Posts Tagged Writing
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:
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.
MY TOO-PERFECT CHARACTER
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.
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]
WHY AVOID TOO-PERFECT CHARACTERS?
If the above examples of Mary Sue and Gary Stu do not convince, here’s how too-perfect protagonists may lead to bad fictions:
Too 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?
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.
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.
HOW TO AVOID WRITING TOO-PERFECT CHARACTERS?
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.
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?
Finally, 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!
Author Toolbox, AuthorToolboxBlogHop, Character Development, Creative Writing, daily post, Daily Prompt, flawed character, Plot, storytelling, too-perfect character, writer, Writing, writing fiction, writing tips
We’re almost at the finish line. A minute to go before it’s 2018 in Bangladesh while many of you have already welcomed in the new year and others are preparing for this evening’s celebrations.
So I thought I’d leave a final note for this year. It’s been good enough. Perhaps not as fast as I would have liked for my career as a novelist but I still wrote a lot more fiction and on the craft of writing fiction than I have in my entire adult life. I discovered a few good reads that I fell in love with and read a lot of things that I absolutely hated – but most importantly, each material provided me with some learning to improve my own fiction writing skills. Also, my blog took off and has now come into its own confident form.
Speaking of which, to work more on my novel writing, I will only be blogging once-a-week in 2018 unless something major prompts my quill to superfluity. I will be alternating the weeks between my WRITING CHRONICLES and WEDNESDAY REFLECTIONS posts – i.e. except for the third week of each month when I will be dedicating said week’s posts to my #AuthorToolboxBlogHop community.
So to all my readers and fellow bloggers,
A HAPPY NEW YEAR & EVEN HAPPIER READING!
So I have returned – my health rallied and my mind itching to get things moving. Though my doctor has informed me that I will need a second [precautionary] surgery to fully eliminate any danger, it will be some time before she again puts me under the scalpel – or scoop, in my case.
Anyway, I realized something about my author self in this past month of doing little more than lying in bed. I’m never more desirous to work on my novel as when I am experiencing a physical or scheduling constraint. It’s just as when I was slaving away like a house-elf for the corporate sovereigns. Then, too, I was desperate for the day when I would finally break free of my executive commitments and start writing the stories I am meant to write.
The day after my farewell at the office, I sat down at my laptop and wrote for nearly seven hours in one stretch. That first day, I had become unaware of any physical want that may draw me away from my creation; the consciousness of hunger, bladder pressure, or optical stress lay dormant before the high of being able to write without accountability to anything but the words adding pages to my manuscript. I ended up drafting the second half of my first [complete] novel in just over three months. Ecstasy!
That raw energy petered off all too quickly. Not that it bruised my ego at the time, as I fell back on the comfort of the new diversions that came my way. First, it was the online fiction writing course I did at the beginning of this year, which took eight weeks to complete. The exercise spurred me into writing a series of random flash fictions and short stories. By the time that was over, I was blogging on a daily basis. The challenge of responding to the WP Daily Prompt was so attractive and exhaustive that I allowed it to become an excuse to not begin editing my novel – after all, editing isn’t as much fun as drafting.
Then there was the Amazon writing contest, which at least got me to draft, edit, and publish my first [sellable] novella. A major milestone. And because I managed to accomplish the feat in less than a month, I felt motivated to dedicate more of my time and effort to writing fiction and consciously reduced blogging to twice a week. Sad to say, I didn’t devote myself to the endeavor nearly as much as I should have.
The shameful truth is I became lazy and complaisant. There’s plenty of time, I thought. After all, if I can produce and amend over 37,000 words for publication in less than 30 days, how long can it take to revise one 75,471-word draft? All I need to do is give two months to the task; maybe even less since the chief story was already written down. Pffft! Piece of cake! I got this!
And then this surgery. BOOM! Suddenly, my mind was flowing with scenes and prose, plots and characters for a new novel. Suddenly, I knew exactly which chapters I needed to slash from my first novel and what I should write to replace them in order to arrange the arcs of the story and characters into one cohesive piece. Yet, there I was, having to hold back the reins because I couldn’t even so much as sit up on my ass as type a page on my laptop.
Oh! How I writhed. I could take pills to allay the sting of my wound but there wasn’t any respite from the slow agony of the words blooming in my head, awaiting harvest. I was on edge with the heavy knowledge that these ideas could slip away just as quickly as they surfaced if I didn’t document them fast enough. This galvanizing commotion could quell at any moment. It made me irritable.
But, still, I misdirected the blame.
Arrogantly, I assumed that my problem was the inability to convert all this creative verve into anything productive. That it should return at such an inopportune time. If it weren’t for this stupid surgery, I could be listening to the symphonic clacking of the keys on my laptop, basking in the pride of writing fiction once more. The fault lay in my illness.
The fault did lay in my illness but the true nature of that illness dawned on me only when I went for a follow-up at the hospital. “Another surgery in a few months’ time.” No sooner did I realize that there will be another episode of lengthy convalescence in my near future when I wouldn’t be able to write that I finally came to term with the real threat. That I had been whiling away not-writing fiction for many months before the surgery took place. That before the advent of this renewed desperation to work on my novels, I had so easily settled into recuperative sluggishness because it was no different from the sedentary state I was already living. The recovery period is a mere month or so; what was I doing with my time when I was healthy?
I wasn’t having a mortality crisis but neither was six weeks a death sentence. Instead of grinding teeth over my temporary infirmity, I should be frowning upon my enduring wastefulness. Because despite my confidence in being able to write and publish a novella in under a month when I put myself to the task, the truth was that I wasn’t putting myself to the task. So I haven’t got this at all. I lacked industry, I lacked commitment.
Because speaking of that mortality crisis I wasn’t having, six weeks could have been a death sentence. It would have been a sorry end if I didn’t have at least one or six bestsellers to my name when the time came. And how mortifying when all those people who called me foolish for giving up a flourishing career to build castles in the cloud were proven correct. How would I even show my face to them then? Closed casket for me!
You know, we, writers, often take procrastination as part and parcel of the profession. We console ourselves with the idea that idleness does not really exist for us because we are always observing, formulating. A more stirring precept to hold fast to would be that we are slowly dying. There is just no time to waste.
Title Rules of Magic
Series Practical Magic #00
Author Alice Hoffman
Genre Historical Fiction | Magical Realism | Fantasy | Witches
Publisher Simon & Schuster
Publication Date October 10, 2017
Setting New York and Massachusetts in the 1960’s
Synopsis: The Owenses are one of the oldest witch families of the New World, their lineage dating back to Maria Owens, who fell in love and had an affair with a married man, John Hathorne, who in order to hide his sins, branded her a witch and tried her during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. A brokenhearted Maria, then already pregnant with Hathorne’s child, had cursed her own future family to caution them from ever falling in love – a curse that would bring ruin to anyone they fell in love with. For generations, witches of the Owens clan tried to escape the curse, leaving their family home in the little town of Massachusetts to find a “normal life”, as did Susanna Owens. But magic born of blood cannot be eschewed and so Susanna instituted rules to keep her children from discovering their magical heritage. Yet Franny, Jet, and Vincent always knew they were different and, like any other children, they broke all the rules. The eldest Franny was difficult but intelligent and inquisitive; she always thought the fact that birds flocking to her was a curious power to have, but being protective of her siblings, chose to turn a blind eye to her abilities. Jet was the beautiful kind mediator; she could read minds but chose not to reveal what she discovered out of respect for others’ privacy. Vincent, the first male to be born into the family, was heart-stopping handsome and possessed a gift for music; his charismatic ability to cast a lure on others was discovered soon after his birth when a mesmerized nurse had tried to steal him away and he was the first of the siblings to enjoy wielding his powers. However, by the summer Franny turned seventeen, all three Owens children had their turns in experimenting with their abilities. And though they were not aware of any elderly Aunt Isabelle, when Franny and her siblings were called to visit her to learn about magic, they were excited to go. Over the course of the following few months, the siblings come to learn about their family history and power as well as the privileges, responsibilities, and tribulations that come with it. And over the span of the next few decades, the siblings come to learn how everything they learned from Aunt Isabelle was absolutely true.
Experience: I had originally planned to do the review for this novel the Wednesday before Halloween. However, I had just finished reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South at the time and my head was still too full of Margaret and Thornton, so I put off reading Rules of Magic for a couple of days. Then it took me two weeks to finish reading this book – not because it was boring but because it was so languidly mystical.
Despite the topic of the novel, the central theme of the story was truly family and love. If one begins reading the book with expectations of bangs and pops, or potions and spells, one could sift through the entire plot without extracting more than a handful of notes. Rather the magic lay within the dedication Franny placed in ensuring her brother and sister were well taken care of, the undying love Jet possessed in her heart for a man born of the enemy to her bloodline, and the pursuit of self-worth that Vincent ventured upon even as he simultaneously accepted the magic in him while despising the fate his power portend. And through all this, each sibling must come to an understanding with the curse put on their love life and find the grounds upon which they build their own future – but not without plenty of encouragement and protection from each other. The life of magic is not for the faint of heart. The story demanded that it be read with heart and patience because patience is what each of the characters required most to endure all that entailed their inheritance.
The characters were so well developed that it was difficult for me to accept they were not real. It was as though Hoffman truly watched their lives unfold over the decades and were summarizing the events as she remembered them. There were little action or dialogue, the book having been written mostly in exposition, speaking more about how each character interpreted what their magic was and how their experiences with magic confirmed or refuted their original theories. And while this bode that I could not chase through the book in a hurry to reach the end – au contraire it rather slowed me down because there was no opportunity to skip a line lest I miss out on an important thought trail from one of the characters – the passages were by no means prosaic but rather lent the narrative a spiritual quality.
Having both read and seen Practical Magic, I felt Hoffman produced a historical account of the ancestors of Sally and Gillian, the protagonists of the original book. And in the process, quite dispelled the assumptions both the sisters of Practical Magic and I, as a reader, made about the aunts. Whereas in Practical Magic the aunts appeared rather matter-of-fact about their heritage and thought it pointless to shield their wards from the injustice magic rendered upon the family, both personal and social, here, we come to realize how much the aunts concealed about their own lives from Sally and Gillian. Once the girls became their charges, they set aside their past and allowed the girls’ happiness to become the central concern and were more than happy to let them live their lives and discover magic on their own terms without piling their own past fears, disappointments, losses, or even triumphs to overshadow the lives of their wards. While Rules of Magic may be faithfully read as a stand-alone and one need not have read or watched Practical Magic before venturing onto this book, reading Rules of Magic did give me a better understanding of the Frances and Jet in Practical Magic. I cannot help but respect the aunts in the original more for reading about the sisters in the prequel.
As for the “rules of magic”, Hoffman does share many of them – first as instructions and then with the exceptions tot he rules. We are allowed to experience the rules as the siblings (returning to Franny, Jet, and Vincent) successfully break them, come to accept them, and then learn to circumvent them, each playing a cat-and-mouse tango with fate in their turn. It was delicious to watch sisters and brother experiment with the unique power inherited by each as well as the general rules they found in their family grimoire – and even the forbidden texts meant to lead them astray of the course of “not to bring harm”.
Although, I must say few of the witches or wizards in this book cared much for that mother of all rules, harming others and self frequently enough to get out of binds. If anything, I think this was one place where Hoffman could have added a little – including some direct consequences of the magical manipulations the siblings and their aunts rendered would have brought on consistency to the rules. However, all we get to read about is a few blisters from telling uncomfortable lies. Yes, the siblings face their share of hardship but those seem to be unavoidable lessons of their inherent magic rather than the consequences of harms they cause others. Apart from this inconsistency, I think Hoffman wrote yet another masterful tale, weaving together an utterly believable myth.
Recommendation: It will be a bit of a slow read, I tell you, but if you’re into magic and if you’re into the power of family, this book is for you.
Via: Daily Prompt – Panacea
Naming characters is one of my favorite activities in the fiction writing process. There are so many beautiful names out there, entrenched in the regions from whence they originate, the time in which they were first derived, the meaning hoped the bearer would inculcate – as a storyteller, I feel as though we are blessed with the opportunity to use so many of them. Without having to really populate the earth with our progeny, of course.
But naming characters requires some thought. Once our story is published, we’re stuck with them, so choosing names should be done wisely. And it’s not only the main characters that require such deliberate consideration. Think Mr. Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’s Hard Times. Though not quite the minor character, he was no protagonist either; but his name was selected precisely for its phonetic traits, which were meant to be attributed to the role he plays in the plot. Mr. Gradgrind was a middle-class businessman and later MP, but more importantly, he was the head of an educational system that only ever dealt in facts and had no patience for the human frailties known as emotions. He ground the rules and morality into the students and he graded them on their ability to churn out factual statements. Anything more or less was unacceptable, even among his own children. The reason we cannot fully hate him, even though we are wary of his methods and can immediately sense the ominous results they portend, is because he genuinely believes his methods are there for the benefits of his charges. Such is the tragedy of the man Gradgrind and his name squarely sets that tone among Dickens’s audience from the very first paragraph of this iconic novel.
Now, I do not consider myself anywhere as accomplished as Dickens or Shakespeare in choosing character names but there are some great directions I rely on. I thought I’d share them with you this week:
Time Period. Not so much as the period in which the story is set, but rather when the character in question was born. Certain names come into vogue in certain eras and this is a good clue to keep in mind when putting the backstory together for the character.
Locality. Another important factor in making the character feel real is giving them a name popular in the region where they hail from. This obviously may be the place where they were born but another avenue one can take is naming the character after the place of their ancestors. One of the things I truly appreciate in the stories written by today’s authors is how diverse their characters are starting to emerge as, rightfully reflecting the globalized communities of our real-time world. If the author wishes to enhance on that, they can easily factor in the character’s ancestral region as source of their name.
Parents. To reflect upon the riddle from The Conjuring 2,
I am given and I am taken.
I was there at you first breath,
But you did not ask for me.
But I will follow you till your death.”
Our names are given to us by our parents/guardians. Therefore, our names are as much a reflection of who our parents/guardians are as who they hope for us to grow up to be. It is only later through the passage of life that our names begin to engender the traits that become us through our accomplishments or failures. Until then, our names are really the properties of our parent’s/guardian’s hopes and dreams. How is that for the name being an important part of the character backstory?
Genre. We can just as easily rely upon the fictional realm in which the characters exist. Depending on the theme of the story, we can name the characters to symbolize the story’s distinctive features, e.g. a whacked up title like Lord Voldemort for an evil wizard bent on being unique and reigning over magic and non-magic folks alike. Obviously, Adolf Hitler was taken.
Root Meanings. Or we may name the characters the way parents often name their children in real life – to attribute certain qualities upon the bearer of the name. I always found it curious that Emily Deschanel’s character Temperance from the popular TV series Bones should have been named thus by her outlawed parents. Perhaps they wished for her to have a more moderate lifestyle than they experienced. In any case, Temperance Brennen certainly did grow up to demonstrate restraint in all things emotional, which allows her to so objectively and pragmatically view the world around her. However, we can get more creative with this where, instead of simply picking qualities for names, we name characters after roots of the characteristics we hope for, e.g. naming a very pious woman “Lisa” (meaning Devoted to God). There are a great many websites dedicated to relating the roots and meanings of each name. I started off with behindthename.com but trendier sites have cropped up since.
Alliterative Names. I love alliterating when writing. I know it is almost taboo in the author craft management community (unless specifically used as humor, of course) but there you have it – it is one of my writing vices. But you know where alliteration is perfectly acceptable? Names. Daniel Deronda, Peter Parker, Severus Snape, Bugs Bunny, Steve Stifler… Regardless of genre or medium, history is full of famous fictional characters with alliterative initials for their names.
Pronunciation. Speaking of alliteration, it does make for some tongue-twisting prowess to make them roll off the tongue. A character’s name should ideally be easy to pronounce without needing an instruction manual from the author. However, sometimes authors like to throw us off on purpose to add mystery to the characters, e.g. in Jane Eyre, until the titular character tells her young student Adele her name and Adele repeats after her, who – other than people from old England – could have guessed Eyre to be pronounced “Aire”? I always thought it looked more like “ire” myself (but that might be due to my personal rather-abrasive feelings towards the author). Or the fact that my brother still protests, “What the hell kind of name is Her-my-oh-knee? It’s supposed to be Her-me-own!” Well, take it to the Greek. While Brontë and Rowling could get away with it, not all of we possess the genius to follow suit and survive.
Name Generators. If the above guidelines are of no help to finding you the perfect name, chuck ’em and just generate a name online such as with fantasynamegenerators.com. This particular website, really a cure-all for me, has a solution for all sorts of permutation-combination of names according to genre, region, pop culture, and whatnot. Also, sometimes it’s just fun to click around to see what the site spews up.
A FINAL WORD OF CAUTION
The idea of coming up with names for your characters is to make them sound realistic (unless you are deliberately aiming for exotic) that is in keeping with the theme and setting of the story. However, at the same time, one needs to cross-check that the characters’ names do not echo in the real world, i.e. to avoid at the best of one’s ability to have a real-life person come back and say you stole their name for your character. Remember: in fiction, murderers have no middle names. It is a trick of the trade to leave out the middle name to avoid accidentally matching your character names with real people. The good news is that while editing, you still have the opportunity to change the names of your characters as many times as you like – only also remember to change the name EVERYWHERE that it appears in the manuscript.
Once you have named your characters, for the sake of skillfully managing them, try to keep the names consistent, which is, there should be a standard name by which the character is addressed unless there is a certain sect within the story which addresses the character with a variant or pet name, as well as dissimilar to other characters, i.e. try avoiding too many characters with names starting with the same initials, similarly sounding names, or names that rhyme with one another, etc.
But most importantly, have fun naming names!
[Now, for a personal message: This will be my last WRITING CHRONICLE post for the month of November as well as what I am assuming the first-half of December. I will be posting a blog for WEDNESDAY REFLECTION this week too but after that I’ll be out of commission until somewhere mid-December or however long it will take to recuperate from the surgery I will be undergoing next week. Not to worry! At this moment, the doctor says it is a precautionary measure and we will know more once the post-surgery tests are completed. Wish me luck because I hear it’s going to hurt like @#$% once the local anesthesia wears off!]
author advice, character creation, character names, Creative Writing, daily post, Daily Prompt, fictional character, naming characters, novel writing, story, writers, Writing, writing fiction, writing tips
Via: Daily Prompt – Gratitude
Plot – one of the seven pillars (others being character, conflict, setting, theme, POV, and style) of fiction. Though harboring deceptively similar traits, it should be viewed as different from the story. However, when I first picked up the craft of fiction writing, I could not find the plot in my stories for the life of me. It was there, but I didn’t see what it was. How was it any different from the story itself? Until I came across the following pearls of wisdom from one of the most masterful storytellers of our history:
Let us define plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: ‘The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it…”
~ E. M. Forster
The above words of Forsters helped me put things in perspective and review my work, correct errors in my technique, and raise the value of the stories I was writing. Thankfully, not too late in my writing journey to inflict any irreparable damage to my style.
As the years wore on, I came across other educational literature, both online and within books, that helped me identify plots in stories written by others as well as formulate plots of my own. A safe bet for finding them is to look for changes that move circumstances in the story from point A to point B. Again, it requires looking for the causality that will achieve the desired resolution in the conflict introduced:
A tangible event that forces change upon the characters.
E.g. After the death of an all-knowing headmaster, a warrior-student is forced to set out on a journey with his best friends-cum-comrades to discover and destroy the objects that tether an evil wizard’s soul to Earth in order to overcome his reign once and for all. (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling)
A decision that changes a character’s circumstances.
E.g. A father decides to leave his post as a clergyman and removes his family to an industrial town where the daughter has to navigate the society of a new breed of working class and masters whose life force is the dignity earned through hard work, as well as butt heads with a proud but honest manufacturer whose heroics is not always apparent. (North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell)
Change in the relationship dynamics between characters.
E.g. A self-centered social princess who enjoys meddling in the lives of her peers out of a misguided perception that “she knows best” is only ever called out by her politically correct older step-brother but eventually realizes she enjoys his overbearing guidance and admires his integrity but is no longer confident that she is worthy of his attention. (Clueless by Amy Heckerling)
Internal change in a character.
E.g. A young woman prides herself on the accuracy of her study of characters of those around her, becomes prejudiced against an aristocratic man of natural proud bearings after being inadvertently slighted by him and hearing accusations of his misconduct against another man but eventually discovers that she allowed herself to be thoroughly misled and proceeds to witness his generosity towards those he cares for. (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)
Change in reader’s perspective of the situation.
E.g. A divorced woman, who makes multiple errors in judgment due to her incessant state of inebriation, is obsessed with her ex-husband’s budding new family and tries to recover her life but begins to piece together a sinister past through wild flashbacks that foreshadow that the guilt might not be hers alone. (The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins)
Character coming to the realization that there will not be any change at all.
E.g. A recluse author, under the pressure of trying to come up with a novel that will rival the success of his first, begins to write a female character who likes his dog and whom he starts to fall in love with, bringing her to life and later decides to allow her freedom of will, only to realize that once free, the character is no longer satisfied with her life with him alone, and feels morally compelled to set her free from his domain. (Ruby Sparks by Zoe Kazan)
Such classic plotlines are the fail-safes of writing fictions. Of course, one cannot simply rely on them to succeed. No, success is achieved by adding originality to these storylines in a way that lifts the characters off the pages – and that is entirely up to the author’s creativity. And even more complicated than deciding on the “causality” to induce the story arc is deciding how the plot will progress to make the story plausible.
So once you have decided how you will add the plot to your story, how do you move it forward? There are many methods of plotting you can use, and here are some approaches to get you started:
Traditional Approach – Ideal for planners, this is the method you use to first break down the entire story into chapters, then briefly summarize what happens in them as well as the contribution to the story arc that each makes.
Synopsis – Similar to the Traditional Method, the Synopsis is ideal for planners but who wish to allow themselves more creative room in writing individual scenes to build on the general plot as they progress. Here, the writer also outlines the entire story but without breaking it down chapter-by-chapter or scene-by-scene. The ending is often loosely introduced in the synopsis or may be left blank. The synopsis is a good practice for later if the author wishes to gain representation in traditional publishing.
Freytag’s Pyramid – Though the 5-act dramatic structure was almost abandoned in the mid-nineteenth century, German playwright Gustav Freytag not only brought it back into use but streamlined this outlining method by choicely breaking down the course of plot into Exposition (background information on the major elements introduced in the fiction), Rising Action (introduction and build-up of the conflict), Climax (turning point where conflict is at its most volatile), Falling Action (where conflict unravels and the final suspense/doubts are exposed), and Denouement (where the story’s loose ends are drawn together).
Three-Act Structure – This simplifies the 5-act structure by diving the plot into three segments as the name suggests and putting specific elements in each, which is left up to the author to decide on. Most commonly, the three-act structure is broken down into the introduction plus rise of conflict, climax, and resolution. This structure is becoming more popular as it is often now advised to introduce the inciting incident in the novel as early (often even scene one) into the story as possible to capture the audience from the get-go.
Hero’s Journey – This method engenders the three-act structure by specifically dividing the plot to induce the character arc for the MC. In the first act, the hero receives but refuses a call to action, thus showing his/her reluctance to get involved; in the second act, a series of trials are forced upon the hero that may test his/her physical prowess as well as intelligence, emotional, and ethical quotient; and, in the final act, the hero triumphs over the antagonist.
The Snowflake Method – Introduced by Randy Ingermanson, this method does not attempt to systematically outline the plot but rather starts with writing a one-sentence summary or loglines that defines and entices the storyline, then picks out specific elements in the story such as characters, conflicts, epiphanies, goals, etc., lists them out by rote, and adds details to them which will mechanize plot progress. This method is ideal for people who prefer discovering their way through the plot as much as the reader.
Draft Zero – Finally, the food of the pantsers and who think plots should remain mysteries until they are well on their way through the first draft [for creative freedom, of course]. The writer focuses on speed as they write a mock draft, allowing plenty of gaps in scenes to be filled in later. The writer courses through the story too quickly to allow for anything such as fatigue or “editing impulses” to set them back or keep them from reaching completion.
Of course, authors are welcome to combine any of these methods to ensure optimal output from themselves. After completing the draft of my first novel and realizing how my plot was all over the place, making my MC’s character arc plausible but not achieved via the right course, I took to employing a combination of Traditional Method and Draft Zero – it saves me a lot of time later that would be otherwise spent filling in plot holes.
What are your plotting processes?
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.”
“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!
Via: Daily Prompt – Loyal
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.
Finally, 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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Title The Bad Luck Bride
Series The Cavensham Heiresses #01
Author Janna MacGregor
Genre Historical Romance | Regency Romance
Publisher St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date May 02, 2017
Setting England, 1812
Synopsis: Lady Claire Cavensham, the only child of the late Duke of Langham, is a veritable heiress and beauty. But that does not save her from being the subject of a cruel joke. The ton believes her to be cursed and the rumor is not wholly unwarranted. As a child, she was in a freak flood accident that resulted in the demise of her parents. To top that, she lost four fiancés in three years to death, disease, dismemberment, and debt, in that order. But on the night that her latest intended reneged on their engagement, one of England’s most sought-after bachelors Lord Alexander Hallworth, Marquess of Pembrooke, offered to rescue her by announcing their “spot” engagement – one to which she did not agree – to her family and a few stragglers at a ball. Claire finds Lord Pembrooke’s motives highly suspect but feels the pressure to accept his offer if she ever hopes to stamp the rumors of the curse and have a family of her own, which she so intensely desires. Her only condition is that their marriage is a faithful one. Alex readily agrees to her terms and raises it by telling her just how much he desires her. Only, Alex’s pursuit of Claire stems from his determination to ruin his former friend and Claire’s most recent ex Lord Paul for abandoning his younger sister after getting her with child, leading to her suicide. Alex spent the past year systematically driving Lord Paul to destitution by arranging unlimited credit for his high-stakes gaming and then paying for the debts, accepting all his properties as repayment. The final nail in the coffin is forcing Lord Paul to give up Lady Claire, thus relinquishing his potential hold on her inheritance and any means of recovering his possessions. Lord Paul’s only respite is to tell Alex that he has “had” Claire and when Alex discovers that Claire often purchases men’s apparel from the town’s top retailers, he begins to suspect that his new bride may be keeping a lover, despite her advocacy for loyalty. Too bad he is also ardently falling for her. Maybe she is cursed after all…
Experience (some spoilers): Janna MacGregor’s debut novel The Bad Luck Bride is not half bad. However, there was definitely room for improvement – namely, sounder editing. First, let’s discuss all the reasons that made this novel promising:
- An ominous beginning: The antagonist is the hero’s former best friend, a reprobate whose actions led to the hero’s sister’s suicide, and against whom the hero has sworn retribution. Also, the antagonist has protested that the hero jumped to conclusions by blaming him, so maybe he is not the cause of the sister’s demise?
- An edgy hero? The hero is deeply loyal to his family and feels no compunction in the manner with which he goes about exacting said revenge, including using the heroine as an instrument in a way that permanently ties an innocent to him. The secret is bound to get out and then where will they be?
- A heroine with a mysterious past and fraught with scandals: The heroine already comes with her share of problems, the most obvious of which is her streak of misfortunes with men. But she also suffers from PTSD from the event to which she lost her parents, which has led to some eccentricities and secretive behaviors that throw further shadow over her impending marriage with the hero.
- A failsafe for conflict resolution: Given that the hero is a generally considerate person (apart from his deceptive manner of procuring a bride), he is readily available to come to the heroine’s aid whenever she is in need, namely during storms and carriage rides which set off one of her traumatic episodes. Potential for them to bond as husband and wife. The heroine, having suffered her share of losses, is able to easily empathize with hero’s loss of the sister, thus becoming someone he may confide in. Additional foundation for build a relationship.
- A rescue marriage: without any prior courtship or even acquaintance portending an extended adjustment period in which we can only hope to see the characters gradually reveal each of their character traits to the other. Maybe heated disagreements with hotter makeup sex? Who knows?
The novel starts on an ominous note with the scent of death and duel in the winter air and proceeds to revenge and a rescue marriage, making for a promising plot. However, halfway in, the tension begins to dwindle, mostly because the narrative gives way to relating the daily events of the couple’s married life in a chronological fashion that was not truly necessary for the development of the story, wasting much of the word limit that could have been better utilized in other efforts. There are plenty of conflicts thrown early in the novel to make Alex and Claire’s marriage a challenging one and I was hoping for some tumultuous disagreements between the two that could have brought out their differences and individualities but these never came. For the most part, I felt there was a loss of focus from the main conflict, which is the secret Alex keeps of how he came to securing his marriage to Claire, and turns to the secondary conflict of his being misguided about her fealty to their marriage. Even then, the secondary conflict is not done full justice because, despite his mistrust, Alex is never exacting with Claire even though in the early stage of the novel, he is so hell-bent on ruining his former best friend, leading to some character inconsistencies. It made me wonder, is he a badass or not? He turned out to be more docile than initially expected. Which is why, when his secrets begin to unravel, we hit the apex suddenly. While in most cases that would make for a great plot twist, here it made the pacing uneven.
Claire, at the receiving end of his manipulation, seems to have got a good bargain out of the marriage. Alex is handsome, titled, wealthy, enterprising, of apparent good character, and loyal to those dependent on him. He seems to genuinely find her desirable despite the rumored curse and is always attentive to her needs. However, if theirs is to be a marriage of convenience (the only explanation for his sudden appearance with a proposal), his end of the convenience should seem entirely improbable to her. Sure, he claims an attraction towards her, but that cannot lead to an offer of marriage to the woman with the worst luck in fiancés and that too on the very first night that they are in company of each other – no matter how large his hero complex or how ready he is to settle down. And just how did he come to know about Lord Paul’s renege of their betrothal anyway? It perfectly warrants her reluctance to accept his offer or end their engagement when he inadvertently accuses her of hiding the extent of her relationship with Lord Paul or telling him to stay out of her bed until he is ready to believe her truthfulness. However, it does not make sense she always puts up her fences after the fact, i.e. informing him she lost her virginity to her first fiancé after the engagement is announced even though she had planned to be honest with him from the beginning in order to give him a choice, telling him she cannot consummate their marriage unless he believes Lord Paul was not her lover after they have already been in bed together, etc. While the motives behind her decisions were believable, the timings of her actions were not. Again, even though I found each plot mechanism employed perfectly plausible, they were executed with too much convenience for me to relate to.
The traits of every character, from principal to supporting, too felt very conveniently brought in and out of focus. I already explained some aspects of inconsistencies in the ways the characters of Alex and Claire were developed. When it came to the villain and Claire’s support system (her uncle’s – current Duke of Langham – family members), the same applied. For one, is Lord Paul meant to be a thorough scoundrel? The evidence surrounding his seduction and abandonment of Alex’s sister is suspicious and we are given hints that it might be a misunderstanding, but then we see him as a gambling addict and he turns out to be a true reprobate when he hurls slander at his intended’s virtue, and again he seems genuinely sorry for his missed opportunities with Claire that pertain to more than her lineage and inheritance – he likes her but also disparages her character to Alex. This is mirrored by the fact that Alex too is using Claire as an instrument of revenge but desires her and cares for her, yet engineers a bet in Lord Paul’s name at a gentlemen’s club that further sullies her reputation (frankly, a man actively contributing to risking his fiancé’s reputation is an irredeemable flaw). But we are meant to see one as a villain while the other is a hero. Yet, what was Alex doing with a potential reprobate like Lord Paul in the first place? For all purposes, Alex seems like a gentleman (other than betting against his betrothed or his mean streak when it comes to revenge) and a responsible member of the nobility whereas Lord Paul is a man with a gambling habit and a propensity to lie about the women in his lives. Yet, apparently they were once thick as thieves, which makes Lord Paul’s betrayal so painful – you know, apart from the resulting death of a sister. I felt that if Lord Paul was mistakenly accused, he could have been presented with qualities to truly redeem him and not just exonerate him – at least to reflect upon Alex as a hero (the companies you keep and all that).
To complement, Claire’s family members each concentrate on the wrong misgivings regarding Alex. Whereas, any reasonable person would wonder at his motive for swooping in with a proposal when Claire needed one most despite never having personally met her, everyone too easily gives in once they determine he is not after her inheritance. If I were the Duke Uncle, I would set the Pinkerton after him to find out exactly why he’s angling after my niece or what’s his connection to Lord Paul that he became privy to the decision to end the engagement at the same time as (or maybe even before) my niece – not agree to the marriage after one night of mulling over. While her aunt seems to be the only one worried that Claire is giving in to a marriage not based on love and romance, her cousin Emma (possible heroine for the next book in the series) is fixated on a rumor she heard that he might have a mistress even though the “overprotective” male cousins gave Alex’s reputation a clean bill. And what is up with Emma anyway? She does not make for a very promising heroine if she can so easily allow Lord Paul to flirt with her after Claire’s betrothal with the man is ended. I mean, where is the sisterly solidarity? It seemed that the novel introduced a lot of characters but did not explore any of them fully or, for that matter, rationally.
It all sounds very dire, doesn’t it? But I will still say that, for all intents and purposes, MacGregor shows a lot of promise as a novelist in her first novel. She had a good plot concept, the beginnings of interesting characters, scintillating conflicts, which all could have resulted in a fine debut. However, I think the tying up of the plot points and rounding off of the characters needed more finesse. For that, I would actually say her editors could have helped her more by providing some fresh perspective. I’m hoping with experience, her storytelling will become more cohesive because she definitely has the potential of becoming a good historical romance author.
Recommendation: Despite the various setbacks in the storytelling, this novel does not make a bad investment of time. What it suffered for inexperience made up for with imagination and, after everything is said and done, I found the read enjoyable. I will definitely read the next book in the series because I see the potential for more tightly written stories and see wish to see how that pans out.
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.
AGAIN, HOW ARE THEY NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE?
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.
HOW DO YOU PLEAD?
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?
author advice, Character Development, character-driven, Creative Writing, daily post, Daily Prompt, narrative structure, novel writing, Plot, plot-driven, storytelling, Writing, writing fiction, writing tips
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