quotation marks, and their abuse

Why have I raised this subject, when not so long ago I was saying in no uncertain terms that puncutation is boring, and unworthy of discussion? It’s my way of preparing you for a short but very intense rant:

There are people who pepper their prose with quotation marks and not as a way to punctuate dialog. You know what I mean, those “writers” who try to make a point more “clearly” by isolating specific words with quotation marks. As I just did. Forgive me; it was all in the service of making my point.

Using quotation marks in the way says one thing very clearly, and it’s most certainly not the thing you mean to say:

This is not exactly the right word; I know it, and so do you.

It’s is a lazy and distracting habit, and I suspect that it correlates closely to an excessive fondness of exclamation points.

While I’m on the subject, I’d like to point out that it is possible to do without quotation marks completely, even in punctuating direct dialog between characters. This is from The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s collection of interwoven short stories about his experiences in Vietnam, exactly how it appears on the page:

Henry Dobbins asked what the moral was.


You know. Moral.

Sanders wrapped the thumb in toilet paper and handed it across to Norman Bowker. There was no blood. Smiling, he kicked the boy’s head, watched the flies scatter, and said, It’s like what that old TV show — Paladin. Have gun, will travel.

Henry Dobbins thought about it.

Yeah, well, he finally said. I don’t see no moral.

There it is, man.

Fuck off.

Not that I’m promoting this practice, particularly. Just an observation; and yes, okay, a violent observation, but that is, I assure you, a coincidence. Really, it is.

I’m still thinking about non-negotiables in character development, and will have something about that tomorrow.

believable heroes, and the construction thereof

I’ve had two suggestions about characteristics that are non-negotiable in heroes (of course that term is fraught with difficulties, but for the sake of expediency I’ll continue to use it for the moment). From Karen:

How about a rock-solid moral core? The hero can (and probably must) have serious flaws and weaknesses, but some fundamental part of the character, even if deeply buried, needs to recognize right from wrong.

But then there’s Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley — does he count as a hero?

and from Stephanie:

I think a sense of humor is pretty essential. Not that the protagonist has to be wisecracking through his dialog, but he should at least recognize things that are absurd.

I think these are good characteristics to start with as basics (again and always, for me personally, when I’m reading or writing).

A character can have a fairly serious demeanor most of the time and still be capable of playfulness (crucial, in my view). Personally I’m also drawn to a dry sense of humor, which probably follows from the fact that the Mathematician is a Brit. When the Girlchild was about ten, we rented Monty Python’s Holy Grail. She asked him if she could watch it, to which he said: “Can you watch it? You must watch it. It’s your cultural heritage.”

The issue of a moral core is a little more complicated. I think I know what Karen means by “rock-solid moral core” — I know what it means for me, at least. For other people it may mean (it almost certainly does mean) something else. More important, I think the main point for any writer to remember is this:

the fuel that drives any story is conflict, which has to exist both external to the main characters (to move the plot along), and within them (to move the characterization along).

Let me see if I can say that any more clearly. You can have a main character/protagonist/hero who is rock-solid morally, but you have to poke him a little, or there’s no drama. In my own story, Nathaniel has not one set of morals to live by, but two that are very different — one European in its nature, the other Native American. Elizabeth’s strong moral convictions are a source of conflict for her because she is torn between a rational world view and the religious beliefs that permeated every aspect of the culture in which she was raised.

As far as Ripley is concerned, he’s an interesting character specifically because he is amoral, but in a thoughtful and quite dramatic way. For me personally he can’t be a true hero, but no doubt other people see him as such. Then there’s somebody like McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, who is quite scary in a number of ways, whose interpretation of personal property is pretty lax, but who is driven by instincts that are (at least in part) admirable: he likes people, and prefers to see them happy; he dislikes authority, and prefers to challenge it.

I’m still thinking about other characteristics for my list of absolutes. I may take a break to write a little about the difference between story and plot, which somebody asked me about just recently.

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the other list

Thinking about my list of seven male characters has actually helped me quite a lot in solidifying some things about John Grant, who is the male protagonist in Tied to the Tracks. In the hope that lightning will strike twice, here’s a preliminary list of female characters who work especially well for me. Again, this is in no particular order, and I’ve put my own main character at the bottom for the purposes of comparison.

Three more things I’ll be thinking about as I try to deconstruct what makes a female protagonist work for me: (1) unlike my list of male characters, most of these women come out of traditional romance; (2) Each of these women has a male counterpart who I like a great deal, but who didn’t make it onto the other list. (3) I can think of another five female characters who probably deserve to be on this list.

Elizabeth BennettPride and PrejudiceJane Austen
Marie Du GardDanceJudy Cuevas (Judith Ivory)
Maddy TimmsFlowers from the StormLaura Kinsale
MelantheFor My Lady’s HeartLaura Kinsale
Aeryn SunFarscapeof course, of course
Hannah TrevorHearts and BonesMargaret Lawrence
Elizabeth MiddletonInto the WildernessS.D.

clarification for Christoffer

Chris is back with some questions that follow from the long post on plotting which people should look at if they haven’t seen it yet.

Christoffer’s questions:

1. It seems as if the outline you mention at the beginning undergoes some fairly heavy changes as it evolves into a book (characters getting killed off, or not, as the case might be), which leads me to believe (perhaps wrongly) that you write the outline before getting down to the nitty-gritty of a, b, c and d?

Nope, no real outline to start with. Just some major plot points, and some idea of where I’m going to end up. However, as I get deeper into the book, I will sometimes pause between chapters and make notes to myself about what needs to happen next, who has got the upper hand and how power is going to be moved to the other side.

I keep track of  tension/power issues in a very concrete way as I write, which is as close as I come to an outline.

2. Also, wouldn’t you have to have the characters ready and waiting to jump into the plot if you work in this manner? Of course, in the Wilderness series you did just that (I gather), but what about minor characters? Do you just thread them in as you go along, or do you develop them first, in order to make them fit better into the pattern?

I don’t plan secondary characters in any conscious way ahead of time. Some characters just get threaded in as things go along, because they won’t be around long. They show up, we have a little conference and I make some decisions about how important they are going to be, and how much print space they need. This is where my love of Dickens shows the most, I think, in that I have a hard time dismissing secondary characters without at least a little attention. Readers who are put off by my long list of characters would probably run off in horror if I included all the secondary and teriary people who float in and out.

Characters who are going to be fairly pivotal, even for a short period of time, I will stop and think about in more detail. For example, there’s a trio of women in Queen of Swords, a middle aged daughter, her mother, her mother’s servant, who are going to be quite important to various plot developments. As I was thinking about them in relationship to each other and to the rest of the characters I realized I was going to have to stop and make notes, which I did. I constructed a brief backstory and timeline, which I’ll refer to now and then when they come into the story.