Category Archives: Characters

Language

In On Writing, Stephen King comments that readers never ask writers language questions, i.e. how does a writer come up with the right language for a story? Or a character?  Dialogue? It’s hard work, actually. I’ve been thinking a lot about it this past week because my revision work on Perceval’s Shadow last weekend put the question of language in my face. It’s all about word choice, but that sounds much simpler than it is.

I worked last weekend on chapter 2, a Pierre chapter, i.e. a chapter told from third person point of view close in to a 10-year-old French boy who’s been living on the future war-torn Viennese streets. He loves Japanese anime, specifically the anime of Hayao Miyazaki in two of Miyazaki’s famous movies, Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle, especially the latter. This boy just started identifying himself in his mind as a friend of the Wizard Howl as well as the Warrior Ashitaka, I had no idea why, but I went with it. Pierre is also artistically gifted — he loves to draw and he loves architecture, so he’s visually oriented. I wanted to capture a sense of his mind, his personality, and explore more his love for Miyazaki.

This excerpt is from the first draft:

He strolled down an aisle of butcher stalls, one hand skimming the edge of the displays, eyeing the sausages, the gruff stall owners, and where the most shoppers had stopped: a stall on the left, four stalls ahead. He increased his pace. At the target stall, he darted between two rotund women and grabbed a pair of bratwurst with his left hand. One woman cuffed his head and the other reached to hold him, but he ducked and ran.

Photo Credit: Vanessa Rudloff

Not bad. But everything about this excerpt screams me writing description. I wanted to choose words that would be revealing of Pierre, not me. How does he see this outdoor market and the people around him? Is he afraid? Confident? Does he have a plan? His goal is to steal enough food to get him through another day. With these questions in mind, here’s what I came up with in the revision:

He strolled down an aisle of the butcher section, one hand skimming the edge of the displays, devouring the sausages with his eyes, keeping his distance from the gruff stall owners.  Most of the shoppers had stopped at a stall on the left, four stalls ahead.  He increased his pace.  The crowd around the stall would hide him while he snatched the meat.  All those Viennese women!  They became flustered when something extraordinary happened, like an invisible French boy stealing from right under their noses.  He grinned.  They probably saw the meat move up and fly through the air on its own.  Imagine!  Of course they would become flustered.  They could not explain what had happened.  The police would come and shake their giant heads at the women and their stories of meat flying through the air on its own.

At the target stall, he darted between two rotund women and grabbed a pair of bratwurst with his left hand.  One woman cuffed his head and the other reached to hold him, but he ducked and ran.  These women had tried to stop him.  How could they see him?

In this revision, I wanted to show him thinking more of being helped by the Wizard Howl, and Pierre immediately decided that Howl had made him invisible. I realized after I’d finished, that as a homeless boy, he felt invisible to most of the people around him. All the nice Viennese do not want to see him or other homeless boys, dirty and starving, collateral damage from the war. If they saw them, the Viennese would either feel helpless to do anything or uncomfortable and overwhelmed by the “problem” and want someone else to take care of it, i.e. the police or government.

Photo: der Standard/Robert Newald

In the second excerpt, I write much the same thing as in the first excerpt, but in the second it’s no longer me describing the action. By sinking into Pierre’s thoughts, the paragraph takes on the quality of Pierre’s personality. It begins by changing “eyeing the sausages” to “devouring the sausages with his eyes” and sinks deeper with the exclamation “All those Viennese women!” He imagines their reaction to meat rising through the air all on its own. He is psyching himself to make his move to steal the bratwurst. The language I’ve chosen reflects that and his narrow escape in the following paragraph.

This is an example of working with language, how language supports character and action, and how it sets the tone for the story. The words I chose reveal Pierre’s character. To accomplish this, I thought long and hard about who Pierre is, how he sees the world, how he sees himself in the world, and how he’s chosen to cope with his circumstances. I was satisfied with the result.

Remaining True to Characters

The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo at the Sistine chapel, Vatican city, Rome, Italy

What writer hasn’t grappled with the sense of playing God while writing characters? It is a seductive feeling.  Power.  Control.  Bossing characters around so that they do and say what I want. Wow. Certainly can’t do that with people in real life. But guess what? It doesn’t work anymore with fictional characters than it does in real life. That is, if you want your characters to truly be themselves. I’ve experienced characters staging protests and coups when I’ve forgotten my true place as the writer and tried to play God, and so now that I’m doing lots of revision work, it’s time to remind myself just what remaining true to characters really means.

Observe

People Watching

The first thing is to step back and watch. As I read my writing, or anyone else’s, that’s what I’m doing mentally. I wouldn’t try to interfere with someone else’s characters, and so I will not interfere with my own. And actually, that possessive “my” is relative — at some point, characters become their own people with their own personalities, thoughts, and feelings, motivations, behavior, and speech, and when that happens, that’s when a writer knows he or she has succeeded in creating characters who are as real as people in the real world. Part of getting to that point is believing they are real people.

While doing revision work, it’s important to set aside all my own ideas and preconceptions about each character, and just watch them as I read. Who are they? What do they want in the context of the story? What will they do to get it? What is their worst fear? What is their primary emotional flaw? Watch the characters in their behavior and speech to learn the answers to these questions. I’m usually not surprised by the primary characters but sometimes a secondary character will shock or surprise me, and then that opens up possibilities for the story that I had not seen before.

listen

iStockphoto

How a person talks reveals an awful lot about their character, education, and background. Pay attention to the rhythm of the speech, to the use of language, to the choice of words. Pay attention to how characters talk to each other.

When I was working on Vasia Bartyakov in Perceval’s Secret, I knew that he was Russian, and that his English would reflect the influence of his native tongue. But what really came through to me from him with his English was a sense of his natural exuberance. He’s old enough to have some idea of the way the world works, but still young enough to believe in optimism and the inherent goodness of human beings. He loves life. He loves music. Every word out of his mouth and the way he said it reflected that. I learned all that by stepping back and listening to him, and stopped myself from putting words in his mouth that I believed would move the story forward or reveal character. What I learned from Vasia is that characters love to reveal themselves through their speech if you shut up and listen.

witness

Write what you see and hear. Describe it as closely as you can to what you saw and heard from your characters. I call this “witnessing.” This is where the give and take between the writer and her characters really comes into play, and it’s important that the writer remain true to her characters, i.e. be worthy of their trust and belief in her by being faithful to what she’s seen and heard.

In the revision stage, it’s just as important to remain true to the characters, to insure that even if dialogue needs to be cleaned up for whatever reason, the writer preserves the original intent and meaning of that dialogue. What I most often run into with dialogue is that I need to relax it, make it more like the spoken speech that it is rather than only speech that is read. People rarely speak in complete, grammatically correct sentences. I want my writing to be the best it can be in order to be an accurate and trustworthy witness to the lives of my characters.

conclusion

Characters may be watching the writer as closely as the writer watches them to determine if the writer can be trusted with their story. They give themselves over to writers, and at the same time, writers need to respect them and the process that the writer and characters are both part of. The next time you’re tempted to play God with your characters, just think of how much you may hate being bossed around, controlled and manipulated, and treat your characters the way you want to be treated yourself.

Out of the Dream, On to the Screen

Photo from Terra Kate at Pinterest

This morning, I woke from a dream, one of those “processing” dreams that rehash something that happened the day before or a week ago. This one succinctly reviewed an issue at work and how I’d responded, giving me “two thumbs up” for handling it well. Why don’t I remember more of these “Atta girl!” dreams?

The notion of remembering dreams stuck like a burr in my mind through the morning, until I finally realized that dreams have played an important role in my writing life. In Anais Nin’s book, The Novel of the Future, she quotes Jung in the first chapter: “Proceed from the dream outward….” She then defines dream: “…ideas and images in the mind not under the command of reason.” She goes on to discuss that dreams are not limited to sleep time, but they can occur at any time the mind slips away from the command of reason which includes daydreaming, playing in the imagination, and hallucinations sparked by drugs. Any products of the imagination proceed from the dream outward.

When I write fiction, I am using my imagination, encouraging it to provide me with the characters, dialogue, and action for the stories I write. When I’ve run into walls during this process, I have asked for help from my subconscious mind before closing my eyes to sleep at night. Patience has rewarded me with paths around the walls or ways to scale them in dreams I have had asleep. Characters have sometimes haunted my dreams at night.

While working on the very first draft of Perceval’s Secret years ago, I really wasn’t that excited about Evan Quinn being an orchestra conductor. The way I saw it, I’d need to do an awful lot of research in order to make him authentic because I knew very little about professional orchestra conductors, especially the successful ones, and of course, I wanted Evan to be a successful something. So, I began thinking about other possible professions. At the time I knew nothing about his story (I didn’t know his name at the time), only that he’d grown up in Minneapolis, Minnesota and I’d seen him conducting on stage in my mind. Professions I thought about included auto mechanic, high school teacher, dentist, and a construction executive, sort of a real estate developer who actually works construction, or real estate agent.

A couple days after I began thinking about changing Evan’s profession, I went to bed in the evening dog tired. I looked forward to a restful night’s sleep. But it didn’t turn out to be: I had a dream in which Evan, dressed in his white tie and tails (his working clothes), stood in front of me, glaring at me with anger in his eyes, then very fast pushing his face into my face, so fast it startled me awake. I lay in bed thinking how odd it was to dream about a character, but then it made sense because the character had emerged from my imagination much the way dreams do. I went back to sleep. But restful sleep it wasn’t, because that dream came back, waking me again, and again, and again. The same dream. For four more nights.

I mean, really! I was annoyed with Evan Quinn, annoyed with myself, and cranky because I wasn’t getting much sleep. It took me five days and nights before I figured out what the dream was about. Evan always appeared in his white tie and tails, as if just about to go on stage or just come off stage. He wasn’t wearing a mechanic’s coveralls, or a suit, or jeans and an Oxford shirt. It was always that tux. And that was the key. He didn’t speak to me in the dream, just glared at me and threatened me by getting in my face. He wasn’t happy. He was angry with me. He was showing me that he wanted to wear his white tie and tails, and he wanted me to know that. In other words, he was an orchestra conductor and nothing else, and he was angry that I was entertaining any other profession for him.

This revelation led to the end of the dream. He left me alone once I’d given in, with some trepidation because of the amount of research I’d need to do, and let him be an orchestra conductor.

Proceed from the dream outward, indeed. It’s time for my dreams to stop being about the job and start helping me with Evan Quinn again as I begin work on the first revision of Perceval’s Shadow.

What do you dream about?

Creative Mind Under Stress

The recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain sparked my mind to return to my interest in what happens when psychological trauma rules a mind and life rather than the mind confronting it and healing. I didn’t know either Spade or Bourdain so I’m not writing about them specifically. But I chose to make the protagonist of the Perceval series a 30-something American man, Evan Quinn, who suffered severe psychological trauma as a child and who has an aversion to any kind of psychiatric treatment because in his America the government uses psychiatric treatment as an instrument of mind and behavior control as well as a way to make someone disappear. I wanted to explore through Evan Quinn the possibilities of untreated psychological trauma. How does the mind deal with the psychological trauma? How do the mental coping mechanisms affect behavior? How do they affect the person’s thinking? Just as the physical body has its responses to trauma, so does the human mind to psychological trauma.

When a person experiences a life-threatening situation, or a situation the person perceives as life-threatening, and the person is powerless in that situation, the mind experiences psychological trauma. Some examples (not all the possibilities) of such a traumatizing situation: natural disaster, car accident, combat in war, being the victim of attempted murder, being mugged at gunpoint, being raped, and especially for children, being abused physically, sexually and/or emotionally. Once the threat is over and the person is safe, it’s important for him or her to talk about the experience, to debrief. This includes talking not only about the facts of the situation but also how the person felt, what the person was thinking during the situation, and what, if anything, the person did in response to the situation. For example, I live in Minnesota, and during tornado season over the years I’ve heard of a small town being hit by a devastating tornado, and then witnessed residents of the town talking about their experience with the media, being heard and supported, helped and comforted. This is actually a very important step toward healing the psychological trauma of the natural disaster. But what happens when the traumatized person cannot talk about the event immediately afterward and receive support, help, and comfort?

Evan Quinn experienced abuse as a child growing up. He was a powerless, defenseless child abused by a person he trusted to protect and defend him. For any child, this betrayal and injury can have a devastating effect on the child’s psyche including dissociation at the time of the trauma. When there’s no outside intervention to protect the child afterward as there was none for Evan, the mind copes by compartmentalizing the thoughts and emotions of the memory of the trauma. In other words, the mind puts the memory away in a closet. The memory isn’t gone, though. The mind takes steps of its own to protect itself and the child. So, for example, the child may become quiet, sad, afraid, and hyper-vigilant in contrast to previous behavior. The child’s thought processes change. It only takes one trauma to do the damage, and subsequent trauma reinforces the mind’s coping measures. Each person is a unique individual, and so each person will respond in a unique and individual way to a psychologically traumatizing event(s). There is a common coping mechanism, however, that manifests as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Evan Quinn has PTSD. He’s grown up living with his abuser, putting the memories of the abuse away in a mental closet even as he remembers witnessing his father abusing his mother and her response. He makes it to adulthood because of classical music and his friendship with the Caines, especially with his mentor in music, Joseph Caine. In Europe, he’s far away from his abuser and he’s finally safe. It’s usually at this point that PTSD begins to really make itself felt because the circumstances no longer require its coping and protective function. Memories will pop out of the closet in the form of flashbacks, also affecting mental function, sleep, and emotional control. For women, depression is common, as well as acting out in inappropriate ways. For men, there can be acting out, sometimes violence, paranoia, as well as depression. Hallucinations, auditory and/or visual, are not uncommon. A profound sense of hopelessness and uselessness, deep hot rage and short temper, and despair can pervade daily life. None of this happens all at once but develops over time. PTSD is a symptom of unresolved psychological trauma.

In Perceval’s Secret, Evan begins to become aware of his PTSD and it’s recognized by Klaus Leiner who offers Evan help. Evan receives other offers of help, but his aversion to psychiatric treatment and his belief that there’s nothing wrong with him prevent him from accepting those offers. The PTSD affects his thought process and the choices that he makes. How his life progresses after that is what the Perceval series reveals. My big discovery, as the writer that Evan chose to tell his story, was that power plays a crucial role — having power over others, being powerless vs. feeling powerless, and the desire to feel powerful vs. actually being powerful in oneself. And I feel often that I am only scratching the surface of this complex human experience and condition, as well as its relevance to current human life.

 

Revision Work, or, Now the Fun Begins!

Two weekends ago, I finished the first draft of the Aanora novella. I printed it out, tucked it into the working file, and there it has remained and will remain for at least another 2 weeks. Last weekend, I worked on my short story “Light the Way,” tweaking certain parts and checking on the use of language in it. I think this story is about ready for submission, and my next task for it is to develop a list of publications for it. This weekend, my plan is to tackle another short story that needs far more work. It has been drifting through several rewrites because I can’t seem to settle on what the main character is truly about. This morning, while getting dressed, I was thinking that maybe I needed to give her more vulnerability than I have in previous drafts.

Revision work. Probably the real work of creative writing.

A recent article in The Writer about something unrelated to revision sparked some ideas for me for this problem story. I realized that I needed to get to know the main character better. She has been a cypher to me really, and I think that’s been a huge problem. Next, I realized yet again that withholding information creates suspense or tension. There’s an element in this story that I think I introduce far to early. One of my early drafts kept this element hidden, with only hints and glimpses through most of the story. I’m thinking that my original impulse regarding that element was probably correct. And third, I’ve always known that the main character was a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, but I’d been waffling, I think, on whether or not she’d accepted that fact of her life and if she had, what was she doing to heal? I’m fascinated by the psychological and behavioral results of untreated PTSD which is often a result of early childhood psychological and physical trauma. So does this character accept American society’s reluctance to face the ugly fact that PTSD is not only something combat veterans and disaster survivors experience, or does she push against that reluctance?

These are good questions. When approaching revision work, questions are a writer’s friends. Questions generate thought and ideas. Questions could have answers or just more questions. The process of working through questions can untangle the worst of a messy draft. The important thing is to open to those questions, let them percolate in the mind (and the imagination), and to be patient. I have a post-it note above my desk that reads: Trust in the process.

The following 4 questions are also on a post-it above my desk and are essential for narrative structure as well as character development:

  • What does the character want in terms of this story?
  • What is the character willing to do to get it?
  • What is the character’s primary emotional vulnerability?
  • What is the character’s biggest fear?

These questions address the main character, but they can also be asked of all the rest of the characters, especially those that are potential or actual obstacles to the main character.

Every writer has his or her own way of approaching the revision process. In my experience, there is no right or wrong way, only the best way for each writer. I need a lot of thinking time, as well as time to noodle around with the questions that I have, time to play with possibilities without feeling I must commit to any one direction. I’ve only just begun thinking about this particular short story this weekend. It will probably take many more weekends before I’m satisfied with the answers that my imagination provides for me.

Evan Quinn has been nagging at me as well. Last weekend I was writing notes for Perceval’s Shadow and thinking about my approach to its revision process. But Evan knows he needs to be patient and let me get this short story revision done first. (With a fulltime job now, it’s impossible for me to be working on more than one writing project at a time.)