The appeal of the unlikable

fear06 047bIn the search to construct a likable character, amateur authors often forget that the major character needs flaws. When authors want to escape this world by imagining themselves as the person that everyone adores, this adulation occurs only within the story that they craft. Envy and distrust are the real life responses to the almost perfect person.

Some writers try to lull the reader into a favorable attitude towards the protagonist by making them naive and childlike. However, when it comes time to solve the major conflict this artless character may begins to display great skill. When a character always seems to rise to the level necessary deal with a conflict, readers will become wary. If the character does not have to work to overcome a flaw, it is not a real flaw.

These flaws cannot simply be minor idiosyncrasies, such as refusing to eat vegetables. Dislike of  spinach is a major problem only for children’s cartoons and picture books. If you are familiar Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, you will note that even picture books can a have a main character with a deeper struggle.

A pleasant, amiable, conscientious and exquisitely  resourceful protagonist is as likely to rub the reader the wrong way as an egotistical  narcissist. Some readers are bored by a character that never offends anyone. Others will despise them. The problem has to be a personal one, a negative trait that hampers the main characters—shyness, fear, anger, rigid behavior or, lack of self-control. Often, what is seen as a positive behavior, such a lively sense of humor, can morph into a cringe-worthy behavior when the main character is hard-pressed. Humor can become a flippant disregard for the serious situation of others.

The key to prevent reader alienation is making the character to be aware of their flaws. The slovenly appearing and often tipsy Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities is both more  interesting and empathetic than the lovely, sweet Lucy Manet. His realization that he is not worthy of the love of a nearly perfect heroine endears him to the reader. However, negative traits must be balanced by positive ones. Carton is an individual capable of caring more deeply for others than himself.

The best drawn characters are not just two traits, but a complex personality resulting in a person that is not quite predictable. Not all readers may find the person that you have spent hours creating likable. But then, remember no one is really loved by everyone. Write a character that you feel pleases everyone, and you may end up pleasing only yourself.

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Creating a team-like atmosphere in classes

Being able to work in a team is prized–but is this a good way for students to function when receiving their education?

Write about what?

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…

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What is the purpose of education?

With teacher strikes in California making the news, I thought it would be good to review what the goal of education is.

Write about what?

Toy train Gaylord Texan 120What does a railroad have to do with the purpose of education?  It has more to do with what it should not be.

So what 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 learning or why.  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…

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What’s in Style in Words?

contrast lolly 2012 (2)Adolescents are known for following fads in fashion. Buying clothes which they wouldn’t dare be seen in the next year. Only, I’m seeing styles that keep coming back. The tendency towards fads has moved on into the world of books. We finished a phase in which the major character in a YA book was overwhelmingly more likely to fall in love with someone not quite human than another person. What changed between the novels was the quality of that difference.  One was a vampire, the next a werewolf, and another a space alien. How about a romance with the zombie; isn’t that original? On the surface yes, but it is largely the same plot.

When dystopian YA  books came into vogue, the majority described a future society in which being educated in the art of physical fighting led to the best career. Details were different, but the premises were similar, and it the end the corrupt government fell.

As a teenager there was a novella that was passed around between my friends to read and reread until the paperback became tattered and dog-eared. Recently I learned it was not a real work of YA fiction, not according to modern genre section rules. The major characters were  not adolescents who solved their own problems. They were adults who didn’t even manage  to do that.

During a lesson on how to compose a blurb for a book, my junior high favorite resurfaced. I noted that the  blurb had been rewritten to appeal to a modern audience. It mentioned that Charlie was part of an experiment, and he had discovered something was going wrong another subject of this experiment. It said nothing about the fact his name, Charlie Gordon, was synonymous was pulling a stupid stunt. Nor, that he is an adult who starts out and ends up with the mental capacity of a kindergartner. And it did not mention that the other subject of this experiment was a lowly mouse.

Instead it stuck strictly to the sci-fi aspects of this lovely piece of fiction. Everyone thought it was a wonderful blurb, because Flowers for Algernon is a wonderful book. However, will all those teenagers who are expecting to read about an adolescent who is forced into an experiment by a corrupt government that he eventually overcomes be disappointed? I sincerely hope not.


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Writing the car wreck

NY toll road (1) _a copyImagine a movie scene from the seventies or eighties– a car veers out of control over the edge of a cliff  and tumbles end-over-end finally exploding  at the bottom of the ravine. We’ll never know who that unfortunate driver was. Only it doesn’t really happen that way. The MythBusters sent several cars  careening over cliffs (sans driver) but they couldn’t get one to explode, even when they damaged the gas tank. Writers are sometimes under the illusion that an exciting event like sending a car tumbling over a cliff will create a bang in their story, only to have it fizzle out just like the cars failing to explode for the MythBusters.

Comparing car wrecks from different stories, might help show which elements  are necessary to generate tension. For example, I recall slamming on the brakes on a wet road water and sliding off it in a spin. As the car swung around, I didn’t know when it would strike something, when the excruciating pain would come, or if I would even survive. Fortunately, the car hit nothing. Even though the axle was damaged, I was not hurt. However, I still have the sense of the seconds stretching interminably.

Then, I read a description of a car wreck that echoed my sensations with more intensity. The author took the time to present the wreck as perceived–noting the loose change and compacts disc catapulting through the interior of the car, the smell of burning rubber, the thudding crunch of metal crumpling, and the moan of the passenger in the next seat. This stretched the reader to piece together the total event from many details. This event would turn one person’s life inside out — the one that survived.

But, many of the car wrecks I’ve read have been quickly sketched in pastel colors and too soft to seem real. The aftershocks of the horrible wreck which left a sole survivor was described in the same vagueness, The author’s constant reminders that the protagonist was really hurt by the loss of her entire family was almost humorous because the pain was lacking from the plot. Instead, this enviable, tough woman just kept on going with little to no struggle. The main character needs a challenge stretching them to the point in which the reader doesn’t know whether or not the protagonist can cope.

A most famous literary car accident wasn’t a dramatic car rolling down a cliff, but a collision between a car and a human that  lasted less than a minute in the novel but caused everything to unwind. The resulting ironic twists made this accident in The Great Gatsby important. Tension arose due to the nature of the personal relationships and the practice of deception that permeated the life of the wealthy class. Jay Gatsby pretended to have been the driver, while his lover had no idea that she had hit and killed her own husband’s mistress. The cover-up leads to the crisis that ends the story.

The description of the car accident has to strike a chord of reality in the reader. But, the total impact of the accident on the story is more important. Otherwise a quick car wreck is a hook that offers excitement but leads the reader into a ditch. And, readers don’t want to be left in a plot that fails to explode at the bottom of the ravine.

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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 be 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 this outwardly brash manner. The well-behaved young man should have friends or servants showing wariness due to their knowledge that a polite exterior hid a self-serving interior. But that did not occur.

Both male characters needed to display a mix of 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


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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