Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Fallen Embers Quiz, Part 1

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Characters of Size

I am a voracious reader. At times, I read four novels a week. Fantasy is always my first choice, and science fiction runs a close second, though I am a sucker for any well-written romance as well. I love paranormal romance (duh, right?), and historical, and I also love good spy books, and mysteries, and books packed with action, and stories with tormented characters. And warriors. Woo howdy.

One of the things that I love about all of these books is that they allow me to think about things I hadn’t thought of before, and think those things through. They allow me to venture into wilds I wouldn’t, or literally could not, dare, and then share the excitement, and the characters’ adventures.

They let me feel. In fact, they make me.

Sociologists will tell you that you can’t suspend emotion, and that means that when you watch TV, or read a book, you can't stop yourself from feeling emotions appropriate to the stimuli. Well, if you identify with the subject, that is. (Psst: that means that if I identify with the character, and get into the book, I'm going to feel everything she does.)

“I get you. I do. But, oh; romance is so trite!” I hear you saying, and you’re right. Or at least it sure can be. Formulaic is the technical term, and when you can predict every twist of the plot, any story has crossed the line into tiresome, and you're not likely to identify with anyone or anything within those pages.

In fact, one aspect of that triteness is precisely what I want to point out, and hope to convince other writers to cross off their formulas when they’re plotting out that next book.

Body size. Of women, in particular, but this applies to men as well.

So -- what does your main character look like?

If your main character is a size 3, with legs for miles, and a face so traditionally beautiful that every man she meets falls instantly in . . . er . . . “love” with her, she isn’t me. And do you know what? That means that I am instantly turned off. Distanced from her.

I can’t feel her, and in fact, I don’t want to.

I see you shaking your head. “Well, isn’t that the same as wanting to travel to exotic locales, and schmoose with royalty, and blah, blah, blah?”

No. It isn’t. I want to live vicariously through the character. I. Me. I want to do what she does, and to feel her. I want to bask in the sun on her face when she drives her Maserati, or have to catch my breath when her lover kisses her mouth.

And I can’t when she isn’t me.

Size fourteen is the average size that American women wear, and thirty percent of clothing sales go to the plus-sized women’s clothing market. (See, e.g., this). That means that most of us, the very, very vast majority, in fact, are not size 6. Or 8. Or 10 or even 12.

Here’s something else: I am sick and tired of manufactured, false, impossible (and ridiculous!) beauty ideals, ideas designed and propagated by perfume makers and clothing manufacturers and advertisers and a host of other corporate folks designed quite precisely to make women feel badly about not being what is physically impossible for them to be, and who will therefore buy more products that will presumably help make them feel less so. (See, e.g., About Face.)

But I digress (and trust me, I could go to town on this). Today, what I want writers of the various genres :I: read to understand is this: I am sick and tired of stick-figure heroines. They’re too pervasive, and too something I cannot, and frankly don’t want to, be, and even if I did, no matter how hard I try, I can’t make myself like (as in "alike" and as in "appreciate") them. And so while I might read a book once, once I discover who’s in there, if she is someone who isn't like me, I promise I won’t read it again.

If you’re biting your nails, desperately thinking up reasons why It Isn’t Going To Work, I will say, in the spirit of honesty, that not everyone will like it. That is true. But hey – that’s the case no matter what, and since most women aren’t physical caricatures, I’m betting that you’ll reach a far greater market segment by casting women whom readers can imagine themselves as cast in the starring roles.

Take my books, for example. All contain a normal-sized woman. One who has to wriggle to fit in airplane seats. And she meets an amazing man who falls in love with her. Oh – and she frees slaves and saves a country. 

And I have gotten nothing but accolades for casting her. And heartfelt thanks.

Want your books talked about, shared, and kept to be read again and again, and passed to daughters to read while Mom looks on with a hidden smile? 

Well, this might just be something to think about.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Anger, Grief and the Characters Who Feel It

I just finished a book in which every page teased out the ramifications of just one event: the protagonist had recently lost a loved one and – yawn – blamed themselves for that person’s death, which subjected them, of course, to heart-wrenching angst, which then – yawn – created a rift between them and other loved ones, and of course with their potential romantic partner. And so on. Yawn, yawn, yawn.

Yes. The entire book was that predictable, as was the oh-so-foreseeable reconciliation process and ending. But while we could legitimately choose any part of that tired plot to bemoan, I only really took issue with one: the employment, and misuse, of grief.
Writers commonly use grief as a tool.

Fiction writers commonly use grief as a catalyst, a motivational tool, or both for their characters. Grief is powerful, and we all feel it during our lives, and so its use is fine as a way to reach your audience, but if you’re a writer who is truly considering using grief, please also consider how often it’s used, and in what ways, or else I guarantee that you’ll turn off the majority of readers to such a degree that they’ll likely pick another book to read.

We all know the stages of grief, and if you don’t, personally, then google it. I’m not going to give you a grief primer here when a plethora of psychologists have written what’s bound to be a far better explanation. What I do want to crack into is one of those stages, anger, because it’s often one of the few action stages in the grieving process (which makes it an ideal impetus for any character, main or not), and understanding, and then employing, that subsection of grieving can provide your novel with a level of authenticity that far exceeds that found in the vast majority of novels today.

The anger that is found within grief is comprised of four elements: the subject (the griever), the emotion/s and the energy it creates, and the object (what was lost). As should be obvious, people can grieve over the loss of anything, from loved ones to possessions to dreams and ideas, and anything – anything! – to which they have formed an attachment, no matter how small.

What should also be obvious is that I mentioned four elements, but listed three. Thus, the final, and arguably most important, element is this: responsibility.

In other words: whose fault is it?

Note – and I mean you need to completely understand this part – in real life, this is often completely irrational, at least for a time, though irrational blaming can certainly persist. More commonly, however, is that the subject shifts blame from one party (or, yes; it can also be an inanimate object) to another, and it is also common to blame several parties at once.

Avoid clichés in writing.
Let me just say this right out: Characters blaming themselves, solely, for any loss of anyone or anything is one of the most overused, trite, clichéd catalysts and motivators in literature today. If you cannot stop yourself from using it, please at least consider spicing it up, perhaps by using self-blame in conjunction with the blame of someone, or something, else.

Well, who does get blamed?

God. The doctor. The sister who didn’t move quickly enough. The friend who didn’t call back. Maybe all of them.

Note – and this is important – that identifying the object/s of the person’s blame is crucial to understanding how your characters work, intellectually as well as emotionally, which leads to a more authentic narration of their lives, and interactions (although you may or may not want your reader to know the real truth, at least at first).

Hey – different levels of disclosure work for different characters, and that disclosure can serve a variety of purposes. Who cares about discovering the source of a flat character’s sorrow? Maybe instead use it to ingrain them into their role, such as a habitual complainer who seems to blame everyone else for all that happens, which means of course he blames himself; or conversely the quiet, sorrowful soul who keeps to herself, but kills her targets with deliberate indifference, and she can do it so coldly because she hates God for ripping her children/spouse/sister/kitty away. And so on.

Back to main characters. Maybe their loss was long ago, and you want your readers to know why this character is so bitter. Maybe it seems, to a casual looker, that they blamed the world, and its cruelties, but really, deep down, they blame their sister, and that makes things complicated for them because that sister is the one who died ten years ago. (See Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” for a great example of a griever’s anger at the deceased. This is powerful, powerful, stuff, sister and brother writers, and hasn’t been too overused so far. And think: just how will you reconcile it?)

And sometimes, and this is complicated (but in a good way from a writer’s perspective), we blame time for softening our grief, because when pictures and pain soften, it feels like a betrayal of our lost loved one. And that is another loss, a new one, and we often blame the original parties again, in a renewed way.

Let me say one final thing. Well, one series of related things anyway.

Grief does not – not ever ever ever – resolve itself in one, no matter how heart-wrenching, sitting. It doesn’t matter how much the listener loves the griever. And no matter how much the griever reveals, no matter how cathartic it feels to reveal their pain, one revelationary sitting does not end the grief. Do not insult me, and anyone who has grieved, by suggesting otherwise. If you do, I promise to throw your book in the trash.

Remember: grieving takes time.
Grieving takes time. Emotions cycle. There might be periods of calm, and grievers might seem to be improving, outwardly, but grief is one of the most powerful, longstanding emotional processes. It lasts years. Decades. A lifetime. It recurs, though a little differently each time.

The short version is this: If you use grief in your writing, make it believable. If you haven’t grieved, or have but didn’t actually pay attention to what was going on, research it before you write about it.

And do you know what? The truth is that the more you know about grief, the less complicated your own grieving will be, and you’ll be a better friend to others who grieve. Side bennies.

In that book I mentioned, wouldn’t it have been provocative – profoundly interesting – if the main character, instead of blaming herself for her loved one’s death, had blamed the school principal?