Tag Archives: characters

Mirror, Mirror…

A month ago or so, I finished reading all the entries I had received to judge for a writing contest.  I read both children’s lit and YA fiction this year, and it’s been fascinating.  I have so many things on my mind to say about what I observed, but I wanted to take a step back today and reflect on the big picture.

When you look in a mirror, why do you look in the mirror?

I’ll bet that if you look in a mirror — even if you just happen upon a mirror and pause to glance at your reflection — you don’t just stand there and stare at yourself.  You probably find something to fix — hair out of place, lipstick needs refreshing, and hope no one noticed that piece of spinach in my teeth.  Or you consider that you really should head to the gym today even though you don’t feel like it, or you notice that the baby spit up on the back of your shirt, or you realize that your tie is crooked.  And you proceed to fix whatever needs fixing.

Literature, in so many ways, functions like a mirror.

It shows us the best and worst of human nature, revealing the struggles of  man against some force internal or external.  But we don’t just read books to gawk at ourselves (collectively) in some voyeuristic fashion.  We read books because they can teach us something — they change us somehow, whether we mean them to or not.  Books encourage us to grow, to adjust, to become better human beings.  We identify with a character and his or her struggles, we watch him or her confront and (hopefully) overcome, and then we see how we can apply his or her experiences to our own lives.  And the goal is one of improvement, not just of recognition.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed a trend — and perhaps you’ve noticed it too.  There are some books where the characters just seem to develop…sideways, if that’s possible.  They change, but not in a positive (or even a negative) direction.  Something seems to push them sideways for a bit, and then they snap back and continue on.  There’s no indication that their decisions in the future will be affected by what’s happened to them over the course of the novel…no indication that they’ve become better people – or even different people — for what’s happened to them.

Reading a book like this is like looking in a mirror and saying, “Yep.  That’s me.  Yep.  Spinach in my teeth.  Tie crooked. Yep.  Guess that’s just how I am.  Oh, well.”

And in YA fiction, there’s often a follow-up to this admission of imperfection with no desire of amendment: “And if they don’t like it, well, screw them, because I won’t change.”

It’s not a question of whether or not literature will teach.  So, there’s a choice we face as writers.  Will our writing inspire our readers to be better people?

Or will we just teach them how to scuttle sideways?


Okay, as we’re getting ready for NaNoWriMo (it’s just days away, folks!), it seems timely to talk about invention for a minute.

What is invention, after all?

Let’s blow the dust off an old Latin text by Horace (from the Ars Poetica):

Either follow tradition or invent what is self-consistent. … If it is an untried theme you entrust to the stage, and if you boldly fashion a fresh character, have it kept to the end even as it came forth at the first, and have it self-consistent. (Horace, Ars Poetica, 119-127, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough)

Let’s consider first why Horace suggests to his readers that they “follow tradition.”  That’s not invention! you say.  For us blessed moderns, we scoff at this notion of invention.  But let’s take a closer look.

We have to recognize that for the classical Latin poets as well as for poets of the Middle Ages, invention largely meant revisiting and refreshing old stories.  Think of the blind bard in the tavern, who spins his lays and amplifies and alters as he travels from town to town.  And think of the bards who succeed him, taking his tales, adding their own spice and flavor.  That, for Horace and the medieval poets, is the very heart of invention.  As Geoffrey Chaucer would put it, it’s tilling old fields and growing new corn.  It’s re-imagining.

And, given that Those Who Know tell us that there are really only like 7 plots in the entire known universe of language and literature, there really may be something to what Horace has to say.

Let’s take an example.

Lady meets Gentleman at a party.  Lady likes Gentleman, but Gentleman scorns her for being a country bumpkin.  Gentleman’s BFF likes Lady’s Sister.  Gentleman thinks Sister isn’t giving BFF the time of day and tells him to find a new love.  Lady is totally enraged, so when Gentleman discovers that, lo and behold, he loves Lady, she rejects him with scorn.  Gentleman sets out to win Lady’s heart by kindnesses, even helping to save Lady’s other sister Floozy from a disgraceful situation.  In the end, Lady is won over and marries Gentleman, Sister marries BFF, and Floozy and Dude move away…far away…much to the relief of all.

It’s Pride and Prejudice, right?

Ye-es…but it doesn’t have to be.  We could take this skeleton of a situation and bones of a plot and write any number of riffs on it.  What if we set the story in the year 2050?  What if we set it in 1920s Boston?  What if the well-beloved forms of Elizabeth, Darcy, Jane, and Bingley (not to mention Lydia and Wickham) were replaced with fully modern individuals with similar character traits but different situations and struggles?  In making these changes, do we not have the makings of a new story, which has all the more depth and interest because it hearkens back to the story that gave it its beginning?

It’s a legitimate form of invention, this “following tradition” business.  Don’t sneeze at it too hastily…you may cheat yourself out of a fantastic treasure trove of inspiration.

But what about Horace’s other directive, the one to those who choose to blaze their own literary trail?  He charges said trail-blazers with the responsibility of self-consistency.  What does that mean, exactly?

It does not mean that your character cannot have an arc.

Characters who don’t change, adapt, and overcome in relation to their circumstances are paper dolls.  You can change their outfits, but they still have that stupid grin on their flat face no matter what.

Ugh.  No.

It does mean that the arc your character follows needs to be consistent with his nature, personality, and traits with which you endow him at the story’s outset.  It needs to make sense.  J. Leigh alluded to this in her marvelous post on Wrangling Runaway Stories.  To use her example, you can’t have Bob, heretofore an ordinary soul, suddenly have the ability to wield MIGHTY MAGICKS in face of almost certain destruction.  (BTW, if you haven’t read that post, go do it right now and then come back.  It’s hilarious…and very instructive!)  Bob needs to find a way out of the conflict that is consistent with his established character.

Bottom line?  Plot and character are absolutely intertwined.  Underestimate their intimate connection at your own peril!  This also means that whatever character elements you establish on page 1 had better either still be there on page THE END or change in a believable way.  This is what Horace means by self-consistency.

So, where does this brief consideration of invention leave us as we contemplate our NaNoWriMo paths?

Story material is all around you.  You can make a story from scratch, or you can reimagine a favorite story or myth in a totally new way, making it all your own.  Either way, you’re on your way to NaNoWriMo success!

Happy inventing!

A Matter of Perspective, Part II

I’d like to continue J. Leigh’s discussion of POV vs. perspective.  This is such an important topic for writers, and something that can make or break a story if not executed correctly.  In the last post, J. Leigh defined perspective as a refinement or narrowing of the larger category of point-of-view.  When writing, you have to know whose head(s) you’re in — not only capturing how would the world look through those eyes, but also how that character would express what he or she perceives in language.  In 1st person POV, incidentally, the focus on language is even more crucial because you’re inside that character’s head all the time; there is no narrator or outside “God voice”.

So that’s by way of summary — by all means, though, if you missed that first post, go back and read it! 🙂

I want to pick up the discussion of perspective with respect to embedded narratives — stories within the main story, such as a flashback or a narrated account within the context of the larger plot.

Example: Joe Shady meets his pal Slim at the local pub.  Through the haze of smoke and liquor, Slim asks Joe what he’s been doing for the last three months.  Joe replies, “You would hardly believe it.”  End of chapter.  The next chapter and the three chapters after that are told in Joe’s voice as he narrates his adventures.  This is an embedded narrative.  For a more classical example, Book 4 of Vergil’s Aeneid — Aeneas’s tale of the fall of Troy in the court of Dido — is perfect.

Okay, let’s mix it up.  Get your thinking caps on, ladies and gents.

Let’s say you want to write a story told in a retrospective voice (older Joe remembering younger Joe).  This would allow the older Joe’s narrator voice to be more sophisticated than younger Joe’s dialogue voice.  Now, suppose you use this voice for most of the story, until young Joe catches up to older Joe.  Can you also include an embedded narrative in the first (retrospective) section?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: Yes, if you are careful and know what you’re doing.

The key to pulling off a complicated layering of perspectives is to inform your readers that this is what you’re doing and then execute it with surgical precision.  Perhaps you could include a prologue to set up the retrospective tone of the first section of the book.  Set up the embedded narrative clearly and end it clearly.  On the sentence level, be sure you don’t confuse your verb tenses.  When the voices come together in the present, unify the voice across all levels of your writing (sentence, paragraph, chapter, book).  If present Joe is 17, then use a 17-year-old’s voice for the rest of the book, not a 35-year-old voice.

As J. Leigh pointed out in her post, the perspective and the P.O.V. have to be appropriate to the story.  The same applies to the decision to layer perspectives.  An pure, adrenaline-pounding adventure story or thriller probably wouldn’t lend itself well to the retrospective flashback structure.  Readers will expect action, not nostalgia.  An adventure that is character-based may well support such a structure.  It all returns to the basic rules of writing:

  1. Know your story (genre as well as plot lines).
  2. Know your characters.
  3. Know your audience.

So don’t be afraid to experiment with complex layers of perspective.  Perspective is one of the many tools at our disposal, and its correct application within a story can enrich the overall experience for your reader.

Or ruin it.

So make sure you practice.  A lot.

And get a friend to beta-read.


Have fun. 🙂

Pocket God — or How to Be a Mean Author

So, a while back I heard about this phone app called Pocket God.  I kind of wanted a smart phone just to be able to play this game.  Basically, the idea was you get this little man that you can torture in all kinds of fun ways.  You can strike him with lightning, or feed him to sharks, or any number of equally cruel and painful things.

We can learn several important life lessons from Pocket God…at least from a writer’s perspective.

First, as writers, we can and should inflict pain and horrific experiences on our characters.

Second, pain should never be frivolous.

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