Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Likable Characters

No doubt you’ve met some despicable lunks, in literature as in life. So what’s all the fuss about likable characters?

Let’s assume you love your characters deeply and passionately, even the evil and naughty ones (maybe you love those the most). But what if your readers aren’t as taken by them? While characters must of course be themselves, it’s worth noting the traits that readers seem drawn to. Likable characters tend to be proactive and driven, though we also appreciate passive characters who are given a chance to show their mettle. We like characters that are vulnerable and redeemable. Charm doesn’t hurt.

Our interest in characters builds from the set up. “I remember reading once that if you want readers to bond with your main character, put him in love or in trouble on the first page,” says author Elise Broach. “The reason isn’t hard to fathom: it makes the character vulnerable, and readers are instinctively drawn to, interested in, and protective of vulnerable characters. A difficult situation with a high emotional investment for the character sows the seeds of compassion and affection in the reader.” Broach notes that this one trick of circumstance can compensate for a bunch of off-putting personality traits.

Spunk, courage, persistence, ingenuity, kindness, loyalty – these are among the traits that make a character likable, she points out. Humor can offset a number of vices. We’re also endeared to characters with weaknesses like poor judgment (in moderation), as that helps build suspense.

What don’t readers like in a character? Predictability, self-pity, preachiness, whining – we have a low tolerance for characters that suffer from these flaws. The passive character can be also be tricky, although author Robin Romm points out that some of the best stories have passive protagonists, characters who have not yet acted on their latent desires. A fierce protagonist can alarm or exhaust the reader, Romm notes, and he may not be capable of the same revelations as a passive character.  “The trick is that the passive character doesn’t stay passive,” Romm says. The passive character should be pushed toward moments of complicated crisis that make readers rethink who she is.

Is a likable female character different from a likable male character? Though it’s not especially literary, Shana Mlawski conducted ananalysis of Entertainment Weekly’s 100 Fav Fictional Characters list. Her conclusions: “Most great female characters, the EW list seems to say, are doers—not thinkers or losers or comedians or lovable ogres or what have you.  Great male characters, meanwhile, range across the entirety of human experience.” Perhaps, Mlawski posits, the problem lies with writers who don’t know how to write nuanced female characters, and in particular with male writers who are afraid they’ll be accused of misogyny if they push beyond the safe strong female character mold. “Or is it that Hollywood’s female characters have been focus-grouped to death, as A.O. Scott suggested in his (hilarious) review of Knight and Day?” Mlawski asks. “Are writers shackled by the market research that says that likable female characters must be ‘tough but not aggressive,’ ‘sexy but not actually having sex,’ and ‘willing to fall for a certain kind of guy without entirely losing their heads’?” 

“The perfect hero is the one who offers the most conflict in the situation, has the longest emotional journey, and has a primal goal we can all root for,” notes author Blake Snyder. Though he’s speaking of screenwriting, it doesn’t hurt the literary writer to consider the questions he poses on character:

  • Is your hero’s goal clearly stated in the set-up?
  • Do clues of what to do next just come to your hero or does she seek them out?
  • Is your hero active or passive?
  • Do other characters tell your character what to do, or does she tell them?

In the end, all we want is to create characters that readers care about, characters they’ll stick with to the end and continue to think about after they’ve finished reading.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Life into Story

When a certain politician released her autobiography a few years ago, a mock cover circulated: All About Me, by Me, Me, Me. The Seusslike rendering generated laughs because it captured the narcissism of this particular individual - and perhaps of politicians in general.

Laugh as we may, the truth is that nearly everything a writer creates is at some level All About Me. The first rule of writing is to write what you know, and unless we suffer from narcissism or other delusional disorders, what we know best is ourselves. So how does something so personal and seemingly egocentric get spun into writing that’s meaningful, true, and of interest to readers?

Start with your motivation. If you’re bent on showing the world all the ways you’ve been wronged, shut down your laptop and a join a support group. As author Steve Almond points out, writers should at all times love their characters, and that’s tough to do when you’re bent on revenge

Then push beyond what you know. Discover what only you can write, the experiences and perspectives that not everyone has. Go beyond stuff that happened to you and probe the things you got yourself into. So you were raised by a pack of wolves. Readers want to know what happened when you challenged the alpha or failed to howl like the rest. “Good stories show how people survive,” Almond says, adding that a "character in a hole" is only of interest when you probe her unbearable feelings and the thwarted desires.

Should you tell your truth straight or slant? Both, if you’re honest. In nonfiction, there’s always a slant, and that slant will be all about you, the truth that you’ve lived and the truth you’re discovering – and that’s without even venturing onto the slippery slope of remembered or emotional truth. If you write fiction, go ahead and tell yourself you’re making everything up, but the truth that you’ve lived and the truth you’re discovering will creep in regardless.

Still, there’s the question of form. In Turning Life into Fiction, Robin Hemley advises writers to consider how wedded they are to the facts. If you’ve chosen fiction as your form, you mustn't cling to what “really happened.” Memoir, on the other hand, frees you – somewhat – from the expectations of narrative; in memoir, writer David Shields notes, issues of identity take center stage, and revelations can be more episodic than in a novel or short story. At the same time, if allowing artifice or recreated memory into your memoir feels wrong, you’re better off sticking with fiction.  The material is basically immaterial, Hemley says. The most fascinating life events handled badly by the author make for dull reading, while a strong rendering draws interest in what might otherwise seem a dull life.

In both fiction and memoir, strong narrative structure transforms your life, or parts of it, into story. “All of our lives are narrative,” says author Jon Franklin. “Story is something else: taking select parts of a narrative, separating them from everything else, and arranging them so they have meaning.” Follow Chekhov’s advice, Franklin suggests, and look for points of character complication, where characters are forced into action and transformation. You should be able to identify the points of insight, the moments that lead to these transformations. Building on the theories of neuroanatomist Paul MacLeanFranklin contends that every narrative should also work on three levels: what happens on the surface, what happens in the emotional landscape, and the universal, evoked by the narrative rhythms.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that since it’s your story, either you or a character like you must tell it. Decisions on point of view are more complicated than that. Consider both perspective and psychic distance. “What matters is the emotional posture you’ve taken toward your characters and what short of narrative latitude you desire,” Almond says. “The trick to finding the right POV is striking the right balance between intimacy and perspective.”

Yes, it’s all about you. But the world only cares if you invest yourself in the details of form, and if you’re unwavering in your commitment to truth. As Almond says, “A big part of writing is about developing the capacity to expose yourself on the page, if not your life story, at the very least your prevailing anxieties and the people who caused them.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ready, Set...Market: How a Writer Knows If It's Ready

Scan advice from agents and editors, and you’ll find a common thread: too many writers send off their work before it’s ready. But how do you know when a piece is as good as it’s going to get?

This is trickier than it sounds. Part of the fun and frustration of writing is that a piece can always get better. Most published writers will tell you they’ve wished for changes even after their work came out in print. And while much writing goes off half-baked, it’s also possible to overcook a piece, to fiddle with it till it falls apart on the page, or to play with it more or less forever, thus staving off any chance of rejection.

Let’s assume you’ve engaged in that recursive process of discovery, prewriting and drafting and revising until you have what feels like a decent draft. You’ve let it set awhile, and in the most objective of ways you’ve approached it again. You’ve gotten critiques from a few trusted readers. Is it ready for market?

Even when your instinct tells you a project is ready, it’s good to go one more round, taking time to move through the project chapter by chapter, doing the same sort of writer-as-reader analysis you’d do on a good published book by another author. If your piece is an essay or short story, so much the better – there’s a lot to evaluate.

Handwrite your notes, both in the text itself – marking lyric moments, best parts, surprise and delight – and also in a free-standing list. Handwriting keeps your right brain involved in what’s essentially a left-brained pursuit.

Here’s what I look for. I’m not a big fan of checklists, so beware. This sort of analysis too early in the project tends to stifle creative energy. And this is my own personal list,  keyed to what I find engaging in narrative (fiction and non) and slanted toward my own shortcomings. Your ready-for-market survey might look quite a lot different. 

  • The basics: notes on time, point of view, narrative distance, voice, and length.
  • Beginning and end: Copy down the first and last sentences in order to study the frame for the piece.
  • Scene and summary: List these, in order. For the scenes, note ways in which characters change from beginning to end. Note how backstory, if any, works in.
  • Characters: What do the characters know about themselves? What are they blind to? Which feelings are articulated? Which feelings need to be articulated? In what ways are they larger than life?
  • Arc: Where’s the set-up, the climax, the denouement?
  • Surprise and delight: What feels most fresh and alive in the piece? Consider word choice, metaphor, humor, voice, plot, character.
  • Suspense: Foreshadowing, not overdone. Consider what’s not said, what’s withheld, and conversely, what’s revealed and where.
  • Language and details: Where’s the sharp, smart language? The humor, if any? Make sure nothing’s overwritten or over-explained. Even after a few rounds of revision, I find myself lopping off ends of sentences, where I’ve said too much.
  • Lyric moments: Identify the ones you’ve got, and look for places where they should be.
  • What it’s about: If you thought you knew and now you’re seeing something more, less, or different, that can be good, as long as you make the most of what you discover. Pay attention to how the focus is revealed to the reader. Sometimes it’s too obvious, sometimes it’s too subtle. Every story is two stories: identify both.
  • Where you copped out: Consider the ways in which your project could be more than it is – more emotional depth, more distinctive voice, richer language, more layers.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Wise Words: Janet Fitch on Dialogue

We talk all the time. So what’s so hard about dialogue? In a lecture titled “Riding a Unicycle While Spinning Plates” (2011 Squaw Valley Writers Workshop), author Janet Fitch discussed the ways in which something so seemingly straightforward can go oh-so-wrong.

The first rule of good dialogue, Fitch says, is compression. She points out that while most real life talk is intended to avert conflict, the purpose of dialogue in narrative is to reveal conflict, to bring people to the point where they’re trying to do something to each other, as in a wrestling match. Emerging writers too often use dialogue for exposition or backstory, or they fill the page with useless chit-chat. “If people agree, they don’t need to talk,” Fitch says. “Only generic people speak generically. If anyone could say it, no one should say it. Every line should be a million dollar line, or get rid of it.”

Extending the wrestling analogy, Fitch notes how speakers in narrative often circle like wrestlers, looking for an opening. That means they won’t always come in from the front. In good narrative dialogue, each person comes from a different perspective, bringing needs, wants and desires in relation to the others. Interrupting and trailing off are ways that characters are revealed. “Rarely do people get to finish what they mean to say,” Fitch notes.

She also reminds writers that dialogue is always part of a scene that demands fresh, specific details. “Set up the scene for someone to say something specific and interesting,” she recommends. “Set it up so you see who’s stronger. Who will the reader put their money on? There’s always a winner.”

Bad dialogue, Fitch says, marches down the page without regard for gesture, vocal tone, or facial expression. “Line after line of vocalization means you’re missing the interior world and the landscape,” she says. Beyond dialogue, the scene should include exposition plus ongoing description of the characters and their reactions. And don’t forget landscape. “As they speak, people still have contact with the physical world,” Fitch says. “When people stop speaking, there’s ambient sound.”

Fitch also reminds writers that dialogue is not deposition. Characters gain advantage by not answering, lying, playing mind games, or through counter attack. Like a good boxer, a character should never respond as her opponent expects. “If it doesn’t surprise, don’t write it,” Fitch says. Neither does dialogue have to be linear, Fitch reminds her audience. The narration can shift inside a character and back into the scene.

The best dialogue comes from people who know each other well, Fitch points out. Years of backstory are implied, and conflict is easy to raise. “The better you know each other, the less you have to explain,” she says. “Either the reader will keep up or she’ll be piqued to read on. Writing is seduction: reply obliquely; allow a mystery.”

For a spot-on example of Fitch’s dialogue principles, consider this from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a brief dialogue scene involving Rolph and his older sister Charlie, on safari with their father and his girlfriend Mindy:

Charlie and Rolph lie together under a palm tree. Charlie disdains the red Danskin one-piece she chose with her mother for this trip and decides she will borrow a pair of sharp scissors from the front desk and cut it into a bikini.

“I never want to go home,” she says sleepily.

“I miss Mom,” Rolph says. His father and Mindy are swimming. He can see the glitter of her swimsuit through the pale water.

“But if Mom could come.”

“Dad doesn’t love her anymore,” Rolph says. “She’s not crazy enough.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Rolph shrugs. “You think he loves Mindy?”

“No way. He’s tired of Mindy.”

“What if Mindy loves him?”

“Who cares?” Charlie says. “They all love him.”

These million dollar lines are simple, their value amassed by who says them and how they’re presented. They do everything good dialogue should. There’s landscape and gesture. We weave inside Charlie and Rolph and back out again. These kids don’t agree, and they don’t come in from the front – they riff on each other to get at what matters most to each of them. They disagree over their mother, and over Mindy, and over what love means when it involves their father. Charlie wins this round, getting in the last word on Dad. The scene illustrates beautifully how conflict can be rich and deep without necessarily being strung tight. The lines spoken by these children manage to simultaneously reveal their innocence and their depth of understanding.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Child's Play: The Lyric Moment

Moments that are self-forgetful, concentration that’s perfectly useless. None of that sounds tough, or even important. But these are the moments we write toward, whether we know it or not.

“My intent is always to reach some unbearable moment where time slows down and the sensual and psychological details compress and the language always reaches into the lyric register,” says Steve Almond in Honey, This Won’t Take but a Minute. “The rest is just chewing gum and string.”

Almond’s stories often end with such a moment. Here, the final paragraph from “The Evil B.B. Chow”:

“Instead, I wander the docks, the old schooners burdened under ornate masts, the colonial cemetery dressed in gravestones, names and years in elegant rows, and roasted garlic everywhere, everywhere tourists in their pink summer legs and dusk on the bricks, rain gutters fat with pigeons and rooftops sprigged with antennae, the sediments of beauty, I mean, and the widows on their stoops, done with the suffering of men and silent before the soft click of bocce balls. There is so much time in this life for grief. So many men lying in wait. And here, tonight, there is a harvest moon, which hangs so heavily yellow above the sea it might be God, or my heart.”

What makes such moments unbearable? It might be sheer pain, or it might be sheer beauty or truth. These are the moments in which we feel most alive. Dani Shapiro calls them moments of being, those small and deeply internal moments embedded within our usual state of non-being, moments that in our writing we hope to capture in their deepest emotional purity. They’re important moments, but they’re not self-important – they’re real.

Too often when we reach for the lyric moment, we speed up (Important! Important! Got to get there, pronto!) in exactly the places we should slow down and allow the moment to expand on the page. Or sensing the importance of the moment, we overwrite it. The lyric moment is not meant for striving.

Consider the way children play, suggests Mark Doty in The Art of Description: lost in the present, entirely occupied. “In lyric time,” he explains, “we cease to be aware of forward movement; lyric is concerned neither with the impingement of the past nor with the anticipation of events to come. It represents instead a slipping out of story and into something still more fluid, less linear: the interior landscape of reverie. This sense of time originates in childhood, before the conception of causality and the solidifying of our temporal sense into an orderly sort of progression.”
Though musicality is implied, lyric moments don’t demand a certain style. In these moments language and truth and time intersect in what Doty describes as “an unpointed awareness, a free-floating sense of self detached from context, agency, and lines of action.”

To get at these moments, Shapiro suggests we access the specific and dig deep. We all know how, because we were all children once. We latched onto something – a toy, a rock, a stick. We forgot about time and went in deep and where we landed was that landscape of reverie, the place where children and writers abide.