Posts Tagged Character Development

WEDNESDAY REFLECTIONS #36 – Roomies by Christina Lauren

Via: Daily Prompt – Bewildered

34466910Title     Roomies

Author     Christina Lauren

Genre     Contemporary Romance | New Adult | Realistic Fiction

Publisher      Gallery Books

Publication Date      December 5, 2017

Format      eBook

Setting     Broadway, Manhattan, New York

ISBN     1501165844

Synopsis: There’s nothing special about Holland Lina Bakkar; at least, that’s how she views her own existence. The last of six children, she was mostly left to her own devices by her parents before being semi-adopted by her uncle Jeff and his husband Robert who don’t have any children of their own to dote on. Her uncles helped procure her MFA in creative writing so that she may one day compose the Great American Novel, gave her a position as an archivist in the theater where Robert is the musical director for until such time when she writes said novel, and continue to subsidize her measly salary by paying the rent of her Manhattan apartment since inspiration for the novel remains ever elusive. In return, she merely assures them her unwavering love and loyalty and a brunch comprising of eggs Benedict every other weekend. To make matters worse, she has been crushing on the mysterious busker with the hypnotizing guitar-skills (who was already too sexy to be in her league) and passively prowls the Fiftieth Street station where he performs thrice-weekly (though it’s quite outside of her daily route). Then, on the one night she imbibes enough liquid courage to talk to him, she is attacked by a drunk bozo on the deserted platform and is accidentally thrown onto the subway tracks. And while Calvin [yes, she now knows his name] the Sexy Busker does phone in the police to prevent her being killed by the midnight train, she is disappointed to discover that he doesn’t stick around long enough to make sure she’s okay, which does nothing to boost her confidence. Just when Holland’s spirit reaches its all-time low, one of Robert’s star performers resign the ensemble with weeks to spare before the show’s revival and presents her with the opportunity to be the hero for a change. She introduces Calvin (who turns out to have received his music training from Juilliard) to the team and he is an instant hit with the theater’s board members – until they discover his student visa expired four years ago so any media limelight would lead to instant deportation to Ireland. So Holland does the only thing she could do to save the day: she marries Calvin McLoughlin so his dream of playing for Broadway can come true and Uncle Robert’s production can have its debut star. And she? She can be fake-married to the man she’s been secretly stalking for the last six months. No conflict of interests there at all…

Experience (with rudimentary spoilers): I liked this novel so much that I finished it cover-to-cover overnight and then went back to skimming it for notes the following week. The witty narration delivered in the first-person by the heroine charmed me from the get-go while her innocuous-stalker infatuation for the sexy busker made her immediately relatable [you haven’t lived on the edge until you’ve memorized your crush’s classroom schedule]. Moreover, with the international news in every nation running the gamut on a certain country’s immigration policies, this marriage-of-convenience “Green Card” romance couldn’t have found a more contemporary premise, which may have been Christina Lauren’s inspiration and intent. All in all, it made Roomies read very fast and quite effortlessly.

I want to start this review with the character Holland, who is, after all, the heroine and narrator of this story. Since, in my last month’s #AuthorToolboxBlogHop post, I discussed the many reasons and ways to avoid writing too-perfect protagonists, my mind was very much attuned to how the authors presented Holland’s flaws and challenges as I went through the book. I was not disappointed but I’d like to address how that could’ve been the case.

In romance stories, too often, the heroine’s flaws are limited to her appearance or some behavioral absurdity that’s really more-cute-than-not, as though she can have no greater aspiration than to charm her romantic interest with her form or demeanor. As if describing her as the hag who chews her hair when she’s nervous makes her somehow relatable to the reader. It’s the debutante ball all over again – there’s the belle and then there’s us.

What’s worse, once the heroine is presented at her worst state, the narrator can no longer remain committed to the image created, leaving the reader at a loss to understand who exactly is the character they are reading about. Big-boned turns out to be code for Amazon-beautiful, extra-padding is really Rubenesque-sexy, it’s really adorable and not dangerous when the heroine drunk-dives into the pool and loses consciousness bumping her head against the tiles on her way in… I have found this especially common among heroines written in the first-person. Gold star to anyone who can guess the multiple-personality romance heroine described by Adam Ellis in the following illustration:


I understand the temptation of relying on the ugly duckling formula. If the endgame of the romance novel plot is the realization of true love, why not start by presenting the most obvious challenges to that goal – all the visible traits of the heroine that could make her unattractive to her romantic interest? But unless these visible imperfections come with some deep-seated wound or unless there are additional dilemmas that give the heroine’s journey true meaning, I feel that using physical and social flaws to “add dimensions to the character” is a cop-out.

In Roomies, while Holland’s flaws are introduced as her being an average-looking gal with a klutzy comportment that affects her confidence level, we eventually get to see that her self-derision really stems from her awareness that she’s freeloading on her uncles’ goodwill and has yet to discover the purpose of her life. Sure, she’s aware of her physical limitations when compared to the aesthetically varied and rich dating pool of NYC but she knows how to navigate that by playing with her assets. Rather, her real cause for dissatisfaction is that, in an arena surrounded by the creatively successful, she has yet to discover where she fits. That unwritten novel is never far from her mind and that is what I liked about how the authors focused on developing Holland’s character arc. Even through the sexy scenes, even through Holland’s consciousness of having her crush now married and living in close quarters with her, Holland continues to struggle and grow as an individual.

And I love how Holland approaches each setback, each humiliation as well as each realization and triumph with humor and humility. This made her more than the mundane romantic heroine, this made her capable and centered – it made her real and worth admiring. Going back to a heroine’s consciousness of her form and grace; of course, I think it reasonable that they worry about how they look. Every woman, even those living in the remotest locale untouched by media’s image of perfection, feel self-conscious about some physical trait that they would change. So if a romance heroine does grunt and groan over her nose, thighs, or even a pinky finger, it is perfectly acceptable. But I liked how Holland’s self-deprecation when comparing herself to potential female competitions for Calvin’s field of attraction begins with looks but she again re-centers her mind to the theory that she should focus on developing her career and honing her talent than waste time on aspects that she cannot control. That, my friends, is character growth.

Enough about character flaws; let’s discuss the story. As far as the plot goes, I actually felt the whole novel was very realistically written. As I mentioned before, I went through the novel really quickly and without at all skimming on the expositions, but that is not to say that the writing was hurried. In fact, the scenes were really well-paced and what made them so fluent was the wry hilarity with which Holland reflects on each incident in her life, past and present, happy and sad. Events in each scene reveal the changes in the dynamics of her relationships with others, which, in turn, gradually expose the reader to tiny details about these other characters to form a holistic perspective of Holland’s world. For example, I love how Holland picks up Calvin’s little indulgences when he moves in with her – regular use of Chap Stick, going around mostly unclothed around the apartment, being totally casual about reading notifications on each other’s devices, etc. It makes Calvin more human. I could absolutely feel Holland’s infatuation developing into a deeper and more sustainable attachment.

And it also made the romance sweeter and sexier. Holland is not a brash character. In fact, she habitually assesses risks before taking any step, and the one time she decides to jump in with both feet is when she proposes marriage to Calvin, and she is aware how far outside her depth she’s wading. So it’s good to see her return to her cautious self once she is married. She’s consistent and because of that, it is easier for Calvin to know how to behave around her. This is a couple who married for immigration purposes and is living in a small apartment, sleeping with only a door between them. The awkwardness is real. And we feel it. But we also feel how the proximity allows them to become more sexually alert to the advantage of their living situation and the hesitation that accompanies it as well as how they choose to give in anyway. So… the romance is real.

Recommendation: Although the novel isn’t listed under Realistic Romance, I have chosen to classify it as such because I felt that Christina Lauren did a great job in capturing the emotional struggles and perspectives of the contemporary woman in the process of falling in love, that too with a very plausible plot and setting. In a myriad of mediocre romance novels these days, this story puts no pressure on your suspension of disbelief.


And now, having learned that the book was written in collaboration between two authors, I’m left wondering how that is accomplished with such graceful management of character and plot development…


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#AuthorToolbox 07: avoiding perfection

Via: Daily Prompt – Study & Loophole

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about sainted characters. It all started when I sat down to watch John Carpenter’s 1978 slasher success Halloween for the first time [yes, truly]. After a month-long Christmas movie binge, I was ready to shake things up a bit and, although fully prepared to be blown away by the cult classic that apparently gave birth to so many of my favorite horror movies from the 90’s, twenty minutes in, it had me rolling my eyes and sighing in exasperation. Jamie Lee Curtis is Mary Sue:


Media: Giphy

The Virginal Barbie: Despite being all shiny and blonde with a great body, Curtis’s character Laurie is the shy girl-next-door who can’t bring herself to divulge her feelings to the boy she likes, making her the unattached dream girl who won’t give a man any lip.

The Sharpest Tool in the Shed: Not only is she at the top of every class, she’s probably also psychic. She is the first to notice the man-in-the-mask watching her and her friends as well as the only one who continues to sense his foreboding proximity throughout the movie.

A Goody-Two-Shoes: She can’t break rules properly even when she tries. The one time she allows herself to be peer-pressured into smoking a little pot, she ends up right in front of the sheriff. Though her transgression goes unnoticed, she chooses to walk the straight and narrow for the rest of the movie.

The Old Reliable: She always picks up the slack. She can be counted on to drop off keys to a real estate client for her father, make popcorn for her babysitting charge, and relieve her best friend from babysitting duty while the said best friend spends the night doing the dirty.

It’s Lonely at the Top: Early on in the movie, we see her experiencing all the teen angst that accompanies an austere lifestyle and become sympathetic to her plight.

A Badass Martyr: Even when the killer slices open her arm, her first lookout is to make sure the kids are safe, maternal instinct in guerilla warfare mode. And she’s pretty resourceful with a knitting needle too. Who doesn’t love a girl who can simultaneously knit and kick butt when called to action?

DIE, FEMINISM, DIE! But, even aside from the misogynistic rigmarole, that is a tall order for any character. And while I accept that, in horror movies, death following sex is expected, by the end of the movie, I was convinced that the only reason Laurie survived was that she didn’t show any skin. By the end of the movie, I wanted to throw her out the bedroom window. Sadly, while I believe the makers of Halloween intended Laurie to be The-Li’l-Lady-That-Could, fiction writers are equally prone to creating accidental Mary Sues. I would have to say, tar me with the same brush.


Only, mine was a Gary Stu. When I first started writing I’ll Be True in 2012, I understood little about structuring plots, developing characters, weaving conflicts, or building tension, etc. I was confident I had a voice and was often praised for my diction, which was good enough to publish the first draft of my story on a public platform, a.k.a. this blog. Besides, I was too hopeful that having an actual audience would cure me of my habit of abandoning stories before they were finished being written. Embarrassing as it is to admit, it wasn’t until I wrote the entire novel and read back all twenty-six chapters to myself that I realized my protagonist’s romantic interest, who also happened to be the second MC, was insufferably unspoiled.


Media: Tenor

Matthew Halls was a wish-fulfilling Mr. Perfect I had written when I was going through a rough patch in my longstanding relationship. He looked good on paper, was always the voice of reason, and had the luck of Indiana Jones with a heart the size of a blimp, talent oozing out of his pores, and sexual appeal enough to melt the staunchest woman’s core (which he promptly did). He had little in the way of challenges other than to convince the heroine that she loved him enough to call for a change in her attitude towards relationships. In other words, he was unreal, he had no character arc, and I was, literally, driven to tears of frustration. Worse, in the process of creating the perfect man, I committed the cardinal sin of treating my hero like a plot device. [His hideous magnificence remains unedited in my posts should anyone care to torture themselves]


If the above examples of Mary Sue and Gary Stu do not convince, here’s how too-perfect protagonists may lead to bad fictions:

saintToo perfect to be human. Readers are everyday flawed people so a character who is free of flaws becomes unrealistic and one that is hard to relate to. Besides, it is very hard to sympathize with a holier-than-thou character in peril because they make us feel less than our best selves, so a reader would not feel as vested in seeing the character through to triumph.

No challenge too great. Too-perfect protagonists come with broad skillsets that make accomplishing goals and overcoming obstacles very easy for them and their one-dimensional quality boring for the readers. Plots are driven by conflicts and, with a Johnny-On-The-Spot, the tension never quite gets the opportunity to build up properly, which can cause the reader to disconnect too early.

Well, what’s there left to hope for? People want to read about ordinary characters persevere in extraordinary ways. A character in a similar or slightly better circumstances than the reader can motivate the reader’s aspirations towards life; conversely, a character who has all the assets one can desire to lead the perfect life might make a reader want to go to sleep and never wake up. After all, who can compete against Batman?


Media: Me.Me.

To be fair to us, authors, it’s too tempting to write the too-perfect character. Even if we, ourselves, do not fit the mold of our ideal person [because, really, who does?], we wish to see it come alive somewhere – live [vicariously] a little. Writing heroes is also more comfortable than writing anti-heroes or villains because subconsciously we are worried how that might reflect on us as human beings. If we do remember to sand the edges by inserting a couple of character flaws, we are just as quick to make excuses for them. Should we write them real challenges, as creators, it is in our nature to mother them into victory.

At our worst self, we’re lazy and don’t want to sweat by putting in the level of thought and work hours necessary to clean up after a messy character: Stories are made of struggles; struggles need solving; someone’s gotta do it; why not Mary Sue? But every time we throw miracles in our character’s path, we are chiseling away at the compelling story we could be writing. As an outsider looking in, readers tend to discover conflicts sooner and notice opportunities for resolution faster than the characters themselves, which may prompt vexation in the reader but also cause them to hold on.



Media: SpudComic

Think about it, how often have you groaned during the stairwell chase scene when the protagonist runs up the stairs to get away from the predator? It seems their gut instinct should be to run down and let gravity do most of the work as they look for the quickest exit from hell. Unless, of course, the character is Batman, in which case he wouldn’t be running or, if he did, he has probably already sent out a signal and the Batplane is waiting for him by the rooftop. As a kid, I had promised myself that I would learn to drive, ride a motorbike as well as a horse, and hotwire a car, just so if I ever needed to escape a villain, I would be all set. I haven’t yet learned to do any of that, am clinically overweight that I’m too lazy to remedy, and have low stamina that I blame on my intellectually-inclined personality. If my life was a novel and I a Girl Scout, I’d be the first to be eaten by a bear during camp. So… obviously not the protagonist of my own story.



The good news is, if caught in time, an author can put a flawless character back in his box. It requires careful examination and takes a few nips and tucks to fix perfection but it can be done:

Give. Them. Flaws. Well, that’s obvious, but here are a few tips to remember as you do –

  • It’s best not to depend on flaws that are superficial or an in indirect praise such as a crooked nose (who’re you kidding; you know that’s sexy) or being a total klutz (wasn’t Meg Ryan absolutely adorable in French Kiss). The surest way to make the flaw compelling for the readers is to ensure that it is mired in the character’s past and has had time to fester to become a real problem.
  • The flaw shouldn’t be too blatant or exaggerated. Flaws lose credibility when demonstrated in absolute so they should never be dealt as such, unless the intention is to mock. Most people work in gray areas and so should the character’s flaws. Only sociopaths are completely sure of themselves all the time.
  • The flaw needs to be persistent until the character learns to reign it in, which should happen at approximately the same time as the plot reaches resolution. The last thing the story needs is the narrator telling the reader about the character’s flaw but when the time comes to show, the character works in an opposite manner.
  • A flaw that connects back to the central conflict in the plot is a great flaw. Flaws bear significance to the story when they cause the character to take a misstep that challenges their goals.

For that matter, stop fixating on their endowments. Yeah, yeah, he’s hot-stuff but must she swoon every time he walks into the room? The more words are spent describing the protagonist’s pros, the less time is used to show their cons.

Turn their strengths into a source of weakness. Shakespeare was a genius in romanticizing flaws. The same qualities that would establish a character as a hero in the beginning of a play would cause their tragic demise by the end. E.g. the bravery and determination that returns Macbeth victorious from war transforms into unchecked ambition where he kills the king he swore to serve before turning mad with guilt and paranoia, which eventually leads to a bloodbath under his tyrannical rule and then his death.

Make them do something you find truly objectionable. This may even be out of character where the one time they do something wrong, they get caught and then are left picking up the pieces for the rest of the story.

Put them back in the real world. The universe, even one existing in a fantasy, is governed by its own laws, which no character is above. As such, when the character defies the rules of this universe, there should be repercussions for the character to deal with. Their actions will have an effect on other characters just as they must be affected by it.


Media: Giphy

Avoid deus ex machinas. Remember that one time when we were driving down the I-10 and were almost abducted by aliens but then a pterodactyl swooped in and ate the aliens before flying off into the sunset? Yeah, never happened. Not even on The X-Files. Sudden supreme forces that step in without preamble to save the day for the protagonist just make the plot ridiculous.

Pass some of your character’s skills to others. The protagonist can’t be an expert on everything or be everywhere at the same time – nor should you ask them of it. Instead, insert other characters into the story who are able to take over some of the protagonist’s responsibilities. Even Harry had Ron and Hermione; and Dumbledore and the Order of Phoenix and the DA and Snape and a bunch of other dead guys, etc.

What I’m trying to say is, in case you lost the plot in that circuitous ramble, unless you have decided that a Mary Sue/Gary Stu works for your story, they best be avoided. But, hey! as the original Mary Sue was written as a satire to parody the unrealistic heroines in some of the early Star Trek fanfictions, sometimes they can be the key ingredient to a successful story.

Whew! My obvious flaw is the inability to edit because this has gone on for long enough. But I would love to read about what are your thoughts on too-perfect characters.

Perhaps there is a Mary Sue that you feel spoiled a story for you or one that worked out really well? Or, like me, maybe you once wrote a Gary Stu who you eventually had to kill but who imparted you with great insight before his death?


Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!


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WRITING CHRONICLE #29: the art of conversing in fiction

Via: Expect & Enlighten

Image: Max Pixel

Last week, for the final #AuthorToolboxBlogHop post of the year, I discussed how to find your character’s voice. It only seemed fitting that this week, I write about what to do with that voice once you have found it. That’s right, I’m talking dialogues.

Dialogues (and accompanying actions, of course) make up the parts of a novel I prefer to read most. In fact, they were a major determinant in the selection of my favorite authors. The more dialogues a story offers, the quicker I fly through it. Because that is precisely one of the advantages that dialogues provide – the ability to move the plot forward. Dialogues reveal new information and secrets that may deepen the conflict or bring about resolution. They make the reading easier by breaking up blocks of expositing prose and instead present a sense of unfolding action, quickening the pace in turn. In fact, did you know that, when perusing books in a store before purchase, readers often look for the amount of white space in the layout to determine how much dialogue the story contains and thus how quick a read it might be? I wonder if that is considered cheating, though.

Dialogues also have the ability to make characters seem more real. For one, real people don’t spend every waking hour observing and contemplating the world around them. No, they converse, they take action. But not only does adding dialogues to the story makes the characters come alive but it also provides a tool to reveal more about the characters. You can expose a lot more about a character’s backstory (and in a much more interesting way) by injecting habits, thoughts and beliefs, dialects and accents, vernaculars and technical jargons, etc. in a few quick dialogues than would be necessary with endless passages of exposition. Dialogues are a medium to strengthen a character’s voice, making it more distinct and consistent over usage, as well as to express the dynamics of the relationships they have with other characters.

There’s a lot you can do with dialogues. And as with any ambitious instrument, they are tricky. Some writers have a natural ability to write interesting dialogues – Jane Austen, Jennifer Crusie, and Julia Quinn to name a few of my favorites; others have to work at it. For the most part, it really requires an observant pair of ears. Yup, eavesdrop until you get the hang of emulating the way people speak. Or else, the following tips may come in handy:

Expositing. It is necessary to remember that people don’t constantly launch into soliloquies or solo productions in their day-to-day lives. The “di” in dialogue signifies an exchange of continuously flowing discourse between two or more persons, and therefore, should not be generally used by a character to narrate the story to another. Even when one character is in the middle of describing an event, other character(s) present should be reacting and responding – unless there really is a podium involved. But even so, keep the presentation short and cover it mostly through brief narratives.

Using fillers. Then again, not everything in real life should be imitated in art. While people often dawdle in small talks before getting to the meat of their conversation, there is little need to weigh down the dialogue in fiction with small talks between characters. If it is not revealing anything important about the plot or characters, ixnay on the chitchats.

Over narrating. Another mistake is giving blow-by-blow accounts of actions that surround the dialogue. Suppose a character throws a tantrum, saying something hateful to another character followed by a walk-out, there is no need to explain the character is angry. The dialogue and actions are sufficient. Let your characters show the readers what they feel and mean; you stick to editing.

The right dialogue tags. Which brings us to dialogue tags. With an endless supply of adverbs, it is often tempting to use the “he exclaimed” and “she retorted”. However, sometimes the “he said” and “she said” suffice. Using too many variations of dialogue tags may become obtrusive, and thus, distracting. Once in the flow of the dialogue, readers much rather forgo of all the additional explanation of how the characters are conducting their exchange; some of it sort of ebbs and flows into the momentum.

Injecting actions. Then again, sometimes action narrations may be used to replace dialogue tags. For example, in a scenario where the hero and heroine are immersed in serious flirtation, their body language can speak volume more than mere dialogue tags:

Eric tilted his head towards Vanessa, a corner of his mouth tipping up suggestively. “How do you feel about taking this conversation to someplace more private?”

Forgoing dialogue tags altogether. Again, sometimes when the dialogue between two characters picks up momentum, after initially setting up the format to show which paragraph of dialogue is being spoken by whom, the dialogue tags may be abandoned:

Don’t be so judgy,” Shabnam advised after putting some distance between them and the boys.

Obaira watched where they were walking to avoid making eye contact with her cousin. “What do you mean?”

“Here’s the most handsome boy in our batch paying you so much attention and you are doing your best to put him off. If I know you – and I do – that means you have something on your mind and it’s not pretty.”

Her cousin did know her too well. “Well, don’t you think it’s suspicious that he starts paying me attention right after I won the contest?” she whispered, looking over her shoulders to make sure the boys wouldn’t overhear. “I mean, we barely ever spoke before – other than to exchange a couple of class notes, that is.”

“I would think that that just proves like is attracted to like.”

“Come again?”

“For a nerd, you’re pretty slow on the uptake.”


Shabnam rolled her doe-eyes. “Well, he is the top student in our class and you the top girl.”

~ Excerpt from Bad Daughter by Yours Truly

However, notice even while most of the alternate paragraphs did not have dialogue tags or action narrations, every once in a while I reinstated a tag or action to re-acquaint the reader with the character speaking a specific dialogue. While forgoing dialogue tags can help quicken the pace, going without them for too long can also make the sequence confusing.

Getting grammatical. Going back to the realism of dialogues, also important to remember that most people aren’t overly critical of using correct grammar in their everyday conversation. Vernacularly speaking, it is not “The King and I” but more “Me and the King”. So, depending on the education level and upbringing (and sometimes the era) of your character, best if they speak the way people of their time and culture would speak in an everyday setting.

Signs of hesitation. But then, in our every day, we do tend to fumble for the correct words a lot as we speak. Not the right move when writing dialogues. While using an “err” or “um” on occasion is okay (particularly when trying to emphasize a character’s hesitation or confusion), it is quite unnecessary in the general use and only serves to slow down the momentum we hope to provide through dialogues. Remember, we are trying to keep things real, not transcribing a court procession.

Phonetic spelling. Again, in a bid to inject realism, we may be tempted to write dialogues exactly the way they would sound when a character speaks in their dialect or accent. However, unless it is relevant to the plot or the traits of a particular character, we can stick to the generally accepted spellings for words. For example, in Harry Potter, Hagrid’s dialogues are heavily peppered with his West County accent to create the illusion of a less-than-sophisticated blundering-but-bighearted half-giant who “managed to learn to speak English” – it is an important trait that defines Hagrid and is also relevant for the sociological and “racial” divide in the plot. However, while the wizards all come from places far and wide in the United Kingdom, few others are seen to speak with accents because with such a varied cast of characters, it would make the reading material very confusing and arduous once we are done translating what everyone says.

Character names. This pertains to both the address within the dialogue and the using character names with the dialogue tags. The first is obvious: we do not continuously address the people we speak with by their names once the people in the conversation is already identified; we just keep talking by facing them or throw out our statements openly for anyone present to respond to. The second, with regards dialogue tags and action narrations, once the paragraph sequence is established to show who the alternate speakers are, characters names may sometimes be replaced by subject pronouns: “he said” or “she said”.

Consistent punctuations. It is an unfortunately-common mistake in manuscripts where authors keep mixing up which quotation marks they use to bracket dialogues. If you are using double quotation for your dialogues, stick to it. Don’t keep switching between double and single quotation marks at different parts of your novel. Even if you are undecided when you start drafting, by the time your manuscript has been edited and ready for submission/publication, your dialogue format should maintain a modicum of consistency.

One eye on the voice. Speaking of consistency, it is important to provide each character their unique and distinct voice, to be retained throughout the story. Characters cannot be slipping in and out of their… well, their characters. Also, the characters cannot all sound the same. Remember, the character’s voice is an extension of their psyche and therefore if everyone had a similar voice (ipso facto similar psyche), there would be no conflict, right?


Yeah, follow all these rules and you should be good. Piece of cake!


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#AuthorToolbox 06: oh character! how thou meow?

Via: Daily Prompt – Loyal


Dangerous Tiger Big Cat Panthera Tigris Predator

Image: Max Pixel




Image: Tenor

In preparation for the new season of Supernatural, I was recently watching some of the casts’ Comic-Con videos on YouTube when this member of the audience got up and asked if Jensen Ackles ever falls into his character Dean when handling everyday situations such as, if his car was to be overtaken by another vehicle and he needed to vent his frustration, would he shout at the offender and say – ok, I can’t write that here. But the fan did a perfect imitation of Dean Winchester, from words to tone to pitch, that even Ackles had to praise it – though with startled bemusement. In any case, it got me to wondering, how well do we know the characters we write? How often do our characters reach that level of consistency and distinguishability where a reader would be able to immediately connect a dialogue or thought to a particular character? Because that, my friends, is where we know we’ve got it made.


Earlier this year, I blogged about what the writing voice is and how I discovered mine. In essence, to me, the writing voice is the culmination of one’s writing style and their purpose of writing. The same goes for the voices of the characters we develop. Who are the characters we write really and why are they even there? To reiterate the above, in order to ensure each of our characters have a distinct and consistent voice, we need to truly know them – know them the way we would know how a really close friend or relative will react to a situation and know them outside of ourselves so that the author’s voice does not overlap with the character’s.

Easier said than done but not impossible. Here’s how:

The Interview. To an outsider, it might seem totally nutty that an author hosts little tête-à-têtes with his/her characters but this is one of the most common advice I have received at any writing circle, official or among Twitter friends, whenever I stumbled across a block with a character. What better way to find out who your character is than to simply ask them, am I right? This, of course, would have been easier if the character in question (excuse the pun) wasn’t a figment of my imagination. But to make the process less convoluted, a good place to start asking questions is their opinion of other characters they interact within the story and the various issues they face. The various lookouts (list below), then, during such an interview would be to monitor the emotional intensity with which the character responds to each question, make notes of the nuances delivered, and then ask follow up questions based on the responses.



Accept Them For Who They Are. Your questions answered, you must learn to not become judgmental by what you have discovered about your character. You may ask me, how can an author disapprove of the character he/she has created but I have seen this happen in works of others and have been guilty of it a few times myself. It is that moment in your story when you start to exposit on why a certain character behaves a certain way to distance yourself from that character – to show that this character is obviously not you and that you would never behave that way. Don’t do that. Remember, you are not in the story so your readers know better than to attribute your character’s flaws and fears on to you. More importantly, your character is the way they are because the traits they embrace are relevant to the plot as well as the relationship dynamics of your story. Let them be who they are, for authenticity’s sake. Also, if you do not remain faithful to your creation, no one else will.


Take Them Out For A Spin. If an interview does not do the trick, it’s time to really get crazy. Do a little exercise with your character such as having them over for company for a week and taking notes of how you imagine they would behave in everyday situations, positive and negative, that you face during that time. It will allow you to become accustomed to their reactions to the world and help you get into their mindset. You may crank it up by actually behaving like your character and then including in your notes how others respond to you as well. [Full disclosure, while actors do it all the time, I have to really bring out my inner prankster to get that wicked.] Alternatively, something simpler like having the character write a letter to you or another character in the story to see how they relate to others is also useful though perhaps not as stimulating.

Ok, I’m fresh out of techniques here, really. Truth be told, the interview method has been working well for me so far. On that note, here is the query form I have pieced together over time that seems to get me through to my characters (or is it, get my characters through to me):

  • What is the character’s mode of address? Formal or informal? Does the mannerism persist from their upbringing, education, or profession, etc.?
  • For that matter, what kind of education has the character received and how has this affected their level of intelligence and intellect, thought pattern and speech?
  • What is the character’s cultural background and what impact could it have on their vocabulary? Does it fall into a particular dialect? Does the character allow this vocabulary/dialect to show during their speech? If not, why not?
  • What is the character’s speech pattern? Do they use short or long sentences? Are the words they use vernacular or profound? Why?
  • How emphatic is the character? Do they emphasize on their words to prove their point?
  • Is the character cynical or naive, full of satire or respectful? How do they observe the world around them? How does it affect the way they speak? Are they gruff or humorous, edgy or laid back?
  • What is the character’s general disposition towards others? Is the character prone to profanities or graciousness?
  • How quick to response is the character? Does it make them naturally witty or aggressive?
  • Is there any maxim that the character lives by that affects their behavior? Or else, does the character resort to any catchphrase or verbal tics?

To wit, how the character thinks and behaves and speaks depends on who they are, for which the author needs to really sort out the attributes and backstory of the character. The character’s voice is very much also connected to the POV(s) used in the narrative and it is up to the author how much of the character’s voice they will allow to seep into the prose when writing from a certain character’s viewpoint. Whatever the decision, dialogue or action or thought, consistency and distinction is the key.

Before I leave off, I invite you to share any other method you use to find your character’s voice.

Nano Blog and Social Media Hop2Finally, a word on the Author Toolbox Blog Hop:
#AuthorToolboxBlogHop is a monthly event, hosted by the gracious Raimey Gallant, featuring various resources and learnings for authors written by authors. It is open to writers at all stages of their careers and the rules of sign-up are available in the overhead link. Also, if you are just interested in connecting with actual authors and see what they have got to say, the sign-up page has a list of participants to direct you to their pages. Happy reading and writing, fellow authors!


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WRITING CHRONICLE #28: character-driven vs. plot-driven

Via: Daily Prompt – Elastic & Superficial


I think most authors, at least in the initial stages of their career, tend to lean towards writing either character-driven or plot-driven stories. Whether your stories are more plot-driven or character-driven is trivial, as both styles work suitably and most readers are able to dive into either form of literature with easy appreciation. What is important to remember when you write, regardless of which way you lean, is that the plot and characters in either narrative forms do not act independently of one another. Whichever style you may choose, the plot and characters each influence the outcome of the other and should work cohesively towards heightening the conflict and deriving the resolution to keep the story moving or having any true meaning. With experience, of course, it is hoped that our writing styles achieve a bit more pliancy with regards to these two types of narrative.


And the first step towards that endeavor is to realize WHAT EACH OF THESE COURSES OF NARRATIVE TRULY REPRESENT:

A CHARACTER-DRIVEN STORY deals with the internal and/or interpersonal conflicts of the character(s). It focuses on the inner transformations of a character or the character’s relationship with other characters in the story. Such a story aims to showcase the MC’s character arc, i.e. how he/she grows throughout the story. The character-driven story relies upon the plot to develop the character. The story offers a series of events through which the character arrives upon the elemental question that defines his/her transformation, or the transformation of his/her relationship with another. The character-driven story has the advantage of connecting at a deeper level with the reader because the characters are so often realistic and relatable.

A PLOT-DRIVEN STORY is one that focuses on events rather than the transformation of the character(s). The character undergoes a sequence of plot points, each of which compels him/her to make a choice, which then either works towards or against the character’s goals, pushing the story forward and backward, creating a story arc. The plot-driven story showcases how a character responses to the situations he/she is thrown into, often depending on split-second decisions rather than deep-seated character motivations. The conflict lies in the circuitous plot that all act in opposition to the MC’s goal(s). The plot-driven story has the advantage of plot twists, actions, and external conflicts which build the tension and keeps reader motivated through to the end.


In the CHARACTER-DRIVEN STORY, it is through the story arc (a.k.a. plot arc) that the character achieves transformation, whether reconciling with self or another. The events in the story push the character(s) to question their own motivations and desires as well as face their fears and flaws, thus helping the character arc to take shape.

E.g. The Big Bang Theory, where we witness Sheldon Cooper, an awkward academic genius who, through a series of mishaps and advisement of his friends, learns to navigate the emotional intricacies of the human mind and proper etiquette of the social scheme.

In the PLOT-DRIVEN STORY, who the character(s) is/are will decide how they respond to the situations they are thrown into. The character(s) still work towards a goal and the plot points act as the conflicts that keep the character(s) from achieving the end game, hence developing the story arc.

E.g. Supernatural and the Winchester Brothers, who are forced to vanquish the various monsters-of-the-week and, though they each love the other dearly, the situation pushes them to act against each other’s decisions as often as working together.


I confess that my stories tend to be more character-driven. And while the plot does help my characters to “discover who they are” or “what they need”, I’m still mastering how to make my stories full of page-turning plot twists.

Which narrative course do you prefer to employ when writing your stories? Or for that matter, as a reader, are you generally drawn towards plot-driven or character-driven stories?


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Wednesday Reflections #27 – Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

Via: Daily Prompt – Interest & Deny

22054354Title     Cranford

Author     Elizabeth Gaskell

Genre     English Literature, Classic

Publisher      Heritage Illustrated Publishing

Publication Date      March 17, 2014

Format      eBook via Project Gutenberg

Setting     Regency England, Industrial Revolution

ISBN     N/A

Synopsis: Cranford, sometimes referred to as Chronicles of Cranford, was originally published between 1851 and 1853 as a series of vignettes belonging to a larger body of work by Elizabeth Gaskell in the magazine Household Words, as edited by Charles Dickens. The novel follows the lives of spinster sisters Misses Deborah and Matilda (Matty) Jenkynses and their bevy of matronly comrades who oversee the genteel standards of living for the society of this titular town. The narrative accounts are related by Miss Mary Smith who spends the larger share of each year living with the Misses Jenkynses given her unwavering attachment to the townspeople – though her family moved to and officially resides in the nearby city of Drumble for the benefit of her father’s growing business. Mr. Smith, an industrious man preoccupied with his work, rarely feels Mary’s absence, much to the satisfaction of all principal characters in the story. Mary, in turn, especially benefits from the female society Cranford affords since her mother passed away some years ago, upon whence, she has been left mostly to her own devices in her household. Meanwhile, the women of Cranford take great care to uphold all appearances of dignified living despite any pecuniary shortcomings. What unfolds is a witty commentary of a community that strives to retain the “old ways” despite any modernity the industrial revolution brings to their small town and a heartwarming portrayal of feminine friendship that enlists infallible assistance even in the face of irreparable tragedies.

Experience (some necessary spoilers): Honestly, I did not procure this book until I saw the 2007 BBC adaptation starring Judy Dench and Eileen Atkins last month. I never even listed it among my TBRs. The TV mini-series, however, was very enjoyable and so, as I never deny myself a comparative assessment once I have seen the adaptation of a classic literature, I began reading.

When, in the Making of Cranford, creator and writer Sue Birtwistle (one of the geniuses behind the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) confessed that the crew had taken many liberties while writing the script for Cranford, I did not imagine the extent to which this admission was accurate. If one reads the novel and then seeks any accuracy of narrative or characters in the adaptation, they will feel the discrepancies. However, if the heart of the novel were to be determined, they will discover that the adaptation has amplified Gaskell’s intentions. In essence, while the adaptation made unscrupulous changes to the original story(s), it made up for the one gross limitation of the novel, i.e. a structured plot.

Indeed, it was not until I reached Chapter 12 that I began to see a plot formation. Upon a bit of research into the work, I learned that Gaskell, due to her commitment to writing another novel, was quite irregular with the installments for this one, which must account for why the first half of the book chiefly details individual events in the lives of the various Cranford ladies without amounting to any particular direction in which the overall the story headed. However, the adaptation more than provides for a plot even though the scriptwriters often resorted to omitting certain characters by merging them with others, killing off some characters early in the series while keeping alive throughout the program others who were meant to have died as per the novel, and generally attributing the events of some characters to the roles of others. To wit, there was a lot of shuffling around; however, not always at a deficit. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that the adaptation was better than the book but Birtwistle and her team edited Gaskell’s story whereas the original author had not.

Having provided you with a fair warning on book vs. adaptation, allow me to proceed to tell you how I felt about the novel itself. Despite the lack of structure in the storyline, both the subject of the narrative and the writing voice had me vested from the first page. In fact, it boasts one of the better opening sentences I have ever read:

In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses above a certain rent are women.”

For a feminist, this line would be of guaranteed interest and I can imagine the popularity the series would have garnered with its very first installation among bluestockings. Indeed, as Household Words aspired to raise the “affection of both sexes”, Cranford was ideal literature towards that objective.

Gaskell, herself, wrote of her characters with much affection, even though she was not impervious to listing their many deficiencies where soundness of logic is concerned, which may have been engineered to recommend the material to the male readers – or, at least, it prevented the reading from becoming wholly unpalatable to her opposite sex given how self-sufficient the characters were. Before the first paragraph is over, we learn that the men manage to find themselves out of Cranford one way or another (“In short, whatever does become of the gentlemen, they are not in Cranford”) because the autonomy with which the womenfolk conduct themselves renders any male presence redundant. As if to exemplify, early in the book, the one man who manages to infiltrate this community and endear himself with his unassuming and obliging ways, manages to get himself killed in an act of heroics.

The Misses Jenkynses, who are themselves daughters of the former rector of the parish, act as the moral compass for the community as well as regulators of the general decorum of their society. The women adhere to certain rules, which would not always make sense to outsiders but manage to ensure that everyone knows exactly what is expected of them and lives in harmony with one another. And while the older Miss Deborah Jenkyns passes away early in the novel, her guidelines are continued to be followed by her peers. So much so that the surviving Miss Matty cannot make most of her decisions without in some way counseling with her conscience as to what her sister might have done. In fact, it is one of the distinguishing traits of Miss Matty to second-guess herself and always reflect upon the inferiority of her mental capabilities in comparison to others because she was so determinedly steered by her sister in all things while the elder still lived. It is not until later in the novel, when Miss Matty begins to demonstrate a bit more independence in decision-making – albeit with temerity – that we begin to realize that she is the central character of Mary’s narrative even though so much of their lives is presided over by the spirit of the long-deceased Deborah Jenkyns.

Yet, the women are not without their individualities, from fashion sense to personal peculiarities. For example, Miss Matty always saves on household expenditures by burning only one candle at a time but would alternately burn two candles every day to ensure they are of the same height in a sense of “elegant economy” (since having two candles lit was the due riggeur) for the benefit of witness should they have visitors. While another character Mrs. Forrester regularly washed her prized lace in milk to obtain that fine creamy hue and once, when her cat swallowed the unattended lace with the cream,  had even fed the animal current-jelly before stuffing it in a farmer’s boot so it could “return” the favored item, for such fine lace could no longer be procured given the nuns from the continent who used to produce it had stopped. And such was the friendship between the women in the community that such eccentrics were not laughed at nor even found wanting. In fact, I thought for a feminist herself who wished to demonstrate how well women could get on on their own, Gaskell was rather harsh towards her characters, ridiculing them more often than they did one another though there was plenty of inducement. However, such indiscretions on Gaskell’s part could easily be overlooked when considering how honest and consistent her portrayal of each character was.

Nonetheless, as the story progresses, the true intent of the author becomes more visible and the reader may realize that amidst all the satire, Gaskell’s message from the town of Cranford is related by how Miss Matty continues to remain a paragon of goodness and kindliness even in the face of adversity, which without fail manages to bring about the best qualities in others. We see, in an hour of need, the devotion with which other characters come to her aid, self-sacrificing without hesitation, simply founded on an assurance that, if situations were reversed, Miss Matty would have happily ransomed every single one of her comfort to benefit another. Even individuals outside their immediate social circle is fully aware of Miss Matty’s eternally benevolent heart and childlike expectation of others to do only good, ensuring that they mirror the same qualities – at least in their deeds towards her. As Mary’s father, upon learning how Miss Matty’s friends rally around her, aptly explains:

See, Mary, how a good, innocent life makes friends all around. Confound it! I could make a good lesson out of it if I were a person; but, as it is, I can’t get a tail to my sentences–only I’m sure you feel what I want to say.”

And Mary, who grows into a woman under the unconscious counsel of this woman, too emulates to think of others before herself, particularly resourcing ways to make Miss Matty happy one of her priorities, faithfully concludes:

We all love Miss Matty, and I somehow think we are all of us better when she is near us.”

Recommendation: There is nothing I love more than a story that depicts the wholesome traits of humanity and this book had this in many folds. I recommend the read to anyone who feels the need to restore their faith in the goodness of mankind and a reminder that kindness begets kindness.



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WRITING CHRONICLE #23: prologues, anyone?

Via: Daily Prompt – Passenger & Sail

Image: Wikimedia, CC0

Prologues. Some authors swear by them; some readers roll their eyes at them and skip ahead. Me? I believe that, like most literary devices, prologues have their time and place, i.e. some stories need them while other stories are better off without them. If used with moderation-but-pizzazz, The Prologue is a vehicle that may really put your story into gear and make the reader buckle in. However, writers without a firm handle on the steering wheel may drive their story to an early death [especially when querying], so beware.

Ok, enough with the vehicular metaphors. Here are two lists of when and how prologues may work – or not:

Read the rest of this entry »


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Wednesday Reflections #20 – Deep Dish by Mary Kay Andrews

Via: Daily Prompt – Polish

1197456Title     Deep Dish

Author     Mary Kay Andrews

Genre     Contemporary Romance, Chick-Lit, Southern American

Publisher      HarperCollins

Publication Date      February 26, 2008

Format      eBook

Setting     Atlanta, Georgia, USA

ISBN     0061579912

Synopsis: Everything in Regina Foxton’s life is not peachy but she can make do. Sure the kitchen from which she tapes her television cooking program is held together by scotch tape and she wished she had better wardrobe to host in and she wished her new car would run without failures, but at least she finally has her own cooking show and a car and a house and a sweet boyfriend who also happens to be her producer. But then she finds out that she is out of a job because her sponsor has canceled the show because her boyfriend did the sponsor’s child bride. Now she faces a prospect of moving back to her hometown in with her parents and has to tag along her baby sister who is already a handful with her cutting college classes to play on Xbox and party-hardy. Regina Foxton is what one would call has paddled “out of her depth”. But then The Cooking Channel is scouting her show and she really has a shot at landing the major leagues, except there is another cooking show that has rolled into town to vie for the position. Tate Moody is ruggedly gorgeous and his cooking style (kill and cook your dinner) is the polar opposite of Regina’s (Southern meals with a healthy twist) and so are their attitudes toward life. Tate is as popular in the south as Regina and often their viewers’ demographics overlap but the two become enemies on sight. She thinks he’s a brute and he thinks she’s a princess. Sparks fly and the producers at The Cooking Channel ride on the heat wave to host a reality cook-off challenge for the position for their new network chef. What no one, including Regina and Tate, is prepared for though is that some of those sparks are caused by mutual attractions.

Experience: Deep Dish is something that I would refer to as a pretty good read. It’s not what I’d call award-winning literature but far as romance novel goes, it hits the spot and you can polish off and devour (pardon the food-pun) the whole thing in one sitting. Having said that, there are a couple of noteworthy positive things about the way Mary Kay Andrews went about writing the novel, starting with the setting and world-building.

There are some great contemporary romances out there with chefs as the main characters but rarely do they remain as true to the premise of the character’s career as Deep Dish did. In most cases, novels about chefs draw on the sexiness of heating it up in the kitchen with a passive-aggressive chemistry between the hero-heroine and leave it at that. Andrews did not take the shortcut. Instead, she thoroughly researched cooking show productions and sifted through her minefield of knowledge in Southern cooking (she has her own cookbook published) before sitting down to write the novel, allowing the reader to enjoy a very hands-on experience of the stresses of producing a TV program. We even get to pick up on a few recipes of wholesome Southern meals along the way. I loved the quirky addition at the end of the novel where a few choice Southern recipes were shared, apparently created by Regina and Tate themselves.

The world-building was also rather vivid and something I enjoyed a lot. It may be due to my personal preference for geography and maps but halfway through, the story takes you to this island in Georgia called Eutaw Island. Now I looked for it and there is a geological formation in Georgia of this name and a city as well though no island fit for human habitation. But Andrews beautifully illustrated this exotic location with beautiful wild and marine life and delicious local palate. I totally believed it might be a real place until Google told me she made it all up. As a writer, I can always appreciate such in-depth dive into the author’s imagination.

With regards to character development, obviously, it being a chick-lit, Regina’s character received more attention than Tate’s. I thought their passions and insecurities nicely complemented each other. She has a one-track mind about getting her canceled show onto The Cooking Channel; her adversary-and-romantic-interest is a gorgeous man-of-the-wilds who likes to catch what he cooks and does not have the same sophisticated taste as she. You can’t do much wrong with that; in fact, it’s great recipe for romance (sorry, I can’t seem to help myself here).

The rest of the characters equally complement the two MCs and plot. Her ex-boyfriend is a self-serving jerk with enough good looks to get away with it in most circles is using her to get the show running again; her sister is a college student with badass fashion sense who studies less and parties more; her close friend and makeup artist is a bald gay black man; the production people from The Cooking Channel have all the single ruthless attitude as her boyfriend but are at different stages of life; except the assistant producer who is a shoe-in for the secondary romantic plot opposite the sister is a man with a conscious that balances his boss’s lack of one. It was actually all very smoothly written in and I could appreciate the relatability. Although I would have to say none of the major or minor characters stepped too far out of their stereotype – except maybe the hero but this was not fully explored or explained.

Which brings me to the part of the novel that I could not completely see eye-to-eye on. I found it interesting that he was a single red-blooded heterosexual man with natural sex appeal had he would turn down a voluntary booty call from a hot female celebrity and I wanted an explanation. Especially when he showed the same prudence when another hot minor league celebrity (read heroine) offered the same. If Tate was turning down women up and down the southern states despite his hot celebrity status, there must have been a reason. Being one of the MCs, he deserved a little more backstory. And the thing is there was plenty of opportunities to build up the reader’s understanding of the character since Andrew used an omniscient POV in the novel. There are quite a number of times when Tate’s POV was tapped into and that could have been more productively utilized.

But the use of POV, in general, was another thing that I had difficulty aligning with an author of Andrew’s caliber. There were a number of scenes where the POV kept jumping from major to minor to major characters and I did not understand why that was necessary. If an alternate POV was absolutely necessary for a scene, it could have been broken down and presented in separate sections or reflected by the character in question on hindsight. The use of frequent POV-switching in these scenes, though were not haphazard enough to cause distractions or confuse the reader, created a sort of comic book effect – you know, where you have the dialogues in the speech bubbles followed by the fuzzy thought bubbles and then the off-panel comments about the actions? Like the narrator took the most advantage of his/her freedom to source the characters’ thoughts. I guess it was a technique Andrews used to speed up the plot and thankfully it did not injure the reading experience too much for me other than make me conscious of the flaw as a writer.

Recommendation: It was an enjoyable read. There were a few plot elements that reminded me of Welcome to Temptation (an absolute favorite re-read of mine) by Jennifer Crusie, such as the relationship between the sisters and the visit to a new location and video production crew, etc. so obviously I felt right at home with it. And it warms the heart as a straight cut contemporary romance novel. For another, it had great food culture and I have mentioned in a previous blog Books and Cravings They Inspire how much I love it when writers explore characters’ dietary dynamics. Personally, I’m looking forward to reading Andrew’s Homemade Sin.


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WRITING CHRONICLE #17: Nine Ways to Punish Your Protagonist

Via: Daily Prompt – Exposed



Image: Wikimedia

My life is perfect. Said no one ever. If they did, they’re lying. Human beings aren’t happy until they are bogged down by burdens and bellyaching about it something awful. Be it loud as a hungry cat or as passive-aggressive as my mother. [Hey! I love my mother but she gives me plenty of reasons to complain.]

See? We are never entirely happy and without troubles and flaws. This includes a writer with all expenses covered and the only task to accomplish is finish composing novels to publish and sell. So if the author’s life isn’t perfect, and the readers’ lives aren’t perfect, why should the hero and heroine have it easy?

No one wants to read about people who have it made. Stories are driven by characters and their challenges. Having too much sympathy for your heroes and heroines is equivalent to tying the proverbial noose around the shelf life of your book. You were too kind to your protagonist while writing? Well, get ready to have your readers write off your protagonist.

The solution? Make it hurt and make it count. In other words, make your characters believable and garner enough sympathy – even for that evil douchebag – to make them memorable. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find causes for their miseries – after all, we humans manage to complain about even the best of gift horses.

Easiest is making life difficult for the protagonist. Heroes and heroines tend to hold very deep-seated values, even the anti-heroes/heroines. Ego and integrity raise the stakes for them. Here are some great ways to drive that stake deep enough to leave your character with a gaping wound (by the way, gender-neutral usage of the terminology ‘hero’ henceforth):  Read the rest of this entry »


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WEDNESDAY REFLECTION #16: Mr. Church starring Eddie Murphy, Britt Robertson, and Natascha McElhone

Via: Daily Prompt – Roots

mr-church-posterTitle     Mr. Church

Starring     Eddie Murphy, Britt Robertson, and Natascha McElhone

Director     Bruce Beresford

Writer(s)    Susan McMartin

Genre     Comedy Drama

Release Date     September 16, 2016

Filming Location     Los Angeles, California, USA

Parental Guidance     PG-13 for thematic elements

IMDB Rating     7.7

Synopsis: In 1971, 10-year-old Charlie Brooks (Natalie Coughlin) wakes up one morning to find “a black man cooking in their kitchen”. Mr. Henry Joseph Church (Eddie Murphy) is the cook Richard, her mother Marie’s (Natascha McElhone) ex-lover, hired to take care of Marie for the next six months that she has to live while cancer consumes her. Charlie, who is unaware of her mother’s condition, is immediately put on edge by the absent Richard’s overstepping their privacy to place this mysterious man in their home though his meals are “like a party all the time” and her friends all cotton onto the advantages of having a cook quickly. Mr. Church raises a lot of conflicting emotions in Charlie with his jazz and his books (that he offers to lend books to Charlie from like a library) and, especially, his cooking. Over time, Charlie gives in. Six months turn into six years and Marie continues to live while Mr. Church continues to take care of them. An older Charlie (Britt Robertson) is now an avid reader, a student who has been accepted to Boston University but might not be able to go due to financial constraints, and she is weary of expecting her bed-ridden mother to pass on any minute. She avoids her mother even as she checks her breathing to ensure she lives and finds solace in the presence of Mr. Church, to whom she has latched onto as the surviving parent. But Mr. Church remains a mystery as much as ever and protects his off-duty hour whereabouts determinedly. Friendship has bonded the three into a family and Mr. Church is ever-present to soften the blows while Charlie ventures onto adulthood and navigates its many curveballs.

Experience (a few spoilers): I have always loved Eddie Murphy, ever since I watched a re-telecast of Coming to America on TV when I was about ten/eleven. So I put on Mr. Church fully expecting him to live up to his acting prowess and he did not disappoint. Generally a comic actor, Murphy put on his drama mask with the grace and appeal that made me want to run a Murphy Marathon featuring all his classics.

From the get-go, he had me hooked. The quiet efficiency with which he chopped and stirred and sauteed in the kitchen to his gracious compassion for the young Charlie and her sick mother. The character is beautifully written and presented, not needing to be thanked but doing his best to fit into the lives of this pair without trying to do any more than his job. But behind his humility lurks humor, which peeks out whenever he presents a dish to Charlie and watches her battle with herself to continue rejecting him while devouring his food.

Here, I must say something about the child actor. I truly enjoyed Coughlin’s performance as well. Short as her part was, she brought that sweetness to the character that made me feel more sympathetic towards young Charlie than annoyed, which could easily have happened given the level of her hostility. Though often rude with the openly belligerent rejection of Mr. Church, Charlie was apparently a kind soul in her heart, if wary. And even though the movie did not explore the angle that the advent of Mr. Church denoted her mother’s inability to keep up with chores, hence harking her imminent demise, I believe Charlie’s distrust may have stemmed from such intuition. In any case, every time Coughlin’s big blues rounded at the sumptuous food laid before her, I felt like giving her the auntie-cuddle.

The older Charlie did not always inspire as much hold though I could also like her fairly enough. It must be the overall sense of goodness that emanated from Charlie’s character, from childhood to adulthood. I could feel sympathy for her teen self as she transferred her sense of security to Mr. Church while trying to deal with her mother’s (a woman she continued to believe the most beautiful woman on earth) impending death. Her withdrawal is real and her acceptance of life’s pitfalls also feels real. Robertson does a good job performing the role of the watchful-yet-retiring teenager and later the transgressing-and-learning adult. She is the character that has to grow and Mr. Church is the rock on which she founds herself.

McElhone did a great job in playing a woman trying to make the most of her last days with her daughter. The mother’s love is apparent and there is a particular scene in the bathtub that she performed superbly. The scene could easily have turned sappy but Marie’s struggle to make her daughter understand the importance of not giving up on life while waiting for death felt chokingly real. She depicted physical weakness while trying to muster emotional strength as she confesses her biggest regret is something beyond her control. I think that is the scene that dotted her t’s and crossed her i’s for McElhone’s take on Marie’s role.

The overriding themes of this movie, home, acceptance, and friendship, is so beautifully slipped into the consciousness that even when tragedies strike, it’s ok – reassurance is just around the corner. It is as though the Mr. Church’s personality permeates the plot. It is one of those stories where nothing much happens other than life, and we are reminded every phase of the film that in life, tragedy is part and parcel of happiness. It allows the audience to realize that it’s not so bad. I cried many times through the movie but there was a joy. I felt peace. And the lovely way the scenes were scripted and directed, it did not allow any of the actors to overstep their roles. The steadiness with which the story progressed, I could have watched it for hours more. Again, it was as though Murphy’s portrayal of Mr. Church toned the entire movie, even the frames where he wasn’t present. And Robertson’s character did its best to compliment, reminding us that home is where you can trust to put your roots down.

Recommendation: Oh, yes, you must! Whenever you feel a bit down on luck, this movie is sure to make you feel more grounded. Although I really missed Murphy’s toothy grins, it might be my favorite movie of his now.



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