Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Be a Rebel

"You can only succeed, if you do everything everyone else tells you not to do to succeed."

People can tell you what you need to do in order to make a best-selling book or a winning film. Your book or movie may be famous, a big hit, a mark of success, for a little while; and then it will be entirely forgotten. Think about it: can you name the #1 New York Times Bestseller from fifty years ago? Twenty years ago? Ten years ago? Five years ago? Two years ago? Who cares anymore? But, can you name a book that was written hundreds of years ago, maybe wasn't too famous in its day, but is still read and appreciated today? I could name lots. I'm sure you could too. 

To really succeed, I think, you have to break away from the conventional, present set of rules for how to become a "best-seller" (those rules are always changing anyway) and write something that transcends your day and the current fads that go with it. How do I know? I don't know for sure, because I haven't experienced anything like that before (the extent of my published writing "career" has only been one newspaper, one magazine, and this blog itself); but I know that other people have experienced this.

Take J. R. R. Tolkien for an example. People told him that his writing style was not publish-worthy; it was not the way things were preferred to be written at the time; he should change it; yada yada. (One thing that was criticized was the way he switched between characters, not writing things chronologically.) But what ended up happening? He became the father of the modern fantasy genre. "Tolkienesque" became a word to describe the genre he helped begin.

What if he had written the way people told him to? I don't know. Maybe he would have ended up being one of those best-selling authors from decades ago that have been completely forgotten.

Now, there is of course a limit to this. In a general sense, we definitely should listen to the advice of writers who are published or more experienced than we are; they know what they're talking about! (I, on the other hand, do not. *Smile*.) They might say you need to have round, believable characters. Okay, we should probably listen to that advice. Or they might say we need to have a strong climax, or a grabbing first chapter, or that we should use strong verbs and adjectives. Okay, we should probably listen to those bits of advice, too. Just don't follow the guidelines too religiously. Develop your own style. Shout with your own voice.

Be a rebel.

The Sound of Silence

Image from

Sometimes the loudest messages are a silent glance or a well-spoken word. Sometimes the most profound meanings can come from simple silence. The dragonfly buzzes over a quiet lake as the sunset reflects on its softly rippling waters. The lady touches the man's hand; just a touch, just a hand, and whispers "yes". Two archenemies after lifetimes of contempt and hate shake hands and smile; no words, no comments.

The silence is what's so powerful. The simplicity is what's so profound. It's a good technique in films and books... and it's truth. God, the Master of art and language, often speaks in few words, or none at all. An act of kindness from the neighbor you thought hated you. The presence of a Bible on your nightstand when you ask God for answers, for a taste of His words. The rumble of thunder on a warm evening, or the rainbow of colors reflected by a drop of water.

God speaks in silence sometimes. He reminds you how much He loves you. He reminds you how powerful He is, and how He's in control of every situation.  

The biggest message He spoke was a simple action. He died. He hung on a cross. He didn't speak a word. He didn't proclaim loudly to the world why He was doing what He was doing. He just did it. He was silent. They asked Him questions before killing Him. He was silent. Yet in the history of mankind there has never been a stronger message of love from one person to another.

It doesn't take a storm to conquer a city. All you need is the leader to speak two words: "We surrender." And silence brings the entire population to fall to its knees. 

(Written April 1, 2009)

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Making a Relatable Character

Sometimes we writers struggle to make "relatable" characters.  How do we shape and present characters that readers can identify and sympathize with?  A dreadful fear some writers may have is that after pouring all their work and energy into a story, no one will care very much about reading it because all the characters are too dull and lifeless to get attached to.  "Who cares if Susie the protagonist falls into a pit of vipers and dies a terrible death?" the reader might say.  "I never cared too much about her."

I once read some tips in an old book that really helped me with this dilemma.  The title is Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michale Hauge (my copy of the book is from 1991, but I think there might be a newer edition).  Although the book was written with movie characters in mind, I think it applies perfectly to book characters.

Talking about "identifying" with a character, the book says: "Identification with a character means that the audience, or reader, experiences emotion through that character.  In other words, the audience puts itself inside the character emotionally to experience the story: if the character is in danger, the audience feels frightened; if the character suffers loss, the audience feels sad." (Page 44.)

The book then lists nine methods for establishing identification,  in order of priority: (the words in bold are from the book; the commentary afterwards is my own summary of what the author says)

1. Create Sympathy for the Character.  If the viewer, or reader, feels sorry for the character, it's almost guaranteed that they will identify with and relate to him.

2. Put the Character in Jeopardy.  Get your readers to worry about the character.

3. Make the Character Likable.  We're much more likely to identify with a character that we like and care about.  

4. Introduce the Character as Soon as Possible.  If the main protagonist isn't introduced until half-way through the story, we probably won't care about him as much as if he had been the first person we read about (or saw).

5. Show the Character in Touch with His Own Power.  The author lists three forms of power that a character can have: (1) Power over other people.  (2) Power to do whatever needs to be done, without hesitation.  (3) Power to express one's feelings regardless of other's opinions.

6. Place the Character in a Familiar Setting.  Think about it: would it be easier to relate to a character living in Medieval Scandinavia or the modern suburbs of North Carolina?  Not that you can't create relatable characters in foreign or fantastical settings; it's just that it's easier to connect with what's familiar. 

7. Give the Character Familiar Flaws and Foibles.  Humans aren't perfect; characters shouldn't be perfect, either.  We instantly identify with a character who has some of the mistakes and imperfections we see in ourselves.  (This can help add humor to a story, too.)

8. The Superhero.  Here the author talks about heroes like Superman, Indiana Jones, or James Bond, who may be nothing like ourselves; but we admire them, and somewhere deep in our subconsciousness, we want to be like them, too.

Now, I said there were nine, didn't I?  Well, I think the ninth method relates more to screenplays than novels, and since it isn't nearly as important as the other eight (just in my opinion), we won't touch on it.

What about you?  Do you agree with Michael Hauge's methods for making a relatable character?  Do you identify with characters in books and movies that have these traits?  And finally, would you add anything to this list?

I'm Back From the Dead!

It's been over a month since my last post!  I am truly sorry... while I haven't actually been dead, I HAVE been quite busy.  I have lots of things I want to post about, though, and when I have the time, I intend to share all of it!

For now, keep pursuing the truth!