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Monday, June 29, 2015

Hero, Anti-Heroes, Villains!

St. George Slaying the Dragon, Hans von Aachen

The big push nowadays is for the anti-hero. Not just a flawed good guy, but someone who is actually a bad guy who is the focus of the story and whom we are supposed to sympathize with.
I honestly don't know why. As a reader, I hate reading about someone like that. I don't want to read about someone who just goes around doing bad things (murdering, for instance); that's not a person I want to get behind and cheer on. I certainly don't want to be manipulated into somehow liking this person that I would never like in real life.
I have no problem with a villain who has some sympathetic traits. A completely evil villain can get dull. Someone morally complex, but also recognizably bad so that we can cheer when he is defeated, is much better (though I don't write off all villainous villains who only have money, or power, or revenge, in mind).
So, going from that to a hero, what is a hero?
I think we often get sucked into the trap of believing that a hero can't be awesome unless he's flawed and conflicted. I definitely think we should work on our heroes, for the most part, being realistic. But then, sometimes I just get a craving for a good old fashioned hero who may make the wrong choices (or not), but who is unflinchingly good and virtuous, who defies evil just by existing.
I find myself writing more complex (I hope) heroes and villains, but I think I, and a lot of people, will always be drawn as well to the archetypal good guy, the one who may be unattainable in his goodness but who draws us to him just by virtue of the fact that he is the opposite of evil and can always be relied upon.
For a Christian, saying that a perfectly good, moral character is always boring and one dimensional obviously ignores the fact that Jesus himself was neither boring nor one dimensional.
And anyone who says that a villain can never be pure evil apparently forgets about the Devil.
So really, what I'm saying is that as usual you can't say, "Here's how to do it, and otherwise your story will not be awesome."

(I do, however, think that just about every superhero ever invented is boring. Your mileage may vary.)

And one more thing, re: anti-heroes, is that I don't have a problem with a character who starts off as a villain and then changes. I love seeing a bad guy wrestling with his conscience and slowly beginning to turn from villain to hero. I just don't want the main character to be the villain all the way through, especially if he's against a good guy.

What are your thoughts on heroes, villains, and anti-heroes? Are there exceptions?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Yearling

A few months ago I watched The Yearling with my granny. I really loved the movie; lots of good acting, especially from Claude Jarman Jr. as Jody (child acting can either make or break a movie in my opinion), beautiful scenery, and a wonderful story. Perhaps best of all, it's set in Florida, the place where I was born and raised, and where my family and I moved back to in 2012.
I found out we already had the book, and on this past Sunday afternoon I picked it up and started reading it. I usually find that if I watch a movie before reading the book it's based on, it's really difficult to then read the book because of all the differences between the two. I always have the movie's version in my mind, and especially when the order of things is different between the two it's hard to get into it.
I had no trouble getting into the book. The movie was actually, surprisingly, very faithful to the book (although it left out a few major things).
I guess the main difference between the book and movie was in the descriptions of the characters, and the people who ended up being cast. Gregory Peck, at 6' 3", is a far cry from the small, wiry Penny Baxter (actually nicknamed Penny because of how small he was even in adulthood), and Ma Baxter is described as a large and hefty woman while Jane Wyman is slender.
But that doesn't much matter to me.
Part of what I loved about this book was all the description of Florida scrub and swamp and the day-to-day living which the Baxters make on Baxter's Island.  Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings had an eye and ear for the smallest details; she obviously knew a whole lot about nature and she is able to make it interesting.
All the characters are clearly defined, very well developed, all the more remarkable for being written in a time period where character development wasn't common in books. The emotions are portrayed powerfully, from simple contentment to abject sorrow. Jody is written as a real child on the brink of his teenage years. He's irresponsible and dreamy, skipping chores when he can so that he can run off and play, but he thrives on listening to the men talk, and on hunts and other grown up activities.
The book is really more about Jody's growing up, becoming mature and responsible, than it is about the yearling fawn that he adopts. But the fawn isn't unimportant, either. For Jody, who doesn't really have anything else he can call his very own, the little animal is all important. He dotes on it as if it were his child and is willing to do everything in his power to keep it.
I love the backwoods grammar which the characters have (a favorite word of mine was 'faintified'); they're just simple people who don't have much learning, though Penny and Ma are determined that Jody get the education that he can.
Really, the book held my interest through from cover to cover though I knew pretty much what was going to happen (the last hunt of Old Slewfoot, however, was completely left out of the movie, and was a thrilling read because of not knowing how it would end).
The scene where Penny gets bitten by a rattlesnake is one of my particular favorites.

All in all, I would definitely rate this 5 stars, although I do have a few complaints. Mainly in regards to the use of the word 'damn' several times, as well as a few places where God is spoken of irreverently.
It also annoys me when characters who are regularly drunk are portrayed in too favorable a light (Ol' Doc and Buck Forrester) instead of being shown to have a destructive problem (Buck Forrester does make trouble near the end of the book, while drunk, but Ol' Doc is never any the worse for being stoned every time he's seeing to a patient).
But overall, this was a book that I think is one of the few Great American Novels of all time, and I would highly recommend it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Evocative Writing - The Senses

Anytime I smell a cinnamon apple candle, I am brought right to Christmas. It makes me think, not just of the candles we burn at that time of the year, but everything else that goes along with it: Christmas lights, songs that never grow old though I've heard them a hundred times, the atmosphere of Christmas and postcard depictions of sleighs and carolers and jolly old Father Christmas.

How can one little thing be so powerful? It's just a candle! I don't know the answer to that; but I do know that it's something that really happens, and happens to just about everyone, and has its own word to describe it.
I am very interested in evocative descriptions in my writing as well as that of others.
I remember the feelings a book gives me long after the last page is read; if it doesn't give me a strong feeling, where I almost physically react to it, then it hardly leaves an impression.
There is a bit from The Lord of the Rings that struck me when I noticed it way back when. I've always thought that Tolkien had a wonderful way with words, but I feel like he outdid himself on this one:

Suddenly a song began: a cold murmur, rising and falling. The voice seemed far away and immeasurably dreary, sometimes high in the air and thin, sometimes like a low moan from the ground. Out of the formless stream of sad but horrible sounds, strings of words would now and again shape themselves: grim, hard, cold words, heartless and miserable. The night was railing against the morning of which it was bereaved, and the cold was cursing the warmth for which it hungered. Frodo was chilled to the marrow.
-- The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 8: Fog on the Barrow Downs

Tolkien could have just said, 'Frodo heard a creepy song that made his blood run cold.' Instead, he lets us form a picture in our minds, as if we were right there with Frodo.
I'd like to point out a few things about the description.

Firstly, synonyms are OK; it's fine to use words that will help you describe without repetition. Just don't use obscure, annoying words that will pull the reader out of the moment. Tolkien, a master of language, uses no words here which are so unfamiliar as to break the spell by making us break out our dictionaries.

Secondly, he uses precise and weighty words. Murmur. Dreary. Grim. Railing. Bereaved.
Of course it's never a good idea to use words that make you sound snobby or as if you're using a word simply because it sounds 'older' or 'medieval'. It has to fit with what you're writing, and with your actual ability to use the words correctly. But think about it: 'A great error' sounds a lot more serious than 'a big mistake'.  'Railing against' something means more than just complaining about it. Know your words and use them to their full advantage and you'll be a lot closer to evoking a visceral reaction from your readers.

Thirdly, go the extra mile. Tolkien could have stopped at heartless and miserable. Instead, he went a step further and continued with The night was railing against the morning ... etc. which works beautifully to chill us to the marrow right along with Frodo. That bit 'tells' rather than 'shows'; however, it works because of the 'showing' that went before.

What are some of your favorite evocative descriptions that you've read? 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Character Development

I have a hard time with characters; they've always seemed very vague in my mind. I could see what they looked like, sort of, but their characteristics, their inner selves eluded me aside from the general labels of 'noble' or 'heroic' or 'villainous'.
I am much more plot driven. Exciting events, epic battles, rousing speeches are my forte. But of course for a story to be interesting, you have to have an idea of who your characters are. Now we could get into successful and really great stories where the characters aren't fleshed out and the plot often takes precedence over the people in the plot; but that's not my point here.
I thought I'd take a few minutes to explain how I flesh my own characters out.

First, I take larger personal traits like honest or quick tempered and use them as the building blocks. These are the things that are most immediately apparent about the character.

Second, I find the complement to those traits. If their most obvious trait is positive, then it needs to be balanced with a negative one. So if your character is, say, straight-down-the-line honest, then you could balance that with a lack of tact and a willingness to hurt someone's feelings needlessly.
On the other hand, if you have a quick-tempered character he/she might also be quick to feel the hurts of others and protective of a certain person/persons perceived as needing protection. He/she might (and probably will) be of the act now, think later group.

Third, when I write my characters, I check back over their actions and reactions to make sure they are acting true to their characteristics.
In my work-in-progress, my character Alice refused to go to the witch the first time they met; the second time, however, she agreed to go with her. This might seem like a contradiction, and at first it seemed like it to me. But there are a few things to consider:
1. Alice is definitely impetuous. She acts without thinking things through. Her first opportunity to refuse the witch, she did so out of fear and defiance. The second time, the witch promises her something she desperately wants, and despite the fact she can't really trust the witch, Alice acts on her desires rather than using her head.
2. Even after refusing to go to the witch the first time, Alice was conflicted on that point, going back and forth in her mind about her decision. This means that the second time, she was more likely to do what she wouldn't do before.
3. Her goal is not to stay away from the witch, but to rescue her brother. Although she is afraid of the witch, if she has to rescue him by going to the witch then she is willing to do that. The witch's persuasive ways are much more effective on someone with this mindset.

Fourth, always show your character for who he/she is. Don't tell us, "Pete was impulsive." OK, job done, now we don't have to show Pete actually being impulsive. In the Hardy Boy books, the author always makes a point of telling us near the beginning that Joe is the impulsive one, Frank the more thoughtful one. In the long run, though, both boys end up pretty much acting exactly the same (and usually agreeing completely with each other).

Which brings us to the the fifth and final point: characters with strong personality differences should clash. The thoughtful character should try to hold the impulsive one back, while the impulsive one should try to get the thoughtful one moving. And your characters should have different personalities. Just as each character should have traits that balance each other out, so you should have characters whose larger personalities balance things out between them.

By the way, I've never found character interviews or those long lists of questions about the character's parent's favorite food, etc. to be helpful; they overwhelm me with what seems to me to be useless information that doesn't further character development.
Instead, I will write out a short paragraph or two initially, stating in plain terms what the character is like as I envision him/her. Here is how I first describe my character Gilbert: Gilbert is thoughtful and likes to take things slowly. He can also be very moody. He uses persuasion first, but is not against getting physical. He does not read much; he would rather spend his time alone, taking walks or working in the smithy.
Later on as you think it through, you can add more specifics. Once I've done this, I find that my characters are more settled in my mind and they are easier to write.

I hope this has been helpful, and I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you develop your characters. Does it come easily to you or do you really have to work at it? Do lists of questions help or overwhelm you?

Saturday, June 6, 2015

The Perilous Forest

Several years back I started a story that I called The Enchanted Forest. The idea was good, but unfortunately it didn't have much of a plot, and after meandering aimlessly with it for seven or eight chapters I shelved it.
Then last year, halfway through NaNoWriMo, I decided to write something. I didn't want to force myself too much, I just wanted to have it started, and NaNo gave me the little push I needed.
I found myself thinking about The Enchanted Forest again, and the more I thought about it, the more the ideas started coming in. It was beginning to have an actual plot (imagine that!), and the characters became more real and alive. Even now, I'm still getting ideas for it that are very exciting. I love it when that happens.
I'm also trying, for the first time, to use K. M. Weiland's Outlining your Novel and Structuring Your Novel and it seems to be working. As much as I've always said that I am not an outliner, building a structure to support the story really makes sense. I would highly recommend both books.

So you're probably wondering what The Perilous Forest is about. Here's the synopsis:

Two children, Alice and Gilbert, set out to break a witch's three-centuries-old curse over their villages and to rescue Alice's brother.

I plan on sharing clips and snippets along the way and explaining the idea in more detail. It's still in the first draft stages, but here is a snapshot:

Drawing a deep breath she again faced south and began to run. The wind blew in her tear-streaked face; the pounding of her feet drowned out the music.Every time she paused she heard the music still, pursuing her, and fear gave wings to her feet.As she ran, ghostly figures of children passed her, all in the opposite direction, all progressing towards the forest. She did not know if they were real, or merely the phantoms of past years, but she kept well out of their way, and was glad when the road was once again deserted.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Hello and Welcome!

Well, I'm starting a new blog. The old blog will still be available. Mostly for sentimental reasons on my part; but there are a few interesting articles in there.
This will be strictly an author's blog. I won't be writing about my personal life, politics, or the weather :)

What will I blog about?

1. Writing. I'll post my thoughts on aspects of writing, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
2. My Writing. Snippets of things I've written, plans I have for future stories.
3. Reviews. I'm not much of a reviewer, but every now and then you may see something about a book that has really struck me (either in a negative or positive way).
4. Interviews. If I come across an awesome author, I'll interview him/her.

I hope you all enjoy it here. I'm quite ready to get back into blogging, and hopefully I can have a sort of schedule to keep me on it.