Thursday, January 28, 2016

Deepening Character

Sit back in your chair, put your coffee or wine or whatever to the side, and close your eyes. Picture a good friend. Could you describe the person sufficiently well so a stranger would recognize that individual in a lineup? Good writers often provide a single telling characteristic that uniquely identifies a character whenever readers meet them. Jug ears, a stutter, a limp, a Jersey accent in Mississippi; all could be unique traits.

Some authors provide long and detailed descriptions of characters, sometimes stretching to paragraphs. Do we remember those details? Let’s check: I say Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz, what comes to mind? Ruby slippers. Pig-tails? Probably not a long description that the pig tails were only braided half-way, tied off with white ribbon and curls left loose to flutter in the breeze. That’s all accurate, but really, who cares?

Now let’s consider whether we are interested in more or less information when it comes to motivations. I suspect readers often become dissatisfied with a story because the motivations and actions do not seem consistent to the reader. How can that happen? Probably because the reader hasn’t learned enough about the real character to justify the actions the character takes. That may be because the author does not know the character at a deep enough level.

I can’t count how many times I have heard authors say something to the effect that “my character just wouldn’t do what I wanted them to do; they insisted on doing X.”

Okay, second time to close your eyes. How well do you know your good friend? Do you know her deepest secrets, her fears, her desires? Really? Turn it around: does a good friend know EVERYTHING about you? Of course not, we all hide parts of ourselves from others.

When I teach an online self-editing course for fiction authors, one of the assignments I give is:

Choose a character and have them reflect on a secret or a fear or anxiety. Have them tell you about it. How did it come about? What does it feel like? What might make it go away? This is like brainstorming: all ideas are welcome, no censuring or self-editing as your character blathers away. Remember to write in first person present tense.

When authors really let their characters tell them what they feel and fear and want and why, the words flow out onto the paper and often they are a huge surprise. The result provides the author with a deeper understanding of why that character does what she does. And, the author now has the wherewithal to give the reader enough insight so the reader also understands.

Authors: Do you think this exercise would help you understand one of your characters?

Readers: Does this make sense from your perspective, or is this a bunch of academic mumbo jumbo? Or are you someone who relishes the long, detailed descriptions of Thomas Hardy and is willing to take character actions at face value?

~ Jim

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Whimsical Math Poem

Fellow Kindle Press author Cindy Blackburn asked me to write a whimsical poem for her blog It appeared last week and I am reprinting it here today for those who appreciate numbers as I do.

Let’s talk numbers, you and me.
Six: it’s as perfect as perfect can be.
Take its divisors: one, two, and three,
Add them together: six again. See?

Can you find the next one all on your own?
No fair cheating: Googling on your phone.
No rolling your eyes and letting out a groan.
Here’s a hint: weight in pounds of exactly two stone!

A stone equals fourteen pounds, multiply by two,
Gives you twenty-eight; let’s see if it’s true.
One, two, four, seven, fourteen make up our queue.
Twenty-eight is their sum; perfect numbers, adieu.

Are you up for a math trick designed just for you?
Multiply the first digit of your age by five –please do!
Now add three to that sum and multiply the total by two.
Check your work carefully to avoid a boo-boo.

Time to please add your last digit into the mix.
Remember that perfect number – the first one, you know, six?
Subtract it from the total and your age should appear.
But really, you don’t look a day over twenty-one, my dear.

Just in case my math did not translate well,
I’ll do it myself, just so you can tell,
If the trick really works without a headache.
Here’s the arithmetic I would have to make:

Sixty-five is my age, so multiplying six by five
Equals thirty. Plus three is the next piece of jive.
That sum times two is sixty-six, to which I add five
For seventy-one. Now less six and , sixty-five!

Here’s a trick with number reversals you might know.
I’ll give an example to help you follow the steps below.
Take any three digits zero to nine
And reverse them in order to make our design.

So 567 becomes 765; no need to curse.
Subtract the smaller from the larger: 198 in this verse.
Now reverse that number (981) and add them just so:
I guarantee the result is 1,089. What do you know?

An asterisk is needed to make the rules clear.
Leading zeros are necessary to include, I fear.
Start with 028 and the formula will steer
You to 1,089, if to the rules you adhere.

028 from 820 (its reverse, do you see?)
Yields 792. Add 297 and 1,089 it will be.
If the difference in numbers is less than one hundred
The leading zero is needed (in case you wondered).

For example, 574 reversed gives you 475.
The difference (99) needs the zero to survive.
Reversed it’s 990, now add them together.
Once again 1,089. We’re rolling in heather!

I see your eyes glazing, so I’ll stop this whimsy.
I know the rhymes were forced, and the rhythm was flimsy,
But admit in the comments if you were entertained.
Or tell me if you think this whole thing was harebrained.