Hi! I’m Kathy Ide. In addition to being a published author, I’m a full-time professional freelance editor. For CAN, I’m blogging about tips for writers based on the most common mistakes I see in the manuscripts I edit.
Hi! Maureen Pratt here with my monthly blog. A friend of mine and I recently got into an interesting discussion about how much of the programming on television and many of today’s movies contain fundamentally unlikeable characters who do some pretty awful things. And yet, they draw an audience, sometimes rave reviews, and, sometimes, too, awards and accolades.
As a reporter, I’ve had to write stories about subjects that I don’t necessarily “resonate” with. I’ve also had to interview people with whom I personally disagree or who are not exactly the kind of people I’d want to share a meal with. But, that’s the life of a reporter; news and newsmakers come in all shapes, sizes and moral convictions (or lack thereof), and a good reporter is able to get to the truth of a piece without inserting personal feelings or bias (not to say we don’t have them!)
But what about those stories we aren’t professionally obligated to tell, but rather choose to tell or are led to tell by the Spirit? Do we have to like all of our characters, down to the lowliest criminal or town gossip or unsaved soul? Are we required to give soft edges to all inhabitants of our stories so that they will be palatable to us (read: so we’ll be able to spend long hours with them through the creative process) and our readers? What about the really evil-doers in some books? If we’re writing stories including those kinds of characters, do we have to like them in order to write them well?
For non-faith-based authors, the question can be answered rather succinctly: Characters don’t have to be likeable in order for them to “work” in a story, but they do have to be attractive in some way in order for people to want to watch them. This attraction can be extremely superficial (a very good-looking man or woman as the villain, for example). Or, it can be character-deep, drawing the audience on an exploration of what the character’s (often twisted) thinking/experience/perspective is and how that propels him or her to act as he or she does. Unfortunately, unlikeable characters often glamorize wrongdoing – the subject of another blog – and understanding why someone does something nefarious is often mistaken for condoning it.
For the faith-based author, the question of liking our characters takes on a very different color. We believe in God’s love for each of us and the power of redemption available to all. Our characters might do very evil things, but God is more powerful and there is always the possiblity of redemption, forgiveness, a complete conversion of spirit. “Hate the sin and not the sinner” seems superficial, but is, in some sense, closer to the sense of balance in mind as pen is put to paper. And as the process unfolds, it is more useful the farther we get into the work. I for one cannot lose sight of the fact that Jesus is the Savior of the world, and, even in a fictional world, that belief is still valid.
Fiction authors will talk about the “heart” that they pour into their books, and the way they “bonded” with their characters. By the end of the writing process, many characters can become almost like friends and nearly as beloved. This is a far different emotional connection from writing straight news, covering a beat that runs the gamut of likeable and unlikeable denizens. It is much like the difference between “just doing a job” and completely throwing oneself into a vocation, a calling. So, it is much more plausible for authors of fiction to warm to their characters.
In fine fiction, the fondness an author has for his or her work helps bring the story to life and enables the reader to be drawn in, to connect, and to want to spend hours reading just as the author has spent hours writing. The characters who do evil things, who sin, who stumble, and who are, on the face of it, unlikeable, are part of this cloth of a tale, and in the hands of a faith-based author can be and show both the awful side of mankind as well as the miracle, wonder, and “Wow!” of a character’s redemption. It’s so powerful to read a story where the worst of the characters comes around, repents, and we all breathe a collective “Hallelujah!”
Do we have to like all of our characters?
Not all at once. But we can love God’s presence and power working through and around them. And as our stories unfold, the unlikeable might just become the character we remember most – in a good and remarkable way!
Children’s authors often use animals as the main characters in their stories. Anthropomorphism, also known as personification, is attributing human characteristics to anything other than a human being.
Hello! Maureen Pratt here with another blog post about the writing art and craft. This time, some thoughts about the English language and how we might mix it up a little to yield fresh "color," insight, and depth to our work.
Two real life events have inspired me to blog about this. One was a conversation I overheard in the post office. It went like this:
Postal Clerk (handing Customer a pane of stamps): Here you go.
Customer: Where? Here I go where?
Postal Clerk: Your stamps, sir. Here you go.
Customer: Where do I go?
Postal Clerk (pointing at pane of stamps): I don't know, sir, but here are your stamps.
Customer: Oh. Thank you.
The other event was a conversation I had with an employee at my local grocery store. It went like this:
Employee: Did you find everything you wanted, ma'am?
Me: Yes, except you didn't have blueberries.
Employee: If you're really craving blueberries, we have frozen.
Me: I know, but they don't go well on cereal.
Employee: Got it. How about strawberries?
Me: I like them, but not on cereal.
Employee: Too bad. Because the strawberries are really transcendent today.
If you smiled at both of these illustrations, I'm right there with you. The first exchange involved someone whose native language was not English and who clearly had trouble with the idiom, "here you go." The second one invovled someone whose native language was English, but who clearly went beyond the norm in word association. (What would it have been like, I wonder, if I had purchased and eaten those "transcendent" strawberries?!)
Although different in context and character, both of these are examples of how creative we can get with English, depending not just on who is speaking, but to whom one is speaking. I don't have to go into a detailed description, for example, to convey the quirky character of someone who would describe strawberries as "transcendent." I also don't have to go into much detail at all to demonstrate how the English language, particularly slang and idioms, can be confusing for the non-native speaker – all it takes is those few lines of dialogue.
When I interview people for my non-fiction work, I keep my ears tuned to those sometimes-subtle, but always telling turns of phrase that can give away someone's background, expertise, or spiritual context. Often, my intervewees are unaware of how they sound, how they put words together, and what phrases they use. But if I can pick up on these, my work can be much tighter and telling than any labored description I might come up with.
In fiction, I use much the same technique. A character who is an engineer, for example, might describe something completely differently from someone who is a musician. The engineer might be more apt to talk in terms of form, fit, and building blocks, whereas the musician might use his or her sense of rhythm, tone, and feeling. The engineer might be a very linear communicator (A + B = C), whereas someone who is more artistically inclined might be non-linear (A + (A-B) – E = ?)
Simple words can be powerful descriptors. For example, growing up in Illinois, I always called the strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk the "boulevard." In Ohio, it was the "treelawn." In Boston, a drinking fountain was a "bubbler." Add to these little differences the challenge of regional pronunciations, and it's no wonder that many find English to be an extremely difficult language to master!
As children, we read of pink elephants, flying monkeys, talking bears, and mad hatters. As adults, and as writers, we can call upon that play on reality and language to craft English work that has creative depth and, dare I say it, transcendent description – even when writing of the most mundane of subjects.
Blessings of joy and peace,
Hello! Maureen Pratt here for my monthly CAN blog contribution. I’ve just returned from the dentist, so am even-more-than-usually delighted to be here (she writes, grinning with those newly repaired pearly whites)!
To be completely honest, although not exactly fun, my unexpected detour to drill-land has inspired my topic this month: Drastic measures for drastic situations. That is, what do you do when every trick, technique, and type font has been exhausted and you’re still not happy with what you see pouring forth on the page? Do you abandon the project (not easy, if you’re on contract and deadline)? Do you put the project aside and work on something else, praying that the subconscious will percolate behind the scenes? Or, do you do something else?
How does this relate to a trip to the dentist? Well, today, I went in to see what could be done about small chips in my front teeth, the result of years of major medications to treat all of my many chronic illnesses, as well as Sjogren’s Syndrome, which causes extreme dry mouth, among other things. Instead of getting right to work, my wonderful dentist enumerated the possible fixes. One was benign (“let it be”), one was a moderate repair that could last for quite awhile. The third option was the most extreme.
“It’s really very extreme,” she said. “And I don’t think this situation is that extreme.”
Praise God! And, bring on option # 2!
As she worked away on my tooth, I began to work away on my (this) blog. I’ve written before about things that might be helpful when characters run amok. But this time, I thought about the times when I’ve seemingly “hit the wall” on my work-in-progress. Setting, characters, underlying tone – sometimes these have gone awry to the point where the road ahead seems blocked with a huge “do not pass” sign. (Not to be confused with ‘writer’s block,’ this is a time when words are pouring forth, but just not for the same story as the one you’re supposed to be writing.)
At such times, I’ve turned to prayer, specific prayer for the specific writing situation: “Lord, is this project right for me, at least for now?” or “Lord, please show me the way, or at least please update my GPS!”
Next, I’ve gone back to my original premise, characters, outline, or inspiration and held these up to where I am with the project. It can be painstaking, but very useful to force yourself to look at everything you’ve written from those early kernels through the prism of the start. Is everything tying back to the beginning? If not, what needs to change, go, or remain?
Another thing to do is exercise. No, not writing exercises. I mean walking, running, playing tennis, golfing, aerobics – something physical that forces the brain to use different “muscles.” Instead of hand on keyboard or pen, put hand on basketball, or, if you’re not athletically inclined, vacuum cleaner or mixing bowl, which can be athletic endeavors, too. Exercise always helps clear my head, give me a fresh outlook and my subconscious time to regroup.
Talk to people you’ve already interviewed (if this is a non-fiction work) or to people who know nothing about your subject. Try to explain what you’re trying to do. See what questions they have and gauge what you have or have not put into your work thus far (this is always helpful). If you’re writing fiction, talk to your characters. Okay, this is a tick farther up on the drastic scale, but I actually find it very illuminating. Take your characters to the store, to a historic site, or just sit at your kitchen table and chat. Don’t mind if others look at you and shake their heads; it is a blessing and an honor to be gifted with storytelling, and sometimes the creative process just seems odd to others, but not to us!
The most drastic thing that I have done, only reserved for absolutely drastic situations, is to completely and utterly erase everything I’ve already written. Yup, the proverbial “computer crash.” I discovered this tool when my computer really did crash once years ago. Could not find the backup, let alone past versions of my work-in-progress, which was, at the time, under contract. After my initial shock, I had no alternative but to rewrite everything. It was a drastic situation, alright, and a drastic measure to have to rewrite the piece. But it actually turned out much better than it had been going along initially. And so, on those rare occasions when I need to do something drastic with my current writing project, I recall and sometimes employ this “measure of last resort,” as hard as it is to press delete and empty the recycle bin!
“Back in the day,” trips to the dentist were much more onerous than they are now (usually). Today’s visit turned out to be minor on the scale of discomfort, and all’s well, thanks to dentistry’s new tools of the trade. “Back in the day” of typewriters or writing longhand, it wasn’t possible to “lose it all,” unless you had a voracious dog or dared take your pages through the shredder (but even then, it probably wasn’t a cross-cut, and you could tape it all back together). Today, however, sometimes the dreaded “crash” is actually a blessing in disguise – a way to start completely afresh while retaining what’s most important from the good work you’ve done already.
Blessings for the day!