Mastering the ambiguous character

reading2Recently I started reading two different stories with a peculiar similarity. In one the romantic male lead had olive skin, and dark hair and eyes. The other had tanned skin and raven black hair–both variations of tall, dark and handsome. In both tales of romance, the young man meets the adolescent girl’s father first, as the daughter observes him. In one narrative, the tall, dark and handsome man would defend the young woman, and in the other he would betray her. Can you guess which?

The first young man is ambitious and ignorant of the culture, He makes an offensive motion towards the father whose bodyguards prepare to protect him. Then, rather than realizing his mistake, he pulls out a weapon only to be told to his embarrassment to put it away. Despite the young man’s high level of education he is obviously tall, dark and not too good at dealing with people.

In second tale involves loving parents arranging a marriage for their teenage daughter. They have invited the young man to dine with them. He attempts make jovial conversation, as he discusses the father’s interest, which is breeding dogs. He suggests that they would excellent for hunting. But the father is against having his dogs hunt. The young man could feel rebuffed by father but remains polite.

Deciding which tall, dark and handsome man is the true gem would be easy if you were actually reading this story. Both of the young ladies are mind readers! That’s right, despite no warning of this supernatural ability, each teenage female protagonist has a strong premonition that informs the readers exactly how each man turns out in the end.

As a person who spent years teaching high school I don’t weigh the feelings of adolescents highly when determining the future. Often, they struggle to understand other’s motives on a day to day basis. So why did the authors imbue these young females with the supernatural ability to read minds? Because describing the subtle signs of deceit and trustworthiness is difficult. Therefore, the writers took the same short cut and used uncannily accurate intuition as foreshadowing.

The balancing act of surprising the reader  while making actions plausible is based on the skill of portraying ambiguity in characters. Authors must to work at revealing conflicted characteristics through actions and speech. The driven and impetuous young man who brandishes the weapon should sometimes seem weak or indecisive when questioning if he should behave in his outwardly brash manner. The well-behaved young man should have friends or servants showing wariness because due to their knowledge that a polite exterior that hid a self-serving interior. But that did not occur.

Both male characters needed to display a mix of both good and bad traits which the reader would have to interpret. Instead the authors focused on the physical descriptions of the men. Then, they chose a sudden reversal (supposedly to shake the reader awake). The hot-headed young man turns out to be protective, and the polite one was actually calloused. However, as I continued through each story I realized that I had to deal with two men that were tall, dark, and implausible. That last characteristic is not attractive to me—no matter how handsome the character is.

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Kick starting a story

IMAGE0043a copyMany writers believe that most readers will only read a novel that grabs their attention from the first page. A dramatic episode must unfold in the first paragraph. I witnessed a workshop in which writers were coached to do just that. The leader liked anything with an immediate crisis, imminent death being the most desirable one–such as a character waking up in the hospital with all the tubes attached, or her favorite,  the one facing execution.

Now, I didn’t expect the character facing execution to actually die. I realized either the protagonist would quickly escape this death, as it was not the main point of the story. Or possibly the author had pulled out the major crisis as prologue and I would have to read a good portion of back story before finding out how the main character survived.

Jumping into the middle of a conflict at the start of a novel is not a bad technique. Tolstoy modeled this in Anna Karenina, starting the story with an uproar as Dolly discovers her husband’s affair with their governess. However, this crisis does not last long due to the arrival of the major character, Anna Karenina. This charming lady persuades Dolly to remain with Stepan (who is also Anna’s brother.) Anna turns out to have the really challenging love life with its multiple twists and turns.

Most often this initial crisis turns out to be only as minor one, not the real crux of the story. The first chapter in a starter plot which will be resolved fairly quickly and the really difficult to solve conflict appears at a slower pace. The reader is quickly sucked in the story, but only into a minor subplot. Paying attention to details in the first chapter or so is not terribly necessary with this kind of draw-the-reader-in start. They could simply skip this section and the only result would be missing a few tidbits about the main dramatic conflict.

The author still the main work to do–creating compelling characters that the reader cares about as well as revealing a complex conflict that deepens in difficulty over time. A main conflict cannot be summarily solved by the wave of a hand or a simple impassioned plea at the end. As the reader movers further into Anna Karenina, there are numerous  characters and details to attend to. There are sections in which multiple characters struggle with the meaning of life in this broad picture of Russian society.

Because its reputation, many readers are intimidated by Anna Karenina. They will not be drawn in to a huge tome by a being dropped into the action. That is the chance the author takes with this kind of kick-starting a story–attracting a reader who doesn’t have the patience to finish a book of any depth of complexity.

Back to the workshop–there was one  beginning  that caught my attention. The protagonist stood on a cliff side, staring down into water, and from the details I could gather it was a long drop. Something unnerving about the interior thoughts of the character led me to wonder what was wrong. Although there was no direct statement about suicidal thoughts, that seemed to be a possibility. The workshop leader felt this beginning had too many unanswered questions and wanted to find out the answers at the start of the story. But, that is exactly what drew me in. I wanted to keep on reading to uncover the conflict that this character struggled with so intensely.

The beginning of the story does not have to be action-packed. But, it should let readers know how invested they must be in the book to understand and enjoy it.

 

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Present tense prose

burbn time horizontalSince the popularity of The Hunger Game series and the awards won by All the Light We Cannot See, a trend is fiction is the use of present tense. This style is touted as making the character’s actions more intimate to the reader, but it is not a new fad. I recall reading the Babar books to my own children, who were quick to pick up that these 1930’s children’s classics sounded different. They were penned in present tense.

Personally, I have always written in the past tense for fiction as I use the present tense for technical writing and find it dry. However, I decided to experiment, and rewrite scenes previously composed in past tense. First, I discovered the difficulty of dropping the reader directly into the action using present tense. I struggled to rewrite the first paragraph of an opening scene in which a young girl receives a permanent scar on her face due to her sister’s actions. In a tale told with past tense, the current time is beyond the end of the story. But, I could no longer play with time and let the reader know what would occurred by jumping from far past, to near past, to current time.

Finally, I returned to a technique used by writers for centuries–describing the setting and character at the beginning with enough nuanced details to make the action that would shortly occur plausible. This was less awkward than breaking into the flow of present tense events to include tidbits that explained the character’s background.

Forcing myself to write in present tense subtly transformed my writing style. It required much more attention to sequencing the actions that occurred in precise order. It is easy to detail the seconds that tick away as a disaster looms on the horizon in present tense, but more difficult to show the flow of time. Movies frequently telescope less action-oriented portions of a plot using a montage of scenes. Try writing like that in present tense and its limitations become obvious.

My scenes became shorter as I created additional breaks in the story to skip over less interesting events between those that drove the plot forward. When picking up threads of the story in the next scene, I described what occurred in the interim through a flashback in the mind of the character or through conversation. Events flowed better over short periods of time in present tense.

Sentences became shorter just like the scenes became shorter. However, I found I wrote more sentences to fill in breaks in the narrative. Completing parts of the scene with mundane events became necessary. Also, suspense has to be handled differently. There must be an outward indication of the ax that is going to fall and I did not want to resort to over-obvious foreshadowing. So in present tense writing, most characters are aware of the imminent danger, too.

Including interior thoughts became essential to story cohesiveness. When the girl in my opening scene is injured (which will result in the permanent scar) she temporarily cannot see. I found visually-oriented descriptions of that time jarring. I changed those to the sounds, touches and smells that the girl actually experiences. In one of the novels I am currently reading, All the Light We Cannot See, use of present tense immerses the reader into the world of the blind major character.

Strangely, I found the writing sounded more poetic in present tense. I would not use pronouns but repeat people’s names and even actions, because that sounded right. Then I realized, I frequently write poetry in the present tense. My final discovery surprised me, too. Writing in present tense actually made the passages longer in each case in which I transformed them. And, I preferred some of the present tense scenes more. So, I recommend all authors experiment with this and uncover their own unexpected results.

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Stories for the new stars

DSCN1857c.jpgWalking beneath the of faces of stars glowing from two story tall billboards, I glanced down at the stars embedded into the side walk—at least when they were not covered by the feet of the crowds on Sunset Strip. Above me are giant billboards–evidently Mary Poppins is coming back and so is M. Night Shyamalan. However, I must also look down occasionally to ensure I didn’t trip over a homeless person sleeping at the edge of the sidewalk, curled up in a blanket on hard concrete in the relative safety of the daytime. It was fun for a while, this walk of fame, replete with costumed super heroes who may be sleeping on the streets with the homeless if they don’t get enough tips. It is also unnerving—a reminder of the great divide when it comes to performers.

Enough of this, as my real intention in visiting LA was to see an exhibit at UCLA. So, I contact an Uber driver to get me to my destination. He chats about his idea for a movie, and producers that haven’t responded to his script. Everybody wants a piece of the movie business. The driver assumes he’s written a sure-fire success, a part two of a previous film. He is even trying to contact the same big name actor to ask why his studio hasn’t come up with a script for this, yet. Of course, I know the driver’s chance of ever getting his script acknowledged by any one in a movie studio is almost nil. And, I try to tell him this. Yet, I also mourn that he has fallen into the same trap as many movie producers who assume the crowd is always hungering for another flashier version of what they witnessed on the big screen last month.

How does this assumption alter the quality of what screen writers and book writers actually produce? Writers no longer seem to strive to improve their previous work—reaching for a new level of creativity and quality. Rather, they try to polish the same work and make it flashier. Perhaps the major character takes a complete switch in direction in part two and ends it in a sudden twist that nobody would guess. But what is to be done to make part three even more dramatic? Switch back again and repeat the plot of part one with more battles scenes and more devastating weapons. After all crowds entering the theaters every week want what they’ve seen before. Don’t they?

Not always. The shift is away from movies produced by big-name studios to series made by independent studios and video streamed directly into our homes. A glance up at what’s being advertised on the billboards on Sunset Strip makes this obvious. Even the driver mentions that series on Netflix that are the next big thing and the quantity of their representation on billboards is stunning. So, the challenge becomes greater for the writer. No longer is a three book series enough, but rather a whole season of plots that unwind without noticeable repetition is the new demand. It’s time to stop depending on special effects, and stories that are supposed to draw readers in with instant action. It’s time get back to writing complex characters that unfold over a period of time and high quality stories that can continue long after a series of three. Are you ready for the new challenge?

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The strong female character

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Image by S.L. Listman

Recently, I read three short stories dealing with female characters of different strengths. None of them exactly fit the common meme of the female warrior—who can take on man larger than her and physically defeat him while remaining stoically detached from “feminine” emotions like crying—but one came close.

The business woman who moved with the movers and shakers—the only woman in a high level meeting with men—outwardly resembled the female warrior the most. Danny enjoyed a life of vintage wine, designer clothing, and five-star hotels. Yet, the phrase that kept reappearing was her feeling of being bloated. She consumed luxuries without gaining sustenance. Danny did a good job at keeping her emotions under control. Her only response was restrained anger when sexual relationships with men occurred out of mere form and politeness. She is a tragic character who is a pale shadow of the powerful, yet unfulfilled Citizen Kane. In psychological terms, she was the weakest of the three female characters.

The next “strong” female, Diana, shared a resemblance in her early career to Dian Fossey who lived in primitive conditions as a scientist in Africa. This Diana had moved up to professorship at a prestigious university, sending students out on the field to do the work she had once done. Her husband’s career had spiraled downhill. But, the narrative from his viewpoint was honest. Men are not attracted to a smart, successful woman unless they are unquestionably smarter and more successful. In this story, the husband loved their child, but his switch to expected full-time childcare provider unnerved him. Diana had lived a comparatively charmed life and dealt with his struggles in a logical and not particularly empathetic manner. Unable to be an equal match for his wife, the husband foresaw their union dissolving because she would not put up with him.

The last female character, Mavis, reeked of weakness. The old woman was constantly in a state of indecision, not sure of how to move forward. She cried a lot, she prayed a lot and desperately needed emotional support. Her husband had committed a crime and traumatized her nephew. She could not shake her guilt for her part in this. As the story unrolled I realized that although the term narcissist was never used, Mavis’ husband showed every indication of being one. He blamed his action on her words, insisting that she apologize, while he actually played the part of the provoker. Many readers would ask “How could she not see who he really was?” They probably have not tangled with the wile of a narcissist. (Or perhaps they have and do not realize it, yet.)

Mavis’ husband could be very charming, and she recalled their good times fondly. One pivotal memory was an unexpected enjoyable outing on her birthday. It took a bad turn after her insistence that they see a movie. While complying with her request, his mood showed this displeased him. Later he relieved his anger on a girl he did not know for a minor incivility. Now, he was incarcerated. Mavis’ struggle to break free from her husband’s control was beautifully drawn in her memories as she traveled to visit him and finally gathered the courage to turn around without confronting him. She would no longer be there to field his provocations.

Of the three stories, the woman who appeared like the warrior was the weakest. She portrayed a tragic character, on the way up in power and on the way down in her respect for herself. The timorous, older woman who broke from a clever man that imagined he could do no wrong received my vote for the most powerful. When it comes to creating strong female characters, be aware that appearances can be deceiving.

Cohen, Robert, “Roaming Charges.” Boggs, Belle, “In the Shadow of Man.” and Crew, Ashlee, “Day One.” in Ploughshares Summer 2018. Ed. Jill McCorkle, Vol. 44, No. 2.

 

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Creative mess

It’s all about ambiguity

Write about what?

DSCN0746Psychologists often study creativity like a kind of pathology, researching causes of creativity, methods to diagnosis it, and determining best practices. The creative person is often contradictory because the strongest drive in creative people is to not be like other people, even other creative people. During the 1950s, when creativity research was acknowledged as a legitimate scientific subject, Psychologist Frank Barron tested and conducted in-depth interviews with writers, architects, research scientists, and mathematicians  at University of California in Berkeley.

According to Barron the highly creative person is “both more primitive and more cultivated, more destructive, a lot madder and a lot saner than the average person.” Creative people could appear and actually be conventional in many ways. However, “they tend to rebel against conformity as they accompany their own private visions down lonely, untrod paths.” They also could appear highly neurotic on personality tests while having an ego strength that could…

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How do you end an never-ending story?

BinaryData50Stories do not always require a flesh and blood antagonist, or even a spectral one. They do not have to end with the discovery of who perpetrated the crime or the demise of the villain. A plot can trace the main character’s growth: from child to adult, from poverty to wealth, from anonymity to fame, or from one plane of existence to another. (Did you ever read Jonathon Livingston Seagull?)

The tale of transformation may not be the most common type, but when written well they have staying power which endears them to continuing generations of readers. This type of plot also has special challenges. Exactly how do you wrap up a story in which the main character engages on a path of progress that will continue after the book is finished? It’s necessary to include at least one signal that this part of the story is over to fulfill the reader’s desire for a conclusion.

So, how do you end a never-ending story?

The most common device is inclusio. Despite the literary sound of this word, this device is often demonstrated in a manner so simple that a child could comprehend it. Think back to the beginning and end of the animated Walt Disney movie The Lion King. You probably recall the new heir being presented to the pride on top of the dramatic jutting slice of hillside called Pride Rock. The lion cub is not the same, but the son of the first one. However, the image from the beginning is repeated at the end to tell you it’s over. (And if you didn’t catch this, a reprise of the song “Circle of Life” is blared as a backup to hammer the idea into your head.) If you watched the earlier movie Bambi, you will recall it also had a similar beginning and end. Although, it was delivered with more subtlety than in The Lion King.

This devise of inclusio, also called the bracketing or an envelope structure, has been used in writing for millennia. Scholars of the Bible will search the original language for similar phrases that mark the beginning and end of a passage on a subject. But, you do not have to be a scholar to pick up this signal. However, if you fear your reader may not remember the beginning phrase of your tale, reinforce the impact of inclusio by including a similar image or returning the major character to an environment that is the same as in the first scene.

Now, you have the beginning and ending for your story of character growth. The difficult part will be completing the middle.

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What is the bad guy really thinking?

Picture 036 antihero 2Do you recall the campy original Batman series in which the villain de jour always explained his detailed plan for the crime as Batman was slowly moving towards a not so sure death? Is there a problem with adding the villain’s point of view is this manner? Not as long as you are writing a farce. Seriously, why should you show the antagonist’s POV in a book or screen play?

Scenes revealed from of the antagonist’s POV create a flesh and blood multi-dimensional character. The more internal motivation that you describe for the villain, the more the audience might begin to identify with this character. That is not necessarily wrong. However, your protagonist, must feel this same conflict, unless you want the hero to be an insensitive heel.

What are some of the pitfalls to avoid when included the antagonist’s POV?

Be wary of using this POV in scenes where your antagonist is in conflict with the protagonist. The villain may seem more interesting when confronting the hero, because the bad guy often has more to lose in these scenes. But, so do you if your reader starts rooting for the bad guy.

Avoid uncovering the secret that the hero is searching for when revealing the antagonist’s thoughts. Heroes must get their act together and sniff out secrets on their own. Occasionally, I have seen writers fall into the trap of assuming the protagonist knows everything the reader knows. When adding scenes from an antagonist’s viewpoint that is no longer true. Meticulously track who knows what. (See: The character who saw too much).

Readers may recoil from the horrific inner thoughts of an insanely vicious villain. But that horror is actually judgment coming from the author. Real vicious criminals do not perceive themselves in that light. If you portray an authentic twisted viewpoint both you and the reader might struggle with the sense of becoming insane while the reversing the concepts of good and bad. Keep these passages infrequent and brief.

C.S. Lewis spoke of The Screwtape Letters, which was written from the POV of a demon, in his last interview. “Of all my books, there was only one I did not take pleasure in writing.” This short novel became one of his more popular books, which spawned a whole new genre. I would recommend it to anyone wanting to write lengthy passages from the POV of the antagonist.

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Group IQ

How to make your group smarter

Write about what?

Picture 012a3One of the tricks in getting groups to be more creative is tohave a hand in determining who goes into the group. A number of gurus on increasing group creativity will mention the need for greater diversity in groups. How exactly does this work?

Wooley and Malone performed research on “group IQ.” Members of a group were tested for IQ individually and then randomly assigned to a team. Each team  was required to complete a number of complex tasks such as creative brainstorming, and solving puzzles. Interestingly enough the teams containing the people with higher IQs did not do any better. However, the teams that had women did. The more women there were on a team, the better they did at the tasks, unless the team was entirely female.

Choi and Thompson found that rotating new members into already existing groups improved their performance in creative tasks. It was the…

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Stuck in a group

How do you get people working in groups to actually be creative?

Write about what?

1024px-Allegorie_op_visserij (2)_edited-2The concept of group synergy, the belief that combined abilities of people in groups produces better ideas than individuals  is often praised. However, most research points in the opposite direction. Suppose your assignment is to work with a group to come up with new solutions to age old problems, or maybe create a plot for a new movie. What can you do to improve your chances of at least some modicum of success?

First, it helps to understand human characteristic that prevent people from effectively sharing knowledge with others.  It is almost impossible to grasp what others know, or deduce what they need to know from us. Sharing of information takes time. It helps to have initial sessions that are simply for the purpose of  describing what each person knows without the pressure to come up new ideas or commit to any new plan of action.

Clearly defining why we know…

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