#FineArtFriday: The Stonebreakers by Gustave Courbet 1849

Gustave_Courbet_-_The_Stonebreakers_-_WGA05457Artist: Gustave Courbet  (1819–1877)

Title: The Stonebreakers

Date:1849

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: height: 165 cm (64.9 in); width: 257 cm (101.1 in)

Current location: destroyed in fire, 1945 (Dresden, Germany)

Today’s image comes to us via the miracle of 20th century photography and modern digital photographic restoration.

The exact number of paintings and other art masterpieces that were either destroyed or are still missing since World War II is not known, but is estimated that during World War II, the Nazis looted some 600,000 paintings from Jews and Art Museums, at least 100,000 of which are still missing. Unfortunately, the original canvas of this painting was a casualty of war, destroyed in the bombing of Dresden.

About this image, via Wikipedia: Considered to be the first of Courbet’s great works, The Stone Breakers of 1849 is an example of social realism that caused a sensation when it was first exhibited at the Paris Salon in 1850. The work was based on two men, one young and one old, whom Courbet discovered engaged in backbreaking labor on the side of the road when he returned to Ornans for an eight-month visit in October 1848. On his inspiration, Courbet told his friends and art critics Francis Wey and Jules Champfleury, “It is not often that one encounters so complete an expression of poverty and so, right then and there I got the idea for a painting.”

While other artists had depicted the plight of the rural poor, Courbet’s peasants are not idealized like those in works such as Millet’s The Gleaners. [1]

Also via Wikipedia: The Stone Breakers (FrenchLes Casseurs de pierres) was an 1849 painting by the French painter Gustave Courbet. It was a work of realism, depicting two peasants, a young man and an old man, breaking rocks.

The Stone Breakers was first exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1850. As a work of realism the subject matter addressed a scene of everyday life. This painting was intended to show the hard labor that poor citizens experienced. Courbet did not show the figure’s faces, they represent the “every man” and are not meant to be specific individuals. At the same time the clothing of the figures implies some degree of individuality, the younger man’s pants are too short and the older man’s vest is striped.

The painting was destroyed during World War II, along with 154 other pictures, when a transport vehicle moving the pictures to the castle of Königstein, near Dresden, was bombed by Allied forces in February 1945. [2]

About the artist, via Wikipedia:

Jean Désiré Gustave Courbet (UK/ˈkʊərbeɪ/ KOOR-bay,[1] US/kʊərˈbeɪ/ koor-BAY,[2] French: [ɡystav kuʁbɛ]; 10 June 1819 – 31 December 1877) was a French painter who led the Realism movement in 19th-century French painting. Committed to painting only what he could see, he rejected academic convention and the Romanticism of the previous generation of visual artists. His independence set an example that was important to later artists, such as the Impressionists and the Cubists. Courbet occupies an important place in 19th-century French painting as an innovator and as an artist willing to make bold social statements through his work.

Courbet’s paintings of the late 1840s and early 1850s brought him his first recognition. They challenged convention by depicting unidealized peasants and workers, often on a grand scale traditionally reserved for paintings of religious or historical subjects. Courbet’s subsequent paintings were mostly of a less overtly political character: landscapesseascapeshunting scenesnudes, and still lifes. Courbet, a socialist, was active in the political developments of France. He was imprisoned for six months in 1871 for his involvement with the Paris Commune and lived in exile in Switzerland from 1873 until his death four years later. [1]

Credits and Attributions:

Image: Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Gustave Courbet – The Stonebreakers – WGA05457.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Gustave_Courbet_-_The_Stonebreakers_-_WGA05457.jpg&oldid=661589775 (accessed December 1, 2022).

Wikipedia contributors, “Gustave Courbet,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Gustave_Courbet&oldid=1123079028 (accessed December 1, 2022). [1]

Wikipedia contributors, “The Stone Breakers,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Stone_Breakers&oldid=1070869064 (accessed December 1, 2022). [2]

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Creating Mood and Atmosphere #amwriting

Today marks the final day of NaNoWriMo 2022. I achieved my goal and exceeded it, which was a surprise. The month has been crazy busy here at Casa del Jasperson, but I still managed at least 2000 new words each day and sometimes more.

creating impactNow that I have most of the foundation built for my novel (the ending is not written), I find myself going back and looking at places where I inserted notes to myself, using red fonts. These are messages like: Build tension between the factions here. Show how it affects the group’s mood. Or another note: Need an atmosphere of fear.

When writing those notes to myself, I didn’t stop to fine-tune the story. My personal quest was to get the story laid out from beginning to end and write at least 2000 words each day. At this point the novel is mostly talking heads. The world is there but barely. It’s still at the one-dimensional stage.

I’m still about 30,000 words from the end, but now I find myself relaxing, not worried about getting word count. I will still write new words every day, but I can also look back and add atmosphere.

I love to read. When an author uses mood and atmosphere well, they can elevate their novel from “not bad” to “memorable.” The way Emily Brontë employed atmosphere in Wuthering Heights is stellar. I would love to achieve that level of world building.

mood-emotions-1-LIRF09152020I know how I want the story to affect a reader’s emotions—it’s perfectly shaped in my head. The trick is making that vision come true in writing. It may take a year or more to get the mood and atmosphere to feel the way I envision it.

Mood and atmosphere are two separate but entwined forces. They form subliminal impressions in the reader’s awareness, sub currents that affect our mood.

Where you find atmosphere in the setting, you also find mood in the characters. Like conjoined twins, mood and atmosphere are best discussed together when we talk about instilling depth into a narrative.

Which is more important, atmosphere or mood? The answer is both and neither.

Characters’ emotions affect the overall mood of a story. In turn, the atmosphere of a particular environment may affect the characters’ personal mood. Their individual moods affect the emotional state of the group.

Emotion is the experience of transitioning from the negative to the positive and back again. Experiencing emotion changes a character’s values, and they grow as people. Whether they grow positively or negatively is determined by the requirements of the narrative.

This is part of the inferential layer of a story. The audience must infer (deduce, understand, fathom, grasp, recognize) the experience, and it must feel personal.

Setting can contribute to atmosphere, but the setting is only a place, not atmosphere. Atmosphere is created as much by odors, scents, ambient sounds, and visuals as it is by the characters’ moods and emotions.

While mood and atmosphere work together, there are differences in what they do:

  • Mood describes the internal emotions of an individual or group.
  • Atmosphere is connected to the setting

Mood and atmosphere are created by phrasing, conversations, descriptive narrative, tone, and setting.

High_Sunderland_Hall_1818

High Sunderland Hall in 1818, shortly before Emily Brontë saw the building. Public Domain, Via Wikimedia Commons.

Some narratives use world building to create an overall atmosphere and affect the characters’ emotional mood. In Wuthering Heights, Brontë uses the environment and setting to manipulate the characters’ moods on a personal level. She then widens the view using the architecture, the landscape, and the gloomy weather to darken the general mood and atmosphere of the entire story. This creates a feeling of insecurity, raising tension in the reader, a sense of the unknown hidden in the shadows.

She begins with seriously flawed characters, instills them with dread and uncertainty, sets their intertwined stories in an isolated environment, and wraps the entire novel in a cocoon of despair, dark skies, and barren moorlands.

Atmosphere is foundational to world building. Will I get it right? I don’t know, but as I write toward the end of this proto-novel, I won’t stop trying.

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The Author’s Toolbox – Stylesheets #amwriting

We are approaching the last days of NaNoWriMo 2022. If you haven’t already, now is an excellent time to think about creating what I think is the most helpful tool in my toolbox—the stylesheet.

toolsWhen a manuscript comes across their desk, editors and publishers create a list of names, places, created words, and other things that may be repeated and pertain only to that manuscript. This is called a stylesheet.

The stylesheet can take several forms, but it is only a visual guide to print out or keep minimized until needed. Some editors refer to it as a “bible.” Sometimes it will be called a storyboard if it also contains plot ideas or an outline.

Nowadays, I make a new stylesheet at the outset of each writing project, even for short stories. I copy and paste every new word or name onto my list, doing this the first time they appear in the manuscript. This is an essential tool because if each name, place name, and made-up word is listed the way I originally intended, I’ll be less likely to inadvertently contradict myself later on in the tale.

Some people use a program called Scrivener, which is not too expensive, but which has a tricky learning curve. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it and found it quite frustrating. Nevertheless, I understand that it works well for many people, and you might find it works for you.

Myself, I don’t want a fancy word-processing program. I use MS Office because I have been using the programs that come with that software since 1993, and I’ve been able to adapt to each upgrade they have made. It’s affordable, so I use Word to write and edit in and Excel to create stylesheets.

Mac ComputerFor short stories, the stylesheet will probably be a Word document. I have written them out by hand on occasion. You can create them in Google Sheets or Docs, which is free.

And free is good! Everyone thinks differently, so there is no single perfect way that fits everyone.

In Excel, the storyboard for my ideas works this way:

At the Top of page one: I give the piece a working title.

When I have an idea for a short story, I include the intended publication and closing date for submissions (not needed if it’s for a novel). I make a note of the intended word count. Having a word count limit keeps me alert for unnecessary backstory. For most publications, you must keep strictly within their word count requirements.

Page one of the workbook contains the personnel files.

Column A: Character Names. I list the essential characters by name and the critical places where the story will be set.

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

Column C: The Problem: What is the core conflict?

Column D: What do they want? What does each character desire?

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

IBM_Selectric (1)Page Two:  The projected story arc will be on page two of the workbook. I list each chapter by the events that need to be resolved at various points in the manuscript.

Page three of the workbook is the most important—the Glossary. This list of made-up words, names, and places is crucial for the finished product. The way words appear on this list is how they should occur throughout the entire story or novel. This page ensures consistency and keeps the spellings from drifting as I lay down prose in the first draft.

I update the glossary page whenever a word or name is added or changed. I do this even in my non-fantasy work, as it helps to have a quick, easy-to-access reminder of how real-world names and places are spelled.

Page four will have maps and a calendar for that world. The calendar is a central tool that keeps the events happening logically.

The workbook shown below is the stylesheet for the Tower of Bones series and has been evolving since 2009. It has grown since this screenshot was taken.

neveyah stylesheetWe never really know how a story will go, even if we begin with a plan. We will probably deviate some from the original outline. Usually, for me, the major events will remain as they were plotted in advance, even though side themes will evolve. The outline keeps me on track with length and ensures the action doesn’t stall.

When I know the length of a book or story I intend to write, I know how many words each act should be and how many scenes/chapters I need to devote to that section. I like to keep my chapters at around 1600 – 2000 words. Sometimes they go longer, and other times shorter.

PinocchioThe plot usually evolves as I write each event and connect the dots. In one instance, it was completely changed. The original plot didn’t work at all, so drastic measures had to be taken.

Making that course correction was less work because I had the stylesheet with the outline. Events were easy to cut and replace or move along the timeline.

As we near the end of NaNoWriMo, we are beginning to dig deeper into all aspects of the story. We’re still writing the basic first draft, but emotions, both expressed and unexpressed, are growing more apparent.

Secrets characters have withheld from us emerge now as we write. Perhaps some ugly truths have been discovered. These details arise as I write, reshaping how the characters react to each other. In turn, these interactions can alter the plot.

Even though each manuscript starts out linearly, I work “back and forth” when writing rather than in a linear fashion. I work from an outline, but each section of my novel is written when I am inspired to work on that part of the tale.

The central plot points get written first. Then, I write connecting scenes to ‘stitch’ the sections together when the draft is complete, like assembling a quilt.

A detailed outline ensures I won’t get lost in the weeds of wacky side quests.

Book- onstruction-sign copyOnce the first draft is finished, revisions will mean updating the stylesheet, but that’s part of the job. This ensures my editor will have less work when we get to the final draft.

In the process of editing for me, Irene will find things that didn’t get listed but should have been and will update the stylesheet.

Writing a novel is a process of growth and development. It doesn’t stop until you sign off on the proof copies and the book is on sale.

And even then, you will think of things you could have done differently.

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#FineArtFriday: The Dutch Proverbs by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, revisited

Pieter_Brueghel_the_Elder_-_The_Dutch_Proverbs_-_Google_Art_ProjectToday I’m revisiting one of the best allegorical paintings of all time, The Netherlandish Proverbs (also known as The Dutch Proverbs) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, which was painted in 1559. A master at humor, allegory, and pointing out the follies of humanity, Brueghel the Elder is one of my favorite artists.

Artist: Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Year: 1559
Medium: Oil-on-panel
Dimensions: 117 cm × 163 cm (46 in × 64 in)
Location: Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

Quote from Wikipedia:

Critics have praised the composition for its ordered portrayal and integrated scene. There are approximately 112 identifiable proverbs and idioms in the scene, although Bruegel may have included others which cannot be determined because of the language change. Some of those incorporated in the painting are still in popular use, for instance “Swimming against the tide”, “Banging one’s head against a brick wall” and “Armed to the teeth”. Many more have faded from use, which makes analysis of the painting harder. “Having one’s roof tiled with tarts”, for example, which meant to have an abundance of everything and was an image Bruegel would later feature in his painting of the idyllic Land of Cockaigne (1567).

The Blue Cloak, the piece’s original title, features in the centre of the piece and is being placed on a man by his wife, indicating that she is cuckolding him. Other proverbs indicate human foolishness. A man fills in a pond after his calf has died. Just above the central figure of the blue-cloaked man another man carries daylight in a basket. Some of the figures seem to represent more than one figure of speech (whether this was Bruegel’s intention or not is unknown), such as the man shearing a sheep in the centre bottom left of the picture. He is sitting next to a man shearing a pig, so represents the expression “One shears sheep and one shears pigs”, meaning that one has the advantage over the other, but may also represent the advice “Shear them but don’t skin them”, meaning make the most of available assets.

You can find all of the wonderful proverbs on the painting’s page on Wikipedia, along with the thumbnail that depicts the proverb.

My favorite proverbs in this wonderful allegory?

Horse droppings are not figs. It meant we should not be fooled by appearances.

He who eats fire, craps sparks. It meant we shouldn’t be surprised at the outcome if we attempt a dangerous venture.

Now THAT is wisdom!


Credits and Attributions:

The Netherlandish Proverbs (Also known as The Dutch Proverbs) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder 1559 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Wikipedia contributors, “Netherlandish Proverbs,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Netherlandish_Proverbs&oldid=829168138  (accessed November 24, 2022).

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How Gerunds can be Action’s Kryptonite #amwriting

Today’s post focuses on word choice. I’ve just finished reading a mystery novel, and while I enjoyed the plot and the characters, the editor in my soul says I can’t recommend it. Therefore, I will not name the book or the author.

transitive verbThis novel was meticulously self-edited. I could see it was run through the author’s writer’s group many times, and the major flaws were ironed out. There were few typos, and the formatting was done well.

Self-editing is a struggle. The eye is biased when it comes to the structural flaws of our own work. This is why the smart author runs things past their writing group. The problem I see most often is that writing group members are not usually editors. They are acquainted with the basics of grammar but aren’t familiar with some advanced functions. They may have been taught grammar in school but have forgotten some as they had no use for it until they began writing.

And some never understood it because of the way it was presented in the first place. When something is boring, we don’t pay attention.

chicago guide to grammarLet’s be real—style and grammar guides are tedious and hard to understand. We may own them but we hate to crack them open. Trust me, researching grammar gets easier and more interesting as you advance in writing craft.

Unfortunately, the novel I wanted to enjoy was ruined by the opening line of the first paragraph on page one. That flaw interested me, so the editor in my head continued reading, analyzing why such a promising book failed.

Positives: The characters were engaging, and the plot was an original, well-conceived premise. The mystery was intriguing, and the setting was shown well.

Negatives: The author’s penchant for beginning sentences with gerunds – “ing” words – and peppering them throughout the narrative soured me on what could have been a strong novel. The opening paragraph ran similarly to this 29-word sample, with gerunds at the front of three sentences in a row:

Moving along quickly, we hurried through the store. Huddling behind the shelves, we waited until Mason had passed. Moving quickly again, we made it safely out the door.

The rest of the book was written in that style.

If I had been in her writing group, I would have suggested (gently) that she either move the gerunds to the final clause of each sentence or eliminate them. I know it’s frustrating to hear an editor suggest you completely reword prose you have already shaped and reshaped. But trust me, a reader will appreciate it.

We hurried through the store, huddling behind the shelves until Mason had passed, then slipped out the door.

Ten words were removed from the first example, but the scene’s intention isn’t altered.

This is where the choice and placement of words come into play. Active prose is constructed of nouns followed by verbs or verbs followed by nouns.

  1. Moving the verbs to the front of the sentence makes it stronger.
  2. Nouns are inherently inert but feel active when followed by verbs.

Words ending in “ing” fall into the family of gerunds. They are often used as verbs that have been turned into nouns, such as running and dancing. They are usually intransitive verbs (but sometimes they are transitive) and are necessary for good writing. But used improperly and too freely, gerunds are action’s kryptonite. (Edited 11-23-2022 for clarity.)

We followed the river, running alongside it until we could go no farther.

5 kinds of words

Writers who use gerunds too freely mean well. After all, a gerund began life as a verb but underwent an identity change, becoming a noun by adding the “ing” suffix.

Authors who lead sentences off with them are trying to get their prose moving.

So now we know a new truth: when we lead off our sentences with “ing” words, we are opening with a verb that wants to be a noun and behaves like one. This word choice separates the reader from the action, so while a gerund is a verb form, it is a word with a supporting role.

The abundance of gerunds we put into the first draft are an aspect of passive phrasing, the mental shorthand we use to first tell the story.

In most first drafts, the passive phrasing is a code. The author’s “subconscious writer” embeds signals in the first draft. It tells the author that the characters are transitioning from one scene to the next. They, or their circumstances, are undergoing a change. This change is something the reader must know.

toolsIn this regard, gerunds and other passive code words are the author’s first draft-multi-tool. They are a compact tool that combines several individual functions in a single unit. One word, one packet of letters that serves many purposes and conveys multiple mental images to the author.

At some point, we will finish the first draft, giving our novel a finite ending. When we begin revising that first draft, gerunds and passive phrasing, these code words and clues we left ourselves, will tell us what we must expand on. They show us the scene, and we rewrite it so the reader can see it too.

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no internet, no happy, #amwriting

The internet has been out here at Casa del Jasperson since Friday.

I have been surfing the internet on my phone, which has been interesting. My word count is still on track, but I have gone wide of what was originally plotted.

This little update is coming to you from my cellphone – a first for me. So, no images or graphics today.

We should have the internet fixed this afternoon. In the meantime, write what you feel passion for and be happy.

I hope to have a post on Wednesday.

Peace, and happy writing.

Connie

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#FineArtFriday: Rembrandt through his own eyes, 1659 (revisited)

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, commonly known simply as Rembrandt, is considered the finest artist of the 17th century. Some art historians consider him the finest artist in the history of art, and the most important artist in Dutch art history.

Speaking strictly as a Rembrandt fangirl and abject admirer, I consider his self-portraits to be more honest than those of any other artist.

Quote from Wikipedia: His self-portraits form a unique and intimate biography, in which the artist surveyed himself without vanity and with the utmost sincerity.

This honesty comes across in all his works featuring himself as the subject, even those where he portrays himself as a shepherd or the prodigal son. Each portrait shows an aspect of his personality, his sense of humor, his affection for Saskia who was the love of his life, and his wry acceptance of his own human frailties.

Rembrandt knew he was talented, but didn’t see himself as a creative genius. He was just a man with a passion for art, who lived beyond his means and died a pauper, as did Mozart, and as do most artists and authors.

I feel I know this man, more so than I do the person he was in his earlier self-portraits. He’s matured, lost some of the brashness of his youth. When I observe the man in this self-portrait, painted ten years before his death, I see a good-humored man just trying to live a frequently difficult life as well as he can. His face is lined and blemished, not as handsome as he once was. But his eyes seem both kind and familiar, filled with the understanding that comes from living with all one’s heart and experiencing both great joy and deep sorrow.

The art of Rembrandt van Rijn shows us his world as he saw it. Others may disagree with me, but I feel his greatest gift was the ability to convey personality with each portrait. This gift allowed him to portray every person he painted as they really were, blemished and yet beautiful. This is a gift he taught his students, and they were able to copy his style quite effectively, making discerning his true work difficult even for the experts.


Credits and Attributions:

Wikipedia contributors, “Rembrandt,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Rembrandt&oldid=844357531(accessed June 8, 2018).

Wikimedia Commons contributors, “File:Rembrandt van Rijn – Self-Portrait – Google Art Project.jpg,” Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Rembrandt_van_Rijn_-_Self-Portrait_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg&oldid=292800848 (accessed June 8, 2018).

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Side Characters – Someone Must Die #amwriting

We who write live inside our imaginations. The story unfolds before us when we are laying down the first draft, and the characters reveal themselves as we write. The side characters make themselves known to us, and gradually, we come to understand who they are and why they are willing to endure the hardships and support our protagonists in their efforts.

WritingCraft_Dark_EnergySometimes, the story demands a death, and 99% of the time, it can’t be the protagonist. But death must mean something, wring emotion from us as we write it. Since the character we have invested most of our time into is the protagonist, we must allow a beloved side character to die.

Killing a side character should not be a means of livening up a stale plot. It must be an organic part of the storyline, move the other characters, force them to continue despite the struggle.

But who is Character B as a person? When the first draft is done, side characters can seem two-dimensional. The second draft is where we inject emotion into the narrative. We must make Character B’s sacrifice feel like the tragedy it is.

We form our characters out of Action and Reaction. This chemistry happens on multiple levels.

First, it occurs within the story as the characters interact with each other. At the same time, the chemistry happens within the reader who is immersed and living the story. The reader begins to consider the characters as friends.

That emotional attachment is why every sacrifice our characters make must have meaning. It must advance the plot, or your reader will hate you.

As I write my first draft, I uncover hints of an individual’s speech habits, history, and personal style. I begin to see a person with values and discover their boundaries. I begin to know what they will (or will not) do.

At the outset, my characters have secrets they believe no one knows, secrets they will take with them to the grave. As I write, these secrets unfold before me, and I feel such love for them, for all their flaws and insecurities.

Before I became a writer, I was a reader. I am still a reader and go through one or two books a week. I seek out stories in all genres featuring characters I can empathize with. I want to meet characters who behave and respond to the inciting incident naturally, in a way that makes me say, “Yes, this is exactly how they would react.” As each subsequent event unfolds, they continue to behave as individuals. No one acts out of character.

If Character B must die, I want to feel as if I have lost a dear friend. Character B’s motivations must be clearly defined.

  • You must know how Character B thinks and reacts as an individual.
  • What need drives them?
  • What lengths will they go to in the effort to achieve their goal?
  • Conversely, what will they NOT do? What are their moral boundaries, and what is out of character for them?

Next, ask what would inspire this person to sacrifice themselves for others?

We have designed the plot, so we know the magnitude of the obstacles our characters face. The choices they make in those situations can change the story. Character B’s decisions are as crucial to the plot as are those of the protagonist.

In literary terms, agency is the power of an individual character to act independently, to choose their own path.

When we allow the protagonist/antagonist agency, they will make choices that surprise us. When we are writing the first draft, our characters will make decisions that might take the narrative in a new direction. I love it when that happens.

Character B dies. Why? What purpose does that death serve?

The character of Spock in the Star Trek franchise is a classic example of a person who would and did sacrifice themselves. In The Wrath of Khan (via Wikipedia):

Star_Trek_II_The_Wrath_of_KhanMortally wounded, the antagonist, Khan, activates a “rebirth” weapon called Genesis, which will reorganize all matter in the nebula, including Enterprise. Though Kirk’s crew detects the activation and attempts to move out of range, they will not be able to escape the nebula in time without the ship’s inoperable warp drive. Spock goes to restore warp power in the engine room, which is flooded with radiation. When McCoy tries to prevent Spock’s entry, Spock incapacitates him with a Vulcan nerve pinch and performs a mind meld, telling him to “remember.” Spock repairs the warp drive, and Enterprise escapes the explosion, which forms a new planet. Before dying of radiation poisoning, Spock urges Kirk not to grieve, as his decision to sacrifice himself to save the ship’s crew was a logical one. An epilogue shows Spock’s space burial and reveals that his coffin is on the surface of the Genesis planet, foreshadowing the events of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. [1]

Spock explains his decision by saying, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

Captain Kirk answers, “Or the one.”

It becomes easy to give our characters an active role in choosing their fate when they have unique personalities.

When I first began writing, allowing my characters to grow their own way was difficult. I had this notion that the original plot was engraved in stone. Eventually, I learned to relax and let them do as they would.

And yet, they harbor secrets to the end, things that surprise and shock me.

StarWarsMoviePoster1977You, as the author, must understand what drives and motivates even the walk-on, disposable characters. Are they “a red shirt,” that iconic Star Trek symbol of the throw-away character? Or are they a “Spock,” the beloved friend who offers themselves up to save others?

Why should we care if they die? Your job is to make us care.

When a character has history, has agency, and chooses to sacrifice themselves as Obi-Wan did for Luke or Spock for the Enterprise crew, you see their decision is not out of character.

The death of a character must raise the emotional stakes for both the protagonist and the reader. A complex, memorable novel rewards the reader for their investment of time by making the story feel personal.


Credits and Attributions:

[1] Wikipedia contributors, “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Star_Trek_II:_The_Wrath_of_Khan&oldid=1015970109 (accessed April 18, 2021).

Images: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Paramount Pictures: 1982); art by illustrator Bob Peak. © 1982 Paramount Pictures; Fair use under United States copyright law.

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (Lucasfilm Ltd. Distributed by 20th Century Fox: 1977), art by illustrator Tom Jung. © 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd; Fair use under United States copyright law.

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Drawing on the Momentum of the Dark Side #amwriting

We’re halfway through November, and some writers participating in NaNoWriMo already know how their novels will end. But just because we might have an ending, the story isn’t finished. Work must be done to fill in the gaps and add depth.

WritingCraft_Dark_EnergyOne character archetype that is critical to any story is the villain. Yet the negative energy of a story is often less developed, two-dimensional.

In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, Christopher Vogler discusses how the villain of a piece represents the shadow. The villain provides the momentum of the dark side, and their influence on the protagonist must be fully explored.

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.

I believe the villains we write into our stories represent humanity’s darker side, whether they are a person, a dangerous animal, or a natural disaster. They bring ethical and moral dilemmas to the story, offering food for thought.

Through that struggle, heroes must recognize and confront the darkness within themselves. They must choose their own path—will they fight to uphold the light? Or will they take the easier way, following the shadow?

When the protagonist must face and overcome the shadow on a profoundly personal level, they are placed in true danger. If they stray from the light, they may have unknowingly offered up their souls.

The best shadow characters are multidimensional. They are charismatic because we can relate to their struggle.

Characters portrayed as evil for the sake of drama can be cartoonish. Layers must support their actions, or the villain is not believable.

I think of these two-dimensional villains as little “Skeletors.”

Skeletor-spooSkeletor is a cartoon villain with one of the least believable storylines in the history of cartoons. He has great passion and drive as a villain, but it’s all noise and show. His ostensible quest is to conquer Castle Grayskull and acquire its ancient secrets. Possession of these would make him unstoppable, allowing him to rule the world of Eternia.

But his character is hollow, and his storyline is simply one long declaration of his villainy. In reality, Skeletor’s sole purpose is to give He-Man a reason to draw his mighty sword and proclaim, “I have the power!”

It was a fun cartoon, but these characters were initially conceived as a means of selling toys.

What is your goal? Maybe a token villain serves the purpose. However, if you hope to write a memorable story, you need Evil With History.

Truly fearsome villains have deep stories. Sure, they may have begun life as unpleasant people and may even be sociopaths. But no one wakes up one morning and says, “I am evil. I will now go out, gather some minions, and do evil things. Muah-hah-hah!”

Look at one of the most talked-about villains of all time, a character who represents the worst humanity can offer: Hannibal Lector:

In The Silence of the Lambs, Lecter’s keeper, Dr. Frederick Chilton, claims that Lecter is a “pure sociopath” (“pure psychopath” in the film adaptation). In the film adaptation of The Silence of the Lambs, protagonist Clarice Starling says of Lecter, “They don’t have a name for what he is.”

Lecter’s history is explored in greater detail in Hannibal and Hannibal Rising. These books explain how, as a child in Lithuania in 1944, he witnessed the murder and cannibalism of his beloved sister, Mischa, by a group of deserting Lithuanian Hilfswillige. One of the killers claimed that Lecter unwittingly ate his sister as well.

Believable villains must have a back story that explains and supports their logical reasons for what we think of as villainy. If it’s a quest, the bad guy/girl must have a plausible explanation for going to the lengths they do to acquire the Golden McGuffin.

In my work, light and dark (good and evil) are represented through two different theologies. Both societies believe in the righteousness of their gods. Both have rituals they perform to appease their deities. The people of both worlds firmly believe that their way and their deity is the only true way.

Imogen_-_Herbert_Gustave_SchmalzWhen we write a story, we want the protagonist’s struggle to mean something to the reader. We put them through hell and make their lives miserable. But we must remember that the characters in our stories aren’t going through these horrible trials alone. The moment we begin writing the story, we are dragging the reader along for the ride.

We who write novels can’t offer the reader hollow, cartoonish characters. We have failed if we don’t give the shadow hints of depth, of history. We owe it to our readers to provide rounded, believable characters, whether they are heroes or villains.

Ask what made the villain turn to the darkness? What events gave them the strength and courage to rise above the past, twisted though they are? What drives their agenda? What do they hope to achieve?

We must make the hero’s ultimate victory evoke great relief in the reader and fill them with the sure knowledge that all is made right.

The reader has survived, and the victory belongs to them as much as it does the hero.


CREDITS AND ATTRIBUTIONS:

Image: Skeletor-spoo: Fair Use, for identification of and critical commentary on the television program and its contents. DVD screen capture from the She-Ra: Princess of Power episode “Gateway to Trouble,” where Skeletor is offered a bowl of Spoo. Wikipedia contributors, “He-Man,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=He-Man&oldid=916702029 (accessed November 12, 2022).

Image: Imogen by Herbert Gustav Schmalz PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons

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#FineArtFriday: Peace at Sunset (Evening in the White Mountains) by Thomas Cole, ca 1827

Peace_at_Sunset_(Evening_in_the_White_Mountains)_Thomas_ColeArtist: Thomas Cole (1801–1848)

Title: Peace at Sunset (Evening in the White Mountains)

Date: circa 1827

Medium: oil on canvas

Dimensions: height: 68.9 cm (27.1 in); width: 81.9 cm (32.2 in)

Collection: Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

What I love about this painting:

This is one of Cole’s early works. He was able to show us the kind of autumn day we love, with rain trying to sweep in, but held back by the sunshine. It’s good day, despite the chill breeze attempting to scour the leaves from the trees. Clouds brush the hilltops, but the reds and golds seem to glow in the sunlight.

About the Artist, via Wikipedia:

Thomas Cole (February 1, 1801 – February 11, 1848) was an English-American painter known for his landscape and history paintings. He is regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School, an American art movement that flourished in the mid-19th century. Cole’s work is known for its romantic portrayal of the American wilderness.

After 1827 Cole maintained a studio at the farm called Cedar Grove, in the town of Catskill, New York. He painted a significant portion of his work in this studio. In 1836, he married Maria Bartow of Catskill, a niece of the owners, and became a year-round resident. Thomas and Maria had five children. Cole’s daughter Emily was a botanical artist who worked in watercolor and painted porcelain. Cole’s sister, Sarah Cole, was also a landscape painter.

Additionally, Cole held many friendships with important figures in the art world including Daniel Wadsworth, with whom he shared a close friendship. Proof of this friendship can be seen in the letters that were unearthed in the 1980s by the Trinity College Watkinson Library. Cole emotionally wrote Wadsworth in July 1832: “Years have passed away since I saw you & time & the world have undoubtedly wrought many changes in both of us; but the recollection of your friendship… [has] never faded in my mind & I look at those pleasures as ‘flowers that never will in other garden grow-‘”

Thomas Cole died at Catskill on February 11, 1848, of pleurisy. The fourth highest peak in the Catskills is named Thomas Cole Mountain in his honor. Cedar Grove, also known as the Thomas Cole House, was declared a National Historic Site in 1999 and is now open to the public.


Credits and Attributions:

Peace at Sunset (Evening in the White Mountains) by Thomas Cole PD|100 via Wikimedia Commons.

Wikipedia contributors, “Thomas Cole,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Thomas_Cole&oldid=1120453843 (accessed November 10, 2022).

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