Month: October 2012
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I can distinctly recall a day in my Grade 1 class where all the students sat on the carpet in our humble little classroom and were treated to a screening of the then-hit film Beethoven. For those of you unaware of the title, Beethoven is the story of a loveable, piano-playing St Bernard who wins the affection of a nuclear family while avoiding a vet intent on puppy-murder. I know; a story that’s been told a thousand times.
To be honest, I can’t recall too much of the film. But I do all-too-vividly remember the disgust I felt watching my classmates roll around in laughter as they savored the slapstick comedy. At just six years old I was appalled by our teacher’s choice: not only did she assume we would enjoy such low-brow humour, for the most part she was correct. I was the exception. Furthermore, this open disapproval came from a child who was (still is) desperate to fit in with his counterparts.
I’m not sure if this was a catalyst for what was to come, but it is the earliest recollection I have of being cynical.
That seed of disapproval has flourished with age. The cynicism is now an instinct. It comes as a package of personality traits: I’m a sceptic; I’m prone to suffering from a superiority complex; and I also find most commercial television unbearable – bordering on repulsive.
What I’m slowly figuring out is that cynicism can be detrimental in the arena of literacy. Many would argue that cynicism and writing go hand in hand; that the extreme level of self-consciousness that comes with being cynical leads to a greater strive for perfection.
Well, let me provide some examples to the contrary.
The world of mobile messaging and online chat has been a task for me for as long as it has been in vogue. This is, in part, due to the limit I place on my texting vocabulary. I don’t use acronyms; it’s lazy and I’ll play no part in their venereal outbreak. Furthermore, I don’t use smilies. I don’t haha or hehe. A lot of the time this results in messages presenting me as a humourless arsehole. Do you realise how hard it is to convey satire through an SMS? (Or, is it instead far too easy?)
The exclamation mark is another tool of communication I leave out of my repertoire. To be honest, I feel I’m above it. I think in the wider writing/reading community it’s generally accepted the punctuation carries a negative connotation – that it’s somewhat juvenile. Personally, I feel it’s drastically overused by journalists and authors alike. I recently completed a professional course in writing and editing. Over the several years I was enrolled I used an exclamation mark only once. The moment I chose to rid myself of my aversion the exclamation mark, to let bygones be bygones, was on my final grammar exam.
I had used it incorrectly; I was awarded zero marks.
These anecdotes aren’t horror stories, by any stretch, but I’m sure you can appreciate the discomfort they entail. Or maybe not. Perhaps you don’t sympathise or relate to the parables (and they are parables) at all. Perhaps you’re thinking, Why do this to yourself? Is this sense of self-righteousness really worth it?
The answer is yes.
Yes it is.
I revel in it.
Don’t worry; I won’t hold it against you if you don’t appreciate my protests. I’m not trying to be a martyr – an elitist maybe, but not a martyr … unless the emoticon-pushing telecommunication industry kills me for it. They would add me to Michelangelo’s Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel, a smartphone lodged in my chest. There would be a revolution, literary wars held across the globe – cynics from every nation would claim to fight for me, but never actually get around to participating.
In hindsight, whether I was a cynic who stumbled upon writing or a writer who became cynical because of the medium is irrelevant. I am a cynic, and I don’t think there is any way back.
And nor do I want one.
I truly believe that being cynical has helped me develop into a more disciplined writer and editor: I have an acute eye for detail (derived from a fear of the shame that comes with simple errors); a keen understanding of what does and does not work (knowing exactly what can be mocked by others); and I’ve got an impressive grasp on keeping a reader interested (there’s nothing like a yawn to ruin your confidence/whole year).
Being cynical has worked wonders for my writing, but it’s not the only way to go about it. It’s what works for me. And on the other side of things, being a writer is not why I’m a great cynic. I’m a great cynic because I don’t use smilies or lols or exclamation marks. Hey, I may look like an arsehole, but at least I look like less of an idiot. Hahaha – like WTF!?
October 24, 2012
One of the biggest driving forces a character needs is motivation. Why are they taking the course they are? If there’s an antagonist, what is their motivation? In the simplest terms, in a battle of good versus evil (think James Bond), simply being evil for the sake of being evil isn’t enough. There has to be some goal, some justifiable end game.
The same goes for your protagonist. If they’re the hero of some pop fiction thriller, why are they the hero? Is it because circumstances corner them into taking action? Or are they simply performing their duty? Of course, it might run deeper than that. Perhaps they share a history with the antagonist. Or perhaps they have a certain talent which is required for the undertaking.
A basic example would be Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. He is chosen to accompany thirteen dwarves on a quest, promoted by Gandalf as ‘a thief’, and also to ensure the party isn’t an unlucky thirteen in number. This would seem frivolous. But in other stories, Tolkien explained that Gandalf specifically chose a hobbit because he knew the hobbit scent would confuse the dragon, Smaug – so this is something specific to Bilbo (in the company). Midway through The Hobbit, he finds a magical ring that makes him invisible, which often puts him in the best position for all the risky tasks during the quest.
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins is chosen to bear the One Ring to the Cracks of Doom, although there would seem hardier candidates. He volunteers because he feels the One Ring has become his burden. Of course, he also wants to save Middle-earth (and, by extension, the Shire) from the growing threat of Sauron.
Of course, not all stories are so straightforward, i.e. they don’t contain a goal, or are as simple as stopping the bad guy. Many stories are about intellectual, emotional, and/or spiritual growth.
Consider The Catcher In the Rye. Holden Caufield bugs out from school early to get home. It seems a whimsical motive. But on the journey Holden works himself out. The journey is really just an allegory for Holden to find himself and to, finally, become comfortable in his own skin after a troubled life, and one which hasn’t made much sense to him since the death of his brother Allie.
Now not only should characters be motivated in their actions, but some thought should be given to the psychology of their behaviour. Many writers would impulsively attribute behaviours to a character because it seems convenient at the time of writing, e.g., ‘Bob clenched his fist angrily.’
That’s a simple example, but let’s consider, is Bob really a fist clencher? Why is he a fist clencher? Does he do it in an attempt to contain the anger or because he’s ready to strike? Is he aware he does this? Are there any other physical manifestations of his anger? How long does it take him to get angry? Does he have a slow fuse or does he blow immediately? How long does he take to unwind afterwards?
We all have quirks. These might manifest physically, but they would also have some root psychological cause. It’s too easy to randomly attribute behaviours to a character without thinking about why they happen – why they are the way they are. The genesis of any behaviours might be a result of upbringing or could be accredited to a single incident.
For example, a boy who falls in a pool and almost drowns might grow up to fear water. Here we have a breakdown of a physical manifestation with a psychological cause due to a specific incident. E.g.
- physical manifestation: might experience rapid heartbeat and shortness of breath when nearing water.
- psychological cause: fear of water.
- root cause: almost drowning as a child.
Of course, not every (or even any) character has to be so dramatic. But even an everyman – somebody happy with a nine-to-five job, who wants to live in suburbia, have the partner, the kids, the dog, et al – might be driven by a need for conformity (programmed into them from childhood), or the desire to have a family. Or they might not realise this, as they’re just going along with what they’ve always known and been brought up to believe in, never questioning.
Motivation and psychology – it’s worth putting a little thought into what drives your characters.
October 16, 2012
When you plot out your story – whether it’s outlining it in great detail in a notebook, or just trying to germinate seeds of ideas in your head – you’ll probably have a rudimentary idea what your characters look like.
Usually, their appearance will be commensurate with what role they might be playing, e.g. an action hero might be tall, strong, with a square jaw; a geek might be weaselly and wear glasses; an everyman might be nondescript, (keeping in mind these are stereotypes to give you the broadest idea), etc.
Just as you’ll have an idea what your characters look like, readers will also form an image of them in their heads, extrapolating from the most basic ingredients – name, occupation, the way they talk, the way they act, etc.
Take the following details, for example: the name of Lance Solis, thirty-something, a policeman and divorcee with two kids, one of whom has autism. There’s nothing overtly descriptive here, but from these details you’ll start to imagine what Lance will look like. A picture will form. Of course, given everybody’s unique (and everybody thinks uniquely), readers might even visualise the character completely contrary to what you intend.
There’s been times I’ve read stories and formed images in my mind of characters, only to have the author suddenly insert that the character is, for example, blonde, which makes me stop and pause because I’ve been picturing them as a brunette, (or whatever the case might be).
It’s something to keep in mind when drawing your character and how you portray them.
Now, there’s no right or wrong way to describe them. Some authors opt to effectively dump a ton of information (on you) in relation to the way the character looks (and, possibly, behaves). Take, for example, this excerpt from Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News:
- Here is an account of a few years in the life of Quoyle, born in Brooklyn and raised in a shuffle of dreary upstate towns.
Hive-spangled, gut roaring with gas and cramp, he survived childhood; at the state university, hand clapped over his chin, he camouflaged torment with smiles and silence. Stumbled through his twenties and into his thirties learning to separate his feelings from his life, counting on nothing. He ate prodigiously, liked a ham knuckle, buttered spuds.
His jobs: distributor of vending machine candy, all-night clerk in a convenience store, a third-rate newspaperman. At thirty-six, bereft, brimming with grief and thwarted love, Quoyle steered away to Newfoundland, the rock that had generated his ancestors, a place he had never been nor thought to go.
A watery place. And Quoyle feared water, could not swim. Again and again the father had broken his clenched grip and thrown him into pools, brooks, lakes and surf. Quoyle knew the flavor of brack and waterweed.
From this youngest son’s failure to dog-paddle the father saw other failures multiply like an explosion of virulent cells — failure to speak clearly; failure to sit up straight; failure to get up in the morning; failure in attitude; failure in ambition and ability; indeed, in everything. His own failure.
Quoyle shambled, a head taller than any child around him, was soft. He knew it. “Ah, you lout,” said the father. But no pygmy himself. And brother Dick, the father’s favorite, pretended to throw up when Quoyle came into a room, hissed “Lardass, Snotface, Ugly Pig, Warthog, Stupid, Stinkbomb, Fart-tub, Greasebag,” pummeled and kicked until Quoyle curled, hands over head, sniveling, on the linoleum. All stemmed from Quoyle’s chief failure, a failure of normal appearance.
A great damp loaf of a body. At six he weighed eighty pounds. At sixteen he was buried under a casement of flesh. Head shaped like a crenshaw, no neck, reddish hair ruched back. Features as bunched as kissed fingertips. Eyes the color of plastic. The monstrous chin, a freakish shelf jutting from the lower face.
Some anomalous gene had fired up at the moment of his begetting as a single spark sometimes leaps from banked coals, had given him a giant’s chin. As a child he invented stratagems to deflect stares; a smile, downcast gaze, the right hand darting up to cover the chin.
From the opening (and this goes on), Quoyle is drawn for us so we form an unmistakeable picture of what he looks like (and who he is). Also, given the details, we’re prejudiced into forming an expectation of the sort of story we’ll be reading.
Alternatively, we could seed in the details as the narrative unfolds. Consider this excerpt from Patrick Suskind’s Perfume in describing Jean-Baptiste Grenouille’s mother:
- Here, then, on the most putrid spot in the whole kingdom, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille was born on July 17, 1738. It was one of the hottest days of the year. The heat lay leaden upon the graveyard, squeezing its putrefying vapor, a blend of rotting melon and the fetid odor of burnt animal horn, out into the nearby alleys. When the labor pains began, Grenouille’s mother was standing at a fish stall in the rue aux Fers, scaling whiting that she had just gutted. The fish, ostensibly taken that very morning from the Seine, already stank so vilely that the smell masked the odor of corpses. Grenouille’s mother, however, perceived the odor neither of the fish nor of the corpses, for her sense of smell had been utterly dulled, besides which her belly hurt, and the pain deadened all susceptibility to sensate impressions. She only wanted the pain to stop, she wanted to put this revolting birth behind her as quickly as possible. It was her fifth. She had effected all the others here at the fish booth, and all had been stillbirths or semi-stillbirths, for the bloody meat that emerged had not differed greatly from the fish guts that lay there already, nor had lived much longer, and by evening the whole mess had been shoveled away and carted off to the graveyard or down to the river. It would be much the same this day, and Grenouille’s mother, who was still a young woman, barely in her mid-twenties, and who still was quite pretty and had almost all her teeth in her mouth and some hair on her head and-except for gout and syphilis and a touch of consumption-suffered from no serious disease, who still hoped to live a while yet, perhaps a good five or ten years, and perhaps even to marry one day and as the honorable wife of a widower with a trade or some such to bear real children . . . Grenouille’s mother wished that it were already over. And when the final contractions began, she squatted down under the gutting table and there gave birth, as she had done four times before, and cut the newborn thing’s umbilical cord with her butcher knife. But then, on account of the heat and the stench, which she did not perceive as such but only as an unbearable, numbing something-like a field of lilies or a small room filled with too many daffodils-she grew faint, toppled to one side, fell out from under the table into the street, and lay there, knife in hand.
Whichever your preference, what should be noted are that the details are strong and specific. They’re not simply a bland, ‘blonde, blue-eyed, with a dimpled smile’ – the sort of description that could fit anybody. These (details) are striking and go a long way to personifying the character (and, thus, by extension, the story).
This is arguably the most important aspect of describing characters – finding details that are distinctive. Additionally, they form a framework which both the story and the reader will fill in to produce a whole picture.
Keep in mind when describing characters, it’s not just about appearance. Character description also involves mannerisms and idiosyncrasies, e.g. a limp, a tic, the way a character might hold their right arm cocked (implying an injury). There really is no limit to the way you can physically manifest your characters and use these details to shape them into unique entities.
As an exercise, consider how you’d describe yourself beyond the generics and what quirks, unique to you, might make an impression on others.
Then apply the same logics to your characters.
October 3, 2012
When creating characters, how deep to you go in constructing who they are? Do you just name them, offer a basic description, and away you go, often only really finding out about them as your write? Or do you look to create as many layers as possible, wanting to intimately know your character before you set them in motion?
There’s no hard and fast rules on how to create a character the way there would be in creating an actual human being. But unlike creating a human being, you can pre-plan every detail about your character … although some might find once they’ve set their character in motion, they’ll take on a life of their own and do something wholly unanticipated.
We’re going to run a series of blogs on character creation, looking at different aspects of character.
Part 1: What’s in a Name?
Yes, this would seem basic enough. Just name the character Joe Blow, and there you are.
However, I’ve always thought that names help define people. More than that, they characterise people. Think about the people you know. How many are there who share the same name? Do they share similar characteristics? I once had three different friends with the same name and while they were good guys, they were all annoying. (I won’t mention what name it was.)
Jerry Seinfeld had a comic bit that if you named your kid ‘Jeeves’ you were pretty much mapping out his vocation (as a butler). Names are defining. We see that often in stories, where tough characters are given tough names and geeks are given names considered stereotypically geeky.
So how do we find the names we want?
I have several books of Baby Names which’ll I go through, trying to find names that will fit my characters. Seeing the definitions behind names is also useful. It mightn’t (and in all likelihood won’t) play a factor in the story itself, but it does add texture to a character.
Similarly, I have folders and folders containing surnames, which I’ve broken down by nationality. Some also have definitions. (Surnames can easily be Googled, i.e. ‘Most popular surnames’, or throw a nationality into the search also to get a specific list of surnames.)
Then I’ll write all the possibilities down in a notebook – Christian names in one column, surnames in the other. What follows is simply a case of what sounds good (to me) and what I think fits the character. Is he a Jack or is he a Robert? Robert Harmon might have a nice ring for my purposes, whereas Jack Harmon doesn’t.
Something else to consider are the range of names you employ, so I’ll also write out the alphabet on a page. When I find a name I want to use, I’ll strike out the letter it begins with and will then try not to use another name beginning with this letter. This helps avoid too many similar sounding names, e.g. Jack, Joel, James. You might be able to keep them all clear in your head, but readers might lose track of who’s who if too many characters have similar names, (unless, for some reason, there’s a point to making the names sounding similar, e.g. like Christopher Nolan’s film Memento).
From there, it’s a case of how that name is employed. For instance, how would Robert Harmon like to be addressed? As Rob? Bob? Bobby? Bert? Or even Harm? Perhaps his boss calls him ‘Robert’ (implying a formal relationship), his wife calls him ‘Rob’ (which is much more familiar), whereas his brother calls him ‘Bobby’ (much more informal).
There’s so much that can be done with a simple name, and the choices we make tells us so much (more) about our characters.
Finally, names are often our first impression of a character, and the way we’ll start to shape of visualisation of them in our heads, so it’s important we get the name which are just right.