Characterization part two – writing subtle emotions and reactions

Most writers find it easy to connect with flamboyant emotions, such as hate, anger, desire, and adoration. However, emotions have “volume,” ranging from soft to loud. Today we are looking at emotions we need to show with less noise.

mood-emotions-1-LIRF09152020Volume control is a crucial part of the overall pacing of your story. “Loud” deafens us and loses its power when it’s the only sound. However, like the opening movement of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, the entire range of volume can be effectively used to create a masterpiece.

Subtle reactions have power when contrasted against more forceful displays of emotion.

Low-key thoughts and feelings can go almost unnoticed. Under the surface, positive or negative vibes give us a rounded view of a character, making them less two-dimensional, a more natural person.

We’re all aware of one positive emotion that can go bad – love. When love is reciprocated, it’s a positive feeling. We all enjoy a good love story.

However, when love starts out with promise and then goes terribly wrong, you have the makings of a deep, dark story filled with possibilities. Anger, despair, revenge—these can be loud and also be subtle, brooding.

Maas_Emotional_Craft_of_FictionDark emotions, such as depression, can be shown through a character’s reactions to things that once pleased them. Perhaps they no longer find beauty in the things they once enjoyed.

What about lighter emotions? The way we feel joy ranges from mild to overwhelming, from a slight smile to an experience so profound it brings tears to one’s eyes.

Subtle emotions don’t stand out and grab the reader. But when they’re swimming just under the surface, they have impact. Subtleties color and shape the reader’s opinions about the story and the characters.

One negative aspect of our human character is our tendency to experience an uncharitable emotion known as schadenfreude. We all go through it on a personal level every now and then. Some people take great joy in it, gaining a sense of superiority. But most of us are embarrassed to admit to it.

Small, quiet emotions linger and leave an impression but are hard to articulate. It helps to include small indicators of mood such as:

  1. Anguish
  2. Anxiety
  3. Competence
  4. Confidence in their friends
  5. Cooperation
  6. Courage
  7. Decisiveness
  8. Defeat
  9. Defensiveness
  10. Depression
  11. Discovery
  12. Ethical Quandaries
  13. Group ethics
  14. Happiness
  15. Inadequacy
  16. Indecision
  17. Individual moral courage
  18. Jealousy
  19. Paranoia
  20. Powerlessness
  21. Purposefulness
  22. Regret
  23. Resistance
  24. Revelation
  25. Satisfaction
  26. Self-confidence
  27. Serenity
  28. Strength
  29. Success
  30. Sufficiency
  31. Temptation
  32. Trust
  33. Unease
  34. Weakness

These attributes are rarely spelled out, but they color how the characters interact with each other.

Some positive emotions can be more intense, yet not overpowering. Those moments can be shown by an immediate physical reaction combined with internal dialogue or conversations.

Severe emotional shock strikes us with a one-two-three punch: the disbelief/OMG moment, followed by knocking knees, shaking hands, or a shout of “No!” which is sometimes followed by disassociation.

emotion-thesaurus-et-alVisceral reactions are involuntary—we can’t stop our face from flushing or our heart from pounding. We can pretend it didn’t happen or hide it, but we can’t stop it. An internal physical gut reaction is difficult to convey without offering the reader some information, a framework to hang the image on.

We use the same one-two-three trick when describing a mild experience as we do with louder emotions.

Start with the visceral response. There will be an instant reaction. How does a “gut reaction” feel? Nausea, gut-punch, butterflies … how do you respond to internal surprises?

Emotions are felt in the chest in varying degrees, from a slight warmth or chill to a stronger heart-pounding sensation. But we’re keeping it subdued here.

Follow the visceral up with a thought-response. Whatever your style and word choices are, showing the characters’ joy or dismay makes them human. If it is a mild reaction, give it a moderate thought response. Showing small moments of relatable happiness or displeasure makes our protagonist more sympathetic.

Third, finish up with body language. That is how emotions hit us. We feel the shock and then experience the mental reaction as we process the event. Our body language reflects these things.

What if you are writing a story where one of the antagonists eventually becomes part of the protagonist’s inner circle? Including small positive thoughts early on in their narrative can foreshadow that this character may become the ally that turns the tide.

Conversely, when the antagonist begins as part of the protagonist’s inner circle, minor negatives like envy and schadenfreude in their narrative can foreshadow that this character is not what they seem.

ICountMyself-FriendsConflict keeps the protagonist from achieving their goals. Significant conflicts and emotions are easy to write about. But in real life, our smaller, more internal conflicts frequently create more significant roadblocks to success than any antagonist might present.

Large emotions are easy to visualize. But frequently, in real life, our smaller joys have a longer-lasting impact, and the memory of these can be the impetus that keeps the soldier fighting during the darkest hours.

If we contrast the loud emotions against the soft ones, the reader will experience those emotions as if they are theirs. The story detailed in that book will be more meaningful to them.

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Characterization part one – 7 rules for writing conversations plus 4 for extra credit

WritingCraftSeries_depth-through-conversationIn real life, we are drawn to certain people and get to know them better through conversations.

At first, they’re an unknown quantity. They become individuals to us once we’re introduced and we discover their speech habits, resonate with their sense of humor, and learn bits of their backstory.

On the opposite side of the coin, conversations can alert us to people we choose to avoid.

Elmore Leonard quote re dialogueGood conversations and mental dialogues bring written characters to life and turn them into people we want to know, our closest friends.

Here are seven rules for adding depth to our characters through their conversations.

One: Don’t indulge in the exposition dump: “Bob, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”

In real life, we might say this and not notice it. However, when we see it written, it becomes word padding, adding fluff to the narrative. This is a classic example of something we don’t need to know.

Two: Don’t repetitively name the characters being spoken to: “Bob, remember how I told you (blah blah blah)?”

The reader knows Dave is talking to Bob. If it’s only the two of them, no direction is necessary—they can just say what they need to with a few speech tags to keep the “who said what” straight. If there are three or more characters in the conversation, have Dave turn to Bob and then speak.

Three: Don’t use bizarre speech tags.

I don’t care for reading graphic and disgusting speech tags such as ejaculated. “Telling” words do our narratives no favors when used as speech tags. We are creative and can do better than that by showing a character’s shock, dismay, or joy as they are speaking. We intersperse actions with simple speech tags that don’t stop the reader’s eye.

Bob’s eyes widened, and he grabbed the letter. “You idiot.”

Don’t make the mistake of getting rid of speech tags and attributions entirely. Even with only two characters in a scene, the verbal exchanges can become confusing. Use speech tags every third exchange or so to keep things clear for your reader. Nothing is worse than trying to figure out which character said what.

Four: Please don’t indulge in internal dialogues (thoughts) that are a wall of italics going on forever.

William Falkner quote re dialogueInternal dialogues (rambling thoughts) are often a thinly disguised info dump in my first drafts. I seek those out in the second draft and either cut them to a line or two or eliminate them entirely. I try to avoid italics if possible, so this is how I write thoughts nowadays:

Dave fought down a wave of nausea, followed by a surge of anger so raw, it burned. The effort to stifle it took all he had. Brandon was at least ten years younger than her, barely old enough to legally drink beer.

Five: Don’t spell out accents to the point they are visually incomprehensible. “Oive got a luverly bunch uv coconuts….”

I refuse to review books I dislike. This is because some books I despise are beloved bestsellers, demonstrating that I don’t know everything. (What? Say it ain’t so!) As in all other things, it’s a matter of taste.

One of the many reasons I disliked “Where the Crawdads Sing” was how the accents were portrayed. They were shown in a demeaning way, in my opinion. I know that many readers didn’t see that as a problem; as I said, it is only my opinion.

gobbledegook detectedHowever, I have no problem understanding an accent and visualizing a character as foreign when the author consistently uses one or two well-known words that a non-native speaker might use, such as si, ja, or oui, in place of yes. Most English speakers recognize and know the meaning of these words when they see them. All it takes is a straightforward word to convey the proper foreign flavor.

Six: Please, please, please … pretty please … don’t make a habit of leading sentences off with drone words. “Aahhh … ummm …”

These are ‘thinking syllables.’ This is known as a ‘verbal tic’ and can be an ingrained habit that the speaker is unaware of.

Verbal tics are supremely annoying in real life and are excruciating to read when peppered throughout the narrative. Once in a while, a non-word like “Ah …” adds a moment for the character to show shock or another emotion in the narrative. But do go lightly with them.

You may have met someone who habitually opens every sentence with a meaningless syllable, such as “Aaaaaaaahh….” They continue droning while they gather their thoughts, holding the conversation hostage and not allowing the other person to speak.

The guilty party may suffer hurt feelings when you try to hurry them along.

Seven: Never use Google Translate (or any other translation app) to write foreign languages.

As mentioned in rule 5, a word or two used consistently here and there to convey the sense of foreignness is one thing, but in general, if you don’t speak the language, don’t write it.

good_conversations_LIRFmemeThe laws of grammar sometimes break down on the quantum level in conversations with our friends. This is also true of written exchanges.

Many new authors are confused about how to punctuate conversations. It’s not complicated, so here are four simple rules for punctuating discussions (offered for your extra credit):

Rule 1: Surround everything that is spoken with quotation marks. “I’m back,” he said.

In the US, we begin and end the dialogue with “double quotes.” These are also called closed quotes and all punctuation goes inside them. This is a universal, cast-iron rule that we must follow because readers expect to see them and become confused when you don’t set dialogue off this way.

Rule 2: When quoting someone else (as part of a conversation), you should set the quoted speech apart with single quotes (apostrophes, inverted commas) and keep it inside the closed quotes.

You can do this in two ways:

  • Dave said, “When I asked her, Jill replied, ‘I can’t go.’ But I’m sure she was lying.”
  • Dave said, “When I asked, Jill replied, ‘I can’t go.'”

In the second sentence, 3 apostrophes are placed after the period (full stop): One apostrophe and one double (closed) quote mark. This is in keeping with the rule that all punctuation in dialogue goes inside the quotation marks.

Indirect dialogue is a recapping of a conversation:

  • When asked, Dave said Jill told him she couldn’t go.

We don’t use quotes in indirect dialogue. Also, in the above sentence, “that” is implied between said and Jill.

comma or apostropheRule 3: Commas—Do not place a period between the closed quotes and the dialogue tag. Use a comma because when the speech tag follows the spoken words, they are one sentence consisting of clauses separated by a comma:  “I’m here,” he said.

  • When leading with a speech tag, the commas are placed after the tag and are not inside the quotation marks: He said, “I’m here.”
  • Dialogue split by the speech tag is all one sentence: “The flowers are lovely,” she said, “but they make my eyes water.” Note that the first word in the second half of the sentence is not capitalized.

Rule 4: When a speaker’s monologue must be broken into two paragraphs, lead off each with quotation marks but only put the closed quote at the end of the final paragraph. A wall of dialogue can be daunting in a story, but sometimes happens in essays and when quoting speeches.

Characterization definitionConversations, both spoken and internal, light up and illuminate the individual corners of the story, bringing the immensity of the overall story arc down to a personal level.

In good dialogue, readers are given all the information they need and are shown the characters’ motives and deepest desires.

They illustrate our heroes and villains as the people we imagine them to be—without making them cartoonish.

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#FineArtFriday: Winter Landscape Evening Atmosphere by Fanny Churberg 1880 (revisited)

Title:  Winter Landscape, Evening Atmosphere

Artist: Fanny Churberg

Genre: landscape art

Date: 1880

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions     Height: 73.5 cm (28.9 in); Width: 105 cm (41.3 in)

Collection: Finnish National Gallery

What I love about this  painting:

Fanny Churberg (12 December 1845 Vaasa – 10 May 1892 Helsinki) was a Finnish painter and one of the great masters of her time. She is one of my favorite landscape artists. In terms of talent and technique, she is on a scale with the most renowned painters of all time in that genre.

She is generally considered by art historians as one of the greatest masters of landscape painting. She is relatively unknown as she only exhibited her work in Finland.

Winter Landscape, Evening Atmosphere is one of the last scenes Fanny Churberg ever painted. The impact of the angry sky is breathtaking. Churberg packs emotion into that sunset.

The snow on the vast Finnish countryside had fallen the day before, so the wind had a chance to sweep the ice clear. She perfectly captured the way snow looks when it’s had a chance to melt a bit and mold itself to the shrubs and grasses.

The winter-barren land reflects the tint of the sky, but the despite the transitory warmth of that rosy light, the world is frozen, shrouded in ice.

Above it all, the sky tells us the day was a brief respite. Dark clouds gather, looming and waiting for their chance to enshroud the world in new snow.

As you might guess, when I view art, I see it through the eyes of a storyteller. In my mind, the painting and the life of the artist are intimately connected. The events and passions of their lives are reflected in their work, in the same way as those of we who write books.

When I look at the emotion, raw and powerful, that has been instilled into this painting, I wonder if the scene is an allegory for her life. For reasons we may never know, Fanny stopped painting soon after this and never lifted a brush again.

Fanny had never married, and I suspect her art was her creative child. Many of the pressures that fell on women’s shoulders in that era must have led to this decision. Whatever her reason was, it must have felt like a deeply personal tragedy at the time.


About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Fanny Churberg (1845–1892) started her artistic training in Helsinki in 1865 with private lessons from Alexandra Frosterus-SåltinEmma Gyldén, and Berndt Lindholm. Her studies continued in Düsseldorf, Germany, but she always returned to Finland to paint during the summer. She was also one of the first Finnish painters to study in Paris, France. Although Churberg remained to a large extent within the conventions of the Düsseldorf school of painting, she openly expressed her enthusiasm for the countryside and its dramatic situations, relying above all on colour and a fast brush technique to do so. The charged quality of her work differed sharply from that of her contemporaries, as did her subjects, for example the tense atmosphere before a thunderstorm in the open country or the deep, swampy heart of the forest. Churberg founded the Friends of Finnish Handicrafts in 1879. She urged Finnish women to join the Friends’ effort to revive textile practice in Finland.

Fanny Churberg’s career ended suddenly in 1880. Her health was weaker and she took care of her brother Torsten who was suffering from tuberculosis. Torsten’s death in 1882 made her quite lonely and her will to live lessened as did her energy. The other brother Waldemar, to whom she used to be very close, had married in 1877. The reason for ending her career might also have been the harsh criticism she had met before, but she never withdrew completely from the art circles. She did not however paint anymore after 1880, not even for her own amusement, but during her career she had still managed to produce over 300 paintings.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Fanny Churberg – Talvimaisema, auringon mailleen mentyä – A I 189 – Finnish National Gallery.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Fanny_Churberg_-_Talvimaisema,_auringon_mailleen_menty%C3%A4_-_A_I_189_-_Finnish_National_Gallery.jpg&oldid=468220757 (accessed November 5, 2020).

Wikipedia contributors, “Fanny Churberg,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fanny_Churberg&oldid=973669647 (accessed November 5, 2020).

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Heroes and Villains part 3 – Drawing on the Shadow Within #amwriting

Today we’re continuing to explore character creation and the dark energy the villain of a piece brings to a story.

WritingCraft_Dark_EnergyIn his book, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler discusses how the villain of a piece represents the shadow. The antagonist provides the momentum of the dark side, and their influence on the protagonist and the narrative should be profound.

The shadow character serves several purposes.

  • He/she/it is usually the main antagonist and represents darkness(evil) against which light (good) is shown more clearly.
  • The shadow, whether a person, place, or thing, provides the roadblocks, the reason the protagonist must struggle.

The shadow lives within us all, and our heroes must also struggle with it. The most obvious example of this in pop culture is that of “Batman.”

About the original concept of Batman, via Wikipedia:

Batman_InfoboxBatman is a superhero appearing in American comic books published by DC Comics. The character was created by artist Bob Kane and writer Bill Finger, and debuted in the 27th issue of the comic book Detective Comics on March 30, 1939. In the DC Universe continuity, Batman is the alias of Bruce Wayne, a wealthy American playboy, philanthropist, and industrialist who resides in Gotham CityBatman’s origin story features him swearing vengeance against criminals after witnessing the murder of his parents Thomas and Martha as a child, a vendetta tempered with the ideal of justice. He trains himself physically and intellectually, crafts a bat-inspired persona, and monitors the Gotham streets at night. Kane, Finger, and other creators accompanied Batman with supporting characters, including his sidekicks Robin and Batgirl; allies Alfred PennyworthJames Gordon, and Catwoman; and foes such as the Penguin, the RiddlerTwo-Face, and his archenemy, the Joker. [1]

Bruce Wayne is a flawed character. He is both a generous benefactor of many charities and a vigilante with little or no remorse for his actions. As Batman, he is a hero, a defender of the weak and defenseless. Much of what makes his story compelling is how he justifies indulging his darker side.

The story of Batman is complex, which is why so many movies have emerged exploring his story. We sit in theaters and applaud Batman’s dark side because it’s confined to taking on criminals.

The evil in a narrative is not always represented by a person. Sometimes war is the villain. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, wildfires—nature has a pantheon of calamities for us to overcome and no end of stories that emerge from such events.

True heroes don’t necessarily wear capes, and the evils they fight against are often disasters of epic proportions. Ordinary people can become heroes when faced with disasters of any sort.

Consider the true-life events of April 11 through the 17th, 1970. Via Wikipedia:

Apollo_13_liftoff-KSC-70PC-160HRApollo 13 (April 11–17, 1970) was the seventh crewed mission in the Apollo space program and the third meant to land on the Moon. The craft was launched from Kennedy Space Center on April 11, 1970, but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank in the service module (SM) failed two days into the mission. The crew instead looped around the Moon and returned safely to Earth on April 17. The mission was commanded by Jim Lovell, with Jack Swigert as command module (CM) pilot and Fred Haise as Lunar Module (LM) pilot. Swigert was a late replacement for Ken Mattingly, who was grounded after exposure to rubella. [2]

The villain in that epic space adventure was mechanical failure. The heroic efforts of the ground crew to brainstorm ways to get the astronauts home is one of the most powerful stories of the 20th century. We were glued to the television, watching as remedies for each disaster were devised, celebrating as the crew made their way home safely.

The villains we write into our stories represent humanity’s darker side, whether they are a person, a mechanical failure, a dangerous animal, or a natural disaster. They bring ethical and moral quandaries to the story, raising questions of morality, dilemmas we should examine more closely.

When the protagonist must face and overcome the shadow on a profoundly personal level, they are placed in true danger. Which way will they go? This is where my characters have agency, and they sometimes surprise me. They may unknowingly offer up their souls if they stray from the light.

Every character has a different personality and should respond to each event differently. The freedom you allow the protagonist and antagonist to steer the events is crucial for them to emerge as real to the reader.

Sometimes my characters make their own choices. Other times, they go along as I, their creator, have planned for them. Ultimately, they do things their own way and with their own style.

Our fictional heroes must recognize and confront the darkness within themselves. As they do so, the reader also faces it. The hero must choose their own path—will they fight to uphold the light? Will they walk in that gray area between? Bruce Wayne is a good example of one who walks the gray area.

The reader forms opinions and makes choices too, and these subliminal ideas sometimes challenge their ethics.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Batman,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Batman&oldid=1135964072 (accessed January 30, 2023).

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Apollo 13,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Apollo_13&oldid=1133889788 (accessed January 30, 2023).

Image: Batman, drawn by Jim Lee for the cover of Batman: Hush. Created by       Bob Kane and Bill Finger. DC Comics; 15794th edition (December 6, 2011) (Fair Use) Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Batman&oldid=1135964072 (accessed January 30, 2023).

Image: Apollo 13 Lift off, Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Apollo 13 liftoff-KSC-70PC-160HR.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Apollo_13_liftoff-KSC-70PC-160HR.jpg&oldid=560250836 (accessed January 30, 2023). Public Domain.

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Heroes and Villains part 2: Who are they, and why should we care? #amwriting

When we begin planning a novel, we might have the plot for an award-winning narrative in our head and an amazing cast of characters eager to leap onto the page. But until we know who the hero and the antagonist are when they are off duty, we don’t really know them. And until we know what they want, we have no story.

depth-of-characterNo matter what genre we write in, when we design the story, we build it around a need that must be fulfilled, a quest of some sort.

For the protagonist, the quest is the primary goal. But they must also have secrets, underlying motives not explicitly stated at the outset.

The supporting characters also have agendas, and their involvement in that storyline is affected by their personal ambitions and desires.

Our task is to ensure that each of our characters’ stories intersect seamlessly. Motivations must be clearly defined.

We must know how the person thinks and reacts as an individual.

  • To that end, we assign verbs, action words that reflect their gut reactions.

What drives them?

  • This is where we give them a void, a lack or loss that colors their personality.
  • We assign nouns that describe their personalities.

Finally, we ask ourselves, “What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?”

  • Why are they in this story? What is their role?
  • What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal?
  • Conversely, what will they NOT do? Even supervillains have something they draw the line at doing.

So now we create their file:

PersonenelExample001

The antagonist also has motives, both stated and unstated. They have a deep desire to thwart the protagonist and have reasons for that wish. They have a history that goes beyond the obvious “they needed a bad guy, and I’m it” of the cartoon villain.

No one goes through life acting on impulses for no reason whatsoever. On the surface, an action may seem random and mindless. The person involved might claim there was no reason or even be accused of it—but that is a fallacy, a lame excuse they might offer to conceal the secret that really drives them.

The antagonist also gets a personnel file:

PersonenelExample002

One thing we must ask of each character is this: what will happen if they don’t achieve their goal? Who has the most to lose?

Once we know who has the most to lose and what motivates each character, we know who has the most compelling story. At that point, we have our protagonist and our antagonist

In the beginning stages of planning, we see a large picture, and the details are blurry. At first, we have an overall idea of what the story could be. We have the basics of who the characters are:

  • Sex and age
  • Physical description—coloring, clothes
  • Overall personality—light or dark, upbeat or a downer

A reader will want to know a little more than that. Good characterization shows those things but also offers hints of:

  • An individual’s speech habits.
  • An individual with a history.
  • An individual’s personal style.

As my characters develop, I ask more questions:

  • Are they an individual with or without boundaries? What are things they will or will not do?
  • What are the secrets they believe no one knows?
  • What are the secrets they will admit to?
  • What secrets will they carry to the grave?

Sometimes identifying just whose emotional and physical journey you will be following is easier said than done. When faced with a pantheon of great characters, ask yourself these questions (listed here in no particular order):

  • Which character do you find the most interesting?
  • Whose personal story inspired this tale in the first place?
  • Who among these people has the most to lose?
  • Who will be best suited to taking full advantage of all this plot’s possibilities?

The character who best answers those questions must become the protagonist. It is okay to scrap that original draft and start a new one to reflect that change. Many parts of the first manuscript can be reused.

Author-thoughtsI recently had a manuscript undergo a complete change from what I originally planned. The original antagonist had such an engaging story that he had become more important to me than the protagonists.

At that point, the plot stalled. I had no idea how to get it going again.

I had to find a new villain—and then the solution occurred to me. One of the side characters was poised for that position, lending a little treachery to the mix.

That happy bit of treason kicked the plot in a new direction, and once again, I was having a good time, feeling energized as I wrote.

We were taught to use the “five Ws” of journalism in our essays in elementary school. These five words that begin with the letter ‘W’ form the core of every story.

Who did whatWhen and where did it happen?

Why did they do it?

Who are youAs a reader, I dislike discovering the author is at a loss as to what their protagonist wants. Without that impetus, they don’t have a good reason for the villain to be there either. Random events inserted to keep things interesting don’t advance the story, but motivation does.

Character creation crosses all genres. Even if you are writing a memoir detailing your childhood, you must have a fix on the person you were in those days. You must portray your gut reactions, hopes, and fears with immediacy, a sense of what it felt like. You want the reader to see the events that shaped you, not through the lens of memory, but as if they are observing as the events unfold.

Who are your characters? Who do they love, and who do they despise? What is their goal? Why is this goal so important?

When you answer those questions, you will know them well enough to write their stories.

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#FineArtFriday: Beneath the Snow Encumbered Branches by Joseph Farquharson 1903 (revisited)

Title: Beneath the Snow Encumbered Branches

Artist: Joseph Farquharson

Publisher: Hallmark Cards

Genre: landscape art

Date: Circa 1903

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: 82 x 119.25 cm. (32 5/16 x 46 15/16 in.

What I love about this painting:

I first shared this painting in January of 2021. I found a haunting kind of nostalgia in it, an echo of times long gone. Joseph Farquharson perfectly captures the way the setting sun’s rays fall across the snow-covered landscape.

The snow is thick and heavy, and the sheep are fluffy in their long coats. Winter has come and the shadows are long, but the conical haystacks across the lane contain plenty to last through the harshest season.

I love how the afternoon light is reflected on the snowy landscape and in the branches. He shows it with a perfect golden luminosity, the hue that presages imminent dusk. 

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Joseph Farquharson DL RA (4 May 1846 – 15 April 1935) was a Scottish painter, chiefly of landscapes, mostly in Scotland and very often including animals. He is most famous for his snowy winter landscapes, often featuring sheep and often depicting dawn or dusk. The unusual titles of many of Farquharson’s paintings stand out and are sometimes long. Many of them were taken from poems by Burns, Milton, Shakespeare, and Gray. Farquharson was very patriotic and well versed in Scottish literature.

The remarkable realism of Farquharson’s work can be attributed to his desire to work en plein air. This had to be carried out in a unique way which was adapted to the harsh Scottish climate. Farquharson had constructed a painting hut on wheels, complete with a stove and large glass window for observing the landscape. Likewise to achieve as realistic a result as possible when painting the sheep which frequently appear in his snowscapes, he used a flock of “imitation” sheep which could be placed as required in the landscape of his choice. Farquharson painted so many scenes of cattle and sheep in snow he was nicknamed ‘Frozen Mutton Farquharson’.

Farquharson inherited the title of Laird in 1918 after the death of his elder brother Robert, a doctor and MP for West Aberdeenshire.

In 2008 the original of the 1901 painting Beneath the Snow Encumbered Branches came to light, for the first time in 40 years, when the lady owner put her house up for sale. The painting, which she had bought from a Bond Street dealer in the 1960s for £1,450, was expected to fetch up to £70,000 when it was offered for sale by auction at Lyon and Turnbull in Edinburgh. Nick Carnow, a director at the auctioneers, form said that the unnamed seller was moving to a smaller house and would not have room for the painting. In fact it sold for more than twice that estimate to another private collector in Scotland for £147,600.


Credits and Attributions:

Beneath the Snow Encumbered Branches Joseph Farquharson, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Wikipedia contributors, “Joseph Farquharson,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Joseph_Farquharson&oldid=982764133 (accessed January 1, 2021).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:The shortening winter’s day is near a close Farquharson.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:The_shortening_winter%27s_day_is_near_a_close_Farquharson.jpg&oldid=354603464 (accessed January 1, 2021).

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Heroes and Villains part 1 – One Coin, Two Sides #amwriting

You have a hero.

You have a villain.

WritingCraftSeries_character-arcYou’ve taken them through two revisions and think these characters are awesome, perfectly drawn as you intend. The overall theme of the narrative supports the plot arc, and the events are timed perfectly, so the pacing is good.

But then you discover that, while the story is engaging, your beta readers aren’t as impressed with the characters as you are.

This has been my problem in the past, and at this stage, I go to my writing group. Someone in that wonderful circle of friends will offer an opinion as to why the characters aren’t as strongly defined as I need them to be.

The problem is, it may take several drafts before my characters translate to paper the way I envision them. When creating their personnel file, I now try to give each character, hero, villain, or sidekick a theme, a sub-thread that is solely theirs.

A personal theme clarifies what drives each character and underscores their motivations. It is both a strength and a weakness.

  • A villain’s personal theme might be hubris – an excess of self-confidence. It is arrogance to a high degree, and terrible decisions can arise from it.
  • A hero’s personal theme might be honor and loyalty. This can undermine their ability to act decisively. The good of the one can exceed the good of the many—and people will die that could have been saved. Who is the villain, then?

Strong personal themes inform how each character reacts and interacts throughout the narrative.

Plot-exists-to-reveal-characterBut in real life, I often find little distinction between heroes and villains. Heroes are often jackasses who need to be taken down a notch. Villains will extort protection money from a store owner and then turn around and open a soup kitchen to feed the unemployed.

Al Capone famously did just that. Mobster Al Capone Ran a Soup Kitchen During the Great Depression – HISTORY.

In reality, heroes are flawed because no one is perfect. I prefer narratives that reflect that. What similarities might blur the boundaries of our heroes and villains and lend some texture to their narratives?

  • Both must see themselves as the hero.
  • Both must take unnecessary risks.
  • Both must believe they will ultimately win.

When I create my two most important characters, my hero and villain, I assign them verbs, nouns, and adjectives, traits they embody. They must also have a void – an emotional emptiness, a wound of some sort.

This void is vital because characters must overcome cowardice to face it. As a reader, one characteristic I’ve noticed in my favorite characters is they each have a hint of self-deception. All the characters – the antagonists and the protagonists – deceive themselves about their own motives.

The heroes come to recognize that fault and are made stronger and more able to do what is necessary. The villains may also acknowledge their fatal flaw but use it to justify and empower their actions.

SephirothBoth heroes and villains must have possibilities – the chance that the villain might be redeemed, or the hero might become the villain. As an avid gamer, I think of this as the “Sephiroth factor.”

He is featured in the metaseries Compilation of Final Fantasy VII, which includes other products related to the original game of Final Fantasy VII. It is a series originally begun in 1997 as a game for Sony’s PlayStation 1 and which became wildly popular among RPG players.

This game has become legendary with a huge cult following because of the well-thought-out, intense and layered storyline and the cast of instantly relatable characters.

In Sephiroth’s storyline, he begins as a hero, the most powerful member of SOLDIER, Shinra’s elite military division. He was revered, a heroic, invincible veteran of the Shinra-Wutai war.

Final Fantasy VII Crisis Core (which was made for PlayStation Portable) is a prequel to the original game. We get to know Sephiroth as he once was and meet other members of this elite unit. Over the course of that game, the three most beloved heroes of the Wutai war suddenly abandon their posts and go rogue.

From the outset of Final Fantasy VII Crisis Core, Sephiroth is the kind of hero that makes one wonder just what is going on inside him. He has begun to have doubts and, at one point, indicates that he might leave SOLDIER.

Toward the middle of Crisis Core, Sephiroth, Zack Fair, and Cloud Strife (who is only an infantryman when we first meet him in Crisis Core) are sent on a mission to the village of Nibelheim. There, Sephiroth discovers that he is the product of a biological experiment combining a human fetus with tissue from the extraterrestrial lifeform, Jenova.

This knowledge breaks Sephiroth’s mind, and he goes on a rampage, destroying the village. He is ultimately killed, but his physical death brings about his evolution into the ultimate enemy the true heroes of that RPG game series must battle.

In the end, only one SOLDIER first class remains, Zack Fair. He, too, abandons Shinra and is ultimately hunted down. Zack’s death sows the seeds of the delusion that creates the true hero of the piece, Cloud Strife.

Cloud_StrifeIn Final Fantasy VII, the 1997 game that started it all, we meet Cloud Strife, a mercenary with a mysterious past. Gradually, we discover that, unbeknownst to himself, he is living a lie that he must face and overcome to be the hero we all need him to be.

The fallen angel, the tragic hero who becomes the villain is good fodder for those of us who write fantasy. So is the broken hero, the one who rises from the ruins of their life to save the world.

However, if you strip away the fantasy tropes and the outrageous video game weapons, the hero in any story written in any genre can become the villain, and any villain can change course before it’s too late.

The way my creative mind works, plots and characters evolve together. When I sit down to create a story arc, my characters offer me hints as to how they will develop. This evolution can change the course of the original plot.

In a current work-in-progress, two characters, hero and villain, switched roles, requiring a total rewrite.

Who in your work will be best suited to play the villain? Character B?

Conversely, why is character A the hero?

The next installment of this series will drill down a little further into the nuts and bolts of creating fully realized characters, focusing on the protagonist and the antagonist.

Buddha quote


Credits and Attributions:

Sephiroth, designed by Tetsuya Nomura for Square / Square Enix Final Fantasy VII, © 1997. Fair use.

Cloud Strife, designed by Tetsuya Nomura for Square/Square Enix Final Fantasy VII, © 1997. Fair use.

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Managing the Large Cast of Characters #amwriting

Today we begin a series on character creation. A large cast of characters can be difficult to write well. We want each character to have an evolving personality. The reader wants to know them as friends, to see them to grow in a positive or negative way as the events of the story unfold.

MyWritingLife2021BI try to keep the ensemble narrow in my work, limiting points of view to only one, two, or three characters at most. I keep the core cast limited to four or five, as it takes a lot of effort to show more people than that as being separate and unique.

Any number of evolutionary occurrences can happen in the first draft, and the plot will often change from what was originally planned. I use a stylesheet, also known as a storyboard, to keep track of the plot and the characters.

  • I update my stylesheet/storyboard whenever a significant change occurs. This avoids errors such as a character’s name being a duplicate.

So, let’s talk about books with large casts of characters. How do other authors keep large casts separate and prevent their readers from becoming confused? How do they do this and ensure the plot rolls forward at a good pace?

Several years ago, I read Nine Perfect Strangers by Australian author Liane Moriarty and talked about it on this blog. The book details the experiences of nine people booked into an exclusive Australian health spa and three staff members.

Nine_Perfect_Strangers_Liane_MoriartyMoriarty’s characters are immediately engaging. They sucked me into their world in the opening pages. I couldn’t set the book down, as I wanted to know everyone’s dark secrets. I was hooked; I had to understand what led these people to book themselves into that exceedingly unusual health spa.

  • Moriarty introduces us to the cast by opening with Yao and his experience as an EMT and introducing us to Masha as she suffers a heart attack.

The story picks up a decade later when nine people meet at a remote Australian health spa. They’ve all been lured there by word-of-mouth and brochures that promise to transform their lives. They are guaranteed a complete transformation in only ten days, which seems impossible.

  • All have deeply personal reasons for wanting their life to be changed for the better.

The characters are wary, as the reviews they have read are glowing, and so are the recommendations by their friends. But no one will explain how such a change will be accomplished.

  • Each guest arrives with emotional baggage.

So—everyone steps onto the stage with reasons for being there. This sucked me in and made me like or dislike each guest from the outset. And whether I liked them or not, I wanted to know their secrets.

  • Several chapters in, Masha, whom Yao rescued from a heart attack in the opening pages, is revealed as the benevolent antagonist.
  • Yao has become her ardent disciple.

The pair was exceedingly mysterious. I couldn’t tell exactly what their relationship was, and it intrigued me. Was Yao her lover, her henchman, or both?

  • How had Masha and Yao come to form this strange partnership? They had only met in the line of duty because of her heart attack.
  • At the outset, I had to know Masha’s secret and how she had become this guru.
  • I needed to know what she and Yao were up to.

This novel demonstrates that one doesn’t have to follow every literary rule to make a great, engaging narrative. Structurally, the plot is choppy, and the ending is a series of infodumps.

But it works because Moriarty establishes each character as an individual at the outset. Each one is infinitely relatable, and their personal stories are layered into the plot-arc, forming an onion-like narrative. I had to read, had to keep peeling that onion, eager to get to the core.

  • She gives them each a vivid personality, a physical appearance that is only theirs, and a unique history.
  • Each guest embodies a mystery that unfolds as the plot progresses.

Who are youThe guests are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment. The food they are offered is high quality but not what they are used to and varies from guest to guest.

PLOT POINT: The nine guests are required to ingest certain vitamins and minerals that Yao and Masha prescribe for them.

  • Their diets, vitamins, and medicines are carefully tailored to what Yao and Masha have determined are their individual needs.
  • The diet of fruits, cereals, and vegetables is not universally loved.
  • An exercise program is also enforced.

These stresses impact each character’s evolution, some for good and others, not.

Even later in the middle of the narrative, I had no trouble following who was who, as each character has an unmistakable surface persona.

  • This means each character’s outward personality is different from the others.

Soon after meeting the cast, Moriarty gives us small glimpses of weaknesses and fears, hinting at the secrets each character brings with them to the spa. As the story progresses, we learn more about the sorrows, guilts, and regrets that drive them.

The nine guests have each signed contracts before arriving at the wilderness spa. When it becomes clear the rules they have agreed to obey are iron-clad and strictly enforced, they become angry and afraid. Each guest reacts in a way that is true to their established personality.

  • Some vent their rage, some rebel, and others accept it as what they signed up for.
  • Yet, each character is willing to continue because they are desperate to heal a void in their lives.

Characterization is a core aspect of a story. When I am revising a first draft, I try to discover and reveal snippets of their history, gradually melding those secrets into the evolving plot. My stylesheet/storyboard helps me stay on task.

Even if you don’t make a stylesheet, I suggest you create a personnel file for each character. This will help you understand what makes each one different from the others.

A personnel file should contain:

personnel fileCharacter Names. I list the essential characters by name and the critical places where the story will be set.

About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.

Personality traits: Are they sunny and upbeat or dark and brooding? Are they somewhere in between?

Physical appearance: Coloring, hair color, eye color, short or tall, physical build.  Are they smartly dressed, or uncaring of clothing styles?

Their problem: What is their void, their core conflict?

What do they want? What does each character desire?

What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?

What secret will they take to their grave?

Don’t worry if you do things in a way that might not be technically correct. Books like Nine Perfect Strangers prove that good prose, compelling storylines, and strong character arcs engage the reader and overcome most writing wrongs.

In my next post, we’ll talk about the fine line between villains and heroes and how flaws and imperfections in our characters can improve the narrative.

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#FineArtFriday: View of Dordrecht by Aelbert Cuyp, ca. 1665

View of Dordrecht, by Aelbert Cuyp

View of Dordrecht *oil on canvas *97.8 x 137.8 cm *signed b.r.: A cuyp *circa 1655

Artist: Aelbert Cuyp  (1620–1691)

Title: View of Dordrecht

Date: circa 1665

Genre: marine art

Medium: oil on canvas

Size: 97.8 x 137.8 cm

Inscription: signature, A Cuyp

Collection: Kenwood House


What I love about this painting:

We see history in action, a working harbor alive and bustling with activity beneath a sky larger and more powerful than the sea. The eye is drawn to the center, to the majestic vessel moored in the harbor.

But that’s not where the action is.

In the bottom left, a barrel has fallen from a ship, perhaps during unloading, and floats freely. A small boat filled with sailors rows out to retrieve it. Beyond, at the docks, seagulls skim, sailing just above the water.

In the lower right, a raft of logs is guided past a moored ship, a small one perhaps waiting for a berth.

A fishing vessel heads out to sea.

The piers are jammed with ships. Stevedores in browns and dark colors blend into the background as they work the docks. They are laborers without whom the port would grind to a halt. They’re nearly invisible, yet Cuyp paints them with movement, bringing life to their anonymity.

This is a painting with many stories to tell.

About Aelbert Cuyp’s style, via Wikipedia:

Sunlight in his paintings rakes across the panel, accentuating small bits of detail in the golden light. In large, atmospheric panoramas of the countryside, the highlights on a blade of meadow grass, the mane of a tranquil horse, the horn of a dairy cow reclining by a stream, or the tip of a peasant’s hat are all caught in a bath of yellow ocher light. The richly varnished medium refracts the rays of light like a jewel as it dissolves into numerous glazed layers. Cuyp’s landscapes were based on reality and on his own invention of what an enchanting landscape should be.

Cuyp’s drawings reveal him to be a draftsman of superior quality. Light-drenched washes of golden-brown ink depict a distant view of the city of Dordrecht or Utrecht. [1]

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Aelbert Jacobszoon Cuyp (Dutch pronunciation: [kœyp]) (or Cuijp; 20 October 1620 – 15 November 1691) was one of the leading Dutch Golden Age painters, producing mainly landscapes. The most famous of a family of painters, the pupil of his father, Jacob Gerritszoon Cuyp (1594–1651/52), he is especially known for his large views of Dutch riverside scenes in a golden early morning or late afternoon light. Little is known of his life. He was born and died in Dordrecht. [1]


Credits and Attributions:

IMAGE: View of Dordrecht by Aelbert Cuyp, ca. 1665, PD|100.  Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:View of Dordrecht, by Aelbert Cuyp.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:View_of_Dordrecht,_by_Aelbert_Cuyp.jpg&oldid=704142240 (accessed January 19, 2023).

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Aelbert Cuyp,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Aelbert_Cuyp&oldid=1132221182 (accessed January 19, 2023).

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The Physics of Packing Tape #amwriting

I had one of those horrible realizations this last weekend. Sure, I know on one level, I will officially be a septuagenarian this June. As anyone who knows me will tell you, it’s a miracle I survived the blender years to arrive at such a landmark in life.

MyWritingLife2021But what I realized is this—had he lived, my father would be turning one hundred. Our two oldest daughters will be turning fifty. Our two sons are in their mid and late forties, and our youngest daughter, the baby, will be forty.

Now those are the numbers I find hard to assimilate. It mystifies me even though every aspect of our lives emphasizes that Grampa and Grandma are sliding into the high end of life, hurtling toward the golden years like a comet into the sun.

And these days are golden, despite the minor inconveniences of life. Greg’s Parkinson’s is manageable with medication and an intensive physical therapy regime. If you or someone you love has Parkinson’s, LSVT Big therapy is a miracle. But it does require true dedication and daily efforts. Fortunately, my husband is highly determined. Physical Therapy for Parkinson’s Disease | Johns Hopkins Medicine

Orange_Door_with_Hydrangeas_©_Connie_Jasperson_2019This diagnosis has prompted us to downsize and sell our home. We currently live in a tiny, rural town twenty miles south of Olympia, where all the services we need easy access to are located. So now we’re planning to move back to a city of politics, art, and creativity. Since leaving there in 2005, we have enjoyed the quiet of our little quarry town—but now we’re looking forward to seeing plays and attending concerts again.

But first, we must sell our home, and to do that, we must excavate—think Heracles and the Augean Stables.

Holy moly … we have a lot of stuff. Big stuff, little stuff, useless stuff, and stuff we have never used.

Right now, our home is littered with boxes. Most are empty, waiting to be called into action. Gradually we’re filling them with the things we intend to keep.

Each day we do one task, empty one corner or cupboard.

Each day we vow, tomorrow we’ll get more done.

Each day, all we manage to get done is the next “one thing,” whatever the appointed task of the day was.

coffee cupsWe have upped our garbage collection to weekly instead of bi-weekly, and we have no trouble filling that bin with things no sane person would have saved in the first place.

De-junking seems so daunting, so impossible. But that is because we are at the beginning stage of the process. The main frustration for me comes in the form of—

Packing tape.

My husband has the patience of a saint. And believe me, he needs it when I am allowed near the packing tape.

First, you must understand that when I went to the store in our tiny town, they didn’t have the monofilament kind of tape that comes with the dispenser, the kind where you can see the cut edges. They only had a single roll in the entire store, and that roll is comprised of clear tape.

Completely and utterly clear.

Now, we all know that ordinary packing tape is a product invented by Satan to punish all who end up in his domain.

But clear packing tape is a reward set aside for the special few, those more deserving of a true sojourn in Hell.

First, if you forgot to fold the end the last time you used the tape, you can’t see where the cut end is or how to begin peeling it back. It is made so that the moment one does find that end, the tape will automatically roll back onto itself before the victim can make that tiny, intentional fold.

scienceThis behavior occurs on a subatomic level, something to do with muons and Buckminsterfullerene. This unique characteristic of clear packing tape offers the poor sinner ten more minutes of frustration and creative cursing.

Electromagnetism and the Higgs mechanism kick in once we have a strip loose from the roll.

Or something like that.

I know for a fact this demon-infested thing is only tape, inanimate, and made of plastic and glue. Yet it sticks to (and wraps around) whatever it comes within an inch of. It seeks out my hair, my sweater, and the back of my hand, and (when the stars are in alignment) it sticks to the intended box.

Clear packing tape is both here and there, a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat—technically lifeless but also alive and generating mayhem.

The moment I have cut a long strip of packing tape from the roll, it will magically twist and stick to itself before I can get it anywhere near the box. Trying to get it unstuck from itself is futile – but fools flourish in my family.

The thought of leaving this house makes us a little wistful, but we know we must do this. We can no longer do the work of maintaining it and have had to hire a gardener. Now that I am the only driver, we need to be in a town with public transportation, one that is near our doctors.

We console ourselves with the thought that we’ve only been in this house since 2005—only eighteen years. Who knows how large the pile of possessions we must weed through would be if we’d been here longer?

BackYardMay202020The most important things we will keep are the memories, things that take up no room and never need dusting. We’ve had family parties for every holiday, including Easter Egg hunts that are legendary among the grandchildren.

Before the pandemic, we hosted a wine and cheese party for our friends every year on Valentine’s Day.

When we first moved here, the house was brand new, just built and rising from a sea of mud and gravel. Over the years, we turned that barren mudscape into a garden, a little piece of paradise. I can’t tell you how many hours we have spent on the back porch, watching the birds and enjoying the sounds of our small town.

At some point, I know this will be done, and we will be able to sell the house and move on to our new memories. We will have packed what we are keeping and given away the rest.

And tomorrow, I will buy another roll of packing tape, this time the kind that comes with the dispenser.

Packing Tape


Credits and Attributions:

The images in today’s post are from the author’s private collection and are copyrighted.

 

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