The Writing Process ~ Creating One-Dimensional Characters

 

Map-Monster

“Complicated rules to adjust behavior are a weak substitute for simple principles.”
Mary Wollstonecraft ~ A Vindication of the Rights of Women

One of my ten “persons” is currently reading the manuscript for the second Book of Rhino. He recently wrote me that (1) he is enjoying this book more than the first one and (2) Father Caril, the obvious villain, seems too one-dimensional. I was pleased by both comments. I am glad he is enjoying the book; I mean, that’s the point—he is one of the ten people for whom I write.

I was also pleased that he sees Father Caril as one-dimensional because that is how I wrote his character. In order to ensure that Father Caril walks in his own darkness, I could not make him complex. He is cunning, conniving, even complicated, but he is not complex. If he were, if he had any true knowledge of self, then he would not be a villain. In order for his character to behave the way he needs to, I had to keep Father Caril at the Mythic-Literal stage of faith.

(Note to self: I feel badly about this; no one should have to languish in the prison of their own fear and ignorance. But what can I do? Father Caril must come to enlightenment in his own time and on his own terms. I can’t force it on him.)

The funny thing about villains is the common perception that they are deepyboo. They’re not. They are one-dimensional creatures focused on one goal, usually involving their getting more power, money, sex, etc. than they need or deserve. They are not that difficult to create; all one needs to do is (a) decide what it is they want and (b) have them go for it. The great thing about their single-mindedness is that there are no ethical barriers to inhibit their behavior. If they make a stab at morality at all, it is always in their own self-interest.

I am reminded of what C. S. Lewis wrote about The Screwtape Letters. A reader once asked him why he did not write a sequel or a series of Screwtape books. He answered that it was too easy for him to think diabolically, and that disturbed him.

Another funny thing about villains is the common opinion among actors that they are more interesting to portray. I am going to have to think about that. Hmm…are there any interesting villains I have seen on stage, screen, or television? I can’t recall any right now. Perhaps they do exist, but I can think of any at the moment.

At any rate, I will be on the lookout for multi-dimensional, complex villains. My curiosity is aroused.

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Book Review ~ “The Lord of the Rings”

Millais-Reading

“The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling; they startle him because he is normal.”
G. K. Chesterton ~ Orthodoxy

The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien is on my list of five-star books. It was the first book I read in which the setting was as much of a character as the characters were. Before then, I had never read a book in which the setting was so meticulously crafted. The Lord of the Rings taught me two important lessons about writing: (1) Attend to details. (2) Keep the characters real.

In my opinion, the genius of Tolkien’s fantasy world is that it is peopled by recognizable characters—Chesterton’s “normal humans” who are startled by the extraordinary adventures in which they find themselves. Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, and the others all behave like regular Joes; people who think, feel, and act pretty much how I would in the same circumstances. (Although, I must confess to a strong temptation to having a “come-to-Jesus” talk with Sauron; he must be a lonely guy to act like such a jerk.)

For me, the dominant character trait of the book is volitional integrity. In all their adventures and mishaps, the main characters in LOTR try to do what is right; they all make an effort to behave themselves. Since I am a character-driven reader, I especially appreciate it when the main characters are decent sorts; it is my personal fantasy that this is how normal humans should be.

Of the three stories of character, the back stories stands out in LOTR, as evidenced not only in the appendix but in Tolkien’s companion book The Silmarillion. Even though little of the back stories make their way into the book, it helps keep the characters real.

W. Somerset Maugham wrote that a certain character in his book The Razor’s Edge was someone whom he would gladly travel with for six months, but with whom he would hesitate to spend a winter evening. I ask myself that when it comes to characters. Are they six-month people or winter-evening people? The characters in The Lord of the Rings are six-month people. If I ever have those kind of adventures, I would like to share it with them. On the other hand, I would not relish the idea of spending an evening with any of them; I mean, what would you talk about?

(Note to self: The exception would be Sauron—that boy needs someone to bust his chops, but in a nice way.)

What do you like or dislike about Tolkien’s fantasy? How do you rate it? Is it a six-month or a winter-evening book? I am curious to know.

The Writing Process: Architecture

Map-Heart

Ryan Lanz, who writes The Writer’s Path, recently posted a great article on plotting style. He writes:

The People Whisperer (20% Gardener/80% Architect)
This type of writer only is a Gardener when it comes to writing characters. This writer will detail out the plotline to its every detail yet leaves out the planning of the character arcs (development). Now, this doesn’t mean you don’t have any idea where the character will end up, per se, but you’ll give the character the room to grow into it. You could find the character will add a flavor you never imagined would come about. This is another option for some free play inside a preset structure.”

I love this. It so describes the type of writer I am when it comes to fiction. It feels good to be understood. Thank you, Mr. Lanz.

While I am not sure if the exact percentages apply to me, (having not gathered the necessary data), I am certain this nails my plotting style. Being a writing “architect” is what I love about writing because for me, writing is mostly about the journey, not the destination. My goal is to write, not to have written.

Every morning the first thing I do, as I sip my coffee, is to design my building—I am currently working on the third Book of Rhino. Like the first two books, this book is complex; that is, it integrates several concepts and themes, such as mathematical functions, beauty, aging, and self-actualization, as well as the primary themes of intellectual honesty, emotional maturity, and volitional integrity. I am also weaving in the parable of the sower.

Once I have the structure built and furnished, then I will turn my characters loose in it. I eagerly anticipate what they will do with the world I have created. Writing is such fun. Life is good.

 

Quote Challenge ~ “Authentic”

the_infinite_road

The Daily Post WOTD is Authentic.

In his book My Generation: Collected Nonfiction, William Styron discusses authenticity in writing. He recalls a discussion he had on the subject with Hannah Arendt.

“I told her that someday I hoped to write about Auschwitz—I had in mind, specifically, a Polish Catholic survivor of that camp, a young woman named Sophie, whom I had known in Brooklyn after the war—but I was troubled by how authentic my rendition might be. What did I know about midcentury Europe in its torment and self-immolation?

She scoffed lightly at this, countering with this question: What, before writing Nat Turner, had I known about slavery. An artist creates his own authenticity; what matters is imaginative conviction and boldness, a passion to invade alien territory and render an account of one’s discoveries.”

I felt relieved and heartened after reading this because I was having my own struggle with authenticity in writing The Book of Rhino. Rhino is set in the Middle Ages in England; if I used the actual language of the time, it would read like The Faerie Queen, and while the latter is a delightful poem, it is slow-going. Even a book like Ivanhoe is a little off-putting because of all its thees and thous.

So thank you, William Styron and Hannah Arendt, for encouraging my invasion into alien territory. What I have discovered makes the journey well worthwhile.

(Note: This is in response to a quote challenge to myself.)

Quote Challenge ~ Introduction

Map-Ancient

The Daily Press WOTD is Glimmer.

Denny, the ceaseless reader tagged me for a three-day quote challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed participating. People throughout the centuries have been thinking, saying, and writing quotables, (if that’s the word I want), and I love sharing them.

I decided to continue this challenge by once a week finding a quote that relates to the Daily Press Writing Prompt. It’s a good mental exercise and a way to share samples of great writing with others.

In order to make it a true challenge, I decided that I would only quote from books I have read or are currently reading; I would not search for a quote on the Internet. I also decided that if the quote did not contain the exact word-of-the-day, I would include a justification.

Now for the initial challenge. The WOTD is Glimmer. It just so happens that the word glimmer makes several appearances in a book I am currently reading—Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. I think the battle cry of Ulrica is fitting to quote.

Whet the bright steel,
Sons of the White Dragon!
Kindle the torch,
Daughter of Hengist!
The steel glimmers not for the carving of the banquet,

It is hard, broad, and sharply pointed;
The torch goeth not to the bridal chamber,
It steams and glitters blue with sulphur.

Whet the steel, the raven croaks!
Light the torch, Zernebock is yelling!
Whet the steel, sons of the Dragon!
Kindle the torch, daughter of Hengist!

So cried Ulrica, Saxon princess turned slave, as she brought down fire, death, and destruction upon the castle of her Norman captors. Poor woman! Hers is a sad and haunting tale, one best not told to children.

Note: Hengist is the Saxon leader who invaded Britain in the fifth century. The Saxons in Ivanhoe considered him the first Saxon king of England and honored his name. Sir Walter Scott implies that Zernebock is a Saxon god of death and the dead.

Quote Challenge: Day Two

Durango-Winter

The Daily Post WOTD is Frigid. It reminds me of Christina Rossetti’s poem “Winter: My Secret.” Here is the first stanza.

I tell my secret? No indeed, not I:
Perhaps some day, who knows?
But not  today; it froze, and blows, and snows,
And you’re too curious: fie!
You want to hear it? well:
Only, my secret’s mine, and I won’t tell.     

This poem is from her first volume of poetry Goblin Market and Other Poems published in 1862. It caught my attention when I first read it because it describes how I am with respect to telling my own secrets.

A tip o’ the hat to Denny who blogs at the ceaseless reader.

Sharpening Your Flaws

Corot-Girl Reader

Oh, those unintentional character flaws! How they distract me! They make me laugh when I should be crying. I weep in frustration.

To Flaw or Not to Flaw
Innocent writer: Why should my character have a flaw?
Experienced author: Because.
IW: Because why?
EA: To make her more interesting.
IW: My character is a man.
EA: See? Already she is flawed.

Once Flawed, Twice Shy
IW: Okay, I concede that my character must have a flaw. What kind of flaw?
EA: A character flaw.
IW: What kind of character flaw?
EA: One that will make your readers grab your character by the throat and throttle him.
IW: Her. But my readers, however much they desire to massage my character’s non-existent Adam’s apple, cannot do so literally. Won’t that frustrate them instead?
EA: No. They can do so literaturally, which means they will rewrite your story in the name of fan fiction.
IW: They can do that?
EA: Yes. Fan fiction covers a multitude of sins.

A Flaw in Hand is Worth Two in the Book.
IW: So my female character is a male which gives her an initial flaw out the gate. Should she have a second flaw?
EA: Yes.
IW: Such as…
EA: I wouldn’t be too fussed about it. Just keep writing, and one will no doubt crop up.
IW: Are you saying I should just leave a second character flaw to chance?
EA: Not entirely. If your book is serious fiction, I can almost guarantee a secondary character flaw that will have your readers in stitches.
IW: I thought you said they would throttle my character by the throat.
EA: Well, yes, but they will die laughing doing it.

 

Into the Woods

The following is a sequel to a story posted by The Ceaseless Reader. It’s titled Sick Day. I recommend you check out other posts from his blog.

The dim light of a gray dawn failed to elevate my mood as I locked my door then turned toward my car, and a sudden cloudburst doused what little cheer I had begun trying to muster.

As I exited the highway and turned onto the treacherous county road winding through the rocky hills on my final approach to work, I found myself once again bemused by how I’d arrived there.  The drive had become so routine that my mind disengages, and muscle memory takes over.

But when a sudden, stentorian ripping sound drew my eyes skyward as I approached the tunnel bored through Crummer’s Knob, and I saw an enormous, hairy arm begin to emerge from the slit in the torn clouds, I was instantly present.  Heart pounding and coated in a sheen of chill sweat, I entered the tunnel, pulled to the side, killed the ignition, and reached for my phone.  “B-Boss,”  I stammered, “I don’t think I’m gonna make it in today.”

My Sequel:

In my rearview mirror, I watched the arm crash to the ground. Silence. Then I heard a faint whimpering sound.

Oh, no, I thought, that giant arm has landed on someone. I have to check it out.

“Er, Boss, I might not make it in at all.” Like forever.

I eased out of the car and crept to the edge of the tunnel. The whimpering grew louder; it was coming from the direction of the arm. I looked around and MY CRIMINY! That arm was just an arm! I mean, that was all there was to it! No body attached to it! OH, MY OTHER CRIMINY! It was the arm that was crying!

Now I’m telling you, if you have never heard an arm cry, the sound is downright heartbreaking. I tiptoed closer until I was near the hand.

“Er, Mr. Arm,” I began; then I noticed the fingernails.

“Er, Ms. Arm,” I said, “are you alright?”

The hand started horribly at the sound of my voice and began to shake.

“Hey, hey, it’s okay,” I said. “I’m here to help.”

Oh boy, I thought, how do you help a disembodied arm? And a very large one at that!

 

On Intellectual Honesty

Waterhouse-Meadow

In the sun born over and over
I ran my heedless ways…
Nothing I cared in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Dylan Thomas ~ Fern Hill

 When does one know and know that one knows? When does one know that he or she does not know? The transition into knowledge is as mysterious to me as it is beautiful. One day a child runs her heedless ways, and the next she knows her ways were heedless. Like a universe observed, the heedless ways vanish once they are acknowledged. But they can be remembered.

All children deserve their heedless ways.
I recently realized why I did not finish Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel. I did not like the fact that he did not allow his character, Eugene Gant, to be heedless. From the moment of his birth, Eugene was born with a headful of heed. He knew. Who wants to give a child that kind of knowledge? What is he going to do with it? It was depressing. (The novel is considered to be autobiographical; if so, I pity Wolfe.)

All children deserve the lamb white days.
One of the reasons I love The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman is that he allows his character Lyra her share of lamb white days. She prowls around Oxford with her friends, playing games, making war, and telling tales. One of the themes of Pullman’s His Dark Materials is the transition into knowledge, but he honors the innocence that precedes it.

“All children deserve a strong name.” Bill Martin
The reason I chose the name Amalia for one of my characters is because it fits the name of Mole; Mole is Amalia’s childhood name. Mole is the evidence that Amalia was allowed to run her heedless ways before she makes the transition into knowledge. However, I wonder if I gave her enough heedless ways, enough lamb white days.

All children deserve the high hills.
The great thing about creating characters is you can give them wonderful things. I can write about Amalia between the lines. I can give her any number of high hills in which to prowl with her friends. I can allow her to run her heedless ways. It will be easy because I remember.

For me the high hills did not forever flee the childless land; they merely took a break. Now they are running around, playing games, making war, and telling tales. I just have to ask them to come in and sit with me a while. I can take their tall tales and spin them into stories about Amalia and Skandar and Rhino. It will be great because, once in while, even we adults deserve our heedless ways.