story : plot

workshop ’09 day 1: who?

Paperback Writer has got this workshop thing started with a huge bang. Her first post is about high concept, and it’s probably the clearest and most useful discussion of that difficult-to-define topic I’ve ever run into. Really. Also,  it’s chock full of linky goodness. I really can’t recommend it highly enough.

Lynn is one of the most generous people you’ll ever run into, and she’s giving away some incredible stuff in the course of her workshop including (but not limited to) a Sony Reader and a Neo (both things my geekish little heart dreams about).

I’m afraid I can’t match her largesse, but I will draw a name from all the comments to all the posts made during the course of the workshop. That person will get $100 Amazon gift certificate.

My workshop is far less detailed, but I hope it will be of use and interest.

People who live by rules, particularly people who consider themselves literary writers, like to say that character is everything. All writing should start with character and only the characters decide where the story is going.

As with any dictatorial rule, this doesn’t hold up very well if you look at it more closely. Sometimes you can’t start with character.

If you decide to write a novel about [[Ethel Rosenberg]]’s trial,  you first have to decide who’s going to tell the story: Ethel herself? Then you’ve got some work to do, learning about her life and trying to get into her head. A fictional lawyer? The fictional lawyer’s secretary? A private eye who is determined to see Ethel found guilty and executed, or one who is determined to get her off? A grandchild who never met her? (An aside: the best use of Ethel as a character in fiction goes to [[Angels in America]], (first a stage play, then a miniseries) in which she appears as a ghost who visits one of her prosecuting lawyers, the infamous Roy Cohn.)

The thing is, you already know how the trial turns out and about Ethel’s fate.  Unless you’re writing [[alternate history]], you have a set of facts that provide some structure for your story. What you don’t have is a primary conflict (see Lynn’s post). You’d have to start right there.

Many times people start with an event that provides the structure (a particular war, a famous accident or scandal, etc) and build a character who fits into that setting.

The other approach  — the one advocated by the litcriterati — is to build the character first. That means that you put the person together in your head and/or on paper, and as you are doing this, you come up with a concept and a conflict, and following from that, other characters. Here I’m using a very loose definition of ‘character.’  A  central character in your story might turn out to be a city, a river, a storm, or some other challenge small or large.

Building character from scratch is  a useful exercise, simply because it gets your mind working in a productive way. I have done this for myself on occasion and not found a use for the character. And here’s the thing: once created, if the character is strong enough, she’s not going anywhere, even if you don’t use her. I have a couple characters hanging around waiting for their names to be called, people who have been in my head for twenty years or more.

So that’s where we’ll start, but with a bit of a twist.

Write a couple paragraphs (no more than the approximate equilvalent of one double spaced page) about one of the adults in the photo below (your choice). Instead of creating a character isolated from her story, start with an event that provides structure, and here it is: last year’s Republican convention in Minneapolis.

Of course you have to provide  basic information and some insight into what makes this person tick. Interests, goals, secret desires, worse fears, all that good stuff. But you also have to decide how she relates to the convention. Is she a Minneapolis single mom with no interest in politics who is furious that her whole routine has been disrupted by closed streets and high traffic? In that case, what does the conventions symbolize for her? Is she a hard-left progressive lawyer who is there only because her firm insisted on sending her to be available to a big client, such as Dow Chemical? Maybe she owns a hotdog concession that is swamped during the convention. Maybe she stands outside the convention every day with a sign that says: YOU KILLED MY SON or FREE TIBET or SARAH WE LOVE YOU.

So there’s your start: an adult female, the Republican Convention in 2008.

If you don’t want to do the writing, that’s fine. You can just leave a comment to enter into the drawing. You may only have the ghost of an idea about one of these characters, and that’s fine too — tell us what comes to mind.  You can also comment on other people’s character conceptions, as long as your comment is constructive in its criticism.

Preschool Teachers
Creative Commons License photo credit: tiffanywashko

The other participants in the workshop extravaganza (copied from Lynn directly):

Other LB&LI Workshop Links — new links are being added every day, so keep checking the list for new workshops (due to different time zones, some of these will go live later in the day):
From Pantser To Plotter: How I Joined The Dark Side by Kait Nolan — Monday’s topic: Why The Pantser Fears Plotting

About eBooks by Midnight Spencer –- A basic understanding of what eBooks are and what types of readers and formats.

Epubs-wondering where to start? by Shiloh Walker — Info for those curious about epubs and where to start.

Killer Campaigns: Business Cards by Maria Zannini — Design your own business cards

truthiness (updated)

So, how do you write a troubled or troubling character who is very different from everybody you know, totally outside your personal experience? Could you write from the perspective of a psychopath? A heroin addict? An anorexic? A child molester? A six year old who beats a newborn to death?

Most authors don’t take on this kind of material and I’m sure that for the most part, this is because they don’t feel comfortable with the subject matter. More to the point: they don’t want to feel comfortable with it, or do the research that would help them achieve the necessary understanding.

While  most novelists avoid these extremes, we all do write difficult characters at one point or another. Narcissistic boyfriends, an alcoholic uncle with a gambling problem, a teenager who hasn’t gone a day without vomiting in many years. If you find yourself looking such a character in the face, you have a couple choices: you can take a shortcut and use the stereotypes available to you (and there are a lot of examples); you can keep the character in the background; or, you can undertake some research.

This line of thought started when I came across Robert Hare’s Without Conscience: The disturbing world of the psychopaths among us.  While I was reading it, I thought, this would have been useful when I was writing Queen of Swords, because there was one character who fits the bill, and another who might have, if I had had more background. Maybe I could have got closer to the truth of these characters if I had read Hare’s work before I started.

So I’ve been reading more about abnormal psychology:  other non-fiction work for laypeople, case studies and reports of criminal cases,  memoirs and biographies. There are some good resources online; for example, interviews with people who have tried and failed to stop drinking or give up crystal meth, and the repercussions of their actions.  Fiction and film are not a good source. How the next person interprets and represents  schizophrenia is not what you need to know.

Some authors have a better instinctual understanding of characters and won’t need as much prep work.  I wonder if Thomas Harris did a lot of reading and preparation before he took on Hannibal Lecter, or if Ken Kesey did the same for his characters in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  If I wanted to write my own version of an extremely disturbed individual, I would have to do a lot of work ahead of time, but first I’d have to challenge myself to take on something so dark. The idea of letting a character like Hannibal Lecter inside my head is frightening, in many ways. Once he’s there, it might be hard to shut him down.

Certainly there is no lack of factual material to draw from. The example cited above, of a six year old who beat a newborn, is true. It happened in the late 90s in California, as hard as it is to imagine.  If you keep an eye on true-crime reporting, you may come across something that really catches your imagination. And then you have to work up the courage to follow that lead.

Update: I had wanted to include this quote from The New Yorker article “Suffering Souls” by  John Seabrook which I couldn’t find when I needed it. But of course it popped up when it thought I had forgot about it completely. I like the bit about skin-crawling, it would make a good detail in a character description.

Harenski recently interviewed a Western inmate who scored a 38.9. “He had killed his girlfriend because he thought she was cheating on him,” she told me. “He was so charming about telling it that I found it hard not to fall into laughing along in surprise, even when he was describing awful things.” Harenski, who is thirty, did not experience the involuntary skin-crawling sensation that, according to a survey conducted by the psychologists Reid and M. J. Meloy, one in three mental-health and criminal-justice professionals report feeling on interviewing a psychopath; in their paper on the subject, Meloy and Meloy speculate that this reaction may be an ancient intraspecies predator-response system. “I was just excited,” Harenski continued. “I was saying to myself, ‘Wow. I found a real one.’ ”

Nelly Olsen and the nature of her relationship to Mary Sue

Nelly Oleson aka Nelly Olson (the televised version)

Nelly Oleson aka Nelly Olson (the televised version)

If you were watching American television in the 80s, you probably have some memory of the Little House series. Based (oh so very vaguely) on the wonderful series of books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the show ran for a long time and was very popular. I didn’t like the changes they made to the characters and storylines, which underwent a kind of disneyfication, and so I watched it very rarely.

But if you’ve seen it at all, or if you’ve read the Little House books, you’ll remember Nelly Olsen. She’s the spoiled rich girl, Laura’s nemesis determined to get Almanzo Wilder for herself.  She bats her eyelashes and tells him how big and strong he is, and how much her new dress cost and makes broad hints about how well off she’ll be someday.  In the end he marries Laura, of course, and that’s the end of Nelly.

Over the years I’ve developed a hypothesis about Nelly. But before I get to that, lemme ask if you’re familiar with the term [[Mary Sue]], and the way its used in literary criticism (especially in fandom).  Here’s a quick summary from

The closest thing to a widely agreed-on definition is a character who has too many positive characteristics, and too few genuine flaws to be believable or interesting. Of course, despite what many tongue-in-cheek litmus tests claim, there’s no objective standard for what qualifies as “too many.” In truth, the closest thing to a consensus on a definition is that it is bad.

See these articles for takes on Mary Sue that focus on certain groupings of Common Mary Sue Traits:

Now, Laura Ingalls was writing about her own life; she didn’t construct Nelly out of whole cloth.  And in fact, most women will tell you that there are such characters on the playground in real life.   Real life Mary Sues fall into one of   two groups. The cheerleaders (beautiful, vain, rich, and gets her guy), and would-be cheerleader (beautiful, annoying, and doesn’t get her guy).

So where am I going with this.

I recently read a fairly new novel which is getting rave reviews on Amazon. It’s a first novel, and no, I won’t tell you who wrote it or its title. This is a discussion of craft and characterization, and not a dear-author moment.  I will say only that it’s historical.

The novel isn’t bad, in fact. The author is deft at handling a complex plot and the reading flows. But in the first couple pages a character came along who made all my vague ideas about the relationship between Mary Sue and Nelly Olsen gel.

The main couple are young, in love, determined to marry, dedicated to working hard and saving money so they can strike off on their own. And poor, of course.  Picking up this book, you know that in the end these two will be together, but fate and circumstances will first intercede and make it an uphill battle. In this kind of book (mysteries, thrillers, or anything with a foregone conclusion) the thrill is in the ride itself.  This is why many people can read Pride and Prejudice over and over again, and every time they get the same rush of anxiety when it seems as though Elizabeth and Darcy are not going to get together. It’s the ride.

There’s a Nelly Olsen type character in Pride and Prejudice. One of the roadblocks to the final resolution. Darcy’s best friend, Bingham, has a sister who is beautiful, rich, superior, obnoxious  and determined to get Darcy for herself.  She is one of many obstacles.

A Nelly Olsen character can be extremely well done, or she can be constructed out of damp newsprint. In this novel I’m not naming, the author almost seems to be consciously putting together the most flimsy and transparent Nelly Olsen, ever.  She hates the main female character, she has a lot of money and a very indulgent father who is hoping for a son-in-law he can bring into the business, she’s obnoxious and overbearing.

On page two of this novel I knew that somehow or another, this couple would separate for an extended period, and in that time, he would end up marrying the Nelly Olsen. The marriage would be a disaster. Sooner or later he’d get back together with his True Love. It won’t be easy, but it will happen.

So you have a plot device and character set in place like props. Clearly, a lot of readers don’t care about this, but to me this is the worst kind of lazy storytelling.  Unless you can seriously tweak expectations, it’s better to avoid this kind of plot device altogether. I can hear you saying that sometimes a Nelly Olsen does work well in the plot — you can name some examples, even. And it’s true that a good storyteller will be able to make Nelly into something more than her  name implies. But mostly, that’s not the case.

There are a lot of things you could do with a Nelly Olsen to turn her into a real, three-dimensional character.  Some examples:

She manages to steal away the guy and marry him. Instead of just giving them a bad marriage and a reason to break up so he can get back to his True Love, do something with that situation.

He might actually fall in love with her. She might notice (for the first time) that he doesn’t clip his nose hair. They may get along very well, until he starts shoplifting or she turns into a compulsive gambler.

There are ways to tell this story without relying on cliche, stereotype, and Nelly Olsen’s smirk. Really. I bet you can think of some.

lyricism in hot pursuit of story: film at eleven

[asa book]0060534222[/asa] There are dozens of novels that take Jane Austen’s characters onward past the end of her novels to imagine what happens next. The same has been done for Heathcliff, and for the crazed Mrs. Rochester in Bronte’s fictional attic.

I’m sure there must be   authors who have taken Dickens and his characters for a ride, but I just can’t think of any. As far as I am aware, Mr. Timothy is the first onward telling (as opposed to retelling) of the fate of one of Dickens’ characters.

A Christmas Carol is one of those stories that will live on because it strikes a chord, and people feel a strong need to tell and retell it. It’s a universally satisfying theme: the mean guy gets taught a lesson. (Hmmmm, I’m thinking that maybe it’s time to retell ACC  again. One of those greedy Wall Street CEOs would be a good object  for scroogification.) ACC has been retoled countless times with Scrooge as the focus, and as far as I’m aware, storytellers have been content to leave him capering around on Christmas morning bestowing his new-found largesse on Bob Cratchett’s family.

And then Louis Bayard came along and plucked Tiny Tim from the shadows. The frail little boy who would have died but for Scrooge’s reformed character, in Bayard’s novel Tim has grown up and he’s in fairly stable health. He’s also got intelligence and curiosity and imagination, and he’s living in Dickens’ London.  Bayard had a good idea, and he ran with it.

I will write a review when I’ve finished Mr. Timothy, but for right now I just wanted to point out (as I have before, but the point bears repeating) that lyrical language and good story are not mutually exclusive goals. There is a ripping big plot in this novel worthy of Dickens, and dozens of sharply drawn characters. But there is also Tim, who  tells his story in his own voice, and oh, does he tell it well. An example:

Smiling is something of a foreign language for old Otterbourne, and so once he has made a token stab in that direction, his face realigns itself into the shell I have  come to know tolerably well.  He is the sort of man who absorbs light without ever imparting it.

These observations are never loud or distracting, which is a matter of some craftsmanship. It’s very easy to trumpet a big message, but Bayard understands the power of subtlety. And still, there are images here that will stay with me for a long time, such as Tim thinking about pain and the way it slides down the banister of his bones.

I look forward to the rest of Tim’s story with great anticipation.