Saturday, July 30, 2011

A link

First, I wanted to let everyone know I'm not going to be posting next Saturday. I'll be without internet connection all next week.

Second, I have a link for you. Janice Hardy, author of The Healing Wars series, has been critiquing snippets of people's writing on Saturdays, and today she's posted some comments on mine. So, just in case you happen to be interested, the link is:
The Other Side of the Story: Real Life Diagnostics: Quirky Characters: Can You Relate?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Wire Dancers

It's been awhile since I've had to say sorry, I'm not doing a long post today.  Unfortunately, that's exactly what I'm going to say.  I was out dancing all night last night (well, technically until midnight, just like Cinderella) and I'm just zonked.  Meanwhile, here's a picture of a wire sculpture I did in art class of -tada- dancers!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

They'd never do that

Donald Maass, in his Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, talked about figuring out what a  character would never do, then putting them in a situation where they have to do that exact thing.  Breaking through your character's inhibitions can create some powerful scenes.  For example, going back to Darkwing Duck (what can I say?  I love those Disney cartoons.) in the two part pilot episode, Darkly Dawns the Duck, Darkwing tells us that he never works with anyone, and he never takes off his mask.  By the end of the pilot he's accepted a sidekick, adopted a daughter, and taken off his mask -at least during the daytime.  He's a stronger character for having moved past his self-imposed isolation.  

It reveals what a character is made of when you show why they'd change their mind about doing things they insisted they'd never do.  

My problem is that when I set down to list things my hero would never do, it's easy for me to come up with extremes.  Things like, My Character Would Never: A) blow up his home planet.  B) assassinate the president.  C) steal candy from babies.  Then I stare at my list and trying to think what would make my hero suddenly decide to blow up planets and steal candy from babies... and wonder if my hero even qualifies a hero anymore, and if maybe I'd better forget this whole `reveal what your character is really made of' thing since I'm obviously doing it wrong.

It's the same problem I ran into when I tried Maass's exercise of thinking about the worst thing that could possibly happen to my character, and then making it happen.  I'd heard a few too many stories from Fox's Book of Martyrs in Sunday School as a kid, so no matter what character I used for the `worst thing' question, the answer always involved whips, brands, and possibly the rack.  

To do the exercises right, I finally had to tailor the questions to eliminate the extremes.  `What's the one thing my character would never do besides blowing up planets?'  `What's the worst that could happen that doesn't involve torture?'  It's easy to think of things that no one is likely to do, or that anyone would consider awful.  It takes a lot more work to invent the kind of character who would never work in a knitting factory and to whom the worst thing that could happen would be public speaking.  Once I figured out the trick to it, those exercises were a great way to build characters.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Animal stories

All the mice I've been drawing recently got me thinking about how much I love talking animal stories.  The great thing about casting a few animals is that you get an instant short-cut to certain character types.  Aesop didn't have to waste words describing his plodding protagonist and the flashy rival.  He just jumped in with `One day the tortoise and the hare...' 

Sometimes you can surprise your audience by playing with the expectations that come with animals.  Take Miss Piggy from the Muppets.  Pigs have a reputation for being selfish, and Miss Piggy is- but glamorous and skilled at karate?  Those aren't pig traits!  They make Miss Piggy unique.

Richard Adams cast rabbits as the wondering band of heroes in Watership Down.  Rabbits are constantly on the jump from predators, so he had plenty of built-in suspense right from the start.  The cliche of rabbits as easily frightened creatures makes the scene where Bigwig takes a stand and defends the burrow even more awesome.

Whether you're using animals to highlight a characteristic or to play against an archetype, animal characters have a way of illuminating a story.  Plus, they're lots of fun.

Friday, July 1, 2011


I love Disney's new movie, Tangled.  the graphics are gorgeous, the running jokes are actually funny, there's plenty of action, and the main characters are easy to relate to.  

The hero's back-story got me thinking about a certain element of writing, though.  You see, his back-story is mostly implied.  First he refused to give a back-story at all, and then when he finally did divulge his past, he still managed to gloss over it.  

The scene kind of reminded me of Dmitri in the animated Anastasia who's back-story is a) he once worked as a ragged kitchen boy and b) when asked if he'd miss his home he said, `St. Petersburg is just a place I once lived.  End of story.'   In other words, the movie makers were content to imply back-story rather than lay it out for their audience.

Implied back-story can be really effective.  It invites the audience to take part in the story by allowing them to invent all sorts of details for themselves.  It can also frustrating.  You're left never knowing for sure where the characters are coming from.  They had a whole life that you never get to hear about. 

On the other hand, you have the writers like Charles Dickens and Victor Hugo who want to tell you everything.  Not only will they give you the life story of the main characters from the time of their great-grandparents, they'll also tell you about the great-grandparents of everyone said character comes into contact with.  (Victor Hugo is especially prone to this, which is why his novels are longer than the Telephone directory.)  

The result can be a world that feels very real.  Minor characters aren't just walk-on parts.  They have a whole life beyond the story.  On the down side, the main story can easily get lost among all the side characters.

I don't think there's really a right or wrong when it comes to how much back-story is good.  It's a matter of what fits the story you're telling.  Me, I like the lengthy back-stories.  (If I didn't, I'd steer clear of Victorian literature.)  What about you all?  Do you prefer when authors go into the character's life stories, or would you rather have the past life of the characters implied?  Or do you like a nice balance of the two?