Sunday, February 11, 2018

Bad Guys with Depth

I've been writing about how to make any piece more literary.  Serious consideration ought to be given to the source of conflict, the antagonist, the monster, the bad guy, whatever it may be.  In nearly every piece, giving consideration to one's antagonist is just as important as to the protagonist.  I've read books and seen movies in which the antagonist is shallow, evil without subtlety, an easy straw man, or some other character  that is a one-dimensional character.  These are the stereotypical villains who are obviously evil.  These obvious villains undercut and trivialize your protagonist.  If your hero doesn't have a worthy and intriguing enemy, your hero, too, starts to fall flat. 

To figure out how to make a worthy enemy, carefully observe examples of such enemies.  Magneto from the X-men series is not literary, yet he exemplifies the villain who is more than just a man in black with a mustache and a maniacal laugh.  He sees himself as a hero, as someone worthy of emulation.  He sees the human race as the obstacle to world peace and, therefore, wants to eradicate it.  In his mind, he's the good guy.  He's flawed, but then, so are the heroes.  He's like Captain Nemo in Jules Vernes's novels, who seeks vengeance for what he deems justifiable reasons.  Such antagonists are not simply evil. 



In stories like Gregory Maguire's Wicked, the supposed villain actually becomes the protagonist.  As we get to know the witch Elphaba more, we see she never set out to be any kind of a villain but was portrayed as such by her society.  She was forced into the role of the villain, a role she never sought.  The Wizard, then, becomes the antagonist, and he doesn't view himself as a villain either but as someone doing good for society who is willing to destroy anything that stands in the way of his quest. 



The antagonist doesn't even have to be human or even humanoid to be complicated.  Moby Dick from the self-titled work is the antagonist of that piece.  He's a whale fighting for survival.  He's not a villain at all.  Captain Ahab can be seen as a villain, but he's on the side of the protagonist.  That work stands the test of time simply because it's not about simple bad guys and good guys. 

What makes the conflict in your piece work?  Who or what is the antagonist?  What is his/her/its motivation?  What makes your antagonist more than just a simple, shallow villain?  Spend as much time considering this character as you do the hero.  Are they foils, meaning opposites who have much in common?  If they are both equally complex, how does your villain highlight traits in your hero? 

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Colorful Writing


Color can be a meaningful tool when it comes to writing in a literary fashion.  All that takes is hinting to the reader how to read that color and then remaining hyper conscious of that color as a pattern.  A red shirt can be red just because you, as the author, likes red.  But this is a failure to use the tools available to you.  Color can be made to shape a message with which you can signal meaning to the reader. 


Colors can be used in obvious ways. In the common symbolism, red suggests anger, blue sadness, yellow cowardice, white innocence, and so on.  They often play into stereotypes.    Bad guys wear black, while good guys wear white.  However, shows like Star Wars plays with that.  Luke shows up in white when he's an innocent but then appears in black when he's a master, kind of like a black belt or a priest.  The good guys and bad guys wear black.  A close study of color in those movies can provide a rich bounty of meaning, little of which relates to conventional coloring systems.  You, as the writer, don't have to rely on accepted symbolism, either.  Think of the use of red in "Sixth Sense."  Every time an element of the supernatural shows up, red plays a heavy part in the scene.  Red has nothing to do with anger, evil, or anything known.  M. Night Shyamalan has created his own color system, as can you. 

Someone who is alert can catch onto that symbolism and catch more than they may otherwise do.  Wizard of Oz, both movie and book, rely heavily on color to instill meaning.  In his article "Color and Its Uses," Mike Nagle talks about the symbolism.  The good witch, Glinda, is described in colors of red, white, and blue to tie her to the American flag and to show her as a positive force.  Different countries and peoples are associated with different colors as Dorothy travels through a rainbow from yellow to green to blue. Yellow is associated with hope and optimism since that's what she's felling when she follows the yellow brick road.  The greens of the Emerald City in the movie seem to be associated with false power, illusion, money, and greed.  He creates his own color code and makes its meanings clear throughout the story. 

Decide if you want to use a conventional coloring system.  If not, what do you want your colors to mean?  What patterns of meaning can you weave throughout your story?  This is probably best built up in later drafts as you revise. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Coming of Age


I've been writing about how to make any piece of writing more literary.  Many books and movies deal with the idea of the coming of age, when a youth goes from being a child from being an adult.  The technical term for this is a Bildungsroman.  Think, for instance, of Mark Twain's Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer, the Harry Potter series, the Taran Wanderer series, Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, Lewis's Narnia series, the Star Wars movies, and so many more.  This is a moment of transition, one in which a child learns to be an adult, so it makes for a literarily powerful moment. 

A Bildungsroman allows the writer to deal with many emotionally weighty themes with which the reader can identify.  Tom Sawyer deals with themes of death and rebirth, irresponsibility vs. responsibility, selfishness vs. heroism, and others.  Jane Eyre shows the protagonist dealing with trauma and abuse, love vs. ethics and morality, and others.  To make your Bildungsroman more than just a mundane and meaningless story, it ought to feature important themes such as love, loss, loneliness, anger, depression, trauma, and the like. Think through the broad themes that make up the meaning behind your story. 


There are other things to consider as you embark on writing a Bildungsroman. There must be room for transformation; furthermore, there must also be an actual transformation.  Your main character must actually change.  What are the traits with which your character will start that will need to be changed?  What will the signs of that maturity be?  For instance, Harry Potter starts out socially awkward and introverted.  He must grow into the role of a confident leader in order to be able to do and be what is required by the end of the novel.  The story should show how that transformation takes place, step by step.  He can't go to sleep socially awkward and awake a leader.  Nor can he start the story perfect, or you have a Mary Sue that is likely to bore the reader.  The author has to guide the character (and, thereby, the reader) through growth, so the character is round instead of flat.  How does your character change? 

It often helps to keep literary pattern in mind when you're writing a Bildungsroman.  One of the most popular is Joseph Campbell's hero's journey.  Your hero starts in a normal world, goes into the underworld, faces dangers with the help of allies, then emerges the master of both worlds.  If this is something that interests you, I highly recommend looking it up via the link above or Google.  It's a fascinating topic.  Many modern novels and movies are based on this pattern such as any given Pixar movie.  The hero's journey can help with plotting since it's ideally suited for a Bildungsroman. 

It's not enough to just tell a coming of age story.  They have to be carefully planned in terms of growth, plotting, characterization, and themes.  What makes your story special and meaningful?  You can do this. 


Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Appeal of the Everyman



I've been writing about how to make your writing more literary, regardless of your genre.  One character that has eternal appeal is the everyman.  The everyman traces its origins to a medieval morality play, but it has been used throughout the history of literature.  The everyman is basically a regular guy, and there is an incredible appeal to a regular guy with whom we can relate.


Yes, we all love Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Thor, Iron Man, and all the other specimens of perfection we could name.  They all run in circles we couldn't dream about, doing deeds that make our fantasies run wild, just as the Roman, Greek, Egyptian, Norse, and other pantheons did for their respective cultures.  But we don't really identify with them.  They're almost too perfect.  Batman and Iron Man are rich beyond our wildest dreams.  Super Man, Wonder Woman, and Thor are gods or close enough.  They're maybe just a little too perfect for us to imagine living next door to them, much less being them.


We all love an everyman.  When Spider-man came along, he was a novelty.  His alter ego, Peter Parker, wasn't super rich.  He was a teenager who could get zits.  He was the everyman.  And, as a result, he has become one of the most popular characters in the super pantheon.  Captain Kirk from the original "Star Trek," young Luke Skywalker from the Star Wars movies, and Star Lord from "Guardians of the Galaxy" all have this regular guy appeal of the everyman.  We can identify with them because they're not perfect.  They make mistakes.  They don't have god-like power, though Luke acquires it as he goes along, and Star Lord temporarily exhibits some in movie two.  An everyman helps us truly see a story from their point of view because we can see ourselves doing what they're doing.  We see some part of ourselves in them.  Some critics may argue that Rey from the latest Star Wars movies is a bit too perfect, a bit too much of a Mary Sue to be an everyman (everywoman), but others find her very identifiable in an everyman way.


Everymen are everywhere throughout literature.  Harry Potter is a clear case of an everyman.  When he starts the series, he has no idea he has powers and blunders more than he acts heroically.  The same is true of Percy Jackson.  Jane Eyre is very much an everywoman.  She's not rich.  She's not strong or beautiful, but she comes out with a happily ever after, anyway.  Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird is nothing special.  He's a hardworking, not particularly rich lawyer who only excels in his integrity.  Mark Twayne's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn both have nothing to recommend them beyond their humanity.  Neither is strong or rich or perfect in any way, but that is part of what makes them charming.  We can see ourselves doing what these everymen/women do because they are us.  They take us from where we are and show us that we can be more than we are now.

Look through your stories.  Identify your everymen.  If you can't find any, think of where you may insert one in order to help your reader identify more with your characters.  Make sure your character has human drives, flaws, and strengths, to bring more meaning into your works.


Sunday, December 17, 2017

Writing Children's Literature


I've been writing about how to make any piece more literary.  Children's books can be shallow and trivial, but they can also be literary and profound.  A lot has been written on how to write children's books.  I've been making a particular study of this since I have been working on a children's book series.  There are some really specific things you can do to make your children's books more meaningful. 

I've made mention of a League of Utah Writers conference I attended recently.  In it, Christy Monson pointed out that if you want to write great children's literature, the best thing would be to find those award-winning, literary pieces and figure out how they do it.  She pointed out most good children's literature is built on a try-fail three cycle structure.  The character should solve his/her own problems without the help of an adult or outsider.  First, you introduce the characters and the problem.  Those characters should be quirky and flawed.  As the main character struggles with the problem, they try to overcome it three times then have some kind of revelation that allows them to prevail in the final climax.  There should be an aw moment or a plot twist.  Monson highly recommends an outline to help you know what's coming.  To get a feel for what works, though, the most important thing is to know the genre.  Read what you want to write. 


If you want to write picture books, study picture books.  If you want to write chapter books, read those.  Research your genre both in terms of the books and in terms of what experts say about writing them. Read the books that really make a splash, that kids really want to read.  Writer Jennifer Jensen says, "The most successful [children's books] let kids laugh, cheer or cry over characters doing things they can imagine.  You can develop characters that stretch readers' imaginations, but if they're really off-beat, try leaving them in a familiar setting."  Children are like other readers.  They want to see themselves in what you write, but they also want to feel.  If your book doesn't make them feel, you may get published, but you won't make a difference in these children's lives. If your reader doesn't relate in some way, you've lost them another way. 

As Jensen says on her site, write in a way that is fast paced, interesting, lively, and simple.  Use a lot of dialogue to show characterization. Make those stories work for your particular audience based on your research. But don't get bogged down in the research.  For the first draft, just write.  Then, make sure you follow the rules.  And most of all, have fun.  If you're not having fun, neither is your reader.  Best of luck. 

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Emotional Symbols


I've been writing about making your pieces more literary.  Most recently, I've been focusing on talks from League of Utah Writers Fall Conference.  For this post, I'll look at advice by Angie Hodapp's suggestions of how to externalize an internal voyage.  Your main characters should make both, and this is one way to tie both together.  

A lot of novice writers make the mistake of simply explaining a character's emotions.  For instance, a beginning writer may write the following: "George was angry.  He could not stand what was happening to him."  This is very boring and doesn't make the reader feel anything.  The point behind writing is to make the reader feel.  Just telling everything fails on every side.  Meanwhile, a more experienced writer understands showing is much more effective as in the following: "George's face turned red, and he clenched his pencil until it snapped.  He stood up, threw his chair to the ground, and stomped out."  The reader is left in no doubt about the character's emotions.   



Hodapp goes one step further.  She proposes that you use an external symbol to show a character's internal journey.  For instance,  she gave the example of cancer patients passing around a candle.  They may show fear of its going out through their behavior and how carefully they shelter it to make sure it continues to burn.  That candle becomes a symbol of their mutual fear that their own lives can be blown out just that easily.  Or each character can react to the fire differently to show how they feel about it.  

She gave further examples.  Say you want to show your character's disdain for a high class open house.  She sips the tea, makes a face, and then spits it out or tosses the glass.  The glass externalizes her internal emotion.  Say you want to show a character's discomfort at staying at a friend's house.  She beats the lumpy pillow repeatedly.  The pillow becomes a symbol for how she feels inside.   



There are so many examples of this in literature.  For instance, in The Scarlet Letter, the red letter A starts out as a symbol of Hester Prynn's fellow pilgrim's condemnation of her action that gave her a baby out of wedlock.  It becomes a symbol of freedom for her, a symbol of liberation from their expectations.  The turtle in Grapes of Wrath that keeps trying to cross the road represents the internal and external dangers and frustrations the Joads endure.   Prospero's staff symbolizes his internal power, emotional, social, and mystical.  When he puts aside it and his book, he's showing his internal voyage back to the land of the mundane.  

Go back through your scenes.  Is there a really emotional moment that could be embodied and shown more vividly in a physical symbol?  

Monday, November 20, 2017

Setting the Stage


I've been writing about making your pieces more literary.  Most recently, I've been focusing on talks from League of Utah Writers Fall Conference.  For this post, I'll look at advice by Angie Hodapp, writer and literary agent of the Nelson Literary Agency, and McKelle George of Flux, a publishing company.  They both argue the importance of setting a stage that has powerful impact on your piece. 

George tells us that we should only give as much backstory as is "necessary to infor what is happening in the present emotional arc."  Basically, you should know everything about your character and their backstory but only present what the reader needs to know at a given moment.  There are few more boring ways to start a piece of writing than through pages of exposition before the reader even cares about your character or what is happening.  That is a surefire way to lose your reader.  The reader needs to know enough about the character and his/her world "to understand the stakes of the story."  You, as the writer, should know much more. 


Imagine if J.K. Rowling started Harry Potter with a dissertation on the Wizarding World THEN hopped in to explain what Harry was doing there.  Her books would not be the powerful force they are today because no one would have gotten past that wall.  The same is true of Jane Austen's novels, Poe's short stories, and just about anyone's poetry.  The setting and backstory seep into the story and permeate it but don't become so important that the character gets lost in the middle.  Character is always key in these works. 


Hodapp advises that the tone and how you describe the setting are crucial for setting the reader up for your piece.  She says that the setting should "impinge on the character's senses" in every scene.  Show that setting's impact on your reader.  Help your really feel it with phrases like "Bob's hair plastered to his skull" (Hodapp) as opposed to "It was and stormy night."  She says that the author should make sure that the character should not ignore the setting, as if it were a character in every scene.  She adds, "The more present the setting, the more opportunity there is to prime the reader for the emotional experience" of your piece.  Make the experience of living in your world physical and present. 

In other words, make sure you have created a world that feels real.  Don't show off that you know everything about that world.  Simply include it as an emotional and breathing presence in the life of your character.  The same is true for their backstory.  Don't tell the reader every detail up front.  Make sure the reader experiences their backstory as part of the world, that the backstory informs and motivates what they do.  Go through something you've written and make sure that both setting and back story are present in a meaningful and powerful way without taking over in the for of exposition.  If you do this, your reader will do more than just read your book: he/she will experience it.