Taking Liberties — Diana Norman

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This novel is a sequel to Norman’s A Catch of Consequence, previously reviewed. We pick up the story of Makepeace Burke’s life, and find that she hasn’t got any more mellow with age; she’s driven, and she drives everyone around her, though with a basic goodness of heart and the best of intentions. In this novel she sets out to find her eleven year old daughter, who was on board an American ship sunk by the British (this is the War of 1812, and sea travel is dangerous). At the same time a new character — Lady Diana Stacpole, recently widowed and glad to be free of a cruel husband of twenty years — is looking for the son of an old friend, a sailor who was taken prisoner from the same ship that carried Makepeace’s daughter. These two women could hardly be more different, and in fact they rub each other the wrong way immediately. There’s considerable humor here, and a lot of insight about the way women get along, or fail to.

Beyond the wonderful character development, there’s a lot of plot: kidnappings, pirates, smugglers, chase scenes, prison breaks. I love complex plots, but here I had the sense that Norman was sometimes juggling too many eggs at once (and who am I to say something like this, given the multiple, interwoven plots of my own books? And yet, that’s how I see it.)

All in all this is an excellent novel with great characters who find their way through a thicket of challenges to come out changed to a lesser degree (Makepeace) or a greater one (Diana). It’s huge fun, and very engaging.

The Love Letter — Cathleen Schine

[asa book]0452279488[/asa] This is one of those books I meant to read years ago and finally got around to, simply because it slipped out of a pile and fell on my foot, and I took the hint.

One of the basic rules about telling stories, or at least one of the rules I agree with, is that somehow, in the course of the story, the main character has to change. Not in any particular way or direction, but the story itself has to work on the main characters in some observable way. Cathleen Schine took a main character I didn’t like much — Helen, 42, divorced, the owner of a bookstore in a small New England town — and shook her up, and I liked the result.

This is a novel about a selfish, amusing, charming woman who is side-swiped by an inappropriate love affair with a man much younger than she is — someone she should be able to control, because she does that so well. Things get away from her. It’s gratifying to watch.

It all starts because she comes across an anonymous love letter which upsets her view of her world and paves the way for Johnny. Schine does an interesting job with Johnny; he’s young, but not shallow; he’s interesting but not quirky. Schine is just plain good when it comes to quick, vivid characterization. Here’s Helen’s mother:

“Lilian was severe and short-tempered with a throaty voice. She smoked in the bath. When Helen was growing up, her mother treated her like an adult who, for reasons no one cared to go into, was too small to reach the light switches. Helen trailed around after her mother in a soft haze of half understanding. Adult conversations, thrilling and somehow important, surrounded her, as indecipherable and compelling as new art. Lilian, propped against the pillows, would gossip mercilessly and good-humoredly into the telephone. Lolling on the bed, at the foot like a lapdog, Helen listened contentedly to her mother’s side of the conversation.”

The only problem I had with this novel, which is witty and wise and sharply observed, is that the pacing seemed very slightly off once or twice. Otherwise it’s a book I’ll be thinking about for a good long while, and thus, a success.

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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unskilled & unaware of it

Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. An article from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (this is the abstract):

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

Reading psychology is a useful activity for writers of fiction (as well as for any teacher, of course). I often read case studies of particular personality disorders when I’m trying to understand a character who is getting away from me. This unskilled/unaware personality type is particularly interesting to me for two reasons.

First, when I taught at the University of Michigan, every now and then I came across a particular mindset that was especially difficult to deal with. These students (a scattering of them every year) seemed to be unable to grasp the difference between an opinion and a demonstrable, observable, fact. Statements as diverse as the earth orbits around the sun and democracy is flawed got the same reaction: that’s your opinion; my opinion is just as right. It was hard work bringing them to the point where they understood that in the first case, it was possible to prove or disprove the statement while in the second, it was only possible to form arguments based on subjective evaluation and critical analysis.

In terms of fiction, the unskilled/unaware personality is damn hard to write, simply because it’s almost impossible to make such a character likeable or even sympathetic. An unskilled character — even a severely limited character — can be complex and interesting in a variety of ways, but as soon as you add in a lack of self awareness the tendency is to slide over the line into unlikable or ridiculous. Or both.

Mostly you run across this type in comedy — Ted in the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, for example, or some of the contestants on American Idol (and yes, I do watch it; it’s priceless in many ways). I can’t think of any unskilled/unaware characters outside of comedy, either in print or on film.