Books That Last – The Nancy Drew Model

Not every book is intended to last. Some writers are perfectly fine writing fast and hard for a market that craves another one just like the other one. Surprisingly, however, even books that don’t intend to last sometimes do.

Nancy Drew comes to mind. Good stories. Fast reads. Formulaic plots. Yet, in the face of many an imitator and many a ghost writer, Nancy Drew has lasted. Why?

I think two factors come into play: tension and a larger-than-life character.

Nancy Drew was a smart, independent teenage girl long before Title IX came into being. She lived an exciting life that many a young girl dreamed of living. And not much has changed. Today’s liberated women have become enslaved by the things men have been bound by for years. So the take-charge Nancy still resonates.

Unfortunately, it’s the plots that suffer in these mysteries. No archenemy steps up to be Moriarty to Sherlock Drew. And yet the authors found ways to create tension. Nancy, captured and tied up. How will she escape this time? Will she find the note in the base of the clock? Can she rescue her friends in time and still stop the thief?

The questions aren’t deep, but there is no doubt what her goal is, so readers hold their breath and cheer her on. The problem is in remembering any of the story the next day, or next week, or next month.

Too many stories suffer plot problems while also lacking a character that resonates. These are the books that will not last. Some of them may actually be initial commercial successes, but unlike the Chronicles of Narnia, no one will be buying them forty years later.

The added dimension that long-lasting books have is depth. There’s a point greater than entertainment to the writing, though entertainment is surely a by-product found in abundance.

And what creates depth? Ideas. Ones that make readers turn the story over and over in their mind for days after they reach the last page.

Back to the beginning. Some writers aren’t aiming to create the Great American Novel. They want to entertain, much as I’m sure the Carolyn Keen ghost writers did. But what would these writers think if they knew young girls today still read their work? Would they be pleased, wishing only that their relatives were pocketing a royalty check? Or would they cringe in horror, wishing they had included depth in their stories?

Probably some of both.

Published in: on September 17, 2008 at 6:22 pm  Comments (8)  
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Characters and Emotions

I’ve written on the topic of Characters a number of times, but I don’t think this is a repeat.

When I first started writing fiction, I would have put myself in the plot-over-characters camp, mostly because I believed, and still do, that story trumps all. But what I’ve since discovered is, in order for a reader to care about the story, he must first care about the characters.

In essence, no good story focuses only on plot or only on characters. In fact, no good story ignores setting or theme, either, but that’s not the topic today.

I’ve discussed in the past what makes a character “engaging,” i. e. why we as readers connect with them. I think there’s another component that makes characters memorable and makes stories come alive: readers connect with the emotions the characters experience.

Author and writing instructor Randy Ingermanson teaches a method of writing a scene using what he terms MRU’s. While I don’t consciously use this method, I find when I critique or edit or revise my own work, understanding the principle behind MRU’s is helpful and actually can maximize the reader’s emotional involvement.

The idea of the MRU—the Motivation-Reaction Unit—is simple. Reactions must flow from a motivating action. However, I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve written, critiqued, or edited a work that reverses that order. I know in my early writing days, I thought I actually was increasing tension by giving a reaction first. Like this.

Dorothy gasped. How could it be? Her wallet was gone. Her credit cards, cash, and driver’s licence were in that wallet. She peered inside her purse, moved her keys, even dumped the contents onto the bench beside her. Still no wallet.

The problem is, readers will process Dorothy’s reaction cognitively, not emotionally. No problem understanding what Dorothy felt or why she felt it. But because the author showed the reaction first, the reader can only wonder why, not also feel the same thing.

In addition, the payoff may actually be a let down if the reader is expecting a bigger something to have motivated the reaction.

Instead, if the proper order is maintained, the reader will process the event, then feel with the character what the author next shows. So the real difference is having the reader understand what the character is feeling versus having the reader enter into the character’s emotions.

Here’s an example of the motivated reaction:

Dorothy moved her keys aside and peered into her purse. Still no passport. She dumped the remaining contents on the table in front of her and rummaged through the odds and end. Her passport simply was not there. She slumped against the seat back. “It can’t be,” she whispered. What good was a plane ticket to England if she didn’t have a passport?

Published in: on September 2, 2008 at 6:05 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Chief Means of Marketing – Part 5

What makes a novel interesting? What makes a blog post interesting? (And don’t forget, interesting is one of the necessary ingredients if what we produce is going to be buzz worthy).

I don’t think the answers to those two questions are necessarily the same. Fiction, I’m convinced, is interesting primarily if the story is interesting. Perhaps you’ve read here more than once Story trumps all.

But even saying that, there may not be agreement about what makes a story interesting. Some will say it’s the characters. Others will say it’s the plot. Still others will say it’s the way the story is told—the language the author uses. A smaller minority might say stories are interesting if they take the reader to a new place or show them something new about the world, life, history.

The main thing that each of these seem to have in common is the new factor. Yet writing instructors will say time and again, there are no new stories. I’ve read on blogs and in instruction books that there are ten basic plots. When I was in school, we learned there were five basic themes.

Off hand, one might think science fiction or fantasy has the easiest road, for surely those of us writing in the speculative genres have the newest, oddest, strangest stuff with which to construct stories.

But therein lies a danger. New for the sake of new isn’t interesting either. And new that is so odd it doesn’t seem to connect to reality isn’t interesting. In other words, readers want something new but familiar, and something different because the story requires the difference.

In addition, I’m more and more convinced that readers will become attached to a story primarily if they become attached to a character. What, then, makes a character interesting?

Again, if you brought in a hundred fiction writers, you might have a hundred different answers, but here are some broad brush strokes that I believe are needed to make a character interesting.

1) He or she must want something. And the story must be about them going after what they want. Without that central something that the character is trying to achieve, find, win, readers have no reason to be in the protagonist’s corner, hoping and fearing with him or her.

2) He or she must have some admirable qualities. It seems so much emphasis is being put on making characters seem real, some authors are forgetting to make the character likable or admirable. One of the complaints of the movie Prince Caspian was that the screenplay writers changed Peter from a noble character to one with angst. Fortunately other characters were still depicted with strengths, so movie goers didn’t seem to have a problem backing the side of good.

3) He or she must have some weakness. This is the point that has become blown out of proportion, in my opinion, but the answer isn’t to swing the pendulum clear to the other side and depict characters that are unnatural in their goodness. Plots aren’t interesting if they have no conflict, and characters aren’t interesting if they have no internal struggle.

OK, there are other factors, but I’ve gone on too long as it is. Your turn. What makes a character interesting?

Published in: on July 15, 2008 at 2:59 pm  Comments (3)  
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Piquing Curiosity

Yesterday I mentioned some things that cause confusion—conflicting facts, improper motivation, a lack of adequate details to ground a scene, and a lack of foreshadowing. In trying to avoid confusion, however, I’m opening myself up to another novel killer—a boring story.

Well, maybe not a boring story but a story told in a boring way. I suggest a story can turn boring for several reasons.

First, the characters are flat (synonymous with cardboard, two-dimensional, stereotypical). A character who is not well-rounded is predictable, lifeless, a mere placeholder. There is no surprise, no wonder, no passion in such an individual.

The point here is to avoid oversimplifying characters in order to avoid confusion. Instead, a character, like a real life individual, should unfold in increments. Readers are not going to expect a detailed character sketch when the protagonist first shows up on the page. Rather, there will be a process of getting to know him through his actions, words, and thoughts. In fact, that process should continue all book long. Part of what will keep readers engaged is this getting to know the characters on an ever deeper level.

A second thing that makes the telling of a story boring, in my opinion, is a predictable plot. Again, it would be easy to fall into this writing pattern in an effort to avoid confusion. Even a “standard” premise, such as a romance, where the reader knows going in that boy and girl will meet and marry (or fall in love—I just liked the alliteration of meet and marry 😉 ), the story can be interesting, even exciting, because the how unfolds in an unexpected way.

The real plot question I think an author should prompt in his reader’s mind is, How will the protagonist overcome? And the secondary question might be, Or will he? Overcoming, I think, is at the heart of plot. Yes, the character must want something and must want it desperately. This something must matter. But it is in the overcoming of the obstacles that stand in the way of the character obtaining his desire that has readers sliding to the edge of their seats and turning pages as fast as they can.

But if the obstacles are ho-hum, nothing new, seen that one coming a mile away, or if they make the character look foolish because he didn’t see them coming a mile away when the reader did, the plot will fail to pique curiosity. Who is curious about what he is sure will happen?

A third area that can spark curiosity in the reader is the story world. What’s it like in this place, whether it’s the world of a research scientist working in a name university, a missionary starting an orphanage in Indonesia, an astronaut landing on Mars, or a hobbit traveling in Middle Earth. Again, readers won’t want to know all about this place up front. Just as the author must introduce the characters gradually, so must the story world unfold gradually.

Steve Almond gave a good way to determine what needs to be revealed when. I quoted it yesterday, but I think it bears repeating:

[Readers] don’t need to know everything, just those facts that’ll elucidate the emotional significance of a particular scene.

Makes sense to me. 😀

Published in: on June 18, 2008 at 10:03 am  Comments (2)  
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Making Characters Memorable

So I’m trying to decide if I should spend $200 dollars and go the one day BookExpo America, held by Writer’s Digest Books in Los Angeles. Tomorrow. The biggest draw for me is Donald Maass, agent extraordinaire, and author of Writing the Breakout Novel. What I’d really like is to attend one of his ripping Breakout Novel Intensive Seminars, but there’s not one remotely close this year.

So instead, I could pay $200 to hear him speak/teach for one hour on “Fire in Fiction.” Of course, James Scott Bell is also teaching and could make the time worthwhile, but I’m getting off track.

One reason I would like to hear from Donald Maass and to have him rip apart my writing is because I think he’s identified the keys to creating memorable characters. And it isn’t through research. He doesn’t say this, to be sure, and I suspect he would actually advocate a writer becoming a student of human nature.

However, I suspect he would frown on pulling a list of characteristics from the Myers-Briggs personality test results and plugging them into a character. Rather this method would seem to be the antithesis of his idea that “larger-than-life” characters are, in part, quirky, willing to say or do what average people are afraid to.

Interestingly, Maass does not include “fatal flaw” or even “harmful flaw” as one of the needed elements to create the next Scarlet O’Hara or Bilbo Baggins. You don’t hear that in many Christian writing conferences … at least not the ones I’ve attended. What Maass does say is the character must have an inner conflict.

Which brings to mind a recent discussion on a writers’ email loop about the new breed of hero, the Jack Bauer and Batman types. The interesting thing to me is that Jack Bauer (of the television program 24) is always experiencing inner conflict. His choices are moral in the sense that he adheres to his over arching purpose—to preserve democracy and make the world safe. He struggles, though, against evil leaders, threats to his family, friends who lose sight of that central goal, and against the need to violate another person’s freedoms in order to preserve the lives and freedom of the greater population

In other words, he is god. He becomes the final authority to judge who is an agent of good and how good. But his decisions cost him, which is why he struggles internally.

And thus he becomes larger than life, a hero we remember and cheer, even as we lament his moral choices.

How much better to create that kind of character (memorable) than to take a list of traits from some personality model and formulate a character (type-cast). I’m not saying there isn’t truth in these professional observations of human nature. But I think writers need to do better, to see people as unique and capable of breaking the mold. Because a test identifies them as a “guardian” or “introverted” or “analytic” doesn’t need to mean the character must therefore behave in a patterned way according to the trait list presented.

In essence, this is where art must overrule science—at least if the characters are to be memorable. And memorable is one thing I’ve decided I what from my characters. Which is why I would like Donald Maass to rip apart my manuscript.

Character Research

Mystery writer Elizabeth George, author of the best-selling Thomas Lynley series, is in Southern California promoting her new release, Careless in Red. Consequently, our local paper carried an interview with her. One of the questions had to do with her research, but this one was a bit of a surprise.

Did you do any research into grief?

Apparently, from what I gathered in the rest of the interview, one of the main characters died in a previous book. (I only know the Thomas Lynley series through the PBS adaptations aired on Mystery, but I’m leaning toward making a visit to my local library SOON! 😉 ) So, the question wasn’t out of place.

It actually brought to mind what I believe is a sort of trendy approach to creating characters that a number of authors are talking about. I’m referring to the use of psychological charts and personality tests to properly depict a character.

Here’s George’s response to the grief-research question:

No. One of the reasons that they call it creative writing is that the writer should be able to project herself into the lives and experiences of characters totally unlike herself, and that’s what I’ve tried to do all along. When I create characters and a situation, what I’m looking for are basic truths of what they’re experiencing. I ask at the end, “Is it honest? Is it true? Is it real?” If is is those things to me, I’n satisfied. I didn’t do any research into grief at all. I would have probably been constrained by that.
– Elizabeth George, Whittier Daily News, May 25, 2008
emphasis added

As I was reading her answer, I couldn’t help wondering about “research.” I mean, isn’t one form of research for the writer to observe people? But is observation of others of greater merit than reading, studying what others have observed?

And by “projecting herself into the lives and experiences of characters totally unlike herself,” is George attributing to them her own reactions, not their own? Or is she identifying the threads of commonality, the reactions that make her and them alike?

When I got to the “constraining line,” something jumped inside me. Oh, yeah. Constraining and formulaic. Boxed. As if every person will “do grief” exactly the same way.

And yet there are commonalities. Truths.

Is this because humans have been made in the image of God? Our flaws are our own; our Humanity is from God.

The key component, I think, is that we are all shaken and stirred in different ways, which gives us each an individual flavor.

So, I’m not a big fan of charts and tests that pigeon-hole people. But I also don’t want every character I write to react like I do. So research? I think it’s necessary, but I prefer the first hand kind, the stuff that sends me to the primary source—people. It’s an area I need to sharpen.

Published in: on May 26, 2008 at 11:45 am  Comments (4)  
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The Chistian Hero—Part 5

Mike Duran always makes me think. Today in his post about hypocrisy Mike included a quote I thought intriguing in light of the discussion about heroes:

Nietzsche, ever hostile to Christianity, said “If they want me to believe in their Savior. . . His followers will have to look more like men who have been saved!”

Mike questions the point, saying our actions do not validate or negate the truth. I agree with that. However Nietzsche isn’t questioning the truth, at least not in that snippet. It’s really a point of pragmatism. Does Christianity “work”? What he couldn’t see, of course, was the change in hearts, the eternal forgiveness, the eternal futures. Because Christianity isn’t about being good enough, it is about being forgiven completely.

Still, when we are talking about giving evidence of the actuality of our forgiveness, it seems to me there does need to be something tangible, observable. If nothing else, we should be people who readily forgive others. Our lives should be marked by how merciful we are, not how judgmental we are. I believe that’s a Scriptural position. In one Gospel parable, for example, a man forgiven his insurmountable debt was later punished because he didn’t extend forgiveness to another.

How does that translate into the heroes of Christian fiction? Maybe the true mark of the hero should be forgiveness. Closely followed by a lack of hypocrisy.

Published in: on August 31, 2007 at 11:54 am  Comments (2)  

The Chistian Hero—Part 4

Where are the heroes now? This is a line from an old song by Steve Camp.

For reasons too mundane for me to mention here, I pulled out my old cassette of Fire and Ice, and there, as the closing song on side two, was “Where Are the Heroes.” I’d forgotten about that song, but before it was over, it had me in tears again, just as it did those years ago.

Why? Because the song is a plea for mature Christians to step up and be those who inspire the people coming after us, to be Moses and Abraham to the next generation.

Flash back to another point of my past—my years in the classroom. As part of beginning a school year, I would have my students fill out a questionnaire so I could get to know them better. At one point I included the question, “Who is your hero?” I was stunned when the bulk of my 120 students included characters like Spiderman. In later years, I tried to clarify the question to illicit the names of actual people, living or dead. Subsequently, I drew lots of blanks, and a handful of Michael Jordan‘s.

In this day and age of “authenticity,” when a twelve year old knows all too well the foibles of his dad or youth pastor or homeroom teacher, it’s hard for a kid to look up to a real person. Better to look up to the image of a real person, and even better still to look up to a Superhero. No pressure to actually be like that person, since, after all, the people in real life have made it abundantly clear that nobility isn’t attainable, that nice guys finish last (and I don’t want to be last!), and that image is everything.

Enter the Christian hero in fiction.

It seems to me, we fiction writers have an awesome opportunity to influence our culture. For ill or for good, we are in a period of history that is story-driven. The way to the mind AND heart of the people in our culture is through story.

In addition, our culture is experiencing a vacuum of true heroes. This is why the brave citizens who died aboard flight 93 on September 11 were immediately elevated to the role of heroes. Without knowing anything else about them, their sacrificial act catapulted them into the spotlight as heroes.

The problem with a hero who has died is that there are no fresh reminders of him, no new acts to emulate.

Which brings us back to the Christian hero in fiction.

We have a chance to create characters that can serve as inspirations to our readers. Not because they are perfect, but because they overcome, or endure, or persist, or sacrifice. We can create them to show what it looks like to be a Christ-follower. Which is why it’s important that we understand what it is we want our heroes to look like.

A couple things I have as goals for my heroes.

  • I want them to be winsome, people that draw readers and make them cheer, but also make them feel like they’d expect to meet these characters on the street some day.
  • I want my heroes to be different from the heroes on TV. Sure then can be funny or brave or clever, but they ought not be proud of their sin and selfishness.
  • I want my heroes to point to Christ, not to themselves.
  • I want my heroes to be compassionate, not vengeful.
  • I want my heroes to stand against evil—not politically, but in their own lives.
  • Again, there are probably other qualities that are important which I’ve left out. Which ones?

    Published in: on August 30, 2007 at 11:36 am  Comments (8)  

    The Chistian Hero—Part 3

    If not meekness, what then does make a character look weak, and therefore less heroic?

    I don’t know how to answer this except in subjective terms. What makes ME think a character looks weak?

    In part, I’ve come upon some traits from a series I grew to love. Yes, grew to love, because initially I hated the character. Well, hated may be too strong. I was sympathetic to a point but also repulsed.

    The character I’m referring to is Thomas Covenant, introduced in Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson. For those of you who haven’t read the books, Covenant is a leper. Yep, though he is a Modern Man, he has contracted leprosy, and no, this is not what made him repulsive. In fact, in the opening pages, there’s the makings for him to be highly sympathetic. After he was diagnosed with leprosy, people who knew him avoided him. His wife divorced him and took their son. Neighbors complain about his presence and one even leaves the county.

    This ill treatment, along with the regiment he must maintain to insure he doesn’t suffer further damage because of the disease ought to make me care for him. I don’t particularly because his response to all this is a seething anger just below the surface, an anger that erupts when he translates into a fantasy world where he can again feel. His first act is to commit rape.

    No, he was not a character I liked, though he became a character I could cheer for. His experience in the Land changed him.

    But to the point, the number one thing that makes a character unlikable, in my view, is mistreatment of others.

    In another book I read recently—a Christian novel—I found characters who were not honest. I realized that’s another thing that keeps me from caring for a character: dishonesty. A character who knows the truth but does not tell it, then ends up in a mire of his own making does not have my sympathy. Whatever the reason the character might offer for holding back the truth, it comes across to me as cowardly.

    A third trait that makes a character come across to me as weak is wishy-washiness. I don’t like a character who is so clueless as to his own desires that he vacillates throughout the story, trying to decide what he should do, or second-guesses his decisions at every turn.

    Often this character is depicted as one enduring an internal struggle, so I think this might be a pitfall some Christian writers succumb to. I know I’ve been guilty of creating such a character. It was in reading other novels and finding a character who fell into this category and recognizing my reaction to him that helped me understand what my critique group had been trying to tell me.

    I think a fourth trait might be selfishness. When a character looks only after himself—another problem Thomas Covenant had at the beginning of his stay in the Land—he ends up looking … ignoble.

    There are undoubtedly others. What do you think makes a character look weak?

    Published in: on August 29, 2007 at 9:41 am  Comments (6)  

    The Chistian Hero—Part 2

    Last October I ran a couple series here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction about creating good characters, including creating Christian characters. You can see the beginning of the first series here. I mention this because in discussing heroes, I don’t want to simply regurgitate information we’ve already discussed.

    I think Bryan Polivka‘s book The Legend of the Firefish raised the question about Christian heroes because his protagonist, clearly the person (or one of them) the reader is meant to root for, acts in a way that is different from what is common for a hero in today’s American society.

    Call it the John Wayne-ing of our culture or perhaps the Rambo-ing of it. Writing books even mention the revenge story as a plot option. Even in stories based on other plot concepts, having the bad guys “get theirs” seems to get laughs and cheers. (Think of the Home Alone movies for instance).

    And of course this take-the-law-into-my-own-hands-and-mete-out-justice attitude is contrary to what the Bible teaches. We are NOT to seek vengeance but to let God be the judge. Pay-back is His, not mine.

    The question then is, can an author make such a character work in fiction? I certainly believe so. The primary reason I hold to this view is because such a character would be Christ-like. Christ was Himself winsome. People flocked to Him and followed Him. Who wouldn’t? Free food, healing, stories, and in-your-face confrontation with the Pharisees. Not to mention that He welcomed children, talked to women in public, treated crooked tax collectors the same way He treated the important scribes.

    In other words, Christ won people to Himself because He loved them and served them and told them the truth, no matter who they were.

    At the same time, of course, the core group of religious leaders hated Him. Hated Him because of the very same things that drew the people to Him. Hated Him because the people loved Him. Hated Him because they feared for their own power and position.

    My point is this. I think a character who is Christ-like should be winsome in the eyes of readers. The qualities of service and love and generosity and kindness should not make a character look weak but winsome. Except, perhaps, in the eyes of readers who might relate best to the characters of power and influence who have the most to lose.

    Did Bryan Polivka paint such a character? For the most part, yes, he did. Who hated Packer? Those whom he threatened, not physically, but by his life and his faith. He was brave in the face of death. This certainly did not make him look weak.

    If not meekness, what then does make a character look weak, and therefore less heroic? That’s one we’ll need to look at next time.

    Published in: on August 28, 2007 at 11:01 am  Comments (5)  
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