Monday, April 29, 2019

Remembering the Flaws In Our Heroes

I've mentioned this before, but it's worth discussing again. I gain a lot of the material or my writing from the people around me. The Rogue's Gallery of people in my tribe provides ample material for any character I want to create, and if you knew the people I knew, you would be able to see that every character I write looks like a mismatched bunch of parts from everyone I know.

The sad part is that I rarely use the best parts.

Conflicting interests make compelling characters
I have friends who are first-responders and medical professionals, and several of them have saved lives and watched people die in front of them. Some of my friends are teachers who have taught an entire generation of kids and are heroes in their eyes. And needless to say, many of my friends are parents to a bunch of children that range from wonderful to sticky to scary. These are all character traits that I respect and even envy, and would never talk trash about for a second.

But as characters, are they very readable?

The challenge of writing entertaining characters is writing ones that stand out. Main characters need to have qualities that are interesting, and interesting does not always equal amazing. Is a teacher who wins awards and is loved by his students really interesting? We've seen this - it's very familiar, but that's not where the interesting part is. A brilliant nurse, a loving parent - very nice, but what makes this character stick?

Nobody is saying that a main character can't fit the model of the inspirational teacher or the heroic first-responder; they just need a little help. There are a lot of routes to make these characters stand out, but we will look at two - the Mismatch, and the Fallen Hero.

The Mismatch is a fun one to play out on the page. This is the magical, gifted person who is really at the top performer in the field. Insightful and ingenious, they are respected by their peers. However, beyond that perfect world is an aspect of their life that is as chaotic as their career is masterful. The counselor who has a horrible time with relationships. A teacher who can't connect with their own kids. Any equal and opposite situation creates a very fertile ground for character depth. More to the point, a part of the hero's journey can be trying to match up the parts of life that just do not go together. That could be a book on its own.

The Fallen Hero is another interesting route to take because the character's special quality becomes their vulnerability. We can take a respected twenty-year cop on his way to making lieutenant, and bring out that one mistake they made as a rookie - the one time they buried evidence for someone, and now it's all come back at the worst possible time. As they try to make sure that one mistake doesn't ruin their career, the problem begins to snowball, growing out of control with every page. It's a winner every time because it humanizes the greater-than-believable character, and makes them likable in their newfound humanity.

Any kind of character can be interesting, as long as we remember to showcase the human side of them. Amazing characters are alright, but they aren't strong enough to turn pages.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Learning About Writing From the Movies

Yes, the Avengers franchise has found its way to this blog as well. However, this post is not going to do a deep dive into the many facets of the Marvel Cinematic Universe or give a review of the latest movie. No spoilers here. Rather, this will look into some of the elements that make the movies so compelling and how they can show up in our writing - and we don't even need to write about superheroes to do it.

In any novel, we need the antagonist. The bad guy. The threat to our main character's way of living. Maybe the bad guy is just an obstacle or an active threat, but that role is critical. Depending on what genre we write, the antagonist can take many shapes - the boogeyman in horror stories, thrillers have the diabolical villain, more psychological stories can have the antagonist be a concept, or even a part of the hero themselves. How we present this villain sets the tone for the entire story.

The Avengers face a wide variety of bad guys, from the smaller ones that only last for one movie to the larger, overarching baddies that carry the broader arc of the franchise. What makes them stand out from many other genres is the way the enemy is portrayed. When our antagonist is more than just someone to be conquered, the story is more than just something to be read.

Look at horror/thriller stories. Often, the antagonist is fairly one-dimensional - someone seeking revenge, a monster thirsting for blood or the relentless horde of zombies. This creates good conflict and a heightened sense of tension, but the reader has very little to connect with. Ian Fleming's seventeen James Bond novels relied mostly on villains with diabolical plans and little backstory to work with. Great novels for the action genre, but not a lot of sustenance.

Looking at the Avengers series, the writers granted the main bad guy, Thanos, something very valuable - a backstory. He might be a man intent on wiping out half the universe, but we are shown his reasoning. We learn about his purpose, and even though it is definitively horrible, we understand that his mission is very similar to the Avengers: Thanos wants to protect people from their worst enemy - themselves. He wants to save them from their own destruction. His means of doing this are genuinely horrible, but now the viewers understand where he comes from and what his motive is. Even though he is a bad guy, he now has dimension. We still hate him, but we now think about him as more than just a villain. We now engage with the plot that much more, and find an interest in seeing how he seeks to achieve that end.

Now let's look at how we can put that in our writing. Once we introduce the antagonist, we should think about a few details:

  • Why is the villain at odds with our hero?
  • What do they have in common?
  • At what point do their ideals split ways?
  • How would they present their differences to each other?

This is what makes a deep, in-depth story different from the horror, thriller, and action novel genres. The reader at least understands the villain, and can even start thinking about how the villain might respond to the hero's actions. And as our hero marches along, the reader should start anticipating how the antagonist might respond or what the next steps should be.

This is not an easy process when writing a story. How do you introduce the bad guy as an in-depth character? Flashbacks? Dialogue? Occasionally switch to the bad guy's point of view? This is simple in the movies, but not when we write. It involves technique and an understanding of what the reader should discover versus what the hero should know.

If you go and see the latest Avengers movie (like everyone else on the planet), think about how the story is presented. Afterward, ask yourself if that would be the same on the written page, and would different perspectives create a different feel for the story. Think about how all the backstory was presented, and what would change if the story was mostly from one character.

Actually, do that the second time you see the movie. Just have fun the first time.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Wine and Tacos: Odd Pairings that Make Writing Stand Out

I do not know many people who have wine with their tacos. Many of my friends drink wine, and many of them eat tacos. Most of them do both, but not at the same time. Is there something wrong with the combination? Is there something wrong with my friends (other than some of them think Taco Bell tacos are real tacos)? There’s just something that doesn’t sound familiar about it, and people steer away.

In this case, the mind of a writer should step in.

This blog spends a healthy amount of time discussing the importance of tension and conflict, and finding places for it throughout any piece of writing. Fight scenes and car chases are easy grabs at conflict, but they lack tension. Instead, tension and conflict exist when opposing things get forced into the same space and have to contend with each other. At that point, conflict and tension exist in every page, every sentence.

First let’s look at the obvious pairings – the can’t-miss, white-wine-with-chicken matches. Look at most stories where the protagonist has a partner. A married couple, two lifelong friends, siblings, etc. Since they get along just fine, the movement is pleasant but the rest is very boring. If they are well-matched, happy with each other, never fight, go to sleep with smiles on their faces, and so on, then who cares? The only reason a story should start off with characters like that is if something comes between them and creates friction – now that’s interesting. Why? Because tension and conflict enter the story.

This does not mean that any pair of characters have to constantly be at odds. A married couple doesn’t have to be on the verge of divorce, siblings long-since estranged, or friends ready to stab each other in the back. The important part is that they have differences, and that they are relevant to the plot. In other words, there has to be a stand-out quality in either the chicken or the white wine – preferably both.

Let’s look at the happily married couple. Their only issue might be the husband is uncomfortable that his wife is still in touch with an ex-boyfriend. No insane jealousy, just a sensitive subject. This creates an underlying tension. Then, when the ex-boyfriend shows up at their door, his life in danger and he has nobody to turn to who can save him and his four-year-old daughter, well, then it becomes a big problem. Conflict has literally shown up at the door. The couple is still happily married, but now… it’s complicated.

The other side of this is where two people who are total opposites are forced together because they share one common interest. This is the unusual wine pairing – a sweet Riesling with chili – that is the standard formula for the Buddy Story – rivals end up finding each other’s humanity while saving the day. Matching the by-the-book cop and the felon, the book-smart grad student and the streetwise dropout, the rough-and-tumble drunk with his uptight accountant – these all qualify. They don’t match in any way except for the mission they are on, but it is their differences that make them work. They compliment each other, just like wine and tacos.

With these buddy pairings, the tension starts from the moment they meet. The writer can keep this going as long as necessary, but the catch is that at some point, character growth should offer an opportunity for one to have an insight into the other. They don’t have to convert to the other side, but once they have that moment of realization, their growth just spills from the page, and the reader follows along. They realize that the odd pairing works great together if done in just the right way.

Not every attempt will be a success, and some readers will not accept certain pairings. If someone will only drink Merlot with dessert, don’t try to change them. Find something interesting to the writing part of your brain, and try out things. You might be surprised. And if you don’t believe me, try carne asada tacos with a hearty Malbec. Maybe it doesn’t sound right, but you will thank me later.





Monday, April 15, 2019

Fitting Characters Into the Story

Hopefully after the last post, we can all agree that characters need a story to survive. As writers, a lot of characters come to mind - the people around us would make ideal parts of a book, as would those people we dream about, cobble together from a bunch of notes, or whatever. I grew up with a lot of characters, and they would all be worth a spot in a novel (whether they were on the good or bad side of the story is for another post.) Characters are everywhere; we just need to find the ones that inspire us.

But how does this work if the story comes first?

Often, the idea can come to us not from the character but rather the story itself. Take a look at the classic novel, The Lord of the Rings. From a story perspective, this is an epic power struggle with our characters facing a rising and potentially unstoppable evil, and the seemingly impossible mission to destroy it. We see this story in its many forms, usually with good triumphant in the end, but that's not important. What's important are the characters that play out this story. Finding the right ones is not an easy task.

Once we know our story, our choice of characters can make or break it quite quickly. If our saga demands that our hero cross the entirety of Middle Earth, do we want them to be a well-traveled, world-wise person? Where is the fun in that? What draws the reader into The Lord of the Rings is that our main character is Frodo, just a hobbit; one of a bunch of mostly unimpressive people more concerned with eating and smoking and farming the lands of The Shire. Frodo dreams of adventure, but he has never set foot outside the Shire. So now, placing this cross-country, life-or-death mission in the hands of someone hardly prepared for us engages the reader. "How could he ever do that?" the reader will ask themselves, then turn the pages to find out.

So once we have our story, the writer's mission is not to find some characters who will fit. It is about finding the characters that do not fit, that are out of place, that would be the last choice for the mission at hand. The supporting characters can be far better prepared, but our hero will still be the focus and the reason things are not so easy. This will create a constant tension that keeps the reader attached.

Of course, the supporting characters cannot just be in charge of rescuing our hero. If they were so great, maybe they should do the mission instead, right? No, they should have flaws too, perhaps shortcomings that create obstacles down the road. Frodo received a lot of help, but while they were of great assistance, they brought their own damage - selfish motives, guilty consciences, underlying greed, a genuine reluctance to join; the list goes on. Now they are supportive, but ultimately bring more conflict beyond the core plot.

Once we have the awkward main character and the dynamic but flawed supporting characters, they all give each other a chance to evolve. Our hapless main character can learn from their examples, but also help them overcome their own weaknesses. In this regard, we see our protagonist grow into the hero. By the time he hits that point, we think back 300 pages to where we wondered how he could ever accomplish the mission, and all we can say is, "Wow, he really did that!"


Friday, April 12, 2019

The Evolution of Character

A while ago, someone told me they were ready to write their first novel. When I asked them to tell me about the story, they said they wanted to write about growing up on the North Side in the 1960s, talking about all the people they knew and everything they did. I was glad to help them with this endeavor, but I had to bring up a very challenging point. "That's not a story," I said. "Those are great characters, but you need to give them the mission, the challenge, and the adventure. Without a story arc, it's not a story. Characters can't evolve without a story."

Evolution - Scientific theory, but a writing fact
I have talked about this before, and it's worth mentioning again now and then. Good characters without a story arc end up dying on the page. The writing might be great but without the story, the characters don't grow and evolve. It becomes BOSH writing (Bunch Of Stuff Happens), and readers pick up on that. A reader bonds to a character with a purpose and a function; with a mission in life. Reading about someone just stumbling from page to page is not the immersive experience readers go for. It lacks the escape that people seek within the pages of a book. As someone once famously said, "If I want a story that just drags on and on without anything really happening, I already have my life."

Don't get me wrong - there are some very good books out there that start off as apparently a series of unrelated stories about people just going about their business. But as we read these books, we discover that these characters have purposes, they have missions and they follow a common theme. The reader becomes attached to each story because there is something to connect to. A bunch of stories without some common chord just sounds like noise. As writers, we learn to rise above that.

In my previous post, "To Fiction or Not to Fiction," I hinted at some of the exploits of my peers back in high school. As individual short stories, they were very fun to relive and commit to the page. I am sure anyone would pick up one of those 2,000-word stories, read it, and find it amusing. And if I put forty of them together in an anthology, I am sure that plenty of my peers would pick up a copy just to read about how I interpreted those adventures. The average reader, however, is a different creature. And that creature needs to be won over by the story itself.

The average reader likely never lived at the far south end of the Chicago suburbs, did not go to my high school, and would not know my classmates from Adam. So what would attract them to the book? Well, good writing helps, but without some kind of story, theme, or evolution of the characters, the average reader will find it an amusing distraction at best, but is unlikely to buy a copy. They might borrow a copy to read about that one classmate with the third testicle, but they will set it aside afterward and the book is soon forgotten.

Now let's take that same set of stories and frame it differently. Let's have the 25th reunion of the Class of 1985. We can now offer these stories of childhood misbehavior with a contrast to who these people became. That one kid who took a joy ride in a cop car? He's now a Chicago police officer. The wild kid who had a hand in most every large-scale prank? He owns a B&B in Napa Valley (and lost that third testicle in a fight in 1989). The little runt who kept to himself but quietly was involved in many memorable incidents? Now he has a writing blog. These little stories now cover a 25-year arc, and the characters grow from A to B. And the reader travels with them

The story and the character's evolution are always important. On the next post, we will cover the other side of the coin - finding the right character to fit into the story.

Monday, April 8, 2019

To Fiction Or Not to Fiction?

Did you ever read that story about how my high school Class of 1985 spray-painted its legacy on the domed roof of the gym? How about when my friend got his driver's license and the first car he drove was a stolen cop car? Are you familiar about me blowing out my knee so bad while playing football that I have a life-long wobble in my step? I've written about all of these. The most difficult part was deciding whether or not the story needed to be fiction or non-fiction.

This may sound weird at first. Writing about a critical time in life seems like a natural opportunity to face the truth and go into full confessional, and that's okay. Maybe some names get changed to protect the identities of those who prefer to remain unknown. But there is no problem with writing what happened, explaining your role in it, and revealing your revelation afterward.

But sometimes we can do more than that. More to the point, sometimes going in the fictional direction explores the parts of the story we were too scared to think about.

I wrote a story, My Uneventful Death, which explained in detail the circumstances surrounding a near-fatal car accident I was in when I was eighteen. (Spoiler: I lived) My recollection of that moment is very distinct, with sensory details that are tattooed on my mind. My thought process was distinct, all the hoops my mind jumped through from the moment the car stopped moving until I reached the ER spread out clearly and concisely. It was a pretty good short story.

Then I explored its revelations by writing a fictionalized version. By writing down the story as it happened, I realized the scariest part of that accident was becoming fully aware of my mortality. I had been granted a taste of death after life, and now I sat with that realization, alive but aware that it was a limited state. My next death might be slow; it might be soon; it might be entirely unexpected or it might make itself known well ahead of time. I now knew it was inevitable, but I still didn't know when.

That's when it became time to take a fictitious route. I could still mine deeply into my own experiences, but by adding elements that reinforce the greater realization, the story becomes more dramatic. Instead of the accident happening to an eighteen-year-old busboy, maybe a thirty-year-old husband and father of two. Now the stakes of dying are much higher, the realization carrying that much more gravity. The accident could be much more dramatic - a catastrophic wreck where it's a miracle the driver survived. Maybe the driver is injured just enough to genuinely fear for his life, thus providing more appreciation for life and also a greater fear of "the real thing."

When writing for personal catharsis, the truth - a brutally honest self-examination of the facts at hand - is an amazing thing to write about. The power of that kind of communication can be dizzying. In my post, "Should I Write This?" I talked about finally writing about my father's death and how the outpouring of truths was breathtaking in the revelation. However, I also mention that I never used that piece, but I did create a fictionalized version in a current manuscript. I let the personal revelation help me grow, then used a very rich package of emotions to give a depth and intensity to another character who did not have as much life experience because he was fictitious.

It boils down to a simple question: Who are you writing this for? If you are writing it for yourself, or writing it to explain yourself to an audience, stick to the facts but explore them intensely. However, if you are explaining an emotion, feeling, or experience where the feelings are more important than the details, fictionalization has its role.

And be careful with names. Those who painted "Class of '85 Rules" on the dome roof should forever remain the anonymous heroes of my high school.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Writing Out Loud

I do a lot of people-watching when I am not writing. In particular, when I have set myself up in a social environment where plenty of other writers are sitting in front of their laptops and notepads, composing the next Great American Novel, I take a few minutes and study those people. It is amazing to study people so mentally engaged in a process but the only signs of life are their fingers creating words with that steady click on the keyboards or the scratching of pencil on paper. It is a very intimate process, silent but intense.

However, sometimes it needs to be loud. REALLY LOUD!

Well, maybe not LOUD, but at least out loud. When we are engaged in our writing, the composition is a silent recital within our mind, our thoughts translated into words and stored on the page. Usually it happens in silence, which is fine. This very personal process creates some excellent verse, but it is writing that is exclusive to the internal world. Our writing, if you will, is still in the language of thoughts translated to writing. Anyone who has used Google Translate knows that going from one language to another is never clean, and that's when we need to gets loud.

At most every workshop I have attended, and definitely every one I have facilitated, a critical part is the writer reading their piece aloud (or having someone read their piece for them). We don't do this to make the reader uncomfortable, though that is an unintended consequence. The most important part is breaking through that translation barrier and matching the written word to the author's intention. Consider the following sentence:
"I will not look foolish today!"
As writing, it's simple and straightforward. It has an exclamation point, so we know its voice. Now read it aloud. Did you emphasize one particular word? Emphasizing 'I' makes it a personal statement, while putting a punch on 'look' or 'foolish' gives it a different twist. Even making 'today' stand out can even give it a tongue-in-cheek feel. But just looking at the words, we get none of this. Once we read this aloud, we hear those cues, and we can italicize one of those words and put the punch where it has the effect the writer intended.

Speaking of dialogue, there is a lot we can discover from reading our own dialogue out loud. Most every writer I know has a feeling for the characters and their ways of speaking. Plenty of them read that dialogue aloud and put the full meaning into it - accent, emphasis, dialect, the whole package. It can be a great performance, because they are channeling that character from thought to voice.

Then I ask, "Where are all those parts in the writing?"

It's very easy to overlook this. We write this great dialogue in our thoughts and turn it into writing, but all of the flair and drama is left out. We forget to write about the character's bigger-than-life voice, their wild gestures, their South Side drawl that drops out letters at will. The dialogue is great. The writing, not so much.

If you choose to try a workshop, and read your work aloud, don't be afraid to actually ask them to note whether the words match the voice. When the idea is clear in your head, getting the words right on the page is critical to telling your story. So translate those thoughts, refine those words, and make your story LOUD.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Strength in Description

"Brevity is... wit."
- William Shakespeare (abbreviated)

A number of these posts emphasize using an economy of words, and not throwing around a bunch of extra stuff. This time around, I am offering an exercise that goes in the opposite direction. In this exercise, try and describe one particular aspect of an item or action - be as specific as possible - by using at least ten words. Don't use a simple adjective or adverb to describe the respective noun or very, but expand it into a metaphor or simile that gets a little wordy.

In last month's post, "Getting the Most From Your Verbs," I talked about when enhancing the action could be done with one word, ten words, or no words at all, and when some things only added fat to the writing. This led to an interesting discussion in subsequent workshops about when it was appropriate to use an adverb, go for a simile, or just let things stand as read. This was a very interesting question, and the answer about what to use was equally complex.

Try everything.

It's never easy to just jump in and create a metaphor or simile in the middle of a description, but that is because that part of creativity is often neglected. We introduce a room with no light and our instincts go to "dark," "pitch black," or "a room with no light." These are workable descriptions, but we can definitely get more mileage out of it if we give it a little time and effort. So, relating back to the exercise, introduce the room in ten words or more.

(Here's a hint: Think about the mood you want to set for this room. Scary? Emotionally heavy? A sense of emptiness or abandonment? Let the mood inform your descriptions as much as the darkness.)

Hopefully, you now have a few ideas that go beyond "the room was dark, really dark, like something that was very dark, but darker." Some ideas that popped into my head were:

  • "The room was devoid of light, of energy, of anything suggesting life was here."
  • "Emptiness filled the room, leaving the senses numbed by the absolute lack of presence."
  • "Shadows filled the room, crowding out the light, filling the space with an absence of light, joy, or hope, daring anyone to walk in and challenge their hold on the darkness."

All those rooms are dark, but it's fair to say that they all create a different sense of dark. And yes, they are wordy. But now that we have created a little mood and turned a dark room into something that builds on the mood, we can trim the fat from those sentences and make something clean and efficient. The economy of words will come into play again, and the result will be something that will engage your readers and want them to know more about something as simple as a dark room.