Simmering the main character

Character development is probably the only way to make a protagonist that is someone else than a flat or stock character. However, this takes time and results in a slower pace of writing, like a stew that must simmer for hours. As the author describes how the main character deals with conflicts in their real world the story is not driven by the danger of the type of conflict, but it traces how this person responds to everyday irritations and tragedies.

The goal of the writer is to absorb the reader with the life of the main character. They should feel concern for their struggles, compassion for problems, and the more common that these struggles and problems are, the more that they strike close to home. The reader’s wish is to watch the birth of hidden strength or a secret heroism in someone like themselves.

The slowly developed character can grab the reader’s attention using a few different techniques in early scenes. One is to introduce an incongruity. For example, the guy works as an auto mechanic but in a conversation with a customer, he reveals an understanding of quantum physics. It is important not to say that he is a genius working in a position beneath his ability but to show it. A character that is interesting but not completely predictable, is worth reading about.

Also, a good writer doesn’t cannot just grab the reader’s interest and drop any mention of the dichotomy after that point. It needs to be part of the story and a source of growing tension. Another technique to increase tension is to introduce the conflict early but not reveal the problem in its entirety. Diving into only one aspect at the start allows the conflict to continue to grow in order to keep the reader’s attention.

The enduring popularity of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable, is based on such a main character. Jean Valjean has criminal past and is a hulking, intimidating man, someone to fear physically. Yet, the trials interspersed with rare forgiveness that he experiences lead him to be a kind and gentle person. This transformation does not get rid of his problems, but only creates a dichotomous tension that follows him throughout his life. The slowly developed character, such as this is difficult to master. But, as they grow they dominate the story in a way that turns it into a memorable one in the mind of the reader.

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Nonlinear, when does it work?

At one point when watching a Benedict Cumberbatch movie, my friend commented that this actor must have the requirement that all of his movies or series be nonlinear. At one moment Cumberbatch would be studiously studying a problem in the 1940s, then the scene would jump back to some prior time and we would have to wait until someone spoke the character’s name to figure out the childhood version of his adult character. 

A nonlinear timeline requires good planning to make it fit into the drama seamlessly. It also requires a very good reason to make the reader work so hard to figure out what is actually happening. Jumps within time may amp up the excitement or cause thoughts to spin and unravel.

When using a nonlinear plot line, information has to be repeated. The reader is given some prior knowledge concerning the events that will occur later in the book, but earlier in the chronology. Does that sound confusing? It is. That’s why the information has to be repeated for clarification. If the nonlinear books and movies were presented in a simple linear manner, they would be shorter, and the resolution to the conflict more obvious. But the beginning would not be as exciting.

One of the most frequent uses of the nonlinear timeline is starting in res media, dropping the reader into the middle of the action. Then, the plot timeline backs up and introduces all the prior events that describe who the characters are and how they got into this tangle. If the backup can be pushed to the real beginning of the story, it can move chronologically forward until reaching the point at which the book begins. This may be frowned upon as too much backstory at one time. However, the book is easier to understand if the beginning story is narrated in a straightforward manner, as if it is part of the plot.

Nothing is quite as confusing as continuing the current storyline, sprinkled with a profusion of flashbacks. If these chronological shifts are too distracting in a book, I skip past these memories that inform me about earlier events. Then, I try to pick up the story where it starts up again. I may miss clues that have been dropped, but at some point, the author will explain them again. That is why I rarely go to theaters to watch suspense movies. I can control the order in which I watch events with a subscription or recording.

The nonlinear timeline may be used to evoke emotions or overused to produce confusion. The main character’s actions reappear in flashbacks until the reader/viewer is not sure if they are in the present or the past. As the show Sherlock continued it was not so much about following the clues as untangling the neurotic mess in the mind of the title character. The difficult of following this sequence is exactly why my friend and I gave up watching Benedict Cumberbatch play Sherlock Holmes.

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“Crazy” characters

If you want to write fiction involving mentally ill characters in a realistic way, to show how and why they no longer think clearly, you must get to know real people with real psychiatric disorders. There are many places that provide services for these people that need volunteers. Homeless shelters or food kitchens that provide free meals are a good place to start. Many of the homeless exhibit symptoms of mental illness. My recommendation is to work with these people without fear and get to know them. They will exhibit different behavior, but “normal” people have more in common with them than most realize. 

If you want to make characters real, they should have psychological needs. However, like “normal” people, their psychological needs will differ. An artist showed me their version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It was an upside down triangle with self-actualization and creativity on the bottom, and food, water, and shelter on the top. I had to laugh because this seems to be painfully true for many creative people. However, those suffering from mental illness will not conform the way society thinks they should. To portray their needs, you must observe humankind, read abnormal psychology texts, and also books from other cultures and periods of time

You can create characters obsessed with creating one thing, characters who are consumed with maintaining an appearance, or those whose goal is to appease their appetites far more than necessary. If the character doesn’t talk much, you must go into the interior thoughts to express what this character is thinking. When people have “altered” their memories they are changing these for a reason. People may do this to protect themselves from past pain, from what they fear in the weaker and baser side of their personality. Many justify themselves, clinging to a world that exists in their mind parallel to the one that we think everybody else sees.

Often the mentally ill character will seem childlike and unable to direct themselves, seeking guidance from people that are less than reliable. They try to find the easiest way to avoid harm, because pain and neglect are common occurrences in their lives. 

The mental problems that originate from past experiences must leak into the thoughts of the character or be supplied by other characters, so readers know they are dealing with someone who has gone through a traumatic experience or a mental breakdown. As an author, you want the reader to understand the mentally ill character from their own point of view.

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Reduction of language

Sometimes, I am fearful for the future of writing. We are not exactly converting to “newspeak,” But, there’s a trend of eliminating some words or even parts of speech from usage. I’ve read questions on a writing forum in which it was assumed that grammar meant the same as style, organization or even content. This assumption appeared too frequently for my comfort.

One person submitted a sample bemoaning that it was graded low by a teacher despite having no errors. A commenter, who should have known better, claimed it had “poor grammar” and “run-on sentences.” Then, he rewrote the sample in his own style. The problem was actually a mix of organization and voice, such as weak connection of ideas between the clauses. My reply to the commenter indicated that he diagnosed the sample incorrectly. There were no run-on sentences and no errors in grammar. Student often fail to understand when people try to force writing into their own style. Only the teacher could explain what style was expected.

Some teachers can be inflexible in this matter of style. However, the same is true of many contest judges, agents, and publishers. This second group is not required to explain what they seek and sometimes cannot even do it. A teacher, however, should be able to. When I taught language arts, I used one rubric for content/organization, and another for spelling, grammar/usage. When students made these second kinds of errors I underlined them and asked the student to figure out what was wrong. However, telling students how to create good content was more difficult.

Another person asked which books would be half of their current size if the author had better grammar. I cringed at this blatant attempt to absorb writing style into grammar. Then, I crafted an answer (not in my typical style).

“There would not be any books half their size if the author had better grammar, because correcting grammar rarely reduces the amount of words, and sometimes it adds them. Correct grammar is using the parts of language—nouns, verbs, etc. appropriately as determined by the majority of the educated speakers. In the case of French, it is determined by an actual institution, “l’Académie Française.”

I recall when we used to differentiate between the terms grammar and usage. Grammar referred to the rules and usage referred to whether or not rules were applied. This question implies that you assume grammar is the same as style.

In my answer, I have digressed, giving you a lot more information than you probably ever wanted. But, this is not a matter of poor use of grammar. This is a matter of style, which is very subjective. When correcting grammar, I make sure that all the cases for the nouns and verbs match, that words are spelled correctly, and that punctuation is appropriate. There is more to grammatical editing than these things. However, this kind of editing does not mean chunking out words because I feel they are extraneous. That is what I do when editing the style of writing.”

As writers who judge and critique we should remember that style and content are subjective. We use our own criteria for assessing these, and a book that teaches grammar does not contain them. We can make suggestions for improving style and content, but these are never rules.

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The nature of an epic

Before “epic” became a name used by companies to suggest their fame, it was a type of  poem. A long one describing the exploits of heroes and often involving the rise of a nation. The poetic meter made memorization of this kind of oral history easier. Because creating new epics in literature has come into vogue, it would be good to revisit the nature of an epic.

Writers tend to look at the external aspects of a legend when creating them. Epics occur in far away places, in the distant past and use a language that sounds ancient. So, authors attempting to write epic novels sometimes fill them with dramatic landscapes and archaic words. They may create  mountains so tall that the summits are perpetually in twilight or deep caves with holes to glimpse down on the glow of magnum below. They may repeat ancient words for places, calling the sea Mare Nostrum or giving place names with a primaeval ring. But, using poetic description and archaic language does not make the work an epic.

But what makes an epic is the content of the story. The main character does not initially see the adventure as leading towards their fame but as a nuisance that they must deal with. In the example of Odysseus, this local chieftain was plowing his fields when called to join the forces against Troy. He tried to feign insanity rather than join the expedition. But, his ruse was uncovered. Another key to the content of epics is found in the Arthurian legend. As a child Arthur is raised far from the castle, working as a servant and assuming he is a nobody. Heroes in an epic often have no idea who they really are.

Literary epics also repeat the situations of Joseph and Moses (described in the Bible and the Torah). Each of these men knew their background. However, both were rejected, one was sold into slavery and then imprisoned after a false accusation. The other fled to live as a menial shepherd after his people turned on him and he didn’t want to return to them. These trials served a purpose. The hero of an epic must learn humility before becoming a leader. Otherwise the hero may succumb to the same conceit and arrogance exhibited by the powers which need to be defeated.

The author builds up the epic nature of the story through events in the plot rather than the type of language used to write it. Heroes face their foes looking as if they are going to get crushed. Their might and wisdom remain unknown until it is tested. The growth required of the person who will become the hero takes time to build, which is why epics often span decades.

What creates an epic is the distance between the low stature of the protagonist and the prowess of the antagonist pitted against them. The might of the enemy makes the story, not the language, not the setting, nor the apparent strength of the hero. Because when the story begins, the hero often has none.

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Traveling towards the novel

Story tellers usually start small. I did this with little sketches referred to as flash fictions, often under 500 words. I won money in contests and published some of these. I began receiving the response, ‘this intrigues me but I need to read more of the story.” So, I added detail and created more of a set up for the final twist.. This moved my work into the 4000 to 5000 word short story category. Then, some stories burst the expected maximum of 7500 words. But, I still wasn’t ready to tackle the full length novel.

When reading a short novel entitled Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori, I noted that each chapter resembled its own short story. These were not thrilling stories, but ones that gained my interest as I saw the secrets of a family uncovered. First there was the wife who committed suicide, then the daughter who silently mourned her, followed by the husband who was unsuccessful in hiding his mistress, and finally the mistress who grew miserable after becoming his new wife. In vain she attempted to eradicate every remnant of the prior wife. Of course, the first wife’s daughter still remained, and this child grew stronger, leaving her family and learning that she could risk loving someone as her mother did. I begin to sense that these secrets might be the same as people I knew in my own life.

The difficulty in moving to the novel could be spanned by a series of connected short stories. However, this could not be a collection of incongruent tales. The stories had to deal with the same characters, move in a chronological sequence, and achieve a goal–the resolution of the main problem.

When novels were published in periodicals a chapter at a time (think Dickens and Twain), the author had to know the eventual direction that the plot would take. Most of the time, the ending was already set up before the story was pitched to the magazine. However, after the major conflict appeared, successive chapters might weave in and out of different characters’ lives. These could be entertaining on a weekly basis. But, if a person binge read all of the periodicals, this meandering technique becomes frustrating, if not downright irritating.

So how does one transition from writing the arc of a short story to writing the arc of a novel ?

The readers need to see the protagonist’s normal world and the conflict arising early in the novel, just as in the short story. Then, the protagonist reacts to a rising crisis and makes a choice that reveals an important trait in the novel. This kind of character growth may never exist in the short story. Also, the crisis is not a single one in the novel; it is introduced as small problems that continue to grow with each chapter. As the novel progresses there are waves of relief and increased tension. The major problem expands until the protagonist hits a point of no return, followed by complications and a descent into the depths. The protagonist must arise from the bottom to reach the final goal. Also, the novel has a concluding chapter, or two, describing what happens after this.

With each of these steps determined, creating chapters in short story form to piece together a novel is still not easy. But stick with it; the journey for the main character is also a fulfilling one for the author.

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The secret to naming characters

Writers seek every secret advantage that they can to make characters appealing. Choosing a good name for the character is supposed to confer one of those advantages. The only rules I see for naming a fictional person is to make it match the person and make it pronounceable. I’ll deal with the second rule, first.

Readers may not be comfortable discussing your book, if they are unsure how to pronounce the characters’ names. I used the slightly obscure Swedish name, Tove, for a female character and found initial readers were embarrassed because they didn’t know if it rhymed with dove or clove. Actually, it didn’t rhyme with either. Tove is pronounced To-vay, which may have sounded beautiful rolling off my tongue, but eventually I gave in and changed it.

Typically, I use uncommon, but not bizarre names for my major characters based on the time period of their life. As most of my writing is set in the late 20th and early 21st century they may receive one that is a little old-fashioned. However, people assume information based on their own background no matter when a story is set. In a series of short stories occurring in the late 1990’s one main character is a male child named Walt who owns a Gameboy. Some people thought he was living in the 1950’s or was an older man just because of the out-of-date name. They ignored what they knew about gaming systems or events in the late 1990’s. My take away from this experience is that the right name may depend on the experience of the reader.

The question continues to arise about naming characters in science fiction and fantasy. I often hear the old adage applied to that genre–invent a name that matches the character. That often means creating a name based on Germanic languages. Darth Vadar means dark father and Mordor sound like murder. However, the world is full of other languages from which we can borrow sounds for unique, but still pronounceable, names. Basque and Banjar are two of my favorites.

The only research I have come across on the sound of names found across cultures is the bouba/kiki effect. Wolfgang Köhler (a German speaker) tried to determine which speech sounds were matched to specific shapes across areas speaking various languages throughout the world. The “kiki” sound is associated with sharp pointed shapes, but often used in female names like Kitty. The “bouba” sound matches bulgier and rounder shapes, and the sound is often attached to male names like Bubba.

A shortcut for choosing names for fictional characters from another world is to select names that are similar to common names, and then switch out a pair of letters. However, no matter what name you create for a science fiction or fantasy character, it will probably be a real word or name in some language. So, Google the invented name (just like you do for your own) to find out what it really means and avoid later embarrassment.

As you are writing your fantasy/science fiction novel, choose common names as placeholders for efficiency’s sake, and to take the load off the spell checker. When you determine the real name that matches your character, use the search and replace function. However, avoid names with diacritics (accent, cedillas, etc.) because this can create more nightmares preparing your manuscript than you can imagine.

So what is the secret to naming characters? There actually is none. As long as the name is not outrageous we will remember Anna Karenina, Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Atticus Finch not because their names appeal to us, but because the characters are compelling.

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Real characters

The difference between being believable and being realistic may not be that different between works of fantasy and novels about “real life.” Books about life as we know it are often not realistic but contain an adrenaline-charged or romanticized version of our world. This kind of fiction includes impossible coincidences and people with characteristics or abilities that may exist in less than one percent of the population. In thrillers and mysteries, the reader is often expected to suspend disbelief just as much as when reading science fiction and fantasy. 

However, in fantasy, science fiction, alternate history and other “unreal” genres, the author is expected to create a set of rules for his world. The readers need a story that is believable despite existing in another time or universe. This semblance of believability connects it to our world, so the novel does not read as a digression into nonsense. The key to this is creating limitations.

Assume that you want one of your characters to be able to read or even control the minds of other characters, but you don’t want that character to be too powerful. The key to that is including limitations that are common occurrences. For example, listening to one person is easy, at least for a while. Hearing five or six people chatter at the same time leads to the inability to comprehend them, and maybe a massive headache. Hearing the constant thoughts of that many people would likely drive someone insane. This would require withdrawing from a crowd or shutting down this subliminal communication. Limitation to the very unreal ability to read or control minds could be similar to those for hearing and comprehending people that are speaking.

Limitations are just as applicable when writing believable mysteries and thrillers. Creating events viewed through the lens of reality may slow down the action, but more action does not necessarily lead to more tension. The destination of a trap door or the conclusion to a car chase may be in question the first time this device is used. But after the second time a character faces that same situation, readers might start yawning if they see it again. The character’s inability to know how to respond is what builds tension.

I’ve sometimes heard authors claim that characters “take on a life of their own” and start making the choices that they want. That could be the cue that a character is not interesting because he does not have to struggle enough. The writer is still the creator who decides what the character will and can do. The author still weighs which actions would be best for the story and decides what goes onto the paper or into the computer. Characters, like children, need to face limits to grow.

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How I Judge Books

People are supposed to judge books by the cover, by the blurbs and by who the author is. I have favorite books with unappealing covers, done in an out-of-date style, or an old illustration slapped on the front. I tend to avoid books in which the author’s name is larger than the title. That’s a lesson I learned after picking up a few of those and being so disappointed that I did not bother to finish them. Maybe the authors had produced better quality at one time, but fame or the quantity of books they pumped out, resulted in a negative effect on that quality.

Rarely do I pay any attention to blurbs, unless one happens to be written by someone whose judgment I trust. (There are only a handful of people I trust to know what I like to read.) If I peruse a book that interests me, I do not read the first pages. But I choose randomly, often a section in the middle of the book. I don’t expect the text to grab me immediately, but a good author is able to be engaging throughout the book and not just in the first chapter.

Finally, I don’t really pay attention to the author’s ethnicity, age, or gender, or even the year that the book was written.

Years ago, in the main Cincinnati Library, I picked up The Idiot because the title intrigued me. At that time, I was young, not well read, and still reading the first chapter to evaluate books. As I read this one the conversation between the characters intrigued me—a man who had been isolated for years and another so infatuated with being in love that he was dangerous to the object of his love. I had never heard of Fyodor Dostoevsky before. Yet, reading that book convinced me that it was worth my time to read others by him.

Recently in an online class, I asked an American Asian author why he was so intent on the idea that knowing ethnicity, gender, and age of the artist were as important as knowing what the author wrote. He indicated that knowing the background information about the author was necessary to interpret the works correctly. If that is true, I wasted years reading books that I didn’t realize were written by Europeans, Africans, Central and South Americans, and Asians. I didn’t study the authors’ backgrounds first. I decided if I liked their work based on their actual writing.

Having to learn about the author doesn’t make me think more highly of their work. A good writer reaches for universal themes. The readers should be able to bring what they have as human into the writing in order to gain something from it. If I have to know about the author’s background in order to appreciate the book, then the author is not really doing their job.

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Play the words well

Mastering literary devices is like playing an instrument – you must practice improving your performance by working on only a few songs at a time. So how do you practice?  First, start with your own writing. Check to see which devices you are already using. For convenience I usually categorize them according to the following types.

Sound

Using “musical words” is selecting words for their unique sounds, such as sloshing and crackling, which are examples of onomatopoeia. Long words, like onomatopoeia, seem elegant to the ear, even if their meaning is not. Short words, especially those ending in consonants, have a sharper, slangy ring.

Consonants are not to be confused with consonance which is another device defined as repeating the same consonant within a word, such as spinning and ringing. If you repeat the first sound (for example, special spinning), that is called alliteration. But, don’t worry if you cannot remember these terms, just remember to repeat sounds occasionally for a poetic effect.

Rhythm

Music is recognizable as certain melodies because of repeated sound and rhythms. Repetition can either move the story along or bring it to a screeching halt. Repeating the same sentence structure makes reading easier and picks up the pace. But, too much of this and the writing seems utterly childlike.

Speed

A good melody is also marked by different speeds. Short sentences with direct verbs can be the antidote to a dragging pace. However, few readers can stomach an entire work of short choppy bursts. When you drive a car, alternating between the gas and brake pedals jerks the car uncomfortably. That’s not true of writing. Inserting a five word sentence in the middle of long ones creates an interesting contrast.

Word choice

These literary terms bring us to the last device we will discuss, which is diction. Diction is demonstrated by a distinct choice of words, and the most obvious being the level of formality. If you use colloquialisms or street slang for effect and you are employing diction as a device. Use of passive is also part of diction. Don’t be so quick to condemn passive verbs. They have their place. They create a style that is gentler and less accusatory than its counterpart. “The door was left open, again.” is a bit kinder than “You left the door open, again.”

As you continue to layer on literary devices you will find a piece will reach a saturation point. You don’t want to force the reader to slog through your text. Learning how to handle and apply literary devices with the right touch will help you to “play the words well.”

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