Sunday, January 15, 2017

Foiled Again

Have you ever noticed a pair of characters so alike in so many ways and so opposite in others?  I'm quite sure you have.  Any English major can tell you these pairs of characters are called foils of each other.  Foils are incredibly useful in characterization.  Look at Tom Riddle [a young Voldemort] vs. Harry Potter.  They have so much in common.  They're both orphans with black hair, incredible gifts, and a tendency to work outside the rules.  They both attract the particular attention of Dumbledore.  The list goes on and on.  What makes them different?  Their choices.  Tom chooses to embrace the darkness while Harry rejects it on every side.  These similarities and differences give Rowling the chance to enhance the reader's understanding of both characters.  We see the path Harry could have taken had he embraced the darkness that lurks inside and watch as he, instead, chooses a different path.

If your tastes are more toward the literary fiction, you'll see even more foils than in genre fiction.  Look, for instance at "Pride and Prejudice."  Darcy and Lizzy are clear foils of each other.  They at first can't stand each other because of their character differences.  Yet at the same time, they both personify the traits of pride of their position and prejudice of the other class.  They only want to speak if others will be impressed with their words.  They both have rebellious streaks against overbearing mother figures.  In some ways, they could not be more different, yet at the same time, they couldn't be more similar.  Their differences and similarities highlight the same in the other.

Let's look at fairy tales for a moment.  You may think that Snow White couldn't be more different from her evil step mother because the princess is pure, innocent, and kind, while the step-mother is vain and murderous.  This just means you haven't looked past Disney's version.  If you look carefully at the Grimms brothers' rendition of the story, Snow White's own vanity mirrors her step-mother's.  Her vain step-mother is only able to entrap her because she's drawn to ribbons, laces, corsets, combs, and the like.  The queen wants to kill Snow White, yet the story ends only after Snow White and her prince have the evil queen dance herself to death.  These two female characters are so different in so many ways, yet they are so similar at their core.

No matter what your genre or themes, the power, meaning, and literary strength of your story can be enhanced through careful attention to foils.  If your villain is all dark and hero is all light, both are boring and fall flat.  However, if your hero is noble and heroic but for his attraction to the dark, and your villain is angry and vindictive but drawn to the light in spite of himself, they both start to get more interesting.  Just look at Kylo Ren and Rey from Star Wars Episode 7.  He's angry and dark but drawn by the light inside.  She joined the light but yet is often tempted by rebellious, angry, or selfish impulses.  Neither is perfectly one or the other, and their similarities and differences weave them together and highlight the reader's understanding of both.  Look through natural pairs of characters in your writings.  How can you enhance your own characterization through the use of foils?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Pixar vs. Old School Disney

I remember seeing and enjoying "Aristocats."  I tried to see it again, and it couldn't keep my attention for long.  So I ask myself what is the difference between fun, though shallow, romps of that era like "Aristocats" or "Jungle Book" vs. Pixar/Disney offerings now.

The secret seems to be in the hero's journey.  I've mentioned this multiple times, but it seems most of the best adventure yarns of any depth and meaning in the modern day focus on it.  Pixar, which runs Disney's animation division, openly uses the hero's journey as its formula for writing.  There's no question that just about everything from "Star Wars" to "Harry Potter" to "Star Trek" and "Pirates of the Carribean" follow the formula as well.  A hero of any species starts in their home base and refuses the call to adventure.  Eventually, he/she/it heeds that call and descends into the underworld to face opponents with the help of allies.  After several trials and loss, often of his/her father figure, he/she faces the primary adversary to become the master of both worlds.

There's much more to the hero's journey.  It was conceptualized by Joseph Cambell, who was invited to the set of "Star Wars: New Hope," so Lucas could make sure they got the story right.  Obviously, any Disney movie before the widespread study of Cambell's work and its adoption in modern Disney wouldn't have these keys to good storytelling.  The movies from earlier dates seem to be based on a vague plot with a lot of madcap moments and songs to keep kids entertained.  I don't think it's overstating things to say that there has been a cultural revolution with the hero's journey at its heart.  If you want to write an adventure story and don't know the intricacies of the hero's journey, I highly recommend you google it now.  I have no doubt you're following pieces of it without knowing it because it has become so ingrained in the culture.  But as you become self-aware, your writing will improve.

Monday, December 26, 2016

You Gotta Have Heart

I've noticed something about the movies I've watched recently.  Some of them work for me, and some of them don't.  I wondered why.  I tried to guess, but it dawned on me what the movies that don't work for me lack: heart.  We more or less enjoyed "Secret Life of Pets" in theaters because it was a good romp.  But upon further reflection, I realized the characters were fairly simple and unrelatable.  The beginning looked promising, but the rest lacked heart and meaning.  I didn't care about what was happening that much because of the lack.

"Moana" and "Finding Dory," however, were full of heart and meaning.  I cared about the characters from the beginning, so what they went through and their voyage meant a lot more to me.  I saw a clear motivation for everything they did, and it made human sense.  The characters cared about each other, so I cared about them.

I guess, for me, the clearest back to back comparison is the two newest "Star Wars" episodes.  "Force Awakens" seems to me to be full of heart.  I love the humor and chemistry between the characters as well as their clear motivations.  It's a joy to watch.  Meanwhile, "Rogue One" has some good characters and a clear plot, but it seems to lack that heart.  I found it hard to care about most of the characters because they didn't seem to care much about each other.  Some of the individual pairs of characters have chemistry and heart, but all together, there is little to no heart.  The magic that worked so well with "Force Awakens" is lacking for me.  Some people really like it because of a compelling storyline.  For me, that's not as important as caring.  

Authors who sit down to write a screenplay, story, novel, or whatever need to make sure audiences and readers care about their characters, that they are invested in the heart of the story, or nothing else matters.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Doing the Exercise

Last blog, I talked about an exercise, one in which you come up with the most useless super powers you can imagine then figure out a way to make them useful.  Over the last week, my kids and I brainstormed different ways to use this idea in an actual story.

We've come up with the hint of an idea that needs to be fleshed out: a superhero team of nerdy outcast kids with all but useless powers who find a way to fight off danger with their amazingly useless skills.  What about a kid who can sense and manipulate guacamole and only guacamole?  This would seem useless, especially since he can't stand avocados.  Except one day, a guacamole monster comes to town.  Say there's a kid who can hear what animals think but can't say anything back?  This would seem fairly useless unless there's a danger coming to town that all animals sense but people cannot.  How about the kid who can teleport only an inch?  This may become useful if he's trying to get through glass, pass laser beams, and generally break through very thin boundaries.  What happens when the picked-on crowd becomes awesome?  That could make for a really interesting story.  If you didn't try this two weeks ago, try it now.  If you did brainstorm, take your brainstorms and turn them into a story.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

A Writing Exercise

My boy came up with a delightful little writing exercise with which we had quite a lot of fun yesterday.  It would be particularly useful for genre fiction writers, say those interested in science fiction, fantasy, or superheroes, but it could also be used just to get the creative juices flowing.

1. Come up with the most useless power you can imagine.  Here are some of the examples we came up with: detect all guacamole within ten feet [and you can't look for it why?];  compel all hippos within a twenty-foot radius to do the Macarena [they could still attack, after they're done dancing]; transform actual goldfish into a cracker [soggy cracker]; ability to transform everything you touch into rats [that could then bite you]; telekinesis on small items usable by touch only [and you can't pick it up because ..?]; power to emit a mooing sound whenever you rub your hands together [say what?]; ability to tickle your own toes [scientists have done studies that show tickling is a social behavior, and you can only tickle someone else]; the ability to see halfway through a wall [so what about the other half?];  gift of telepathy, only useful on arachnids [you'd learn what from the mind of a spider?]; the ability to put food in your mouth without opening it [and that's so much easier than actually opening your mouth?]; ability to teleport one inch [really?]; ability to make chickens explode into glitter.  You get the idea.  We spent close to an hour coming up with these ideas, laughing the whole time.

2 Create a scenario in which this useless power is actually useful.  Say you are blind and have an enemy whose weakness is guacamole.  Then it may be useful to detect it.  Or let's pretend you need to pass through a field of killer hippos in order to steal a diamond.  If you can get them to dance the entire Macarena, you'd be able to slip through that field and get to the jewels without dying.  Imagine you are starving, and all you have on hand are goldfish.  You can take them out of the water and turn them into goldfish crackers.  Perhaps you have a lot of snakes and can't afford food for them.  Turning items into rats could really come in handy.  And so on.

3.  Write the story.  Expand on your exercise.  It could end up just being a writing exercise, but then again, you may be able to spin this into a children's story, short story, novel, etc.  Have fun!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Writing what You Know

It's been said that one should write what they know.  But if we only write what we know, how do we write anything but blogs, memoirs, and biographies?  How do we write that story that's trying to battle its way out of our soul and onto the page?

The easy answer, which may not be so easy in execution, is know more.  You may think, well, I know my life.  I can write about me.  But even that can get complicated.  That's where I started with the novel I'm still working on close to two years later.  About two years ago, I pondered the books I had recently read, the sub-par, poorly written books I had just read and thought, "I can do better than that.  What do I know?  I know what it is to be an overweight Mormon woman living in the Logan area who is dealing with loss.  How about I write about that?"  But I didn't want to write about me.  I wanted to write about some other overweight Mormon woman living in Logan dealing with loss.

So how could I write about this other woman?  I had to plan.  I had to decide who she was apart from me.  If I were to try to make her entirely me, I'd have such a hard time pulling us apart that the character would get mushy.  I'd assume everyone understood what I was writing because I understood.  I had to sit and figure out who she was, what her voice sounded like (if not mine then whose?)  I had to plan her relationships, her friendships, her past, her present, a bit about her future.  I had to come up with a story and research the pieces of that story I didn't know from memory.  I had to know more than just what it is to be me.  I had to know what it is to be her.  But what it is to be me informs my writing of what it is to be her.  And like I said, two years later, I'm still working out the kinks, figuring out what works and what doesn't about what I've written, so I can write her story believably and in an interesting way.

I could have put her in a fantasy or sci fi or western or any other genre.  I could have started with what I knew about fairy tales.  But I have tried my hand at much of that, and it has come out sounding cliched.  If you can start with what you know in one of these genres without becoming yet another in a long line of poor writers, good for you.  But I tried, and it didn't work for me. My me-as-a-fantasy-character stories fell flat because they had no meaning, no depth.  Maybe I'll go back one day.  But for now, it suits me to stay in the present with someone enough like me that I know her but not so much like me that knowing her, you understand my life.

Once I'm done knowing her story, I can  use that as a jumping off point to know more about other people, other lives.  Meanwhile, my knowledge base is growing.  As I research and explore more areas, I can write about more.  And all of this helps me become a better writer.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Names in Writing

In the best literature, names are meaningful.  Harry Potter character names are very well researched and profound.  Here is a link to what J.K. Rowling, herself, says about the names and what they mean.  According to the site, Harry Potter's name seems ordinary, but yet Harry is the name of kings.  The name of his nemesis, Draco Malfoy, means Dragon of bad faith.  Remus Lupin's name was based on the Roman myth of one of a set of twins raised by a wolf, last name a derivative of wolf.  The list goes on.  Other writers often use similarly symbolic and meaningful names.  Jane Eyre's name has multiple connotations, of plainness, of air spirits, of being an heir to a fortune.  Rochester's name means rocky crags, indicative of his hard and harsh manners.  Her favorite teacher is Ms. Temple, with obvious meanings.  Her best friend, Ms. Burns burns with a fever.  St. John, one of those who try to court her, is as self-righteous as his name may suggest.  Several other authors add significance through their naming, to varying degrees.  It may be something you want to consider.

Another thing to remember when choosing what to call the characters is that whatever the narrative calls the characters should be consistent.  To switch around from title to first name to last name can be very confusing.  It's almost as confusing to  use similar-sounding names.  If two to three of the main characters have the same first initial, the reader will start to get confused.  These are all things to consider as you name and title your characters.