In Good Company Part 3

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So…We’re here for the final part, the part where we look at heroes and anti-heroes. Yes, I know I’ve gone over the whole protagonist/antagonist thing, but it is exactly these terms (hero/anti-hero) that I want to dissect and talk about, so that’s what I’m using.

Now, before we go any further, I’d like you to go look at an article from waaaaay back in 2006. You’ll find it here. The article will give us a base to start this dialogue. Go ahead…It’s a short article…Ready?…Okay…

The gist of the article is: how can we tell the difference between an anti-hero and hero in these uncertain times, when heroes stand on crumbling pedestals and anti-heroes are hard pressed to be “anti-” anything when it’s hard to solidly define what’s right and wrong.

Not to poke holes in another person’s writing (especially when I sent you to it), but I feel that the article starts with a false premise: that in the early 2000’s we finally have reached the age of the anti-hero. We have anti-heroes throughout the history of writing. To give you some examples: Hercules, while a “hero”, was renowned for having a berserker rage, during which he killed his family, and had to perform his twelve labors to exonerate himself; and in the original Sleeping Beauty story it was labor pains that woke her from her sleep (some true love’s first kiss). Peter Pan was a child thief, taking Wendy because she didn’t want to grow up, herself an anti-character for fighting the established order of nature (not wanting to age). Sherlock Holmes, so popular in the mainstream now, was a heroin addict. Paladin, the main character from the series Have Gun-Will Travel. Almost all of John Wayne’s characters, and about half of Louis L’Amour’s. And more, all the way up to Jack Bauer of 24 and Dr. Gregory House of House MD, possibly the two characters responsible for the “age of the anti-hero” that got everyone up in arms about the whole thing.

Let’s take a look at Jack and Greg for a moment to try to piece together what made them anti-heroes. Jack is a family man, who gets taken from his home with his family by terrorists, who he then tracks for a day, and, ultimately, foils their plans. Along the way he does kill some people, though they were trying to kill him too; he does torture some people, though the terrorists did rape his wife and are planning to kill everyone in a city (or was it kill the president?). As the article I had you read stated being an anti-hero means you’re against something (anti-), so what is Jack anti-? Is he against terrorists? Yeah. Is he against the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people? Yeah. Is he against the rape of women (specifically his wife)? Yeah. Is he against people trying to kill him? Yeah. To be fair, the anti- in anti-hero means the character is against some established norm/laws/mores, but Jack is a character in a post 9/11 America, where the Patriot Act gave sweeping powers to law enforcement when it came to terrorists and their activities, making what Jack did legal if not exactly morally right. So, some people might take exception to the means and lengths Jack went to to accomplish his job, but I don’t know many.

Greg is another anti-hero to look at, a doctor, a man suffering from an injury that causes him constant pain, and someone addicted to pain killers as a result. Now, Gregory House is supposed to be an allegory of Sherlock Holmes, a drug addicted detective, but I think the character is much more than that. First off, his addiction comes from a genuine place (as opposed to being too smart), an injury that causes him pain. The fact that he became addicted to the drugs he needed to live his life is a statement on the pain-killer industry, and something that happens to hundreds of people a year. Also, he’s not just solving riddles of rich people who have been killed, or have missing jewels, he’s saving lives. Given Greg’s intellect, he could have been anything that could have kept his mind busy, but he chose to join a profession that saves lives. To be fair, he is more anti- than Jack, in so much that he hates all the rules he has to follow in order to do his job. In which case, he truly is an anti-hero for being anti-rules, but I think more in the case of Dr. Gregory House people are using the term anti-hero to mean asshole.

The point of the article I had you read is: it’s hard to pin down exactly what it means to be a hero. The point I’m trying to make, and maybe I’ve proven it, is that people enjoy complex characters; they prefer their heroes to get their hands dirty, or to have flaws. Not only does this give them depth (makes them believable), but makes them (I think) better examples than there pristine, “I’m-with-the-status-quo”, counterparts, the heroes. Because at the end of the day, it is the “heroes’” job to maintain the status quo, to make sure everything stays the same, or to, as quickly as possible, return things to “normal”. Which is fine if you’re in the top of the status quo, but something different if you’re not. From that point of view, the hero is actually the villain.

And thus, we come back to people like complex characters, and the terms hero and villain are too narrow and childish for many stories. So, the next time you start a story don’t think hero and villain, try to think of your main character as your protagonist and see how the story develops after that.

Until next time: be yourself, be well; write yourself, write well.

In Good Company Part 2

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I started this off (last post) by saying that I like villains. Then going on to say I like complex characters, and going on about making characters three dimensional.

Now I’d like to shine the spot light on the villains themselves.

There is an old saying: you can judge the character of a person by the quality of his enemies. While trying to find who said this, I came across several origins, from an Arabian proverb, to Oscar Wilde, to presidents who have all said this. With so much history behind the quote, you’d think most writers would pay more attention to it.

It’s always a shame when reading a good story to find that the villain has been added seemingly as an afterthought. As if the author was half way through the story before thinking about who the villain would be, waiting until they had to reveal them before looking at them. These paper doll villains are often caricatures of themselves, either easily beaten, often comically so, and are often just there to show how good/powerful the hero is.

This is a shame, because, done right, villains bring a whole story of their own with them. A story that, many times, parallels the hero’s story, and makes the villain a dark reflection of the hero. Yes, the villain’s presence shows us how good the hero is, but only because they are held up to the comparison of how bad the villain is.

You may be saying to yourself: That’s all well and good, but how do I make a good villain?

I’m so glad you asked, and I would like you to keep this in mind. This is a quote from John Barth that several of the people in my writing group liked to toss about. “Everyone is necessarily the hero of his own life story.” To put it another way: everyone is the main character in their own heads. And to connect it all the way back to this post: the villain doesn’t see themselves as the villain, to them they are the hero.

Let me break it down for you (because quotes are all well and good, but advice is better). The villain should have their own reasons and motivations to be in the story than just, ‘I hate the hero’. Let’s do a for instance, (I love these).

For instance, in the story of Aladdin, the evil vizier is trying to find a mystic lamp to grant him power. Aladdin isn’t even the start of the story, he’s pulled in by the villain, and only after that do the two become at odds. It’s not even that the vizier hates Aladdin; it is only that Aladdin is in the way of the vizier’s ultimate goal. So, the vizier is in the story even before the hero, it is his motivations that begin the story, not Aladdin’s. To point out the dark reflection stuff: both characters are stuck in their positions due to society’s rules, though one seems happy with himself if not his position, while the other lusts for more. Both characters steal, but one does it to survive while the other does so to increase their own power. Both want the mystic lamp to elevate themselves, but one is humbled by the elevation while the other sees it as overdue.

That’s just one aspect of: the villain should have their own motivations for being in the story.

Remember though that the quote says we’re all the heroes in our own minds. So, let’s look at a story where the hero is the bad guy and the villain is the good guy. I am, of course, talking about the classic of eighties cinema, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. If you haven’t watched it, you should…Right now…I’ll wait.

All caught up? Did you love it? I bet you love it. Good. I love it too.

But Mr. Eden, sir. Ferris is the hero of the movie and Principal Rooney is clearly the villain.

To that I say: Really?!? Is that how it is?!? Okay.

Let us examine the two characters of Ferris Bueller and Principal Rooney. Let us go over what the characters do in the movie. One character: lies to his parents, ditches school, hacks the school’s computer and deletes files, he then convinces his friends to ditch school, steals a car, steals an expensive lunch (because you bet they couldn’t afford it, and just put it on the man’s expense account), and disrupts a parade (a heritage parade), commandeering it for his own adolescent ego. The other character is just trying to do his job, making sure a minor under his charge gets the education they are required by law to receive. Does he go a little overboard? Perhaps, but he keeps getting the shit kicked out of him by life through the whole movie; you’d break too I’m sure.

The beauty of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, of any good literature, is that the stories can be told from multiple character viewpoints. This can be done because each character has their own motivations for being there. In the Ferris Bueller example, we see Ferris as the hero and Rooney as the villain because it’s from Ferris’s point of view. We could easily have a movie from Rooney’s point of view where he’s the hero. (In fact, I believe that movie is called Election ironically starring Matthew Broderick as the Rooney character that time around.)

It is for this reason that I’m not a fan of the terms, ‘hero’ and ‘villain’.

But you said…

I know I said I like villains, and I’ve been using those terms through this whole post. As the Ferris Bueller example illustrates, as the quote that’s the meat in this essay sandwich states, the terms hero and villain can be tricky and complicated. Luckily there is a handy piece of literary jargon for just this situation. The terms are, ‘protagonist’ and ‘antagonist’.

If you’re a fan of my writing, you’ll know I don’t write your traditional “heroes”. For one thing, I have numerous stories from the point of view a villain/bad guy. For another thing, my “heroes” aren’t exactly the best people. That’s why I like the terms, ‘protagonist’ and ‘antagonist’. Protagonist means the person that the story follows, and antagonist means the person/thing that opposes the protagonist. I like these terms because the allow for the grayness, the muddied waters, that writing (and life) can get into. So, Ferris Bueller is the protagonist of the movie without necessarily being the hero, and Principal Rooney is the antagonist of the movie without actually being the villain.

I will leave you with that.

Remember: be yourself, be well; write yourself, write well.

In Good Company

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I like villains.

Everyone who knows me just let out a collective, and sarcastic, ‘nooooo’.

Let me explain. I like complex characters. I like characters with layers. Characters who, if you get to know them, would be nice/interesting/kind people, if it weren’t for that homicidal streak/drug problem/superiority complex/emotional distance.

You hear it all the time, so-and-so is a one-dimensional character; or, so-and-so is a Mary Sue/Gary Stue.

To clarify: one-dimensional characters are exactly what they look like and nothing more. Horror movies (mainly from the 1970’s through mid-1990’s) are loaded with one-dimensional characters: the jock, the nerd, the cool kid/popular one/rich one, the criminal, the emo/goth/psycho one, the airhead, the innocent one/virgin. A Mary Sue (for a female character)/Gary Stue (for a male character) is someone who’s just great. They’re smart, good looking, kind, athletic, in short, they’re good at everything including being a human being.

Here are the problems with one-dimensional characters. One, they’re unrelatable. I’m sure there are those of you out there who know a jock. You might be thinking: Why wouldn’t the jock I know relate to the jock character? Well, and here’s the second reason one-dimensional characters are bad, because people, real people, are more than one thing. That jock you know could also be a father, a loving husband, a klutz, have a great sense of humor, they could write poetry. That air-head could be a great and selfless friend, a good cook, have a wonderful singing voice. The third problem with one-dimensional characters is that by boiling characters/people down to one thing you make your audience care about them less. Why should I care if the jock dies in a horror movie? But if Billy, the boy dedicated to his girlfriend, who lives with his grandmother, who happens to be on the football team dies I would care more. For instance, who’s going to tell his grandmother, and who’s going to take care of her now?

Mary Sues and Gary Stues have the same problems, but for the opposite reason. Mary and Gary are just too much of everything. They’re unrelatable because no one can be that many things. When was the last time you met someone who was good at everything? And a great person? They’re unrelatable because your readers can’t see themselves rising to the occasion and stepping into their shoes. It’s also hard to care about these characters because it’s hard to put them in danger. That locked door? I’ll pick the lock. That file we need from the computer? I hacked it. The killer is almost on us. Them? I doubled back and tricked/trapped them, we’re good now. There’s no rising action and climax, for the audience, because they know that Mary/Gary will definitely get out of it. This also renders the other characters in the story obsolete, giving them the role baggage or witnesses, just there to slow down Mary/Gary or to see how great they are.

The thing to do then is give your characters depth. Sometimes this means giving them a flaw or two. Sometimes this means letting your audience get to know them. Sprinkle in information about them and their lives outside of the story in the story. Mostly this means giving them more personality.

A couple movies you could watch that take the ideas of stereotypical roles (the jock, the criminal, the nerd, the emo/goth/psycho chick, the airhead, the innocent) and turn them on their heads are The Breakfast Club and The Faculty. In one the stereotypes are thrown together in a detention scenario and throughout the day we learn more about them, giving them depth. In the other the horrific crisis that the group goes through forces them to change and adapt. Plus, both are fun movies.

Another thing you can do is people watch. When you see someone assign them the one-dimension (jock, nerd, airhead, etc.), and try to identify what about them made you pick that. Then give them a backstory. Give them depth. Why do they look sad? Did their favorite team just lose, or did they just go through a breakup? Of all the sports, why are they into water polo? Were they the star of their high school water polo team, or was their father/mother a famous water polo player and that’s how they feel close to them? Of all the teams, why are they into that one? Is it the hometown team, or is that the team their grandfather worked for as a groundskeeper for their entire life?

Put simply, the way to stop writing one-dimensional characters is, instead of asking ‘What are they?’ you ask ‘Who are they?’.

Remember: write yourself, write well; be yourself, be well.

Do You Hear What I Hear?

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2018 has been a year.

Technology has brought us together, torn us apart, and has revealed many things about people and society. Society has begrudgingly, with an almost Sisyphean effort, moved forward.

One of the wondrous (and sometimes horrifying) things about technology is that it gives a voice to everyone. From the president to the prepubescent youth, if you’ve got phone then you’re just a tweet away from having your voice heard around the world.

The voices don’t stop there. In what some are calling, the “golden age” of television, we have hundreds of channels giving us, literally, millions of options for shows to watch. Netflix alone has a breadth of variety from Jessica Jones, Diablero, The Protector, and a slew of others that promote diverse voices.

In film there are fifty-four independent film companies, and these are just the ones that have “major” releases in America. There are thousands of smaller companies that release films to little or no fanfare, but still their material, their voice, is out there.

Of course, in this discussion of voice availability we can’t forget YouTube. A platform that has singlehandedly changed the face of media in the world. To name a few productions that I like: Rooster Teeth, Crypt TV, and Unconditional Love Series.

For a beginning, or struggling, writer this can seem overwhelming/intimidating/hopeless. How can your voice be heard in the auditorium of the world when everyone is screaming?

In 2018, close to three million new books were published worldwide. Publishing is still a billion-dollar industry. Self-published books increased by thirty-eight percent. (The information is out there, you just have to look for it.)

The point being: There is still a need for stories. From small town hypocrisy manifest as a monster (It), to stories of discrimination and equality (The Sneetches), to finding a relationship filled with love and trust (Fifty Shades of Grey), the written word is still alive and well. Or at least as alive and well as we want it to be. The age of the tweet, the YouTube, and the DirectTV, people are still enraptured by a good story. Words can inspire, comfort, words can change the world.

Go out there and let your voice be heard.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language/And next year’s words await another voice.”

T.S. Eliot

Be yourself, be well. Write yourself, write well.

A Brief History of Literature

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Let’s talk about your literary history. What books make up the foundation of your writing?

This is one of my favorite exercises from my studies in writing. It makes us look back so we can move forward. (Philosophical, huh?)

Here’s mine:

My literary history starts with Dr. Seuss and Stephen King. These are the stories I remember from my childhood.

I have the fondest memories of Dr. Seuss books. The art is simple enough that, as a kid, I thought I could draw like that. The stories were short, holding my young attention span. The words are like an amusement park for my mouth. They are the first stories that I remember having fun listening to and reading. I’ve taken them with me my entire life, even into my education and writing. It was my education, learning to look at stories critically, that opened my eyes on just how deep Dr. Seuss stories are. Despite the easy art style and the ridiculous rhyming, the Seuss stories are mainly theme based, and quite hefty themes at that. Who can forget his story based on discrimination and racial equality? The Sneetches. What about the one about personal responsibility? The Cat in the Hat. And the one about fear of the unknown? There’s a Wocket in my Pocket (my favorite). Dr. Seuss taught me that it’s fun to read, and that stories are a powerful medium for communicating.

This next part is not a joke. My mother read Stephen King to me and my sister as bedtime stories. I was ten or twelve, my sister seven or nine. We would snuggle up close to mom in bed, dad would be out plowing the roads on midnight-turn, and she would read Thinner and The Tommyknockers to us. My sister would be asleep within a page or two, but I would listen to mom’s voice until she would inevitably drift off with the book in her hands. These are some of the best memories I have of my mother. When I started reading novels myself I started with Stephen King; I think to have something to talk about with her. However, Stephen King has stuck with me, and I still read his work today. One of the take-aways, the biggest I think, I got from Stephen King is that protagonists don’t have to be “good guys.” In Thinner the protagonist is a victim of a gypsy curse, and through the book we sympathize with him, but he’s hardly a good guy. He was driving the car that killed the gypsy’s wife, and when he gets the cure for the curse he feeds it to his wife. This is all without mentioning he’s a lawyer. In Tommyknockers the protagonist is just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He doesn’t even really care about the town, he just cares that his best friend has been taken over by aliens. In The Dark Tower Series Roland the gunslinger is the protagonist, but he’s hardly a moral compass. True, he’s better than the Man in Black, or the Red King, but he lets a kid fall to his death rather than save him, and his backstory shows numerous times he’s sacrificed friends for his quest (which even he doesn’t know what it truly is). I know this doesn’t come off as shocking or revelatory in the age of the anti-hero, but when I came across this in my teens it had an impact.

The last thing that makes up the foundation of my literary history is a quote from an interview. (And yes, I can’t remember who said it. I even spent an hour Googling derivations of the quote and several authors, but I couldn’t find it.) The gist of the quote is this: no one wants to read a story where everything goes right; it’s not interesting. The quote is a response to a question about why the author puts his characters through so much trouble and pain. For anyone who has read the work I have out there you’ll know that I beat the crap out of my characters both physically and emotionally. When I sit down with a story, one of the first things I do is figure out if a character is going to live at the end. If the answer is yes then I figure out how much damage I can inflict on them and still have it believable that they’re alive on the last page. Again, for those of you who have read my work, you’ll know that making it to the last page alive takes its own toll on the characters.

So, that’s my foundation. This is my foundation, because despite what else may change about my writing, or my views on story, I can’t seem to shake these three things. 1) Above all stories should be fun to read, with a deeper meaning if you’re so inclined to look. 2) Protagonist doesn’t mean good guy. 3) Things are not going to be easy.

The point of the exercise is to look at your writing and figure out what’s consistently there and why it is. Once you’ve identified the consistencies and where they come from, once you’re aware of you, you can start actively using these things in your stories. The things shift from happenstance to tools.

Until next time: Be yourself, be well. Write yourself, write well.

Nature vs. Nurture

Let’s talk about writing.

Let’s talk about writing via math.

I’ve substitute taught to support myself. There have been more than several times that I’ve been shoved into a math classroom. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard a student say: “I’m no good at math.” This statement usually a prelude to them giving up completely on the assignment I’ve just handed them. As if them not automatically knowing how to add fractions means they’ll never be able to do it.

Not surprisingly, I’ve heard people say: “I’m no good at writing.” Again, as a preamble to not writing. There are also people out there, perhaps some of you that visit this blog, that have tried their hand at writing, saw that it wasn’t good and stopped writing. To this I have to say…

What the hell are you doing? Don’t stop writing.

None of us come out of the womb as a Beethoven or a Shakespeare. Why would we want to be them anyway? Beethoven was deaf and died a pauper, and Shakespeare is only well known because his is the only writing we have available from the time period.

Obviously, I’m being sarcastic.

My point is this: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? PRACTICE.

Writing, like everything in the world, is a skill. It takes time and effort to get good at it. Yes, there are people out there that are naturally talented when it comes to writing, or anything, but even they are required to practice and edit. Frankly, I’m glad I wasn’t naturally talented at writing. I like seeing my writing improve with the effort I put into it. There are many ways to practice. While I was in an MFA program one of the professors actually said, “You could lock yourself in a room and write for three years and be better at writing at the end of the three years.” I liked the MFA program because it exposed me to dozens of points of view and writing styles that helped me refine my writing, but it isn’t the only way to get those perspectives. The internet is a great resource, with many writing groups, both digital and face to face, to be found.

Here’s the takeaway: Just because you write one bad story doesn’t mean you should stop writing. The next story you write will be a little bit better, and the next a little better, and the one after that better still. Until, one day, you’re a good writer.

Until next time: Be yourself, be well. Write yourself, write well.

Resolving to be Resolute

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It’s that time of year again. The beginning!

I’m sure there have been many a resolution made. About your writing. About your health. About your personal life.

I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions. I believe that if people want to change they will, they don’t need to wait for a new year to begin. You can make yourself new anytime you want by committing to change. Studies agree with me. Several have been done, and something like 85% of New Year’s resolutions are forgotten/abandoned by mid-February, if not sooner.

So, if you’ve made resolutions about your writing, I’m sorry. Some of you are probably already struggling to keep up with the changes to routine/style/genre. It can be rough. It will continue to be rough. And I’m sorry for that. Seriously.

I’ve been in the same boat. When I graduated college (the first time), I said I was a writer. I’d taken classes. I’d gotten a degree. I had the verbiage: I am a writer. I also had bills: I had to eat; I had to have a place to live; I needed a job to get money to pay for that, and I needed a car to get to the job, and car insurance on top of that.

Life getting in the way of life.

I wrote when I could, but most days I was tired, or happy to have some time to myself. Writing became a footnote in my life.

Then, I met my wife—she wasn’t my wife at the time, we were just dating. I told her I was a writer, that it was my passion, and showed her some of my work. She liked it, thought it was good. I was happy to share my work. But…

Life got in the way of life, and, to be honest, I was out of the habit of writing so there was more than a little slacking off.

Decisions were made, and something miraculous and horrifying happened. My wife (still a girlfriend) and I moved in together. Every day when she got home she’d ask me what I’d done, expecting to hear about my writing. But…Life and slacking.

After a couple months she did something that I sorely needed. She yelled at me. She asked me why I wasn’t writing. She accused me of not being a writer, and said if I wanted to be a writer then I needed to FUCKING write.

I was hurt at first. Having her yell at me from, what I felt was, out of the blue was a tad scary. What hurt the most, and was eye opening, was that she was right.

Writers write, and if I wanted to be a writer then I needed to write. It was a dose of tough love, but I needed it.

So, with that in mind…

All you aspiring writers out there! FUCKING WRITE!

I want you to write. I love hearing stories, and I want to hear yours. If no one else does, at the very least I do.

I’ve said this before (and I’ll probably say it again), only you can tell your story the way you can tell it. So, tell it! If you want to write, you have to write. No one else is going to do it for you. And why would you want someone else to write your story?

This has been your dose of tough love.

Until next time: Be yourself, be well. Write yourself, write well

Ghosts of NaNoWriMo Past

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Hey!

So, for those of you that follow the blog, all the way back in November of 2016 I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo. The project has since taken on a life of its own. You can find the story and the Introduction explain more over there. ====================================================>

The Ides of NaNoWriMo

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Oh, holy hell! Has it been a year already?

Hey, all!

So, we’re back in November. Right, smack in the middle of National Novel Writing Month. It’s that time of year, just this one month, that dedicated to writing a novel.

It may be evident already, but I’m not participating in NaNoWriMo this year. Let me tell you, last year’s project is still kicking my ass. Based on my wife’s editing so far, I may have to take out an entire character. (Sigh.) On top of that, I’m in the middle of a project anyway. And there’s life.

We’re not here to talk about me though. I want to talk about you. NaNoWriMo is for you. It’s for the people who need that extra push, or that initial excuse, to write a novel. If having an entire month dedicated to it isn’t enough then…

Come on! What are you waiting for?

Believe you me, it’s not going to get easier to write a novel. It may get harder though. Life keeps going, work keeps going, the world won’t stop turning. You honestly just have to sit down and do it. The people out there that love this sort of thing have given you a perfect excuse to do it. Try it for a month and if don’t like it, return it for a money back guarantee.

I’ll let you in on a secret, you might not like it. It might be that’s what’s stopping you. You’re afraid to tell your friends and family, ‘I’m writing a novel for NaNoWriMo.’ You’re afraid, because what if you don’t like it? What if you don’t get close to finishing? What will you say if/when the ask how it’s going?

Here’s your permission, and if anyone says anything to you about it you send them to me: You don’t have to like it. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to finish. It’s okay. Not everyone can be writers. Just like not everyone can be surgeons, or electricians, or welders. Maybe you’re not a writer.

The thing is though, you’ll never know if you don’t try. So, if you’ve been thinking about writing a novel, if you’ve felt like you’ve got a novel inside you, then you owe it to yourself to try.

That’s all anyone can ask of you.

Until next time: Try to be yourself. Try to be well. Try to

Ventriloquism, Learn to Throw Your Voice. Fool Your Friends. Fun at Parties

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Howdy! Howdy! Howdy!

I like ventriloquism. This probably stems from growing up with the Muppet Show and a steady diet of Sesame Street. There are numerous, talented, ventriloquist out there, but the one I’m going to reference is Jeff Dunham. He should be easy for you to find (he’s very popular now). (If you get a chance look for Nina Conte too.)

Jeff Dunham is popular (go ahead and google him, take a look at his act), but the main reason I want to talk about him, is because during his act he has multiple puppets (“friends”) that he brings on stage. There’s Walter, the old man; Bubba Jay, the hillbilly; Peanut, the weirdo; and Jose Jalapeno on a stick, the pepper on a stick. Mr. Dunham is popular because he’s good at throwing his voice and because he has so many interesting and funny characters. You’d be hard pressed to confuse Walter with Bubba Jay, or Peanut with Jose. At some point in the act, he even has Peanut and Jose out together. It’s very fun to watch.

Now, you might be saying: I thought this was a writing blog, why are you talking about ventriloquists? (You might also be thinking: I hate when he writes like it’s his readers talking to him. That is a different subject for a different post.)

The reason I’m bring up ventriloquists is because I’d like to continue the discussion on character. Specifically, I’d like to talk about character voice.

The best analog I can find for writing a character and finding its voice is ventriloquism. Think about it. We all know it’s the ventriloquist making the puppet move, making the puppet talk, all the dialogue is the ventriloquist’s. The point is though, at some point, and this might only be for an instant, we forget that and accept the puppet as a separate character.

It’s the same for writing. We know it’s the writer making the character do things. We know it’s the writer making the character say things. All the dialogue is the writer’s. The art, the magic, of storytelling is making the characters feel real.

To make the characters feel real we have to keep in mind three questions. 1) How does your character talk? Do they take the ‘g’ off the end of ‘-ing’ words? Making ‘making’ into ‘makin’? Or changing ‘changing’ into ‘changin’? Do they st-st-stutt-tt-tter? Do they not use contractions? The point: Can we identify the character by what they say? 2) How does your character think? This can be an extension of talk, especially in first person stories when readers can get the character’s thoughts first hand. It can also mean their actions. Is Joey the action orientated type, jumping into a situation without thinking about it? Or is Joey the sit back and overthink type? Or is Joey a coward? These characteristics stuff the character, making them stick out from the background (and can be great ways of foreshadowing how they’re going to react in a situation; also gives them something to overcome later in the story—or not—whatever’s more dramatic). 3) How does your character sound? Are they sarcastic, entitled, mean, sincere. This is a combination of several things. If your character acts to help people and tries their best, then they will sound sincere when they talk and think. If your character acts to help people for the glory and does their best to prove they’re the best, they will sound cocky and entitled. If your character acts to help people for a reward and does their best to show they’re worth the price, then they will sound jaded, possibly cold.

See how this works?

I do have some writing advice from one of my writing mentors. He has a very strict policy of not writing from the first person perspective unless he can clearly hear the character’s voice. It’s a good rule. If the main character’s voice is clear in your head, it will be clear (with some work) on the page, and keep the character easily identifiable.

I’d like to give you a real world example involving character voices. Everyone familiar with Veronica Roth? She wrote Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant. Disclaimer: I only read Divergent. The following example is from my wife’s reading of the whole series. So, apparently, in the third book Ms. Roth goes back and forth between two characters to tell the story. Chapter one in character one’s voice; chapter two in character two’s voice; chapter three in character one’s voice…and so on. It took my wife two years (three?) to finish the book. She would start it, get frustrated with it, and put it down again. She had to force herself (her words) to finish the book. She had several complaints about the book, but the number one complaint, the complaint I heard about multiple times a day until she was done with the novel, was character voices. She couldn’t tell who she was following in a chapter because the two characters sounded so alike to her. There were several exclamations during the reading of the book, when she thought it was from the first character’s point of view, and then someone would call the character by name and she realized it was from the second character’s point of view. She didn’t like the book, and not only that, it brought the whole series down for her. So, a cool idea [telling the story from two differing perspectives] turned into a gimmick, and not a good one (again, her words).

Until next time: Be yourself, be well. Write yourself, write well.