Category Archives: Characters

Writing Death

This past week I received news that a college friend had been involved in a pedestrian traffic accident and killed. Total shock. Anger. Sorrow. A reminder that death is a part of life. My heart went out to her husband, children and family. In the midst of my own grief, I eventually began thinking about mortality and death in writing. It’s not something anyone thinks about initially when sitting down to write, that’s for certain. But inevitably, characters die. Or they should, if we want our writing to be plausible and full of life.

How to write death, though? The thing about death is that it can sneak up and surprise just as much as be anticipated because of long illness or old age. I grew up in a family of much older relatives so I learned about death early. The thing about death that makes it so difficult is its finality. The emotions around that finality are powerful and difficult to capture in prose. In fact, I cannot think of a prose example that truly captures the emotional response to death in a precise and honest way. I welcome any examples from my readers.

A movie example comes to mind, however. The first is a movie I’ve written about before here: Seven Pounds. Guilt is one emotional response to death, especially if one survives and a loved one dies as in this movie. Another movie, and novel actually, comes to mind: The Constant Gardner. This novel is my favorite John le Carre novel.  While the backdrop of the story deals with Big Pharma nefarious shenanigans in East Africa, le Carre reveals how two different men, friends of each other in the British diplomatic service, respond to the death of the wife of one of them, especially since one of them (not the husband) is actually fully responsible for it. Again, there is guilt, but also anger, profound sorrow, and a need to know how and why she died. Le Carre doesn’t describe her death at the time it happens, but through the eyes of these two men seeing the aftermath and through forensics.

When I began Perceval’s Secret, the deaths that most affected Evan Quinn had happened before the story begins, so I didn’t think I’d be writing death in this novel.  Was I ever wrong! In that novel, I began the journey of Evan learning about himself, i.e. his authentic self, and part of that exploration is learning also about how he thinks and feels about death. What I discovered is that, like a lot of people, Evan tends to repress most of his emotions about death. Anger, however, is an acceptable emotion to feel, and that is what Evan feels the most. There is one death that will haunt him through the entire series, though, and I’m very interested to see what other emotions of his will come into play.

Describing actual death is not necessarily the hard part of writing death. It’s really the emotions surrounding death and writing them true and precise that is hard. What will a specific character feel about another character’s death? It will depend on his relationship with the deceased character before her death, and his previous experience with death. Someone who’s grown up in a society and family that accepts death as a part of life and teaches children how to grieve will respond much differently than someone who has grown up in a society and family that doesn’t talk about death.  A character who has faced death herself may respond differently also. Grief comes in many forms and colors. The most powerful prose that describes it is spare, I think.

To conclude my brief “meditation” on writing death, I’d like to ask other writers how they write death and the emotions surrounding it. Do you find it more difficult than writing about life? Less difficult? Do you think about it or just do it? Or do you avoid it altogether if possible?

Advertisements

Getting Started…again…and again….

“Aanora’s eyes”

The last two weeks or so have been full of life concerns and chores so I haven’t had much time to work on fiction. No, that’s not correct.  I didn’t have much time to sit at my computer and put words on screen, but I was actually working a lot on the Aanora story. That is, thinking about various scenes, asking my imagination lots of questions, and getting a handle on plot points. I’m starting to get a sense of its length, too, and it could end up novella length.  Which is fine.  I’ve not written a novella before.  Always a first time.

What niggled and nagged at me the last two weeks was the beginning. How to start? I have fairly stable scenes down that are in the middle and at the end.  I know now that the story doesn’t begin with Aanora, but with a set of characters at a diplomatic conference. It took me two weeks to get that far.  Yesterday, I decided to devote the afternoon to the beginning with the hope that I’d be able to get something down on screen.  I scrapped what I originally wrote and the first revision and started over. Then I closed my eyes to put myself in the meeting chamber where delegations from 25 planets were enjoying drinks and hors d’oeuvres at a reception.

Who are the sentient beings attending this conference? Do I need to name and describe each one? Ugh. I don’t think that’s needed. But I do need to name and describe the two parties who collide into a dispute. And then the human delegation that gets pulled into the dispute, challenged to find Aanora. They’ve never heard of Aanora, but understand from what the disputing parties tell them that she is the only mediator they will both accept. I realized that the leader of the human delegation (the main character) feels deeply insecure about his diplomatic skills and would like to find a mentor who can help him. And then there is this other niggling in my mind: one of the disputing parties is not known for accepting mediation.  They are known for taking what they want and leaving. So right away, I have the feeling that something is not right.

Where I write

Tension.  A great thing to have at the beginning of a story.  That sense of not knowing what’s going to happen, wondering what’s going on, what’s going to happen next. I was quite heartened with what I ended up with yesterday. I feel much more secure with this beginning than the others I’d written. It may be rewritten or edited in the future, but I now have my starting point for the story.

Another result of my thinking: getting to know the main character better. He’s a physical person, someone who prefers to act rather than think. He operates a lot on instinct, but isn’t good at reading people. It’ll be interesting to see how he fares in this story, if he’s truly open to learning, and if he can figure out what’s going on.  I already know when and how he meets Aanora.  I hope I’ll have more time next weekend for work on the story at the computer!

 

The Structure Game

A story is a story is a story. The medium tends to make no difference when looking at narrative structure. I often find myself noting plot points that signal the progress of the story’s structure when I’m reading a novel or watching a movie. Act 1 shouldn’t be long but set-up the goal the main character wants to achieve. Act 2 does its best with ever-increasing obstacles and conflicts to prevent the protagonist from achieving the goal. And then when all looks lost at the end of Act 2, the main character works out something that points the way to the climax in Act 3 when he or she achieves the goal or not.  Have you ever played the structure game while watching a movie?

Last evening I was watching a suspenseful action movie entitled Unstoppable. A half-mile long train gets away from an engineer when he leaves its cab to change a switch that would have diverted the train off the main line.  The train’s locomotive pulls freight cars, some carrying a toxic chemical, some carrying diesel fuel, and others carrying non-toxic materials. Because the engineer was moving the train off the main line, he failed to connect the train’s air brake system which would have stopped the train automatically.  So, the train barrels down the main railroad line in Pennsylvania, heading for a highly populated area. One railroad manager called it a “missile.” This was the set-up for the action in this story, commonly called act 1. The train plays the villain. As soon as the train gets loose and the railroad people realize the danger it poses — the “revelation” — the viewer understands that the goal for all these people is to stop the train.  But how?

Who are the heroes?  I use the plural form because there are more than one in this movie. We meet them all in act 1 also, their character introductions juxtaposed with the train.  A railroad manager named Connie who coordinates the action from a command center.  A veteran engineer named Frank who’s a bit irritated to be breaking in a new conductor named Will. And then there’s Ned who ends up being a wild catalyst for the climax of this story — he also works for the railroad, but I cannot remember now what his official title was.

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

In the second act, these four characters have to overcome the obstacles put in their way by the railroad’s upper management who are only thinking about how much money the railroad could lose, as well as actual physical obstacles like distance, speed, and the unmanned villainous train. They must deal with conflicts of ideas among themselves, conflicts of personalities, and the inevitable conflicts with law enforcement and politicians and the media (who always seem to get in the way in this type of story). I’m not going to describe anything specific here because I don’t want to ruin this really fun story — I recommend the movie.  Suffice it to say that at one point I realized I was shaking I was so tense, and I had to get up and walk around while I watched. I genuinely admire movie stories that are unpredictable, i.e. there’s no way to know what will happen next. This was definitely one of those stories.

Photo courtesy Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp.

The beginning of act 3 shows the characters in desperation and despair. Will they be able to stop the train? Will they survive the ordeal? People have already lost their lives because of this runaway train. Desperation breeds desperate actions, and I was quite pleased that in this movie, the desperate actions made sense. They were all extremely dangerous and breath-taking, too. I really wasn’t sure at all that these four characters would accomplish their goal at the end. And that’s what the climax is all about: answering the question does the protagonist achieve the goal or no? It’s not that rare for a protagonist not to achieve a goal, but perhaps he or she grows in some way as a result of seeking to achieve the goal. What writers want to accomplish at the end is an ending that is satisfying to the reader or, in the case of movies, the viewer.

Unstoppable (2010) entertained me immensely and I’m not even that interested in trains.  But part of the entertainment for me was noting the plot points that signaled the narrative structure and its progress.  The next time you’re watching a movie, see if you can play the structure game.

Writing Update

To be honest, I was thinking of skipping writing a post here this week in order to work more on “Aanora” today, but then I decided to write a short update on where I am with all my writing now that I’ve become accustomed to my fulltime work schedule during the week. Actual writing at the computer (or handwritten) occurs on the weekends. Thinking and imagining occurs all the time, even when I’m at the day job. During this past week, my printer at home began sending me error messages that the ink pads were almost full which for my particular model apparently means that I need a new printer. Too bad.  I love this printer. It has served me well for the last four years. So this means that until I get the new printer, I won’t be printing out much of what I’m writing.  I usually print out a draft and do revision work by hand rather than on the computer. This could also be a motivation to hurry up and buy the new printer.

“Light the Way,” the sci fi short story whose first draft I finally finished this summer is still fermenting. I think I printed out the first draft at the time I finished it, so I could do some revision work if I get stalled on the “Aanora” story.

Clipped a nice story from the newspaper this morning about Copenhagen, Denmark, one of the settings in Perceval’s Shadow, the second novel in the Perceval series. I’ve discovered that Google Maps can be especially helpful in researching locations also. I’m almost to the point with this novel where I no longer feel daunted by it. Revision work could start at any time.

What has been preoccupying my mind (and imagination) though is the “Aanora” story. Yesterday I worked more on the rough outline in order to work on the second act, i.e. the Conflict/Obstacle Act. I want the conflicts and obstacles to evolve organically out of the characters (what I want with every story), so it’s been necessary to think more about who the villain is. Now I know who the villain is and what he wants, but he’s not the only obstacle in the way of the main character achieving what he wants. I realized yesterday that the main character is probably his own biggest obstacle. So this could be a challenge. I understand now that Aanora is so important because she will help the main character overcome himself. Not quite sure how that will happen yet.  I also have the climax sequence in my head but haven’t yet written it.

Working on “Aanora” has been a weird experience for me. Instead of the story unfolding through a main character scene by scene, I’ve had scenes from different parts of the story come to me.  It feels a little like my imagination has thrown a bowl of spaghetti at the wall of my mind to see how much of it will stick to it. I’m frantically trying to save all the strands to see where they fit later. Fortunately, the characters continue to intrigue me and I’m enjoying spending time with them as well.

I do miss my fulltime writing life…..

Figuring out the questions

Every writer’s creative process differs from every other writer’s. It took me a long time to understand mine, to leave it alone, and let it do its thing. For the past two weeks, I’ve been thinking a lot about Aanora, trying to figure out how best to open to her and her story. Like every other part of the creative process, this part should not — cannot — be pushed.

One thing that always bothers me with the appearance of a new character is figuring out what her or his driving desire is in the story. Once I know that, more questions emerge, and the biggest is what happens now? A wise screenwriting teacher once said that after determining what the main character wants, then it’s time to ask just what that character will do to get it. This gives the writer an idea of the moral make-up of that character, if he’s passive or active, and how he approaches problems. But the question that comes next is where I’m struggling now: what are the obstacles/conflicts that the character must overcome in order to get what she wants?

As I began thinking about that, I had a shocking thought: Aanora was not the main character of the story! Oh, no. This was weird. Who was she, then? And who was the main character?

 

Dust Sculptures in Rosette Nebula (Photo credit/copyright: John Ebersole At NASA APOD)

I suppose this revelation that Aanora wasn’t the main character could have totally derailed me and my thinking, but I just kept asking questions of my imagination and waited.  I do a lot of waiting during the early stages of developing a story. Sometimes I’ll work on something else, like blog posts or book reviews, or I’ll start doing what I sense could be related to the new story in terms of research.  Since this story seems to be heading into outer space rather than staying on earth, I’ve begun researching the Milky Way Galaxy. It boggles my mind how gigantic our galaxy is, and it’s only one in a universe full of galaxies. And I’ve also begun thinking about Aanora’s original home, her backstory.

Eventually, some answers bubbled out of my imagination. Aanora was a pivotal character, a VIC (very important character), and crucial to the story and that’s apparently why she appeared in my mind first.  She is also apparently crucial to the success of the captain and crew of the space ship that finds her. I know now that they had been sent to find her, to ask for her help in a diplomatic mission. So now I have more and more questions! Where is the space ship from? Who are the beings on the ship? Who is the captain and his crew? Are they peaceful? Warlike? Well, if they are seeking Aanora for diplomatic reasons, perhaps they are also diplomats? What is the diplomatic mission? Who does it involve? Am I going to be creating sentient aliens? In this dimension or Aanora’s? Oh, and by the way, who is the main character of this story?!

Writing an outer space story makes me a little uncomfortable. It’s new for me now — when I was in elementary school I wrote maybe ten or eleven outer space sci fi stories that my teacher read aloud to the class.  I really haven’t written anything with an outer space setting since. Two things I began yesterday when I was working on this story: 1) a Notes document that contains all my questions, and then the answers when they come to me; and 2) the beginning of a very rough outline which is to say a list of plot points.

I’ve never really written about my creative process in this way before — laying it out for the world to see. I’m very curious to see if it will help or hurt my process. It could supplement my Notes file, although I do welcome comments! And I’m hoping that this process with this new story will actually ease me back into work on the Perceval novels eventually.