Wordsmith Wednesday–Creating Complex Characters

I took this photograph while climbing Angora R...

Image via Wikipedia

One of the reasons novels (or short stories) are rejected is that characters lack depth. If you have a protagonist who’s too good or a villain who’s all bad, your reader will be unable to relate to them. In an earlier post we talked about the importance of bestowing a few flaws or weird mannerisms on the hero and of making sure that the antagonist has some endearing charcteristic…or at least something in his background to arouse a little sympathy.

Another way to create a complex character is to play with his or her emotions. Think about it. Do you know someone who’s always happy and optimistic (Pollyanna, maybe?) or a person who emanates only negativity? Not likely. Consider your own feelings. Sure, you may love someone dearly, but at times you will experience hurt or anger in response to a word or action. We live with conflicting emotions all the time, all at once. In crafting your characters, be sure to consider ambivalence, moods and conflicting reactions.

Another important point: show emotional complexity. Don’t just tell us about it. Expose your fictional character through dramatization so that your reader will feel that she is a part of the story.

I’d like to share an example from “Winter is Past,” that shows a range of emotions in just a snippet of a scene:

Josh drove up Mt. Rose, while I soaked in the beauty of junipers, conifers and wild bursts of early fall color splashing the sides of the highway. When we crested the mountain, crystalline splendor greeted us. Lake Tahoe splayed like a sheet of glass on the horizon. A late-season  cut through the stillness, sending ripples of contentment across the surface of the water and into my spirit. I wanted to hold on to the moment and never let go.

“Did you ever ask your mother anything more about your dream?”

Josh’s question jolted me out of my reverie. I blew out a lungful of air. “Nope. I’m waiting to see her face-to-face.”

“I think it’s gonna be important to get a grasp on whatever happened.” Josh signaled a right turn and eased onto the road circling the lake and headed toward North Shore.

“Why do you say that?” A gnawing feeling stirred in my gut. I stared straight ahead at the winding road.

“No special reason—but something weighs on you and I think you need to figure it out.”

“Weighs on me? What the hell do you mean by that?” I turned to face Josh. He’d thrown a stone onto the surface of my peacefulness, casting waves that spread into the center of my being.

“Easy, honey,” Josh patted me on the knee as though I were a little child. “You’re the one who keeps bringing up some elusive memory—it’s like you’re possessed by fear.”

“Don’t you think there’s reason for fear?” I looked straight ahead again, my eyes following the broken white line that separated us from on-coming traffic. Anger began to build up inside me.

You may want to take a scene that’s given from your own work, assess it in relation to character complexity and see what you can do with it. Try it…it’s fun!

Note: If  you’re looking for One Stop Wednesday or Sensational Haiku Wednesday, they are posted under separate entries! Thanks for stopping by.

Wordsmith Wednesday–“Righting Wrongs”

Woodward’s History of Wales is shown open to t...

Image via Wikipedia

I’m reading the latest issue of “Writers’ Digest.” They have a top ten theme and in the tradition of Letterman, have compiled all kinds of top ten lists for writers, from the ridiculous to the sublime. Pardon the cliché. Because I’ve just begun to read it, I don’t know all that will be covered. How useful is it? So far, not too. I’m guessing that will change as I plow my way through the pages. But, it’s fun. For this week’s discussion, I thought I’d list five “wrongs,” that is, blatant errors, things that can turn off the reader, or writing faux-pas that will dissuade an agent or publisher from looking further.

Two disclaimers:

  • Writers have the right to break rules. It’s your work; you’re the creator. No one can really tell you what to do. (I believe this applies in a particular way to poetry)
  • The opinions I express are mine. They might not apply to the agent you’re querying or your target audience. So, “take what you like and leave the rest,” as they say in 12-Step programs.

Here are my thoughts/opinions:

  1. Purple prose. Purple prose is a term of literary criticism used to describe passages, or sometimes entire literary works, written in prose so overly extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw attention to itself. Purple prose is sensually evocative beyond the requirements of its context. It also refers to writing that employs certain rhetorical effects such as exaggerated sentiment or pathos in an attempt to manipulate a reader’s response.  (Wikipedia)
  2. Frequent Point-of-View Shifts. Don’t confuse your reader by frequent changes in POV or by shifting POV within a paragraph. I suggest using a space for a scene change or starting a new chapter if you have more than one POV character.
  3. Long rambling paragraphs of description. Sure, John Steinbeck or Jane Austen got away with it. But today’s readers, with their ADHD wants a plot that moves. Don’t neglect description but intersperse it with dialogue or action.
  4. Long blocks of dialogue that give information dumps. See my previous blog on this topic.
  5. All showing. Okay, okay. I know about “Show, don’t tell.” And I espouse the idea wholeheartedly. But….there are times when you need a summary paragraph. Honest. If your novel covers months or years, we don’t need to know everything that’s happened from beginning to end. But we need to know enough to understand how the character got where he is. So, summarize!
  6. Characters who are either completely perfect or totally flawed. You want your reader to sympathize with you protagonist, but in order to identify with him, please give him a flaw or two. On the other hand, your antagonist should have a good trait or two, something that will help us understand him just a bit. Now, if you’re writing about Hitler….I don’t know.
  7. Lack of editing, revision or critique. Don’t send out those query letters yet. Spell check is inadequate. Read your manuscript aloud. Take it to a critique group and/or professional editor. I’ve posted a few articles on revising and editing. You may want to check them out.
  8. Blatant factual errors. Even fiction requires research. If there are too many factual errors, the reader will not be able to suspend disbelief. If you are writing a novel set in Chicago, you better know the place, visit it or research on the Internet. Get someone in the know to check out your facts. If you’re writing a medical thriller, know the basics. Even as a nurse and transplant recipient, I had to do more research on transplantation for “Winter is Past.” And I even ran a few things by my nephrologist.
  9. Obfuscation. I love that word. It’s got class. Basically, it mean anything that confuses the reader. Think of things like frequent flash-backs, too many characters, inconsistent point-of-view, switching from first to third person, too many adjectives and adverbs…you get the idea. Think: clarity and brevity.
  10. Finally and most important: giving up. Whatever you do, don’t say “The heck with it.” Keep on writing. Send out more queries. Try different genres. If you’re called to write, you gotta write or you won’t be happy.

Wordsmith Wednesday–Where to Start?

Steacie Science and Engineering Library at Yor...

Image via Wikipedia

If you’re a writer, I know you’re a reader. Or you better be. Think back on a recent trip to the bookstore or library or, perhaps, your initial foray into the sample you downloaded onto your Kindle. How do you choose a novel you want to buy?

One thing I look at, of course, is the cover. The art, the design, the overall attractiveness of the book’s presentation is a temptation that draws me to pull it off the shelf. Then I read the back cover and inside flaps. If it’s an author I know and already appreciate, that may be all it takes–but more often than not I turn to the opening chapter. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what is going to draw me, as a  reader into the story.

When I think back on the (literally) hundreds of rewrites I did on “Winter is Past,” 80% of them focused on the first fifty pages. I’m not talking edits here. I’m referring to total destruction of narrative already written. I’m alluding to using those little scissors on the tool bar of my computer or wadding up pages of manuscript and slam-dunking them into the wastebasket.

If a book doesn’t tantalize me in the opening chapters, I decide it’s not worth the however many years I have left from the perspective of the 60+ spectrum of my life span.

So what are some of the things that urge me to keep on turning pages?

  • I want to know who my protagonist is, what’s going on in his or her head, what kind of challenges is she going to allow me to share with her on her journey. I’m not talking about her blue eyes and blond hair. You can give me a physical description later on if you like, or you can allow me to conjure up my own image.
  • I’m looking for voice. What point of view has the author espoused? Is his character gentle, abrupt, victimized, crazy? Is she going to tell me about her or drag me into her psyche? Are there other POV characters I’ll get to meet?
  • Now, what about action? Are the opening pages wearisome with long paragraphs of description that don’t seem to lead me anywhere? How long do I have to wait for something to happen? Where’s the conflict? Even in character-driven novels, the conflict better come on pretty quickly or I’ll close the book, fall asleep and leave it unread.
  • And is the author going to just tell me what’s going on or is he going to allow me to immerse myself in the narrative by evoking my senses–smell, taste, touch, vision and hearing? Will I be able to suspend disbelief and identify with the protagonist? Please, please let me be a part of the story.

What other characteristics can you share that compel you to read on, to allow an author’s written word to become a part of your experience? What values do you expect to reap when you assent to spending your precious time with a book?

Wordsmith Wednesday–Setting and Description

As a writer of fiction and poetry, I believe part of my responsibility to the reader is to allow her to travel places she has never been or to revisit places that are familiar, thus evoking memories or heightening awareness.

Long descriptive paragraphs of setting may disenchant the reader of today who’s used to momentary flashes of multiple images across a screen within a few second. (Does this relate to the high incidence of attention defecit disorder in our culture?)

Above all, setting and the use of sensory description enriches the reader’s experience. One way to use this technique is to break up dialogue. Here’s a brief example from my novel, “Winter is Past”:

“I wonder how Michael’s handling it. Do you think I should I call him?” Josh asked me.

“Will it help?” Based on Kathryn’s assessment, I had my doubts.

Josh shook his head and fixed his eyes on a quail eating seeds he’d planted in the flower garden. “Maybe not, but I can try; I’ll call after we eat. Honey, why did Kathryn ask you to take her to her appointments instead of Michael?” Josh grabbed the meat with tongs, slid it onto a plate and headed back into the house.

Even more valuable, in my opinion, is the writer’s ability to convey emotion through setting. Consider this brief passage from “Winter is Past” as a means of eliciting fear, sadness and powelessness: 

I trotted after Kathryn who jogged along the brick path beside our house. My eye caught sight of a tiny wren, cowering in the dense foliage of a rambling juniper shrub. Overhead, a majestic red-tailed hawk circled, squawking a message of certain doom at the tiny bird. I felt tears well up in my eyes then turned my attention back to Kathryn who now disappeared through the redwood gate.

In a previous post, I described a practice I use off and on. In your writing journal, at the end of each day, describe 5-10 things you have noticed throughout the day. Return to these lists for ideas to supplement your own writing then return to a scene you have written in which you have “told” rather than “shown” an emotion. Try rewriting it  using a bit of scenery or a background activity to elicit that same feeling. This is helpful to keep in mind when you are rewriting/revising your work as well.

Happy writing. Enjoy the process.