         better than before
                         better than one more,
                         who must fall beneath
                         the cutting words of disdain
                         Disdain required
                         in the mind of the
                         over confident
                         to make him truly “great”
                         to propel him towards
                         to the next level of 
                         “never better.”
Art by S.L.Listman
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Counting the steps

TX_dallas b (poem inspired by events near home)
In Dallas we’re all counting the steps. 
Employee calls -
“I’m going to stay home.
My son goes to Hotchkiss, or used to.
That child who was around  Duncan came to class
sent home for twenty one days.
I’m not taking chances.”
Five steps
Colleague at work -
Says, ” They’re at my house.
Until they find another place to live.
The Ivy  looks better since it’s been power washed
Didn’t live that close to them.
Just being cautious.”
Four steps.
College senior -
“She was so pleased
To get that job right out of school
My girlfriend that works at Presbyterian Dallas,
Did you know she’s a nurse?
A friend of Nina’s.”
Three steps.
In the baggy suit-
Sterilizing hospital rooms
And now the second apartment
And he’s been told the suit may not be the right kind
How thorough must one be
in order to be safe?
Two Steps.
High school student -
Flew to Dallas, Monday
That very same Frontier Flight
And when he saw the photo, he recognized the nurse
Two days ago… how many people
Has he seen since?
One step.
“It’s my work”
He gently explained to them
Smiling proudly outside, terrified inside
As they saw him off on a journey ending in Liberia
leaving them  three weeks ago
at the D/FW airport.
Door step.
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For poetry month

SC_charleston_house(a little creation inspired by the style of Robert Browning)
I’m sure you’ll like my Mother.
Call her Dr. Welsh
she’s sort of like you, she’s  a brain.
No, it’s not her maiden name.
That was Hickes.
She married Joe Welsh at twenty-two.
I’ve heard her say
she out grew him,
neither ambitious or bright,
But she had a name,
a practice in Monroe county.
and then she remarried.
Who? My father Tom Corbin
Of course, it’s confusing -
She’s Williams, I’m Corbin ,
Sis and Dad are Greene,
and then, Grandma is Hickes.
You’ll meet them one at a time -
My mother last.
Dad  will be first,
Watch out the window
for a blue Chevy pickup,
An 1950′s model
Refinished it himself, he did
He loves the old cars
Sis will be at home,
sweating on the tennis court
paying the price to break into the pros.
I’m curious to see,
who her opponent will be
she has no coach, now.
She was fond of the last one
Too fond.
Mother straightened her out.
“Don’t even look at any one
who is not from a family of standing.”
And our house?
Well, there are two houses,
You’ll meet Grandma Hickes next,
in the white one built before the Civil War,
built by Dad’s great grandfather
not large, but beautiful,
fluted pillars and curved double porch.
The other house is big
lots of bedrooms,
you’ll have your own.
It’s hard to see the whole house
because of the thick pine forest
on Dad family’s land.
It’ll be after eight
when Mother gets home
and we have a feast of a dinner, then.
I know it’s late,
I’ll introduce you to Annie,
She makes wonderful po’ boys and pies -
Kept me from starving
when I was living at home.
Mother never knew,
“Annie” she said “fix her another salad for dinner.”
“She needs to trim down some.”
Annie said I’m just big boned.
My mother works hard -
And now Dr. Barin’s gone
He went to the state hospital.
It’s a pity, he was young,
not long out of med school,
soft-spoken and freckled face.
Not as cute as Dr. Weinstein,
dreamy blue eyes and deep cleft chin.
I was so young then, only fourteen,
Of course,
he paid me no attention,
But Dr. Barin would chat with me.
She runs the county clinic.
Oh, it has regular hours,
just like most doctor’s offices.
Her patients are back country farmers
“So ignorant they flush paper towels down the toilet.”
“It’s impossible to keep another doctor there long.”
So she’s stuck with all the work,
too much to keep up with
she has to unwind at the spa
I’ve never been there,
Sis has – even had a massage,
She says it’s charming
I wish you could come back in May
for the pilgrimage
Mother has the old house
dressed with magnolia boughs and red roses
She puts on a red satin dress,
with a giant hooped skirt full
she pushes it sideways to walk through a door.
Annie’s sister made it
She sewed Sis an olive green one
I wish Mother would have her make me one, too
I wouldn’t look fat if the fabric was dark
and the skirt not as full.
I’m going to a Saint Agnes
because Mother says
It’s necessary to get into a college
with a good reputation
But not like Duke or Brown.
I’ve never been fond of school,
Studying during all my free time
There must be something better.
Mother hasn’t mentioned where I should go
and I’m a senior.
Have you applied already?
Where? Was it hard to get in?
Dad could help me – he has connections.
I’d love to have at least one friend there,
Just make it sound like a good place
a place to impress Mother.
Don’t worry, it’ll be easy.
I’m sure you’ll like my Mother.
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