Habits as Characterization

We all have habits–and those habits, good or bad, define us in the eyes of others. The girl who is always late for work, the boy who never says “thank you”, the couple who drop in on their friends–and stay for hours–without ever extending an invitation to their house in return.

We might decide, rightly or wrongly, that the late girl is lazy or irresponsible, that the boy is greedy or thoughtless, that the couple are cheap and selfish. If any one of these individuals acts contrary to the established pattern, we’re going to assume that some new element has been added to our story to prompt this abrupt change in habits. The girl starts turning up on time for work, because she wants to impress the new boss–and possible romantic interest. The boy cultivates some manners in the hope of securing a new bike from a visiting aunt. The couple begin to throw parties at the house they have just purchased.

The abrupt changes in habit can’t be defined as changes in character, because the girl, boy, and couple are still acting in ways that serve their self-interest. Once the girl has secured a date with her new boss, or discovered he isn’t interested, she will probably return to her old habit of turning up half an hour late each day. The boy will go back to putting his feet up on table and leaving muddy prints on the carpet once Aunt Martha has returned home, even if she left him that bike in exchange for future good behavior. The couple may only be hosting parties to show off their new house; once they have done so, they will go back to freeloading.

Once a pattern is established in your story, stick to it–or explain why your characters have deviated from it. Your characters should NOT change merely to fit the story’s plotting.

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Animal Sidekicks

Think how much would be lost if all the wonderful animals that populated the Harry Potter series suddenly went missing. If Harry’s fateful letter were delivered by an ordinary postman, half the magic (quite literally) would disappear from that first scene in The Sorcerer’s Stone.

You too can make full use of the animal kingdom in your stories, regardless of the genre.

But don’t throw a cuddly puppy in for the sheer sake of cuteness. Make your animal sidekicks serve a purpose that no other character in your story can fill. The science fiction novel Storm over Warlock (Andre Norton, 1960) uses a pair of wolverines to great effect. They scout, give needed warnings of danger, hunt up provisions. They couldn’t be more useful if they came with their own Swiss army knives.

One word of caution: don’t let your animal sidekicks become too prominent in your story. They should be limited to supporting roles.

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Writing…Without Purpose

Every piece of writing–long or short–should have a clear purpose.

Know yours–before you put the pen to the page, the finger to the key.

You can discover that by asking yourself a simple question, before you begin–what do I want the reader to take away from this piece of writing?

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Writing…without Passion

Have you ever had a job so mind-numbingly boring you wonder why you don’t die of ennui?

Writing should never be one of those jobs, because if it bores you, it’ll bore your readers.

Find a way to fire every piece of your writing, from a grocery list to your space opera trilogy and you have found the key to success. Because even “bad” writers have made millions by inspiring interest in their readers.

Don’t write about what you know. Write about what you love. The things that make you cry will make your readers cry. The things that make you laugh will make your readers laugh. And the things that make you care will make them care.

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Writing…Without a Plan

Pantsers abound the world over. They like surprise endings too. But is that the best way to handle a writing project?

In an earlier post, I said the quickest route from point A to point B is a straight line. True. But not everyone writes a book in chronological order. I certainly don’t. I may begin that way, but I soon give it up. I tend to write in alphabetical order. I assign each chapter a name and follow a list when drafting. This works for me for two reasons: (1) it makes the project seem more manageable (“chapter by chapter”, “bird by bird”) and (2) it allows me to take advantage of short breathers on difficult sections of my book.

I will explain reason (2) a little better. Let’s say I’m working on that difficult mid-section of the book. I write a first draft of a chapter, then realize that it doesn’t accomplish all that I want. I need another chapter. Maybe even two or three other chapters to finish the work. If I jump right in and write the “missing” chapters, I rob myself of some much-needed planning time for the new material. By switching gears to another place in the book, I continue working while still allowing myself the time I need to plan the “missing” chapters.

That brings me back to planning. An outline is essential to my writing process. And a periodic review of that outline is also essential to my writing process. If my story deviates from my plan, I have to decide whether my story needs corrected or my plan does. In this way, I preserve my vision for what I want readers to take away from my book.

The destination is still point B. And only careful planning can get them there.

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Gas and Brake

I recently took a course on Udemy, taught by Elizabeth Bezant. http://www.writing-information-and-tips.com/elizabeth-bezant.html. One of the most important things I learned from her was how to use “gas” and “brake” pedals in my writing.

Action and dialogue are the gas pedal. They propel your story, often at a breakneck pace.

Description and narrative are the brake pedal. They slow things down for your readers, so they have time to breathe.

This is why many people find Michael Bay movies hard to watch. There is no brake. It is non-stop action, from start to finish.

Obviously, the amount of gas and brake you use will fluctuate based on your story (romance will be slower going than thriller, etc.), just as they would when driving on different types of road.

The judicious blending of start and stop is what makes or breaks a piece of writing.

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Teenage Angst Bullshit

Every serious story has a certain level of drama. Unwed mother leaves her baby in a basket on the church doorstep. Boy steps aside so the girl of his dreams can marry his rich rival, who can give her the life she deserves. Woman watches helplessly as her husband slowly dies from a terrible disease. Bring a box of tissues. You’re going to cry.

There’s a right way to evoke your readers’ emotions–and a wrong way.

Angela’s Ashes comes to mind. The author presents the tale of his miserable childhood matter of factly and allows his readers to draw their own conclusions. We pity him all the more because he doesn’t ask for our pity, he doesn’t court it.

On the other end of the spectrum is Nicholas Sparks, who has–what–a dozen novels out there. All bestsellers. The dialogue in his novels is designed to evoke endless tears, and none of it is anywhere close to what people would really say to one another. It’s radio drama. “Oh, June, if I had known how much you would come to mean to me this summer, I never would have given April my word that I would marry her in the autumn. But I know somehow–some way–we will be together in the end.”

Try the Frank McCourt method of writing drama. Show the mother leaving the baby on the step. Show the boy purposely hurting his girl’s feelings, so she will run to his rival. Show the woman struggling to keep her faith in God, while she watches her husband die. No flowery speeches, no tantrums or waterworks. The facts. Simply the facts. Let your readers draw their own conclusions.

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Modern Matrimony

Yesterday’s blog post on sanction patterns came to mind, while I was reading this poem, published in Motley Measures, Bert Leston Taylor, 1913.

Modern Matrimony

He
Dear one, when we exchange our vows
We’ll knot the loosest sort of tie;
For our ideals, like our brows,
Are broad and high.

She
A simple hitch I should prefer,
As simple as we can devise;
A lovers’-bowline, as it were—
One yank unties.

He
This nuptial pact shall not coerce
Our own sweet wills a single jot.
We’ll chop ‘for better or for worse,’
And all that rot.

She
My love, your sentiments are mine;
I echo them with all my heart.
I simply can’t endure that line—
‘Till death us part.’

He
My idol, I am overjoyed!
I shan’t love twice, but if I should
This contract will be null and void:
That’s understood.

She
I shall not dream of liberty,
But if I should—you’ll understand
The bonds that bind us now will be
As ropes of sand.

He
I am the needle, you the pole!
O Pole, my constancy you know.
But should I not remain heart-whole
I’m free to go.

She
I am the flower, you the sun!
O Sun, you know my constancy.
But if I choose to cut and run
You quite agree.

Together
Since you love me as I love you,
Herewith a sacred troth we plight.
Each to the other will be true:
If not—good night!

Our modern (1913?!) Romeo and Juliet are quite prepared to pledge their mutual affection, but they have some reservations about its duration. Best not to make promises you can’t keep. But they aren’t exactly the stuff from which heroes and heroines are made.

If Romeo and Juliet had ended with Romeo saying, “oh, why bother? It’s too much grief,” we wouldn’t still be reading that play today.

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Less Sex is Sometimes More

Recently, I purchased a box of Harlequin romance novels from a flea market. One in particular, a book called The Sacrifice by Mary Hollins, written in 1969, comes to mind as a perfect example of what a writer could do with a story when explicit sex scenes were not an acceptable part of a mainstream romance novel. Sherry is in love with Tim, who fails to notice her, despite all the sacrifices she makes to prove her love to him. Eventually, she is forced to give him up and move on with her life. She gets involved with another man, Alistair, an aspiring artist that Sherry doesn’t love but feels obliged to take care of.

Though there are some plot twists a tad too convenient for the taste of more sophisticated readers, the story holds together remarkably well, despite its lack of sex. A few kisses are exchanged. That is it. And they are so well-timed that they have the same impact as sex scenes. Perhaps more so, because they come at almost no cost to the characters.

To keep readers—well—reading, you have to supply them with the hills and valleys of a budding romance. In the old days, these consisted largely if not entirely of misunderstandings that weren’t (completely) cleared up until the end of the story.

Sherry believes the man she loves impregnated her rival. The man she loves suspects he may have, though, as it turns out, the rival is pregnant from another man and it is unlikely our hero even had sex with her. He was hopelessly drunk and without any memory of the event. (This plot device is still hale and hearty in today’s romance stories).

We don’t see Tim’s mischief with the rival. There may not be any mischief to see. All of that happens off-screen. Today’s writer might be tempted to show it, because showing is better than telling. Ah—not in this case. Our sympathy should be with the long-suffering heroine. To achieve this, it is necessary for us to believe Tim is arse enough to put himself in a situation that deprives him of Sherry’s love. When we find out later that he was himself a victim, all will be forgiven and forgotten.

Sherry’s relationship with Alistair is platonic. They live together, for reasons too tedious to explain, but they live as brother and sister. Alistair is a good guy, who wants to marry Sherry. By constant importunity, he manages to wrangle a promise of marriage from her. Then Tim comes back into her life and Sherry has to decide between following her heart or keeping her promise.

This story only works because of its LACK of sex. Sherry’s feelings are simon-pure. She is a virgin. At least, we assume so, since she has loved Tim all her life—and ONLY Tim. She has become involved with another man, at least on a social level, who is pressing her to marry him, but she has been true to her first love. Emotionally, mentally, and physically.

Today’s romance writer might have been tempted to bed Sherry with Tim, straightaway, then create some silly misunderstanding that separates them. Then today’s romance writer might have been tempted to bed Sherry with Alistair, or at least made Tim think she had, to amp up tension between the parties. That would have been a horrible mistake. And here’s why—

A little thing called sanction patterns.

Sanction patterns are social norms.

A community forms. That community has certain preconceived notions of what is acceptable. These are not ideals, though they may initially be based upon them. Sanction patterns change over time. What was once considered objectionable may become acceptable. Or, at the very least, tolerated by the community. Bearing a child out of wedlock, marrying a person of the same sex, etc.

Any time your character deviates from a social norm, you risk losing your reader’s sympathy. I do not mean to imply you shouldn’t take that risk. Anything but. I point this out to make you aware of it.

If Sherry loves Tim, it may be okay for Sherry to live with Tim, even to sleep with Tim, in your story, but what will readers think of Sherry if she sleeps with Alistair, whom she doesn’t love? That will depend largely on Sherry’s reasons for sleeping with Alistair. If she is doing it to forget Tim, your readers might let her slide, but if she is doing it to hurt Tim, your readers may lose all sympathy with Sherry.

Why? Because GOOD girls don’t sleep with men they don’t love. If you do, you fall into that class of persons who treat sex as a commodity. Viz, prostitutes.

Occasionally, you will see a modern story that disregards this sanction pattern. The manwhore or the no-strings-attached career girl who only wants a good time. But the story usually ends with them falling in love. That’s because we believe, as a society, that true happiness (or contentment) can only be obtained if we find that one special person to love and cherish for the remainder of our lives.

Sherry has settled on Tim as her choice of life partner. Some obstacles stand in her way, but in the end she gets her man. The reader is satisfied, largely, if not totally, because Sherry’s desire for Tim is not gratified until the end of the novel (and presumably in the safe haven of wedlock).

It may be old-fashioned, but it works.

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Description Checklist

To properly set a scene for your readers, you’ll need three key ingredients:

1. Unity
2. Emphasis
3. Coherence

To demonstrate, I will borrow a scene from a random novel from my bookshelf:

“Yonder, bluely spread with the splendor of the distance, lay all the vast country of the Superstitions, land of lost trails and tumbledown shanties, land of black malpais and memories. There, too, lay Thief River and all that remained of an outlaws’ rendezvous, reduced through the years to a handful of shacks that, like gray ghosts, stood scabrously creaking eerily along the dark street. These, and a ramshackle pole corral, still stood as a monument to past greed and perfidy. The rest was gone, scoured away by the desert winds.” Thief River, Nelson Nye, 1951

Notice how all the description blends together to evoke a single sense–and that is desolation. “Lost trails”, “tumbledown shanties”, “memories”, “gray ghosts”, “creaking eerily”, “ramshackle”, “past greed and perfidy,” “scoured away”. We the readers only see those objects that cultivate that sense. Nothing is added that would spoil the impression the writer hopes to make. For example, would there be any place in this description for flowers, sunshine, or laughing children?

According to Merriam-Webster Unabridged “coherence” is “systematic or methodical connectedness and interrelatedness especially when governed by logical principles: consistency, congruity”. Notice how well linked each part of the description is to the other parts. We the readers are standing some distance from the scene the writer is describing. This allows us to drink in the scene without forcing us to focus too closely on any one detail. The shacks are gray ghosts–mere outlines–without windows, doors, gutters, shutters, etc. Petty details are largely unimportant. What’s more, taking the time to limn them out would spoil the general effect. This is a mere relict of days gone by, “scoured away by the desert winds”.

Notice below how one incoherent dependent clause can ruin the symmetry of the scene.

“Yonder, bluely spread with the splendor of the distance, lay all the vast country of the Superstitions, land of lost trails and tumbledown shanties, land of black malpais and memories. There, too, lay Thief River and all that remained of an outlaws’ rendezvous, reduced through the years to a handful of shacks that, like gray ghosts, stood scabrously creaking eerily along the dark street. These, and a ramshackle pole corral, with a tubular steel gate and six-foot-high wooden fencing, still stood as a monument to past greed and perfidy. The rest was gone, scoured away by the desert winds.” Thief River, Nelson Nye, 1951 [addition mine]

When setting a scene, don’t give a grocery list of visuals. Decide what emotion you want to evoke, then choose details that help readers connect with that emotion.

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