Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Character Development: Villains versus Heroes

When you read Paradise Lost, John Milton's epic poem about the Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, who are you rooting for? The poet was certainly on the side of the Angels. And we should be, too. But despite Milton's best efforts, the most memorable character in the story--the one who commands your attention--who fascinates you--isn't Adam or Eve or the Messiah. It's the Devil, the Fallen Angel.
At first, he's the star of the show in Heaven--the light-bearer--Lucifer. However, he has a dark side--too much pride. And when he leads a rebellion against God, he is banished forever to Hell. He has become Satan, the personification of evil.
And what does he say about his new home? "Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven."
In another classic work, Moby Dick, it's hard to decide whether Captain Ahab is the hero of the novel, or the villain. Like Lucifer, Ahab is driven by pride to rebel against Fate, against God--in the monstrous form of the White Whale. Ahab seems to be saying, "Better to reign on the Pequod than serve in Heaven." And isn't he the most fascinating character in the book? (Unless you're really into whales.)
Why is it that we are often attracted to the villains in books, movies, plays, although we don't like to admit it? And more important, as an author of fiction, how should you take advantage of that tendency?
The fact is, most of us aren't heroes--pure, noble and brave. So it's a lot easier for us to identify with a character like us, who has flaws, weaknesses, issues. When Satan says he'd rather start a business of his own than take orders from someone else, we get the message. We know the feeling. When Ahab defies his Fate, we can share his anger, if not his ecological recklessness. Our lives may not be as difficult as his, but we've got problems of our own.
When you're working on a short story or a novel, keep that in mind. Your characters will be more believable--more human--if they are a mixture of good and bad, strong and weak, angel and devil. Because that's true of all of us. The real world is complicated. Morality isn't a straitjacket: it's a day-to-day struggle. You win some, you lose some. Your characters--heroes, villains and everyone in between--should reflect that reality.
The French author, Albert Camus, used the ancient Greek "Myth of Sisyphus" to describe the constant struggle to live a good, meaningful life. After his death, Sisyphus, a greedy king, was condemned to push a huge boulder up a steep hill in Hades. Every time he reached the top of the hill, the boulder rolled back to the bottom and he had to start over. Eternal frustration? Not to Camus. He believed that as we try to live a meaningful life, we may never arrive at the top of the hill--the perfect answer--but it's the unyielding effort--the search itself--that gives the true meaning to our lives.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

LIterary Fiction? Are You Serious?

When someone asks me what I write, my answer is, "Fiction." The inevitable follow-up question is, "What kind of fiction?" If I could say, "Mysteries," or "Sci-fi", or "Horror," that would be the end of it. What I'd really like to say is, "Literary fiction," but that sounds awfully snooty, doesn't it? It's as if I'm looking down my nose and saying, "Serious fiction. Fiction that matters." That isn't what I mean. Although, in a way, it is. Let me explain.
I was an English Lit major long, long ago. In that era in Academia, Literary Fiction was the stuff you studied. In contrast, Genre Fiction--mysteries, sci-fi, horror, romance--was the stuff you just read.
That distinction soaked into my soul. I built a magical castle in the clouds and invited Jane Austen and Herman Melville to join me there--along with Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway--Theodore Dreiser and John Updike--and all of the other serious authors. They were special. And if I intended to be an author, I wanted to be special, too. Way up there in the clouds with them. Above the fray.
Other writers wanted to be popular and make money. I didn't blame them. But they were, in my view, marching to the beat of a lesser drummer.
Not long after I left Academia, I, too, began marching to the beat of that lesser drummer. Because I wanted to make money. (I was getting married, and that's quite a serious matter, too.) Writing fiction was too chancy, so I got steadier work as an editor. And then, as my family grew, I became a speechwriter, weaving fiction of the corporate variety.
I never regretted my decision. Yet I often dreamed of that magical castle and my old pals--Jane, Charles, Ernest--the whole serious gang. Perhaps someday I would be able to join them again.
That day did come. When I retired from corporate life, I returned to my magical castle. I began to write fiction. My first book--a collection of short stories, The Terminal Project and Other Voyages of Discovery (Sunstone Press)--was published in 2005. It was finalist in the science fiction category of the New Mexico Book Awards. But, in truth, it wasn't a sci-fi collection, although the majority of stories were science fiction. But several of the pieces were contemporary, realistic. One was a fantasy. One was what I would call a historical detective story. And that made the book a difficult item to categorize. And to sell. The target audience was too diverse.
But all the stories did have one thing in common. Although I hesitate to say it, they were all Literary Fiction.
Let me define what that means to me. Of course, an author of literary fiction, like every author, wants to be popular. He (or she) wants to be loved. He wants to be read by as many people as possible. He wants to entertain. He hopes to make as much money as possible. He tries to write as skillfully as he can. He yearns for both popular and critical acclaim.
What, then, distinguishes literary fiction from other forms of fiction? The difference is: in one way or another, literary fiction is about you, the reader. It resonates with you. It speaks to you about your own life. It stimulates reflection. Because whatever form or genre literary fiction adopts, it always offers the reader something more than a compelling story and interesting characters. It is an attempt to provide insight, expand understanding--of a society, or a time in history. It analyses social or sexual or emotional relationships. It conveys a sense of the ways of the world, or of our place in that world.
Does my definition work for you? I'd like to know what you think about it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Ebooks: the Medium Isn't the Message

If you're from my pre-computer, pre-Internet generation, I understand how you feel.

You remember the day you were old enough to get an Adult Card at the public library. That card was a ticket to shelf after shelf, row after row, aisle after aisle of short stories, novels, history, science, biography--an unexplored universe of fiction, fantasy and facts. And at last, they were all yours.

Books. Real books. I know how you feel about them. Massive novels. Oversize picture books. Slim volumes of poetry. Elegant tomes bound in leather, with gilt-edged pages and glossy illustrations with quotes for captions. The bookshelf at home loaded with your own personal collection that goes waaaay back.

And then there's the process of reading a real book. You love the weight of a real book in your hands. The reassuring rigidity of the spine. (Books with backbone.) The soothing ritual of page-turning. The glacial flow of the bookmark, measuring your progress.

And I think I know how you feel about the new breed of books: ebooks. They seem ephemeral to you. Images on a screen. Pixels, not pictures. Percentages, not pages.

Are they convenient? Yes. Very easy to download. And less expensive, too. And you can compress a whole library into a package that weighs only a few ounces, and carry it with you wherever you go.

But still, you wonder, are ebooks really books?

As a member-in-good-standing of the pre-computer, pre-Internet generation, let me reassure my contemporaries--and my younger readers, as well. Whether a novel is written by hand in a notebook, serialized in a magazine, printed in a bound volume, or displayed on a screen--the novel is the same. The medium isn't the message. And it never was. The message is the message.

After all, when the first ancient authors created their stories, they didn't write them down. They recited them around campfires, or in the courts of kings. And they didn't speak in prose. They wrote poems, because the rhythms and rhymes of poetry make it easier to memorize, easier to remember. Is the Iliad or the Odyssey less of a masterpiece because it began as an oral tradition? Did anything change when they were finally written down?

And today, that ancient tradition has been revived when we listen to books on tape or CD being read aloud while we drive to work.

In short, whether a book is words on a page, or pixels on a screen, or decibels in the air--the message is the same. So don't worry about the medium. Just listen to the message and enjoy it.

And don't be surprised if someday in the future, the ebook becomes old hat, and a new format emerges. Just sit back, relax and keep listening to the message.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I Confess! My Characters Made Me Do It!

Maybe I shouldn't admit this. Maybe I'm tarnishing the images of authors yet unborn or, even worse, yet unread. But the truth is, sometimes my ficitional characters take the wheel and start driving the car. And as wimpy as this may sound, that's as good as it gets.

"What are you talking about?" asks a young woman in the third row. "You invented these characters, didn't you? You can make them do anything you want them to do."

She's right. And she's wrong.

How many times have you read a story, or seen a movie, and said, "She wouldn't have done that." Or "He would have told her." Or, to paraphrase all such comments, "That's out of character."

If an author has fully developed the people in his story, everything they do--their actions, their words, the relationships they enter into or opt out of--everything will reflect their personalities, their passions and their peculiarities. And if that doesn't happen, the reader isn't going to believe it. So you'd better be careful when you create characters, because they'll start talking back to you.

Case in point: In my novel, The Wingthorn Rose (Sunstone Press), one of the major characters--Margot Sinclair--started life as a minor player. In my outline, she entered and exited in one scene. But when Lucas Murdoch (my protagonist) met her, he liked what she said--her refreshing honesty--her attitude. Not to mention her beauty. In fact, Margot took over the scene and made such an impression on Lucas that he began to move in a different direction--and so did the plot.

A young man in the fifth row just said, "I guess you just don't know how to stick to your outline."

On the contrary. When I write, I  most enjoy those moments when the work produces itself--when the story generates its own logic-- when the characters obey their own instincts. When the people I've created take over.

How do you feel about this, dear reader? Dear writer? Does this make sense to you?

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Curing the Newly-Published-Author Syndrome

My first book appeared in 2005, in my sixty-seventh year, so I was a new author, if not a young one. How did it feel to see my short stories in print? How did it feel to try to get those stories noticed by someone besides my family and friends? Here's how I described the experience at that time:
At last,  my dream had come true: I was not just a writer; I was an author.  The book jacket and typography were beautiful. My cover photograph was flattering, but fairly honest. And the work itself? The stories seemed even more subtle and profound than when they were merely Verdana-12-point words on my PC screen. But my youthful fantasies of becoming a famous author -- lauded by the literati and wooed by Hollywood -- had a very short half-life. Hundreds of other books were published in the same week that mine was born and, without reviews, the distance between literary birth and death was miniscule.  What's a first-time author to do?
Of course, you should send out news releases and review copies to major outlets, which are likely to ignore you. But you should also approach your local or neighborhood newspapers, your college/university alumni magazine, and publications of the professional, fraternal, or religious organizations you belong to. Speak to the managers of local bookstores, suggesting a personal appearance, reading and book signing.  And don't forget the local libraries. I promoted my book at my health club, the bagel shop where I have breakfast,  and even at the local post office.  In short, forget those teenage fantasies of fame: in the real world, you have to do the hard work, day after day, to attract even a little attention.
That's why I sent a copy of my book to Carl Gustaf, the King of Sweden.  I don't know if he has much clout with the Nobel Prize Committee, but it can't hurt.