Posted tagged ‘books on writing’

Working On A New Novel — Obsessed with Character

February 13, 2020

“Characterization is a complex and elusive art and cannot be reduced to exact rules or to a comprehensive statement. The more we talk about it, the more we feel has been left out….”
Leon Surmelian, Techniques of Fiction Writing

“Human beings are the religion of the angels….”
— from the movie Cell

Both these quotes speak to the difficulty of discovering and creating characters who come alive for us, both as writer and reader, in a piece of fiction.  The one from a famous text on writing and the other an evocative and ultimately mysterious quote from an otherwise unmemorable film.  They both allude to the imaginative challenge.

I managed to finish writing a science fiction novel last year, and I’ve been submitting it to literary agents and to publishers, so far unsuccessfully.  Although I think it’s good, and I have high hopes for it, you never know.  Maybe it will go nowhere.  It’s tough at the best of times to get published, and with all the technological turmoil….

But in the meantime, I’ve started working on a second novel.  As part of that I’ve been obsessing about how better to develop the characters that will inhabit it.

The now completed science fiction novel was set many hundreds of years in the future on a failing Earth struggling to recover its potential.  This new one is intended to be more of the present day thriller variety, although situated perhaps five years in the future to give myself as much latitude as possible in creating dark situations.

Before I write about the useful advice and books I’ve come across, I want to describe my working theory about imaginative psychology, simplistic as it is.  Maybe it will help provide context for my preoccupation about developing characters.

The discovery model

I have become convinced of the discovery model of fiction writing.  We are creating, making stuff up, this is true, but the best material for that creation is what we discover in the surprising backwaters of ourselves as we write, or what comes illumined to us at the edge of sleep.  For others these riches may come wholly dressed and dancing, but for me they are fragmentary and usually wrapped in fog.  Yet there is something there.

The rest of my pet theory is that there is a deep layer of our being where reside all the archetypes and our collective unconscious in the Jungian sense.  The archetypes are forces, not things.  There too the spiralling currents and tidal streams of our personal shadow slowly circulate.  I have no idea, for the most part, about whatever the heck is going on in there.  But I’m sure it’s all homeostatic!

The next layer up, I postulate, is at the subliminal, subconscious level, at the edge of conscious realization.  The level where a whisper comes through out of nowhere about a character’s motivation, or the shape of the plot, or where appears a fleeting image of oranges on a truck.  I’ve found that you have to pay attention to these transitory strays, get them down in a notebook or on the page right now.  It’s a matter of respect for that entire submerged ocean that feeds the subconscious level, that supports you.  If you want more to come, you must not have it avoid you for your negligence.  These morsels won’t always make sense or be useful, but much more often than not they provide sustenance.

And then there’s the mundane, everyday level where I struggle to make sense with words, just as I am doing now.

Helpful books on characterization

I want to mention several books that have provided insight in my quest about characterization.  I may have a “felt sense” or intuition about a character which provides the irritating sand for the pearl I hope for, but often that intuition stays static for quite a while.  I want to learn how to nudge it along.

The first couple of books are off the beaten path of the mainstream industry of providing craft help for would-be writers.  They are Verbalize — Bring Stories to Life and Life to Stories by Damon Suede and Unmasking Arkhelogy by Jennifer Van Bergen.  Interestingly, both authors come out of an acting background.  That gives a different take on characterization which I found valuable.

Verbalize? What’s that about? Of course we’re verbalizing our stories.  But that’s not what Suede is referring to.  He’s using “verbalize” as shorthand for the process of finding (discovering?) the most precise verb to describe the character we’re working on.  I found this very insightful.

Characteristics aren’t character

Characteristics are not character, he points out, despite all the standard list of things you’re supposed to know about your main characters before writing.  (This kind of list I’ve always found sterile and mostly meaningless.)

“Words don’t create characters, emotions do,” says Suede. “… The first step for a writer is to nail down the foundation that aligns and supports all the emotion that makes books worth reading.”

The way to do that, he says, is to understand that the character who makes choices drives the scene and steers the story.  And where do these choices come from, you may ask?

A character is not a face, but a force.  The character’s choices arise from that force, and that can be symbolized as the most fitting and exact verb for that character.  This gives you a lot to play around and experiment with.  Get out the best thesaurus and dictionary you know.  Once you find a ballpark verb, check all the synonyms and even antonyms to zero in on that intuitive character shape you may already sense.

The richness of the English language is your ally.  Your character is all the shades of meanings of the chosen verb.  They embody the activity of your character, with the exceptions and focus you choose.   The energy of this “verbalization” can be elaborated into all the actions which the character takes and which bounce off the other characters.  This is Suede’s counsel.  There is a lot more to the book, and I found it fruitful.

Arkhelogy?

Van Bergen’s book, Unmasking Arkhelogy, is a slightly updated 2011 book originally published as Archetypes for Writers: Using the Power of Your Subconscious. She’s arrived at a terminology for the process of bringing out one’s own character archetypes.  “Arkhelogy” is an example, and it means doing this work investigating archetypes useful for your characters.  She feels it necessary to have her own jargon in order to be clear about what she’s describing.  The reader may only find it puzzling.  The book is also rather chaotically organized.

But despite that, I found her ideas intriguing.

“This approach has little to do with how to ‘create’ characters or plot stories.  Rather, it is more about how to find your character and story archetypes, or even how to have them find you. Underlying this approach is the premise that each person carries within them a given set of character and story archetypes.”

You can see how this fits in with my own biases.  So what is her method?

Elsewhere budding writers are advised to use archetypes such as The Lover, The Hero, The Magician, The Sage, The Ruler, etc., to provide a basis for characters.  Such archetypes are said to be “notably recurrent across the human experience.”  Unfortunately, for me, these give no real clue about developing a specific, interesting character.  They’ve become another form of fixed and simplified stereotypes.

Van Bergen wants to develop a capability of finding character archetypes from our own experience, imagination and subconscious.  In essence we want to discover the secret lives of the characters.

A series of skills

In order to develop the skills needed to do this, she prescribes a set of exercises.  These include among others:

— Establishing character facts for the character.  These are purely factual statements.  They include no judgements or personal opinions about who this character may be.  Try to avoid any adjectives which give our slant on who this person is.  For example: “He comes to the office exactly on time.  He wears a navy suit that is a little too snug.”

— Discerning the character’s “universal drive.”  This is the most basic type of drive such as survival, or the need to love or be loved.  Most other drives collapse into these, Van Bergen says.  She might also include the drive to protect and nurture, the drive for sex, the drive to realize “the Core Self” and very few others.  Interestingly, she doesn’t see freedom as a basic urge, which is a universal drive to me.

— Elucidating discrepancies. A discrepancy is an incongruity or inconsistency in a person’s behavior that reveals something significant about the person.  Example: “He calls her his girlfriend but he makes no effort to visit or spend time with her.”

Van Bergen points out that a goal for us as writers must be to find the things that bother us most.  And understand where they come from.  That’s where the juice is.

There is much more but this gives you the flavour of her approach.  I found it thought provoking, although it remains to be seen how able I am to use it.

The Art of Characterization

Another very good book about characterization is the deservedly popular The Art of Characterization by David Corbett.  I’m giving it short shrift here, but it is mightily worth it if you are interested in this subject.  He writes:

“Just as you must untether your characters from predictability by granting them the freedom to contradict themselves, to grow, to change, so you must grant yourself a similar freedom to play the trickster, shift at will, embrace the unexpected, be free.”

But the best single piece of advice for characterization I’ve found to date is this nugget panned from David Morrell’s Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing, which I will paraphrase:

Determine the conscious goal of a main character and then constantly ask “Why?” until the true answer reveals itself.  This should pull out backstory, history, internal beliefs, future hopes and dreams and fears, and more….

That advice is written on a yellow sticky attached to the side of my computer monitor.

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The Synergy of Two Books About Story

April 2, 2014

“The writer is a man who seeks a larger world.”
— Dwight V. Swain, in Techniques of the Selling Writer

“You are the slave of your story, not its master.  You don’t make decisions, you make discoveries.”
Brian McDonald, in Invisible Ink
———————————

I don’t like the word “synergy” very much, although I’m not so sure why.

I am a whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-my-parts kind of guy, but the word smacks of marketing, as if it’s the name of a used-car dealership.  Maybe my skepticism is because it’s a description of process that’s everywhere anyway, of emergent properties arising out of separate elements.  It probably has a lot to do with the management-speak where I work, of “incentivizing proactive synergistic visions, going forward.”

But in the case of two books on fiction writing I’ve been reading, the word actually seems to have some meaning, in the sense of the “cooperative action of two or more stimuli, resulting in a different or greater response than that of the individual stimuli.”  But then maybe the word I’m really looking for here is “synchronicity”, the seeming purely coincidental occurrences that take on meaning….

The two books are Techniques of the Selling Writer, published in 1965 by the late Dwight V. Swain, who wrote prolifically for magazines and films, while teaching writing at the University of Oklahoma, and Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate, 2010, by Brian McDonald, screenwriter and teacher.

I’ve been working on the first draft of a novel, just getting started really.  I’ve written a few scenes, I know my primary characters pretty well, I know how the story begins, how it ends, and what the main character thinks he’s doing.  But I slowed down, and then came to a halt.

I’ve been realizing I don’t know what a story is.  I know one when I hear or read one. But I don’t know how to make a real story, what propels it, what keeps it moving, what gives it heart and meaning.  Characters, setting, plot, dialogue, scenes, conflict, all those elements of so many books on writing, don’t give me what I need to know about story.

Techniques of the Selling Writer sets out to do just that.  With that title, you might think it’s a book about being as commercial as possible, of following some set formula in whatever genre can make you the most money.

In fact, it’s not that at all.  It’s about the survival of the fittest, the fittest way to tell a story that can stand out amongst serious competition in the marketplace of fiction publishing.

It’s about the basic bolts and nuts of story framework, from building scenes and character development to larger issues of what makes a writer.  It’s a handbook about getting to grips with story.

It’s not about avant-garde writing, of encouraging the James Joyce in each of us, but about the craft of story as we may find it widely distributed in the culture about us, of books and film and games, although often we will find that such stories are lacking.

These comments won’t be a review really, just the main things I got out of each book in my quest, almost like that of a character in a book, for story….

Most Useful Description of Technique

Techniques Selling WriterSwain starts his useful description of technique for me when he begins to write about “motivation-reaction units.”  That almost sounds like widgets from a factory, but he’s really talking about building feeling as the character confronts situations and reacts, which the reader then begins to participate in.  There is cause and effect at the core of effective story, and these motivation-reaction units link together as you write to provide a thread of meaningful causation.

Something happens of significance to the character, and of pertinence to the story: the reader sees that an active response is necessary from the character.  The character’s reaction ensues.  There is some change, perhaps small, in the character’s state of affairs or state of mind.  This should precipitate another motivating stimulus and then another reaction.  These linked units gradually build.  “The chain they form as they link together is the pattern of emotion.”  The chain should be strictly chronological so that the writing leaves an impression of a continuing stream of reality, with appropriate “haptic” (bodily) sensation and involvement.

There is much more detail in Swain’s teasing out of this basic story process, of course, but this gives the gist.  And each M-R unit, as Swain calls them, must be pertinent to the story as a whole.  It may be harder to do than to say….

But at its simplest, for a beginner: Write a sentence without your character (becomes motivation).  Follow it with a sentence about your character (becomes reaction).   Of course, as one becomes more skilled, the units of each type may be somewhat larger.  And although this method might sound simple, or simple-minded, it “sometimes poses problems of choice that are little less than fiendish.”

The next level up (can we say storey?) in the tower of story is that of scene and sequel.  I kind of know what a scene is, but I hadn’t really thought about sequel as a technical term in this context.

Scene and Sequel

Story, Swain says is built with those two basic units.  A scene is a unit of dramatic conflict lived through by character and reader.  Sequels are the transitions between scenes.  He makes it sound so simple….

A scene functions to provide interest, and to move the story forward.  It provides opposition to your character.  It’s a unit of conflict.  The structure of a scene is 1) Goal 2) Conflict and 3) Disaster.  I like that no. 3!

What is disaster?  Swain says it’s the scene’s hook — providing logical but unanticipated developments.  It often comes in the form of new information received.  If a scene doesn’t end in actual disaster, it must raise an intriguing question for the future.  The skill in this may be to make the disaster potential, rather than actual.

Swain insists that all this can succeed for the literary work as much for the potboiler.  But one can’t be afraid of drama.

What then of sequel?  “It sets forth your focal character’s reaction to the scene just completed, and provides him with motivation for the scene next to come.”  The sequel functions to translate disaster into goal, to telescope reality and to control the story’s tempo.  Swain says its structure is 1) Reaction 2) Dilemma 3) Decision.  (I’m continually impressed about how logical Swain is about these creative tools.)  Our hero decides on a new goal and the next scene, with its struggles, begins to arise.

Swain says the source of story satisfaction for the reader is the release of tension.  Or from another angle, the way the story turns out is your reader’s key source of satisfaction.

He goes on from scene and sequel to discuss the beginning, middle and end of a story, and what constitutes each.  The beginning ends for Swain when the main character commits to action against the danger or threat he realizes he faces.  And then the middle of the story becomes how the main character becomes more and more constricted as to his avenues of action.  Towards the end we see more clearly what the main character deserves, and what he gets.

Populating the World

Swain’s chapter on story characters, The People in Your Story, is refreshing in its straightforward and common-sense approach.  Use the least number of characters to do the job of advancing the story.  If a character is not in some way either for or against your main character, then they’re not serving a useful story function.  And remember that stress reveals character.

Each character must appear to move under his own power.  So one must supply each character with 1) Lack and 2) Compensation.  What makes a character interesting?  Contradiction.

There’s much, much more to all of this of course than I can relate here.  Swain’s strength is his logical analysis of the mechanisms of how to move a story along, while leaving in the would-be writer’s hand the extent of the creative variations that can be devised.  He has an old-fashioned (but perhaps ever present) sense of what the novel can accomplish that’s definitely not postmodern.

So, Swain made me all optimistic about being able to get my hands on the levers of story.  Then I read Brian McDonald’s short book (only about 150 pages), and my optimism took another turn for the better.

Invisible Ink

Invisible InkIn Invisible Ink, McDonald has let me finally understand what theme is and more importantly how it functions in a story.  Lots of books about writing place importance on thematic purpose and consistency.  I just could never feel what it really meant in whatever I was trying to write.

McDonald’s description of the armature as a way of talking about theme suddenly made the whole thing much clearer to me.  He likens the armature to the internal framework upon which a sculptor supports his work.  The armature is the moral of the tale, the purpose of the story, the point of all the drama.  What does one really want to get across?

As an example, he refers to the animated film The Iron Giant.  The intriguing armature of this work is: “What if a gun had a conscience and didn’t want to be a gun anymore?”  If the armature works, in the end it will move the reader.

Armature provide the same kind of focus that makes jokes work.  McDonald says he uses jokes as an instructional tool.  “Just as all elements of a joke support the punch line, so should every element of your story support its armature.”

Bring in the Clones

The concept of characters as clones was another aha! moment in McDonald’s discussion of the invisible strands that tie a real story together.

“Clones are characters in your story that represent what could, should, or might happen to the protagonist if he or she takes a particular path.”  Clones can display, often very subtly, the shades of meaning in the story’s world.

For instance, the cravenness, corruption and pitiful nature of Gollum in Lord of the Rings represents what could well happen to the hero Frodo if he gives in to the Ring.  We can measure the success of one character by the failure of another.  Dorothy’s companions in the Wizard of Oz — the Scarecrow, the Lion and the Tin Man — are another example.  They are all artful clones of Dorothy.

This concept allows characters to serve the needs of the story, to make it more powerful, and not just be random personalities that the writer allows to wander onto the set.  Not every character has to be a clone, but it is obviously a powerful tool for illustrating the armature.

 Ritual Pain

“…It is your job as storyteller to apply as much pressure on your characters as possible.  You must back them into a corner and force them to change.  Make it as painful as you can.”

The thought of causing other people pain usually gives me the horrors.  But as a writer you have to put your poor fictional people through hoops of fire on the horns of dilemmas.  This is a bloodymindedness that I definitely have to work on in what I want to write.  I should think of it, though, as McDonald recommends: “Ritual pain means painfully killing off one aspect of a character’s personality to make room for something new.”

He notes also that you have to find the right kind of ritual pain for each character.

The Masculine and the Feminine

McDonald takes the politically incorrect, but intuitively true, notion of real differences between men and women and applies it to storytelling.  Men do tend to prefer action flicks.  Everything is on the surface and introspection is not much in evidence.  Woman do tend to prefer depictions of people emotionally involved with each other, with not necessarily a lot of forward movement in the story.  His main point is that to get readers to care about what they’re reading, both these aspects need to be evident and in balance.  They deepen each other, just like men and women.

Sacrifice

Sacrifice is another mechanism by which an author can show the extent of a character’s change, of his sincerity, of growth.  “Simply put, the climax of a story puts the protagonist in an intense situation that forces a choice that shows growth or lack of growth.”

Superior Position

McDonald describes “superior position” as one way to cultivate either suspense or humour.   It’s when the audience knows, or suspects, something that the characters do not.  He says this bit of craft is what made Alfred Hitchcock a masterful storyteller during his fifty-year career.

There’s more, of course, in McDonald’s book but these were most of the kernels that I took from it.

It remains to be seen of course if I can incorporate what I’ve learned from these two books in my own writing.  But I do feel more confident.  At the same time I seem to aspire to what Thomas Mann (cited by McDonald) once wrote: “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

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