The Carte Blanche of a Likable Character

A while back, I was watching the M*A*S*H* series, and I had a little epiphany. It started when I realized that although Hawkeye and Trapper regularly tormented George Burns, the series always framed their actions as humorous and Burns’ actions as mean-spirited and wrong – which is essentially how the audience took it. And most of the time, Hawkeye and Trapper’s tricks were harmless. Occasionally, however, they were pretty nasty themselves.

So why was it ok for them but not for Burns?

The obvious answer was that they were playing the heroes. Sure, they were nasty to Burns, but he was a jerk. He was prejudiced, ridiculously strict, and a dangerously bad doctor, so why shouldn’t they get back at him for his nastiness to others? (Do you see the rationalization?)

So here’s the epiphany: if we like characters, we try to justify their actions even if we know the actions are wrong.

Once you succeed in making a character likeable, that character can slide into some moral gray areas, and we readers will come up with an explanation that makes us comfortable with their actions (you know, enough to make us feel like they didn’t really do anything wrong or that it was someone else’s fault). One way that authors help us with that is to say that the character was trying to be humorous. If they weren’t trying to be malicious or harmful, then it’s fine, right? Also, if we see them doing something good, it balances out the other and reassures us that we didn’t misjudge them.

On the other hand, once a character is set up as nasty or dislikable, any good they do is totally devalued. In fact, when they do something nice, it almost makes us mad. Like it’s offensive: you’re a bad guy – I don’t want to see you doing good stuff! You should be getting punished for your evil deeds!

It takes a lot to make us change our minds. The good characters have to do something truly horrific to make us give up on them. Either that, or they have to have repeated offenses without good to “erase” them. Bad guys have it harder. They have to do a lot of good (like save-the-world good) repeatedly and consistently, and even then, they may be relegated to annoying-but-not-as-evil-as-they-used-to-be. Or they might be under constant suspicion of trying to trick us (which doesn’t make them very likable).

As frightening as this idea is when applied to real life, it could be a very useful tool for writing. Imagine the possibilities once you make a reader love/hate a character. Plot twists, gritty realism, horrific character flaws, and more: taking advantage of this truly opens up the characters to go beyond the stereotypical roles of hero and villain.

Tea & Sex: The Power of Analogies

Have you ever tried to communicate an idea to someone who can’t seem to grasp what you’re saying? Your evidence and arguments are dismissed or ignored, or maybe you’re just having a hard time verbalizing your stance?

Analogies can be a great way to make a point to someone when regular arguments fail. They’re also useful for persuasive articles or videos.

I’m not talking about the basic analogy form (alcohol : intoxication :: writing : carpal tunnel syndrome) but when two things or ideas are compared in sentences and/or paragraphs. These analogies generally start with a straightforward simile or metaphor. Then, the author uses the comparison to explain specific similarities between the two.

(If you’re writing one, remember to focus on the aspects that strengthen your position – don’t forget that the goal is to make a point.)

Blue Seat Studios did a great job with this in their video, Tea Consent. Their analogy compares sharing tea with having sex to explain consent. Pay attention to how they set up the comparison and then follow through to make their argument clear.

Script – Rockstar Dinosaur Pirate Princess … Animation – Rachel Brian … VO – Graham Wheeler
http://rockstardinosaurpirateprincess…
http://www.blueseatstudios.com/
Category: Education
License: Standard YouTube License

Writing Ahead: A Lesson Learned From Exhaustion

The past week has taught me a lot about writing ahead when I can. I say when I can because, obviously, I can’t do that with  twytte (that would defeat the purpose), but I usually try to keep this blog 1 a week ahead. For a few months, I was 2 weeks ahead. This week (this exhausting, ridiculous week) was the first time I haven’t been at least a few days ahead.

Talk about bad timing.

Normally, not having anything pre-written wouldn’t be too big a deal, but this week, I was going to work earlier and staying longer. That meant anything I wrote for the blogs had to be done on my lunch break or after I would normally be asleep. Usually, I got a twytte update done at lunch. That left this one for after work and, unfortunately, after bed time.

You know what I found out? Posts that usually take under an hour to write can take more than triple the usual time when my brain’s sleep-deprived. Writing ahead could have saved me from that.

Now, that I think of it, it already has. That’s how I ate up my 2 week advantage. Last month, I needed a few days off, so I barely wrote for the whole weekend. There went 1 week. Then, I had several busy weekends in a row that ate into my writing time. I couldn’t have done that if I didn’t have the posts scheduled already.

Extra-busy weeks, family emergencies, a friend’s party, a sudden weekend getaway, a cold – there are tons of events that can surprise you and leave you with less time to write. Having a buffer relieves that tension and lets you do what you need to do without trying to squeeze in the writing, too.

Believe me, it’s worth it.

Where Do You Write?

“And the idea of just wandering off to a cafe with a notebook and writing and seeing where that takes me for awhile is just bliss.” – J.K. Rowling

Yet another thing to be thankful for.

Writing in a café may not be your style, but it is a definite favorite of mine. Actually, I love writing in restaurants of any kind. I started doing it because it was a way to get some writing in on my lunch break or when traveling. It’s also a great way to get away from housemates, a confining space, or the phantom writer’s block.

Of course, you may want to wait to try it until the Black Friday madness is over.

5 Great Reasons for Writers to Be Thankful in 2015

Yes, I’m going to be predictable and talk about being thankful on Thanksgiving. As a writer in 2015, however, there is plenty to be thankful for. Be glad I’m only going to talk about my top 5.

5 .  Novel Writing Classes

Let’s face it. Fiction as we know it is only around a hundred years old (and that’s pushing it). The fact that most colleges and universities offer writing classes for a medium that young is pretty awesome. The fact that most of those classes are taught by published authors is also a great pro for up-and-coming writers.

4 .  E-publishing

This is a total game-changer for the independent writer. Although there’s still some stigma to self-publishing, that’s fast disappearing as the market for e-books grows. Now, authors who don’t get picked up by big publishers have another option. And it’s an option that can easily make the book available to thousands (if not millions) of people around the world. That’s definitely something to be grateful for.

3 .  Free Blogs

Speaking of reaching people around the world, what do you think someone would’ve said 30 years ago if you told them you wanted to write an article and have it seen by people on 4 different continents in only seconds? (Here’s a hint: the options are “Yeah, right,” “Are you nuts?” and “What are you smoking?”) Today, it’s something we do on a weekly if not daily basis. I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty cool. And it can be free. That’s even cooler.

2 .  Other Writers

We share writing tips. We share experiences. We share products. We even share each other’s work to expand our audiences. The writing community has grown exponentially, and there’s so much to be thankful for.

1 .  You

The more I post here, the more I appreciate the people who read what I post – especially those of you who take the time to click “like” or post a comment. Maybe, it’s corny, but it’s a huge thrill to know that someone is reading what I write. Thank you.

Thank You

Srsly

Ocean’s Eleven & Learning from Other People’s Mistakes

A lot of improving our writing is learning from our own mistakes. But why stop there? Let’s learn from other people’s mistakes. If you want to try this, some of the most revealing pieces to examine are works in progress or works that were re-released.

Other than movies of Broadway musicals where the change is apparent over time (such as Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella), most often, we don’t hear about remakes that are better than the original. Well, here’s one example to get you started.

Ocean’s Eleven

The original film came out in 1960, and the remake came out in 2001. Some serious changes occurred between – not only in film but also in society. Fans of the original are likely to be unhappy with how different the remake is, but the two do have several core concepts in common:

  • an all-star cast
  • a heist on Las Vegas Casinos
  • a team of 11 men
  • a surprise twist

That’s about it for similarity. Some changes merely reflect the change in society (such as reduced smoking and less overt chauvinism), others involve the date of the heist, or who’s married and has kids. I’ll let you discover those for yourself (should you so choose). Since I’m just whetting your appetite, I’m going to focus on the big ones.

The biggest lessons to be learned from a writing standpoint are for characterization, plot, and pacing.

Characterization

Watching the both versions is a definite lesson in 1. how to build an ensemble cast without losing individualism and 2. how characterization choices can be dangerous to audience empathy.

As far as individualism, if the original cast wasn’t played by major stars, the audience wouldn’t have been able to tell most of them apart. From minimal backstory to near exact dressing habits, the characters are more or less interchangeable. Especially since the majority of them are performing the same job with the same skill set. The new cast, however, is a group of distinct individuals. They have very specific looks, abilities, and quirks, which is one of the major draws to the film.

When it comes to characterization choices, having paratroopers turn to thieves (and make it clear they would’ve stolen on a war mission) is a dangerous choice. Many people hold soldiers up as heroes, so this is an instant turn-off. There’s also no major bad-guy to counteract that.

On the other hand, the new characters are all cons and crooks, but they’re more empathetic because 1. they’re distinct and interesting characters, 2. they’re nonviolent, and 3. they’re robbing someone who is an established bad guy. Once you’re going up against the bad guy, you’re automatically in position to be a hero.

Plot*

The main lesson from the plot is that if you’re going to frame the story around action (a heist, for instance), then there needs to be action. The first movie claims to be about action but is really about watching the Rat Pack hang out. Most of the scenes building up to the heist are them standing around slot machines casting worried glances around them and generally appearing nervous and suspicious (which makes getting away with the heist less believable).

In direct contrast, the new heist takes many more layers of work and runs into more hitches up front. The intricacy of the planning is part of the appeal of the film, and it is distinctly missing in the original.

Pacing

This lesson links directly to plot. When the plot isn’t flowing well or doesn’t have a lot of momentum or urgency, the pacing lags. Granted, most 1960s films are going to feel slower than modern ones; however, this one’s pacing is also hindered by scenes that either don’t add to the plot or start to add to the plot yet don’t get resolved. The 2001 version feels much more orchestrated and focused, and every scene comes back into play by the end (which is helped by the fact that the modern stars are not required to have singing cameos).

Summary

These points are only scraping the surface of this comparison. If you have the time and the interest, there’s plenty to be learned by scrutinizing any book, play, or movie that had changes from one version to another. What did the author feel the need to change? How did that change the audience’s response? How did it change yours?

*If you want to watch and compare, you’ll also notice that some plot points are moved to involve different characters, which changes the entire framing of the story.

A.K.A. How You Learn To Write

mistake. noun. something to learn from and leave behind

Per Merriam-Webster, “1. a wrong judgment or action 2. something that is incorrect.” I like mine better.

It is how you learn to write – or do anything else for that matter. Humans learn by making mistakes. Or by watching other people make mistakes. There’s no two ways around it.

Suffering Aside, Write

I don’t know when it started, but there is this idea in the arts that you can’t be a truly good or legitimate writer/painter/musician/whatever unless you’ve suffered in your life (“suffered for your art”). The idea is that you have to experience life first-hand before you can express it in a powerful or true way.

Eh.

Like most generalizations, this one’s probably a mix of truth and misconception (or falsehood). Do life experiences inform your writing? Yes. Big events in our lives change the way that we think – they change our perspectives: from the slightest shifts to big reversals. Is that going to change the story you tell and how you tell it? Very likely. Does that mean that you have to experience something before you can write about it in an informed or powerful way?

Well,… try applying that rule to science fiction or fantasy. Then, tell me what you think the answer is.

The raw fact is that you can’t experience everything firsthand (some things, no one can experience first-hand). That’s why writers do research. That’s why they need good imaginations. That’s why learning to tell a story in a powerful and meaningful way is hard. It takes practice. It takes work. It takes a willingness to share the ideas and emotions that exist in your past or were simply created in your mind.

It takes you.

Everyone living has experiences that are unique to them that can empower writing. The grief of losing a family pet is just as real as that of losing everything: the scale may make one seem less important, but it doesn’t make it less real or able to affect the reader. That’s why we have books and television shows and movies that cover everything from bad dates to broken families and even wars.

So don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you can’t be a writer because you haven’t experienced enough. Write anyway. Tell the stories you need to tell.

Why Would I Want to Write in a Circle?

I was a bit shocked to realize that although I’ve been writing this blog for about 5 months, I have yet to talk about writing circles (oops – sorry!).

What reminded me was yesterday’s mention of what you’re best/worst at. In essence, that’s what a writing circle is designed to tell you. It’s a peer review, plain and simple: writers meet and give each other feedback on works in progress (or drafts). For those of you who’ve taken creative writing classes, it’s pretty similar if you take away the class lectures and teacher.

The biggest advantage to working with a writing circle is feedback. If there are big plot holes, characterization problems, or other major issues, a good writing circle will tell you. If you go around the circle for comments, and everyone has the same critique, well, there’s most likely an issue there. At the very least, it’s something you should take another look at and see if it’s working as well as you thought.

On the other hand, beware of letting a writing circle lead you astray on a work in progress. If you’re getting a lot of opinions or suggestions for the plot, then those ideas can distract or derail you from your original story. The best writing circles try not to do this (they stick to comments like “the fight with the orogogs breaks the rules of magic from the first chapter” instead of “this would be even better if you added mutants in the jailbreak scene.”).

Unfortunately, the best way to know a good writing circle from a not-so-good one is to go and try it. You may have to try several before you find one that is a good match for you, but at least, finding writing circles to try is not as difficult now that they’re listed online. You might even try an online writing circle instead of meeting in person. Or organize your own with friends who write.

Hmmm… that sounds like a lot of work. Is it worth it?

That depends on you. You may love writing circles and use them all the time. You may loathe them and avoid them with a vengeance. Or you may only use them when you’re stuck (like if you know that something is wrong with the story, but you just can’t pin it down). I’d say it’s worth trying a handful if only to find out whether you find them helpful.

Of course, if you have a good one, now would be a really good time to comment and recommend it to everyone… just saying.