Most projects turn out better when they’ve been critiqued, but this is especially true of stories. Even more so of stories that are meant to be read aloud—which is precisely the purpose of most children’s books.
But after the first few paragraphs of The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock, I began to figure things out as the key to the story’s “fun” became clear: alliteration. The words began to flow, the plot began to roll, and I was able to crank out a complete first draft over the span of about three weeks. With the first draft finished, I considered the hardest work already done.
(Side note: I don’t know why, but even after years of writing, I always go into each project expecting that things will run smoothly after the first draft. I always forget Hemingway’s maxim, which can’t be quoted verbatim in a post about a children’s book: “The first draft of anything is ****.” He’s right, you know. And still, after years of essays, songs, stories, and speeches, I naively begin each first draft hoping to “nail it” the first time. Spoiler alert: it never happens.)
I suppose what made me so pleased about the first draft was that I knew it had several things going for it. It was cute. It was quirky. It was clever.
But I wanted the story to be more than those things—and I didn’t realize what it was missing until someone pointed it out.
The first draft depicted Melvin floundering through each of his misadventures with roughly the same attitude as he had at the beginning, until the story ends and he finds deliverance from his mishaps. But by the end, we don’t see much of a change in Melvin’s “sole” (sorry, I had to).
“It’s a fun adventure story,” my first audience told me, “but there’s no character arc.”
Well, who expects a sock to have a character arc? I thought defensively.
But after a short period, I realized they were right.
It doesn’t matter if your protagonist is a toenail clipper (or “Stew the Missing Screwdriver,” as one of my humorous readers commented)—if it thinks and it talks, it needs to change throughout the story.
Some of the feedback might sting, but if you pick the right people to share it with early on, you can count on the quality of their input.
That being said, sharing your work with an audience for the first time can be absolutely terrifying. So here is a reminder that should empower you to open your work up to feedback:
Let’s face it: every time we write something (other than private journal entries), we subconsciously hope someone will read it. Maybe not today—maybe not even for years—but by putting it down on paper, we have demonstrated that we think our idea is worth documenting. I remember the first song I wrote took years to share with another person—and then I performed it in front of 80. Next it was several hundred. The first time I performed it though, I was utterly petrified—petrified of what other people would think, petrified that my skills weren’t up to standard, petrified of being vulnerable in front of a crowd. But you know what? People loved it. In fact, a number of them even came up to me to say that they also had written songs and felt better about sharing their own work now that they’d seen someone else do it.
This doesn’t mean the work you share will be perfect, but it does mean that more people will respect you for it than you realize. Yes, there will be some who discourage you, which is why I recommend you start with a group of people who have your back. Even if their input feels harsh, you will know that they still respect you and want you to succeed. You may even inspire them to try something new.
And that, my friends, is one of the most rewarding feelings of all.
ALSO. The results from last week’s poll are in! In answer to the question of “What you do when you encounter a new word in a book?”… Everyone said they web search it.
Anybody crack open the ol’ dictionary anymore??
Got kids? Grandkids? Nieces and nephews?
Or are you just plain curious to find out where all the missing socks go? Find out one ambitious sock’s journey by ordering your copy of The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock!
Order now and have it within 2 weeks, with FREE SHIPPING!
Before The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock, I had never written a children’s book. In fact, I don’t even have that many kids in my life to remind me how children think. In a way, this put me at a disadvantage when I accepted that challenge from my friend to write a children’s book. I didn’t have an abundance of child-speak running through my brain from which to draw inspiration, nor did I have kids around to bounce ideas off of at the beginning.
Thankfully, though, I have a vivid memory.
Along with many early childhood memories, I remember the first time I heard and learned several words. And I remembered that many of them came from books.
In fact, I can still see the pages and pictures on which I encountered new words, whereafter I looked them up in a dictionary. (Remember when we used to do that?? Personally, I’m more likely to remember a word when I physically find it in a dictionary as opposed to Googling it.)
Why is this important?
One of the reasons I had shied away from trying children’s stories in the first place was because I had assumed that they dumbed everything down. How wrong I was! That’s what comes from temporarily losing touch with your childhood during your immersion in academia. Not to say that people in academics inherently lose their appreciation for the lighter things of life, but I found that my dense diet of the classics and rhetorical theory for four years formed a rather austere literary palate. For those four years, I never trifled myself with re-reading stories I grew up on—in part, because the nostalgia was too emotional in wake of my father’s death, but also because I didn’t consider the simple worth my time. What a literary snob I became! Perhaps you can relate?
Snobs and snubs aside, the realization that books had taught me a fair amount of my vocabulary motivated me to pass that advantage on to the eventual readers of The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock.
As I said before, that meant it had to be fun for both me and the readers. If you’re not having fun writing your book, no one will have fun reading it—especially a little kid!
Thankfully, the book’s primary tool of both education and entertainment was already folded into the title: alliteration. Although you’d be surprised to hear that I didn’t actually think of using alliteration until I wrote the first sentence of the story:
Two “m’s.” Huh. Look at that. Well, what should the reader know about Melvin up front? He’s nothing special—at least, he doesn’t think so. So he’s got to be just about as bland a sock as you can get. (Here, I pictured a large white “Hanes” brand sock, which was what my dad always wore around the house.) And obviously, Melvin is one of two socks in a pair, which means his match needs a name.
Melvin was a plain white sock who lived in the master’s dresser. Melvin and his twin Marvin shared the drawer with many other kinds of socks.
This was about when I realized that alliteration with the letter “m” had to be a recurring theme—not because of a formula, but because I was only three sentences in and already I was having fun!
From there, I let the plot develop and take direction at its own pace, all the while welcoming the alliterative “m” words that came to mind. Big words, small words, medium words, smooth words, bumpy words… you get the picture. 🙂 In fact, anytime there was a summary statement at the end of a page or paragraph, I looked for the most fitting “m” word that could express the idea—and often those were more sophisticated than your mundane, mediocre “m” words. So already, just by setting a pattern of alliteration, I was able to weave new words into the fabric of the story in a way that would make kids want to know what the words meant. Also—of no small significance—the alliteration made Melvin fun to read aloud.
Just like a speech, the words in a children’s story are written to be spoken, not just read. And depending on the style and feeling of your story, the sounding of the words you choose will change.
As for me, I discovered the style of Melvin as I wrote. This happens quite often and is not a bad thing, but it means that during revision you need to smooth out any discrepancies in style and sound. It’s surprising how much the tone and cadence of a narrative can change in only a few hundred words! And the shorter the story, the more crucial it is to be consistent.
The other thing about reading the story aloud? Oh yeah, it means you need an audience… which means you need to identify people with whom you are both comfortable and confident that they will have insight to contribute. Still, though, sharing your work can be scary—which is why I’ll cover it next week in an article of its own.
In the meantime, what are some of the most memorable books you read growing up? Which children’s stories, if any, do you think impacted you the most?
What do you do when you encounter a new word? Do you web search it or turn to the dusty dictionary on the shelf? I’m extremely curious about this one, which is why I’ve included the little poll below. Please fill it out before you leave, and I’ll share the results next week!
Got kids? Grandkids? Nieces and nephews?
Or are you just plain curious to find out where all the missing socks go? Find out one ambitious sock’s journey by ordering your copy of The Misadventures of Melvin the Missing Sock!
Order now and have it within 2 weeks, with FREE SHIPPING!
TAKE THE POLL!
Can you relate?
Maybe it’s that the dog almost invariably dies. Or maybe it’s that the dog reminds me of my dog. Or maybe it’s a combination of these, along with a little anthropology thrown in.
Let’s take a look at some classic dog stories:
Now, what do these all have in common? Obviously a dog, yes. And interestingly, each of the humans in these stories is a boy. But what every single one of these books and movies boils down to is a coming-of-age tale.
In Lassie Come Home, Joe must accept the changes his family faces, and learn to sacrifice his own comfort for their benefit.
In Old Yeller, Travis must take responsibility for protecting his family in his father’s absence, setting aside his annoyance with his younger brother.
In Where the Red Fern Grows, Billy finds the courage to face daunting challenges and dangers alongside his two faithful hounds—and eventually, to let go.
In Shiloh, Marty overcomes prejudice towards his unstable neighbor, and learns to respect him in spite of their vast differences.
In My Dog Skip, Will must learn to discern between good influences and harmful ones, and to find confidence in his own identity.
There is much more to say about each of these stories, but what I want to call attention to is this:
“Of course they don’t,” you say. “What’s so remarkable about that?”
What’s remarkable is that each of these titles points explicitly to the animal in the story. An animal whose character does not change—whose character is constant. And yet the core of each story is about the changes the boy must undergo in order to become a man. What’s up with that?
This is because the animal is an agent of change—but in an inverse way.
Think about the animals you had growing up. Now think about the people in your life who have always been there for you, no matter what. What do these two have in common?
Through their unchanging roles in your life, you have learned things about yourself that you otherwise wouldn’t. Their steadiness has provided a backdrop against which you have interpreted the whirlwinds both within you and without.
My beagle just turned twelve in April. I grew up with her, and she has been a fixture in my life through childhood, the tumultuous adolescent years, the death of my father, and my adjustment to adult life. Throughout everything, she has always howled at bunnies, cried for joy when I came home, mumbled her complaints and musings from her “growlery” corner, and thumped her hind foot when I scratched her back. She also always let me cry into her fur and floppy ears on the worst days. She is snoring peacefully as I write this.
Many of you can say the same of your pets. Now while my little beagle has never saved my life like they do in the movies and books (if your pet has saved anyone’s life, please do tell!), she has expanded my understanding of love, loyalty, forgiveness, and patience. I hope she has many more years. But they always die in the stories, and I know they do in real life. All the same, this little hound has been a powerful instrument of growth—and laughter—and it’s stories like these that help capture that power.
It’s stories like these that remind us to pat, to play, to scratch, and to walk these friends of ours while we still can. Considering what they give us, it’s the least we can do.
What are your takeaways from dog stories? Do they make you cry?
If you grew up with pets, what are some ways in which you feel they helped forge your identity?
What are some of your best pet memories?
The Inquisitive Inkpot is turning 50 weeks old today!
Yes, the title of that post is a question.
You see, when I wrote that article, I erred on the side of skepticism. Having encountered multiple conflicting sources on this topic, I was hesitant to conclude one way or the other regarding the likelihood of women actually fighting alongside men in historical societies. Of course, there were some far-fetched sounding “scientific findings” that claimed to prove the existence of female Viking warriors and such, but it all seemed a bit too nebulous to accept with certainty. Until one of my former professors from Hillsdale College showed me what I was missing.
Although the media sure isn’t good at correcting itself, I endeavor to do a better job at that.
When we publish something, only to learn later that new information has been added or that our initial findings were inaccurate, we would do well to acknowledge it and share what we’ve learned since.
In December of 2019 (just months after publishing that post), the Smithsonian came forward with the discovery of a tomb that housed the remains of four Scythian women alongside battle gear used by warriors. In case you aren’t up on your Scythian history (I certainly wasn’t), this group was a nomadic people that inhabited what we now know as Siberia in ancient times. So basically, think Amazons. The takeaway? These women (or some form of them) actually existed in the ancient world.
But burial with weapons doesn’t necessarily mean that the women themselves were warriors… does it?
According to DNA tests, it does.
In Sweden, the remains of a Viking warrior discovered in the 1880s, revealed female genetics in a DNA test. This type of revelation has subsequently been replicated with numerous similar graves. In fact, modern facial recognition technology has even paved the way for scientists to reconstruct the faces of some of these women.
As with any groundbreaking archaeological discovery, I think there is room for some level of skepticism. I mean, how many “missing links” turned out to be hoaxes? More than most scientists care to admit! But when you consider the longevity and potency of the female warrior concept in human history, it becomes pretty unlikely that all of these archaeological findings have been misinterpreted.
The implications for my novel The Exile are also quite significant. If these women were in fact warriors, it means that someone like Delta (the narrator) may have lived and died, only to have the reality of her life dismissed by subsequent generations as a myth. Or to her have her life grossly exaggerated and glamorized, as most “warrior princess” books are wont to do. In this sense, I am grateful now that I did not attempt to glamorize or gloss over the harsh realities that a woman like Delta likely would have faced– because to do that would have added to the stereotypical, modernized image of female warriors, which can’t help but inspire skepticism.
But this new knowledge also makes me realize that no amount of research, re-creation, or imagination can ever fully capture the realities lived by people of the past.
What’s your perspective on the phenomenon of woman warriors? Do you think it’s modern society’s attempt to rewrite the past?
Do you think a more chauvinist society would seek to conceal archaeological evidence of female prominence in history? Please do share your thoughts on this one, especially if you’re acquainted with non-American cultures. I’d love to hear your insights!
“Stories are wild creatures. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they may wreak?”Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls
Something many people need right now, in fact.
As a freelance writer for the national radio program Our American Stories, I recently encountered this power in a new way.
In this case, hundreds of thousands of people. I didn’t consider that when I asked my boss if he would agree to an interview about his late best friend, Forrest Johnson—a WWII veteran whom my boss, Jason, had met after completing his own service in the Marine Corps. All I knew was this man’s story had to be shared.
Most of my conversations with my boss revolve around the company, but a large percentage of those that don’t are essentially “story time.” And when he gets going about his time in the marines, it almost always comes back to the man he met after eight years of active duty: Forrie. I love story time. It gives me a window into a life so different from my own, while reminding me that even a Special Ops service member had lessons to learn. And so many of them he learned from Forrie—a man over fifty years his senior.
I won’t recap the whole story in this post, which is why I’ve included the link where you can listen to the full recording.
Do you ever feel like you know someone because of everything you’ve heard about them? That’s how I felt about Forrie. After conducting this interview and listening to hours of “story time” that somehow came back to this man, I felt like I had personally known him. Heard his laugh. Seen his smile. Heard his stories from his own lips. And above all, I wanted to do something to honor him, however small that might be.
So I went to visit his grave on Memorial Day.
I went looking for Forrie’s grave in the cemetery where Jason said he was buried. Little did I know when I arrived at the cemetery that there were hundreds upon hundreds of headstones, all without any particular alphabetical or chronological order. I decided I would drive to the furthest corner, park, and start my search there, expecting it would take several hours to find Forrie. I did just that: I parked, got out of the car, and began walking toward the first row of graves in the furthest corner. I was mostly watching where I stepped because the ground was somewhat uneven and I had worn completely unsuitable footwear for a cross-country graveyard expedition. But as soon as I turned my head, there it was: FORREST L. JOHNSON. Located directly in front of my car. Next to his headstone was that of his four-year-old son, who passed shortly after he returned from the war.
It could have taken hours to find that one out of perhaps a thousand or so gravestones. My first words were, “Thank you, God.” After standing by the grave for a while, twisting together a clumsy dandelion bouquet, and recalling the hours of stories I’d heard about him, my last words were, “Thank you, Forrie.”
But standing there, looking at his headstone, I felt grief, blended with gratitude– like two wines that only enrich each other.
Somehow his children heard the radio piece. And thanks to Facebook and social media, I was able to reach out and tell them what an honor it was learning about their father and how I wished I’d known him. The story has basically gone viral within their family and friend circle. To think of all those people gathering around a story told about their father—the man who served his country and nearly lost his life, the man who poured his heart and soul into those around him—to think of these people coming together in shared grief, memory, and gratitude is the greatest reward I could have hoped for.
And that, I realize, is the power of stories.
How have you seen stories bring people together?
In what ways have you accidentally encountered the power of stories in your own life?
Neither do I—unless, of course, I’m watching a historical drama set in 1800s lower-class England, where everyone has a thick Cockney accent. Then I need subtitles. (More on this specific drama to come in a later post!)
Oh, but I learned something from this experience! It’s remarkable what watching an entire 10-part series with subtitles can reveal about the sounds you otherwise took for granted (or always wondered about).
“Heavy breathing.” Seriously? I thought it was the wind.
“Soft sobbing.” I mean, at least they’re not ugly-crying…yet.
“Indistinct profanity.” I’m pretty sure I recognized at least one of those swear words, but if you say so!
“Somber music.” Well, I knew the scene was serious, but this really takes it up a notch.
“Lips smacking.” Thank you for clarifying—I really wasn’t sure what that slurping sound was when that couple kissed. Must have been those lips.
“Plucky music.” Not sure I knew this was a thing, but I’ll assume it’s the opposite of “somber music”.
Reading a blunt narration of literally every sound actually detracted from the emotional effect of some of those scenes. Instead of feeling my heart torn in two as a couple kissed goodbye, I found myself reading up on their lip-smacking—and then laughing about it! All whilst “heart-wrenching music” swelled in the background. While the presence of subtitles didn’t ruin the plot at all, it did rob the film of its sentimental impact. Why is that?
What we hear in a film plays a HUGE role in how we interpret each scene, and yet there is no one telling us what we are hearing and how it is supposed to make us feel.
Subtitles kill subtlety. As soon as we are told how to feel, we sense we are being manipulated (film is, after all, a master at manipulating). What subtitles on nonverbal sounds do is draw attention to the factors we aren’t supposed to consciously notice, making our emotional journey somewhat flat and prescribed—not organic and personal.
That all said, I have also realized that turning on subtitles for no reason is a great way to get a laugh out of even the most “somber” moments in a film. And so I issue you a challenge!
If you dare, try watching your favorite movie or show with subtitles on. Unless it’s already a comedy, I can almost guarantee it will not be the same experience!
If you have already discovered the comedy of subtitles, please share some of the best subtitles you have noticed!!
And while plenty of psychologists and social scientists argue that our attention span is shrinking due to the A.D.D nature of modern media, our human fascination with the “brief” long precedes Tik Tok, Snapchat, and Instagram.
In a sense, the roots of the short story can be traced all the way to the first-ever “a funny thing happened to me on the way to the___” conversation. But beyond that, its more identifiable roots lie in the origins of myths and the oral tradition. Now when we hear the term “oral tradition” today, many of us in Western culture probably think of Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey—which, as anyone who has read them knows, are anything but short! But the fact is that oral tradition spans across every ancient civilization, and every society had its stories of creation and the struggle between good and evil—what we generally refer to as “myths.” These accounts are meant to express and illustrate cultural values and truths, in a form that can easily be passed by word-of-mouth from one generation to the next.
While some attribute the brevity of myths and fables to the lack of literacy in some civilizations (arguing that short tales are more easily remembered and retold), this does not explain why the concept of short stories has survived and even sharpened in recent centuries. In fact, it wasn’t until literacy began to blossom in the Western middle class during the 19th century that the short story asserted itself prominently in publication.
So what do we learn from all this?
Perhaps a minor history lesson, but more importantly, I think these facts suggest something:
Just ask yourself what you think of when you hear the term “short story.” Most of us probably think of a tightly packaged little tale, whose every word counts—perhaps even more so than in a novel. Ask any TV screenwriter if it’s harder to write for a 30-minute show or a 60-minute—the answer is usually the 30-minute show. Of course novels and feature films are incredibly difficult to write. But the fact is that when you have a limited amount of words or minutes, the audience is going to scrutinize your work with a higher-caliber magnifying glass, because they will remember more of it. If you make a blunder, they will notice! This means that every word, every phrase, every scene had better pull its own weight, which eliminates the option of “filler” and what I call “verbal flab.”
Think of the Gettysburg Address: 272 words of metaphor that earned the speech its acclaim as one of the most candid yet elegant addresses in history. Although Lincoln makes his point succinctly, he does so in a rhetorically brilliant and compelling narrative form, using the story of America’s past and present to inspire its future. Students still memorize it in classrooms today.
So, no– being brief does not mean being blunt. What it does mean is that condensing a message or story into short form can pack an additional punch that even the most distracted, media-saturated millennial might remember. 😉
What’s your take on the power of brevity?
Do you read short stories as often or more often than novels?
Confession: I read novels more, so I don’t feel I have enough scope of experience to make a judgement on this next question… But do you find that the short stories you have read are generally more powerful or less powerful than novels? Do you think this has to do with length?
In case you missed my post bemoaning the woes of the contemporary writer, I can bring you up to speed in one sentence: screens hurt my eyes.
Not just my eyes, but plenty of people’s eyes. And not just our eyes, but our ability to do our work and creative writing without a pounding headache and compromised sleep.
When I say it’s spectacular, I mean it quite literally: it’s in the form of a pair of spectacles.
Blue light glasses, they call them.
Now, either I live under a rock (which is not an impossibility, but then again we all do during a quarantine) or the concept of blue light glasses needs more trumpeting. This post has been written on the premise of the latter.
How many of you writers out there find the Muse visits you after 9 pm? Sometimes she doesn’t come for me until 10 pm, and then overstays her welcome—not only keeping me from hitting the pillow until 1 am, but keeping my brain turned on long after my laptop has powered down.
Well, my fellow night owls, there is hope!
While most screen-related eye conditions are not caused by blue light, it has been confirmed that blue light can mess with your sleep. And if you are like me, in that your late-night creativity jolts are your goldmines, then the ability to seize those moments without suffering for it is priceless. (You’ll still be tired the next day, but if you’re a night owl, that’s nothing new. 🙂 )
I have personally noticed my headaches disappear since I ordered my pair—which, if you get severe headaches from the visual glare, you know what I’m talking about. It’s pretty miserable. But over the past several weeks, I have not cut my screen time for work or for writing, and still I have experienced no pain, no pounding, and no more trouble sleeping.
As you know, I do not generally promote products on The Inquisitive Inkpot, but this one has made such a difference for my own writing life that I felt I had to share it with all of you. You can easily order blue light glasses online for any range of prices, depending on how gourmet you want to go.
But to kiss headaches and restless nights goodbye? It was worth every penny of the $17.97 I spent.
What new writing hacks have you discovered lately?
Also, if you are a morning writer, do you find that concentrated screen time early in the day messes with your body’s “wake-up” process? I’m actually quite curious about this one, because while I’ve begun mornings with a pen and paper, I’ve never dived into creative writing on a keyboard until I’ve at least had my morning coffee. 🙂
“I would watch that show,” he said emphatically. “It sure would be better than some of the stuff out there.”
On the upside, that meant my life’s recent events were interesting. On the downside, it meant they were also somewhat melodramatic—unfortunately something I had no control over at the time.
Can you relate?
While I won’t get into the details of the scenario to which my friend referred, suffice to say it had caused quite the social upset among some people close to me. It made me realize that the reason some sitcoms thrive isn’t because they’re far-fetched, but because they could happen to any of us—even those of us who try to eschew life drama with every fiber of our being.
What I learned was that, while I love a good televised or written drama, those types of events are actually quite painful in reality. We might empathize with the characters in the story, but at the end of the day, it is still entertainment. We are still being entertained by their fictitious tragedies and triumphs. So what happens when we are suddenly the characters in a live soap opera? Does the scenario lose its charm?
Usually. That is, for most of us.
The intrigue of two real-life colleagues trying to one-up each other becomes too stressful.
The drama of a real-life family dividing against itself becomes too painful.
The tension of a real-life love triangle becomes too agonizing.
The repeated rejection of the real-life underdog becomes too disheartening.
All of these elements work their way into film, and yet they are no fun to live out in real life. It’s because they involve real people with real decisions and feelings, whose lives only get one draft—no rewrites if the script goes awry.
There are some moments I remember having during the aforementioned life saga which, although excruciating at the time, I can look back now with a laugh. Conversations that literally sounded like a script. Moments when I knew that the imaginary audience of my life was gasping in shock, pity, or chagrin. Moments when I knew the same imaginary audience was rolling in the aisles with laughter at the irony of my predicaments. While it didn’t make any of those moments easier, the days, weeks, months, and years that followed gave me a clearer perspective (as time usually does) on what had actually happened and how significant or insignificant those events really were.
In short, time gave me the “viewer’s perspective.”
Much of what happened would have been laughable if it didn’t happen to me.
Now, I’m not talking about truly traumatic events or life-and-death situations. Those are not laughable, no matter whom they happen to. I’m talking about the dramatic episodes we sometimes find ourselves in, which seem like the most monumental crises at the time, but which pass and leave us wiser in the end. I’m talking about the stuff of, well, sitcoms.
It’s all just part of being human. But sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we won’t forget—and sometimes, if we do forget, we are missing out on prime comedic material. Part of healing can mean learning to take something less seriously—learning to recognize it as absurd or ironic and, instead of languishing over it, laugh at it. If we can separate ourselves from the emotions of the situation enough to look at it from the viewer’s perspective, we might just be able to appreciate some of the humor woven into our tumultuous little narratives.
Maybe it’s a part of maturing. Or maybe it’s just called making the most of a real-life melodrama.
What’s your take?
No need to share embarrassing stories (although they are definitely welcome)… but what are some ways you’ve coped with the drama of life?
Are you the type of person who creates the drama? (Which raises the question of whether drama queens ever know they are drama queens…)
Are you the type to flee drama and dramatic people? Are you an unwilling victim of drama?
Or are you perhaps the invisible audience laughing at everyone else’s drama???
We’ve all heard the adages:
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”
“You scratch their back, and they scratch yours.”
“It helps to have friends in high places.”
Now all of the above are true—I’m not here to question that. What I find a bit disturbing, though, is the degree to which this last adage has narrowed our concept of who is worth our time.
We are trained in school, by our parents, by our superiors, and by the media to always be on the lookout for strategic contacts and make sure to latch on when we find them. Who knows? Maybe the person sitting across from you can pull the strings to get you that job. Or that promotion. Or that publishing contract. Or that audition. Or… or…
You get the idea.
But what I find sad about this mindset is that it often leads us to either make compromises that we shouldn’t make or miss out on something entirely:
This is beyond peer pressure—it’s superior pressure. It’s when we find ourselves pretending to be something we’re not in order to make a good impression. It’s when we bend our moral code a little to satisfy someone else’s expectations. We can catch ourselves doing this sooner than we may think, if we believe people “in power” hold all the cards.
In short, if we accept the idea that gatekeepers hold the key to all of our success, we may end up chasing our tails or selling out on who we are. Not to mention, we will miss out other connections that may actually prove more meaningful.
While it’s great when you can get in front of decision makers, most people we meet are not “the decision makers.” Does this mean we should simply ignore them or limit our circle to individuals who can put us in front of decision makers?
I don’t think so. In fact, I think there is a danger in trying to quantify the amount of “value” any given connection can give us, because that means we are reducing other humans to economic terms of profit and loss. If we find ourselves asking, “Is this person worth getting to know?” we are in dangerous waters. How can we possibly know that until we know the person? And what’s more, who are we to measure the value of a new acquaintance by what they can do for us? If that’s the question we are asking, we’re bound to wind up with a bunch of parasitic relationships—symbiotic at best. And if mutual dependence is the main motivator, then as soon as one person no longer needs the other, the bridge will probably dissolve.
This is not to say networking is inherently selfish—it’s not the activity that’s selfish, it’s the mindset behind it.
If we are only looking for friends in high places, we will probably not have very many friends, and even fewer loyal ones.
Which is why I would encourage all of us writers, artists, and career folks to make friends in all places, not just the high ones. Because at the end of the day, real friendships and meaningful connections have very little to do with power and rank disparity and everything to do with what two people share in common.
What has been your experience with networking?
What kinds of pressures have you faced in the process?
How do you go about building meaningful connections that are also strategic?
What you are about to read is a collection of the four unspoken, yet ubiquitous, components that are essential for writing unrivaled, mind-blowing posts.
Yet, as I scoured and studied the habits of the Greats (meaning those who have thousands of followers), I began to recognize several common factors underlying many.
These Greats trumpet the merits of well-known and oft-proclaimed strategies such as writing solid content, planning, revising, and citing other bloggers. But the dirty little secret ultimately responsible for their success far outweighs these pedestrian practices: it is the four objects subliminally present in every idyllic blogger photo.
For my readers’ benefit, I shall identify each of these four mystical objects, without which one can never hope to write a truly great blog post.
Glean what wisdom you may.
No great work was ever written without the presence of coffee, tea, or some other fluid poured into a cozy-looking mug (preferably cradled in a saucer). Research has yet to prove whether the actual fluid itself is of any importance—so far all that can be verified is the positive correlation between aesthetic drinks and content quality. Those seeking exceptional posts should consider swirling some white, creamy substance into the surface of their drink to enhance its beauty and subsequently their own brilliance.
To purchase any other brand is folly; to use said device for blogging is creative suicide. Only the MacBook, with its slender, silver body and minimalistic keys can fully transmit your message to the screen. While the magic of the Mac is not an ability to conjure ideas (coffee mugs and Components 3 and 4 do that), its inherent powers of Chic infuse raw ideas with unequaled, hipster-level eloquence and efficiency.
Whether or not you use said pen and notebook is irrelevant—the key is simply to keep them within reach, as these objects are known to channel the elusive forces of creativity. Their necessity is actually rather controversial, considering that their wanton use of paper has been decried as wasteful; however, this social ill can easily be remedied by the perpetual reuse of a single, blank notebook for every blog post.
When the succulent emerged as a commonly photographed blogging asset is difficult to pinpoint—however, it likely took place in conjunction with the rise of the MacBook. The specific power of the succulent remains relatively unidentified, unlike its three counterparts, whose influences boast extensive scientific verification. What has been discovered, however, is that bloggers whose photos feature only the first three objects experience less predictable success than those who regularly incorporate a succulent into their photos. The location of the succulent, unlike that of the notebook, does seem to bear some significance.
This could mean applying a selective focus to the camera lens and placing the succulent in the unfocused zone, or one could simply sneak the succulent into the background (e.g. partially hidden by the MacBook). Consistent with the theme of subtlety, it is also recommended to choose a small succulent, lest it unwittingly attract too much attention and sabotage the creative forces it helps to summon.
I have compiled these four blogging gimmicks both for a laugh and for a point I think is worth making: When we take all of our cues from what other people do, we often become followers of a fad. I have actually learned a good deal from following certain other bloggers (who truly do put out great content), and what makes them great isn’t their conformity to a specific aesthetic, vibe, or trend.
Moushmi Radhanpara writes heartfelt poetry, among other things. Pooja shares a combination of her thoughts, poetry, and six-word stories. Ailish Sinclair posts gorgeous photos of Scotland with sneak-peeks at her historical fiction novels. Kamal offers poetic analogies and insights into otherwise mundane aspects of life. The list goes on.
I hope you enjoyed reading this little snarky entry as much as I enjoyed writing it. And more importantly, I hope you continue to create according to your own gifts, interests, and “aesthetics”—not someone else’s idea of what the idyllic blog looks like. 🙂
Drop a comment and let me know if you’ve noticed other blogging gimmicks! Or if you simply agree with this list.
Or… if you yourself have identified the mysterious power of The Succulent.
Today I was caught in a hailstorm.
Well, not by the time you read this—the storm happened on April 7.
And obviously I survived it. In fact, within two minutes of making it in through the back door, I looked out the window and saw that the pebble-sized chunks falling had turned to rain, and those on the ground were quickly dissolving.
I’ll probably remember the incident for a while, until the next time the sky decides to throw ice at me, and then that will be “the hail storm” I remember.
It’s similar with history.
People say every generation is known for something. That may be true, but what was your grandparents’ generation known for? Or their parents? Or the generation before them?
Even the greatest generations have a way of dissolving with time, leaving only a few key political or cultural figures in the contemporary memory.
The thing is, unless you manage to overthrow an entire political or social system, start a cultural movement (which everyone seems dying to do these days, so please let’s have no more), win (or start) a war, or create some physical or literary masterpiece, your chances of being remembered past your grandchildren’s generation are pretty slim. And yet we still try.
Why do we do this?
Some simply want to achieve fame, little realizing that a window of glory in their lifetime does not translate to lasting renown and notoriety. Others think they can become immortal by cementing their names in the history books. And in most cases, the underlying motivation for wanting to be remembered is quite selfish.
As someone who has long romanticized the idea of creating a work that will outlive me, I’ve given this subject some hard thought, and this is the realization I’ve come to:
Not on unreached generations, who will one day read with fascination the words we wrote or behold in awe a statue of us. But the people who see us every day, who call us every other month, who ask for our advice and give theirs in return, or even those who receive one kind gesture from us—those are the people who constitute our legacy. Oh yeah, and your children are also kind of significant too. They are the people singularly most shaped by your words, actions, and attitudes, who will inevitably bear some of your characteristics into the future.
This doesn’t mean the world will remember our name, but if we can think beyond ourselves in any capacity, we should realize that our name is not the important thing to remember. It’s what we stand for that counts.
That being said, there are brilliant novelists whose personal lives shot their story’s message in the foot– at least for those who knew them. They may have publicly championed great causes and beliefs in their books, but in some cases the only people who could appreciate the book were those who didn’t know the author. That, fellow readers and book nerds, is a tragedy.
So even if we do go on to achieve some master accomplishment that makes the history books, we should take care that our private legacy doesn’t undermine the one we’ve spent a lifetime trying to build.
But for most of us, our names will be forgotten with time. So let’s spend less of of our time building an empire, and more of it building into others.
Not that we all compose scripts, no, not that kind of writing. What I’m talking about is the fact that, regardless of what medium we are writing for, we have been compelled to do it through a screen.
There’s a number of reasons why this makes sense.
Simply put, it’s much easier to edit a virtual document using “copy,” “paste,” and “backspace” functions than it is to scribble out, erase, and rewrite entire paragraphs on a physical sheet of paper. Not to mention, it will save you from all the paper-shaming you’ll get from the green culture for wasting trees!
Starting your creation in virtual form also saves the step of typing it up later, which is inevitable for those who want to publish. (Side note: my first novel started off as handwritten. In pencil. Yup. Needless to say, transcribing 250 pages into a Word doc was no picnic.)
Does this mean that starting your story or article on a computer is shooting yourself in the foot? Well, the research (as usual) is not complete on this, but it shows some pretty consistently adverse effects on the brain development of children. The lack of research on adults could mean that, scientifically speaking, using a screen to write doesn’t inherently cripple the quality of your work.
All the same, I find myself increasingly frustrated with the amount of time I am forced to stare at a screen. Aside from the headaches and eye strain, I find it difficult to get “in the zone” for any given story when my stare is fixated on a glaring white screen. It seems to tangibly impair my imagination and ability to visualize scenes and settings—especially those in historical time periods.
While some things may not require the same level of sensory immersion or focus in order to get the creative juices flowing, I do wonder how much of writers’ block these days may be because the very tool we are using to write impedes our ability to imagine.
Is this the case for you? Do you find creative writing difficult while using a screen and keyboard?
Do you ever handwrite first drafts of something, and later transcribe it during the editing process?
If you yourself write historical fiction, how do you handle the distraction of a screen? How you mentally overcome the deluge of technology in order to stay in the zone? Please do share your thoughts on this, I am extremely eager for input!
That’s all well and good, but first we have to define “success,” don’t we?
I mean, one person may churn out melodramatic teenage vampire novels, while another compiles decades of life experience into one heartfelt story. Two very different ideas of success.
But I’m not going to propose a step-by-step formula for how to become a “successful” writer of any kind. Frankly, we should be skeptical of those who do. What I do want to share are three virtues that every writer must possess and practice in order to stick through the publication process and be rightfully proud of the outcome (be sure to check out my video on this too):
Well, some people write because they are passionately proud of themselves first and foremost, and they want everyone else to think they’re great too.
Here’s the kicker: unless your passion centers on something bigger than yourself, no one else is going to find the book worth reading. Or the poem. Or the song! Not that we shouldn’t let our personal experiences inform our writing (we absolutely should), but our motivation to write needs to come from a belief primarily in the story itself—not in ourselves.
There is a place for believing in your writing ability, but first you must believe in your characters, or there will be nothing interesting for those reading the book. (See my post on developing compelling characters.)
Stories and characters take time to develop and mature, just like us and our writing skills. This is one reason why revision is so crucial. Not only will you catch mistakes in the manuscript, but by the time you finish the first draft, you will no doubt have sharpened your word choice, flow, and character voices. It’s worth going back and making sure the first half sounds as good as the second. And when it comes to publication, whether you go through traditional or self-publishing, TAKE YOUR TIME.
In talking with one of my fellow novelists, Brendan Noble, author of the Prism Files series, it’s refreshing to hear another self-published writer who believes in thoroughness first. It’s exciting to see his series taking off—and not at the expense of the quality. Like many things, I think it comes down to a fundamental understanding of love. Do you love your story and its characters enough to help them reach their best? If submitting to publishers, do you believe in the book enough to keep sending query after query after query after query (think I’ve done this?) until finally someone takes it? Or if no one ever does take it, do you believe in the story enough to publish it without the help of the professionals? Either way, give it every ounce of the time and effort it deserves.
You probably expected the third virtue to be “pride” or something similar. Nope.
All other forms of pride can get in the way when crafting the manuscript into a masterpiece. We absolutely have to be able to take and actually seek out criticism. (See my post on revision.) I remember holding an audience feedback session after the debut staged reading of my latest play… and some of those comments stung. But you know what?
The audience was right. The script I thought was pretty near perfect had a long way to go yet, and it ended up undergoing three extensive rewrites before it was production-ready.
I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we enjoy criticism, but most people don’t like open heart surgery either.
And yet it saves lives. The fact is, every first manuscript just about needs open heart surgery before it’s ready for publication. So at least we know it’s nothing personal!
Do you agree with this list of virtues for writers? Which ones did I miss?
What are some things you’ve learned throughout your own writing process?
“Final” draft does not mean “perfect” draft.
This becomes especially (nay, painfully) clear when you see one of your works in print.
Take it from me—I published a novel last summer, later to find that there were several errors in the printed manuscript. While I still believe self-publishing was the best choice for this particular novel, I learned first-hand the value of multiple editing rounds and critical eyes.
Part of me winced when I found these. I’d given it countless pre-publication read-throughs. How could I have missed these mistakes?
I have to admit, it’s humbling to share this publicly. And it doesn’t mean I’m not proud of my book—I still am, and thankfully I’ve been able to update the manuscript with the necessary edits.
(See my post on revision for more.)
Having known the excitement tainted by surprise as I paged through my first published novel, I understand on a whole new level the value of extensive (astronomically extensive) editing. But I also understand that the world didn’t end because there were a few typos. People still liked the book. The characters still had their own voices. The professionalism of the book, however, could have benefited from more close read-throughs.
And happily, I can now say that it has!
And that’s okay!
While we shouldn’t let the fear of failure stop us from stepping out, we also shouldn’t use our natural flaws as a free pass from hard work. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that our best two years from now will be better than our best today—if we go all-in every time and commit to improving at each chance we get.
In what ways have you dealt with perfectionism in your work? Do you think it usually helps you or hinders you?
If you’re a writer, what have you learned from the process of “rough draft to final draft?” What motivates you to try again when something doesn’t turn out as planned?
In reality, this goes for everyone, not just writers.
But what’s interesting is that there’s a special term for this in writing—revising. Okay, that’s not the interesting part. The interesting part is that we view change in writing as a given—as something that is inherently part of the process if you want a product to come out top-notch. No writer particularly delights in revision, but any writer worth their salt knows that it’s an investment that will pay off in the final result.
To be fair, some of us dread it more than others, and some of us are better at it than others—but what’s consistent is that change in our external circumstances requires us to adapt, whether we like it or not.
Maybe it’s just an over-representation bias, but I’d bet that more people fear the unexpected changes in life. Each day, we spend more time in hypothetical-land worrying about what new catastrophe could strike, rather than wondering what fresh, groundbreaking opportunities will fall out of the sky.
As with many of our topics here, there are probably oodles of philosophies, psychological theories, and maybe even quantum mechanics explanations as to why we as human tend to worry about the future’s changes instead of chasing them with anticipation. I will not attempt to explain the why. I’m more interested in what we can learn from the world of storytelling.
Because here is what it comes down to:
A writer going over his manuscript knows there will be parts he doesn’t like that he still has to keep. He knows there will be parts he loves that he has to lose. He knows there will be inconsistencies to straighten out, messes to clean up, and sections that need complete reinvention. All this can sound so overwhelming! It stalls many a writer from picking up the red pen, simply because of the sheer amount of drudgery and frustration this process involves.
The determined writer uncaps the red pen and gets to work.
That’s the writer worth his salt.
How many hurdles might we overcome if we stop staring at them and just take the leap? How many wounds might heal if we stop denying them and give ourselves the space to recover? We will always be faced with changes we didn’t count on and didn’t want—not much we can do to avoid that. But what we can do is recognize what’s different, accept it, and make the adjustment. Compensate. Adapt. Evolve, if you prefer.
Because every one of us is work in progress—no one is the final draft until the day his or her life ends. That’s pretty final. We all have revisions to make, and the clock is ticking.
Let’s be writers worth our salt.
Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it? What buyer wants to walk out of a store dissatisfied?
While this little series has previously explored the parallels between storytelling and business sales, here we come to a fork in the road: because the “close” of one ought to look vastly different from the other.
Which is why I ask you to consider this question, in reference to stories:
Since when are predictable endings satisfying?
Without it, companies and products would have horrible reviews from disgruntled patrons who feel shortchanged. Because in business, you must always deliver exactly what you promise. Sure, you can exceed customer expectations by giving them what they ask for and more, but if what you give them is fundamentally different from what they expect, then you’ll be hearing about it later.
Not that you should turn a rom com into a horror film at the last moment, or that the hero should turn out to be a villain (although both have been done). What I mean is that if your lead character is the exact same person by the end of the story as he was when your readers cracked open the book, then you’ve let them down. Unlike a Swiffer mop, he shouldn’t operate the same way after purchase as he did in the demo. And it’s not because readers and viewers simply crave change—it’s because real people don’t function the same way at the end of a wild ride as they did in the beginning.
So what’s the point of all this? Why bother comparing sales to storytelling if they don’t line up at the end?
As a writer (and really, as anything), I think there is always something to be gained by considering a craft from a fresh angle. When we do something frequently enough, we can begin to think of it narrowly and to settle with what’s comfortable. By taking a new perspective, we open the door to discoveries that can help us improve and personalize our work. And while no one can give you an exact formula for creating a character arc, we would do well to think about it consciously as we write.
Because if we forget to let our character change, then our readers will inevitably forget our character.
What do you think goes into a successful character arc?
Have you had success at writing characters who change by the end of the story?
What are some books whose “close” left you unsatisfied with the lead character’s arc?
Which ones do you think pull it off well?
Do you find it unsettling when people vanish from your life?
“Depends on the person,” you say.
But in general, when people who formerly played some semi-notable or even regular role in your life leave it, you usually have a sense of why.
I find it interesting that media does not always abide by these rules.
Books seem to do this less, because they work as more of a cohesive whole, and the entire plot can be affected if a significant minor character falls through the cracks. Movie series can get a bit dicey. And TV series… well…
We’ve all heard the complaint about a favorite character getting killed off in a show. But getting killed off at least accounts for the disappearance. Classic examples: Matthew’s death in Downton Abbey, Lord Melbourne’s death in Victoria, Elizabeth’s death in Poldark, and so on. If you’re familiar with any of these, then you’ll know what I mean when I ask the following:
Julian Fellowes generally provides a clean break for any exiting characters, but this one could have used some more follow-up. The last we see of Charles, he is going on a six-month trip after helping Mary ditch Tony Gillingham.
Although the final episode of season 2 ends with her getting engaged to Alfred, she never makes a single appearance or receives a single reference throughout the entirety of season 3! Meanwhile, Alfred carries on years later at the palace, chipper and single as ever.
Not that he vanishes, but the fact that he’s still there by the time Geoffrey Charles grows up. That dog has to be at least eighteen years old, considering he entered the show with Demelza in the first episode. Now I’m all for dogs lasting a long time, but you’d think he’d show some age at least by now. My dog certainly does! But, on the other hand, considering his owners haven’t aged in eighteen years, why should he?
Don’t know these shows?
The trend of characters inexplicably vanishing goes way back! I have to admit, I didn’t recognize most of these shows, but here’s an interesting article that tallies the invisible corpses from various shows.
The fact that there are a number of such articles identifying lost characters suggests it’s not just the OCD audience members out there who find this unsettling. I think it bothers us because we crave a sense of continuity and a certain degree of predictability, both in media and in real life—which is understandable.
At least in the case of film series, each character’s reprisal requires the renewal of a contract, so it can’t be because the writers simply “forgot” to write him/her in. So why don’t they make up an excuse for their absence and weave that into the story somehow?
I don’t really have an answer to this, other than they must not consider the lost character important enough to require an explanation. Or perhaps this leaves the door open for the character to return?
One thing’s for sure, though: it’s a sign of sloppy writing. If a character is given enough screen time to develop a memorable impression on the audience, then that character deserves a coherent exit. Otherwise someone out there is going to notice it– and it’s bound to end up in an article someday! 😉
You know, when you finish it and feel like the wind was just knocked out of you—and not in a good way. There’s a number of ways this can happen:
Scenario 1: You’re already feeling miserable and you want a distraction, so you pick up a book or watch a movie you know nothing about… and somehow the experience and the storyline pours salt into the wound, leaving you worse off than before.
Scenario 2: You’re kind of coasting along, feeling “ready for anything,” so you start a book or movie that you know has some heavy stuff… only to find out you’re not as invincible as you thought.
Scenario 3: You know the story has the capacity to depress you, and so you wait until you think you are emotionally stable enough to handle it… but it ends up tugging on heartstrings you didn’t know you had and sending you reeling.
My recent experience of J. A. Bayona’s A Monster Calls somehow did more than all of these combined.
It depicted, more accurately than I have ever seen before, the critical pieces of slowly losing a parent.
The attempt to persuade yourself the treatments will work.
The attempt to keep functioning.
The underlying anger.
But most poignantly, the secret wish that it would all just end.
I think I went through about eleven tissues.
How does this happen?
It’s a strange tonic.
This is not to say that a story itself can single-handedly provide healing from any major loss. Of course it can’t. But inasmuch as it can emotionally re-break you, it can also re-heal you, if it is told a certain way and if you are ready for it.
A year ago, I could never have watched this movie, because everything was still too fresh. I would have been more sad, more depressed, and more angry than I was before. But now, for some reason, now—I was ready.
How do you know when you’re ready?
There is a lot of research out there about the grieving process, and the different stages of grief (if you want depressing content, just look there!), but it all varies depending our different personalities, circumstances, beliefs, and other factors. The thing is, we just can’t break it into a formula. So what one person finds therapeutic (though tear-jerking) at one year, another person may need seven years before they can derive anything beneficial. Or maybe never.
Some people are more naturally resilient to moving stories that would break other people’s hearts. Or some people can appreciate sadness in a story without feeling prodded toward depression. But for some of us, there’s a wound that needs to be kept in mind. I’m certainly not suggesting that we avoid anything that might make us cry—sometimes we need to cry. But there’s a difference between tears of release when something resonates with us, and tears of fresh pain when something digs deeper into an existent wound.
But if you are the kind of person who finds any comfort in stories, I highly, highly recommend this film. At some point during your journey of healing, when you are ready. It is much more than a realistic portrayal of terminal illness. It is a beautiful allegory of a much higher Truth, a much higher Being, that anyone experiencing grief is invited to call upon and, in doing so, receive healing.
Admittedly I was mostly interested in seeing Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones starring opposite one another again (after first seeing their acting chemistry in The Theory of Everything, I couldn’t pass this one by). But within the first few minutes, the inductive plot development, accompanied with character clues through flashbacks, brought together so many different concepts that I’ve spent time on recently, that I simply had to keep watching.
Who made the ascent with him, however, is where the story takes a major artistic turn. In the movie, Glaisher (Redmayne) takes his trip with the widow of a former French aeronaut—a sprightly young woman named Amelia Wren (Jones). This is where the story got a bit creative, to say the least.
It turns out that Glaisher was accompanied on this particular mission by another male scientist, Henry Tracy Coxwell. While I suspected that Amelia’s character may have been embellished, I was a bit surprised to learn that she never existed. Instead, she was drawn together by a number of real women in aeronautical science, and named after Amelia Earhart, whose adventures would not come for another 60 years.
Overall, the movie takes you on a riveting (and dizzying) journey above the clouds with these two, as they discover uncharted territory in the sky, each other, and themselves. Facts aside, it made an inspiring statement about going where no other has gone before, and pushing oneself to the highest achievements possible—all while recognizing one’s own limits.
In creating Amelia’s character, the writers portray a woman defying the limits imposed on her gender by an otherwise male-dominated field. And yet as Glaisher and Amelia climb higher into the atmosphere, they must both come to terms with their physical and mental fragility against the forces of nature. Well, actually, Amelia somehow stays conscious for almost half an hour after Glaisher faints from oxygen deprivation, so apparently she wasn’t as fragile as he was. But still, she eventually loses consciousness at 36,000 feet.
The warning here echoes of the Icarus myth. It’s all well and good to reach high (and we ought to), but we cannot forget our own weakness and frailty as humans. Not as women or men, but as humans.
A bit, in my opinion. I generally dislike politically charged movies, but in this case what stood out wasn’t the exultation of women over men, but the shared impediments and ingenuity of both genders.
While I was a bit disappointed to learn that Amelia Wren never existed or set the record alongside James Glaisher, I can appreciate the creative choice to invent her. Placing both a man and a woman in the balloon enabled the film makers to communicate a message about people as a whole:
Our unique gifts and callings ought to be pursued—but we must always remember that no matter how high we soar, we can never change our basic needs as humans.
The fact is, if you’re in my generation or younger, it’s a safe assumption that you have taken at least several. Okay, yeah, I just dated myself, but I’ve probably already done that in previous posts.
For those of you who precede my generation (millennials), I don’t mean a quiz that measures your knowledge of a character in a story—I mean a quiz that attempts to identify which character you are most like.
Think of it as a personality type quiz—except that the results are confined to the cast of characters in whatever book or movie in question.
As an eager victim of these quizzes (for better or worse), I never cease to find them simultaneously amusing and horrifying.
What about Star Wars?
Ever wondered which Mean Girl you secretly are? (I did once, and then it told me I was Karen…)
The point is, people find these quizzes fascinating—otherwise the internet wouldn’t be oozing with them. But why do we bother with them?
For a good laugh?
To pass the time in the waiting room?
Or are they really just another mind-numbing activity?
I mean, you’re not going to figure out who you should marry or what you should do for a living based off a quiz on Buzzfeed. But what these quizzes do give us is a license to do what we already subconsciously do no matter what:
The truth is, no matter the genre, the time period, the actors, or any of that, we always look for ourselves in the story. We try to find a character with whom we can identify to at least some degree, in whose welfare we become invested. (See my article on La La Land.) If we never find this character, chances are we find the entire book or movie pretty boring. Sound familiar?
As a rhetorical concept, identification receives a good deal of attention in Kenneth Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives and Walter Fisher’s writings on the narrative paradigm. In sum, Burke argues that the degree to which Person A identifies with Person B affects how much influence that Person B has over Person A. Building on this, Fisher proposed in his narrative paradigm that if an audience identifies with a character in a story, then their emotions and opinions about the story will be shaped by whatever happens to that character.
So in short, any time we see a movie or read a book, we are looking for a character who we think represents us.
Does this mean we’re all narcissistic? Maybe a little. But think about it—how would we ever learn or glean anything meaningful from a story if we never “placed ourselves in the characters’ shoes?”
We do this already any time we open a book or put on a movie, without even realizing it. But the popularity of character quizzes is a testament to this.
No matter how silly the questions or ridiculous the results (okay, my Disney villain was Jafar, which is convictingly accurate), we derive some pleasure out of whatever shallow self-examination and comparison the quiz offers. We enjoy walking through the mental paces of the questions, trying to figure out what we would do if placed in the world of the story, and who our friends would be in that world.
And even if we end up being compared to a ditzy snowman (yes, my overall Disney character was Olaf), we can at least laugh and see our quirks in a new, humorous light.
I mean, let’s be honest: any time you read a great book or finish a great movie, somewhere in the back of your mind you wonder if there will be more –unless, of course, the author is dead (and no, fanfiction does not count).
Why is it we want more? Is it because the story left things open-ended? Is it because it was a cliff-hanger? Or is it simply our voyeuristic curiosity to know what the characters do with the rest of their lives?
Whatever it is, it has led hundreds—nay, thousands—of writers into plotline pandemonium (or frankly, lameness) and character catastrophes (or frankly, contradictions).
With each new installment the writers attempt to perform CPR on a corpse, failing to realize that they are the ones who killed it in the first place.
It might feel incomplete, but if it has no life on its own, then adding Part II or even Part VIII isn’t going to breathe life into it.
At this point, I tread dangerously near the edge of controversy. I would avoid naming names, but alas, it’s impossible.
Take for instance Andrew Lloyd Weber: the man is a brilliant composer and storyteller through music. But I cannot bring myself to watch The Phantom of the Opera’s sequel, Love Never Dies (even though I sang the title song in my junior recital). Although *some* of the music in the sequel is comparably beautiful to that in the second, as a continuation of the story, it destroys the characters—not to mention, it robs any meaning from the original’s iconic “All I Ask of You.” Where is the beauty in the commitment Christine and Raoul make in Phantom if they throw it all away in Love Never Dies?
Okay, maybe I’m plunging off the edge of controversy now.
But Pirates of the Caribbean… I’ll defend the choice to make the trilogy, but I think everyone can agree that the first was capable as a stand-alone. It had a complete plot arc, a somewhat complete character arc (at least for Will), and a signature swashbuckling finish that left ends just open enough for a sequel or two. But even without the sequel, it would still have been a good film.
The hole they dug themselves into with this one was the introduction of a fourth. Not only did it have an inferior plotline, but the new characters it introduced were one-dimensional tropes pulled off the front-row shelf—even if they have the faces of Penelope Cruz and Sam Claflin. That being said, the fifth was a slight improvement from the fourth, but I don’t think they can ever match the glory of the trilogy. Basically, in making the fourth, the directors opened a can of worms they seem reluctant to close back up again… even if it would be best for the world of cinema.
And then there’s Star Wars… I won’t say much here, because I never saw the prequels and stopped watching after the seventh and Rogue One, so I’m utterly unqualified to give any assessment. But I do know the creation of the latest two trilogies has caused simultaneous enthusiasm and eye-rolling.
It makes me wonder, as do these other cases, what exactly is it that makes a story ripe for a sequel? Aside from those cases where it’s obvious that the story will be a saga (e.g. Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, etc.), what components set up a stand-alone for a second installment?
What are some stories out there that could have done fine without a sequel?
Which ones could have used a part II? And which ones absolutely should never have received a follow-up?
The first time I saw the film, I struggled simply to keep up with the plot twists—as any normal human probably would. But what I could follow quite lucidly was the development of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Dom Cobb, as the movie inevitably swerved deeper and deeper into the layers of his subconscious. The thing is, for all his cleverness in infiltrating the minds of other people, Cobb remains a fugitive from his own mind—or more specifically, what (appears to be) his memories.
As the plot of Inception progresses, it becomes clear that Cobb is running from something in his past (or what he believes is the past) while simultaneously trying to carry out his mission of planting an idea in someone else’s mind. Eventually we learn that this dreaded memory is the death of his wife Mal, which he attributes to the “fact” that he suggested to her that the life they created together was in a world of sham. While we never really figure out (at least, I still haven’t) whether Mal actually committed suicide, the part that haunts Cobb throughout the entire movie is the simple idea that he is responsible.
There is a lot to dissect in this movie, what with all the layers of reality and unreality, which I obviously don’t have the space to do here—and also just don’t have the mental elasticity to do!
Basically, if we have strong enough feelings tied to our perception of an event, that event becomes real to us and we begin to treat its memory as such. And because we derive so much of our identity from our memories, these events (whether real or unreal) feed into our view of ourselves.
We see this fact illustrated all the time in movies and books. Think about it—how many flashback scenes or reflection scenes have you seen where the character’s memories are used to show you something important about who he is? And it’s really only the emotional memories that do this, isn’t it?
That’s part of what Inception is telling us.
And while this blurring of lines could lead to all sorts of philosophical theories and discussions (postmodernism, subjectivism, and surrealism, to name a few), at the very least it encourages us to consider how much of our personal identity is based off of our emotional impressions of the past—or what our minds have construed as the past.
How has our acceptance or denial of responsibility for past events shaped our personal identity?
And what are the implications if our assessments are actually wrong? Does this mean our identity is built on a lie?
See, I thought that writing this might help make some sense of the movie—which to some degree it has—but now I’m realizing that I really ought to watch it again. Which, if you haven’t seen it, you definitely should. But you better strap yourself in, or you might get lost! Actually, just be prepared to get lost, because I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to. 🙂
If not, do NOT read any further or you will forever rue the day that you let me spoil it for you.
I briefly explained the two types of recalling that stories use in order to either reveal information or to reiterate it in the minds of the audience. If you didn’t read last week’s article, it might be helpful to get the background, because I’m going to dive right into this week’s topic:
In this type of reflection, the story takes a moment to immerse the viewer/reader in the recollection of past events/characters that we as the audience have witnessed. It is reminding us of an event or person that we actually saw or met in the story, and inviting us to remember that experience along with the character currently engaged in reflection.
But what does this accomplish?
Nostalgia, grief, regret, anger, fondness, satisfaction… the list goes on. But usually we are supposed to be experiencing whichever emotion the character is also experiencing. (I mean, how often do we see a flashback in the character’s life and think “Wow, I can’t believe he’s not over that yet”?).
Most moments of reflection only happen with characters we can identify with, because they are the only ones whose memories we consider significant. And consequently, they are the ones whose emotions we will empathize with! So basically, the more we relate to a character, the more easily the storytellers can make us experience that character’s emotions. To put it mathematically,
More relatable character = More power over our emotions.
“Okay, but where are you going with this?” you ask.
Valid question. A question it took me 82 pages to answer in my senior thesis.
Here’s where La La Land comes in.
You know that flashback sequence where Mia and Sebastian see each other in Sebastian’s new club after five years of going their separate ways? If you go back and watch the movie again, you’ll see that scene after scene leading up to this moment, we have been given intimate glimpses into their inner thoughts, feelings, and desires (especially Mia’s). These glimpses enable us to perceive the moments of fear, embarrassment, awkwardness, disappointment, and excitement that make them human. This 2-hour long process prepares us for the wild ride at the end.
It’s simply the last, most powerful moment of recollection we experience through their eyes, and it leaves us as dizzy as they are. Because after all, isn’t that life?
We blunder and soar through experience after experience and decision after decision, collecting these memories that all have different emotional associations, and the minute we stop to look back on them as a whole, we realize how tangled up everything is. This doesn’t make it meaningless, it simply makes it mixed.
So how do Mia and Sebastian feel at the end of their reflection? Well, it’s hard to say—by design.
Don’t take my word for it, read the script! The directions in the script are actually written so as to make it unclear exactly what sentiments these two people have at the end, after strolling down memory and imagination lane.
I used to think I missed something, and that was why I couldn’t decide how I felt about the ending. It was this confusion that motivated me to study the film for my senior Rhetoric and Public Address thesis. But after doing the research, after dissecting the film scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot, line-by-line, I realized my confusion wasn’t because I’d missed something. It was because the flashback sequence did its job.
There is a huge stack of research that I don’t have space to include organically in this article, but if you are even remotely interested in the overlap between film theory and psychology, I highly recommend you peruse the sources below. The kind of exciting news is that Hillsdale College is working towards publishing my thesis, so a more thorough discussion of this topic and its implications will be available before too long!
But for those of you who have already seen the movie, please let me know your thoughts!
Did you leave the film feeling satisfied with the ending, or like you’d just taken a punch to the gut? Do you think the film makers achieved their goal? What effect did the reflection sequence have on you?
And if you read to the end without watching the movie, well, shame on you. Still watch the movie though. 🙂
Carroll, Noèl. “The Power of Movies.” Daedalus, 114, no. 4 (1985): 89-92.
Dannenberg, H.P. Coincidence and counterfactuality: Plotting time and space in narrative fiction. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
Lambrou, Marina. Rethinking Language, Text, and Context. New York: Routledge, 2019.
Plantinga, Carl. Moving Viewers. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
Roese, J.N. and J.M. Olson. “Counterfactuals, causal attributions, and the hindsight bias: A conceptual integration.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 32 (1996): 197-227.
Russell, James A. The Psychology of Facial Expression. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Soules, Marshall. Media, Persuasion, and Propaganda. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.
I don’t mean staring into a mirror. And I don’t necessarily mean long, soul-searching contemplations on our inner being. I simply mean pausing to acknowledge or recall the past and its events. This could lead to a deeper thought process of comparing the past with our present, or even tracing the development of the present from the past—but it all starts with a simple pause triggered by something.
Perhaps it’s a visual object, like a family photo.
A smell that takes you back to childhood.
A song that reminds you of someone or some season of life.
Whatever it is, it temporarily immunizes you to the bombardments of the present and transports you backwards in time—for better or worse.
Maybe it’s something you don’t want to remember, but there it is, all the same. Or maybe it’s the kind of memory that makes you wish you could literally, and not just mentally, relive the experience.
I find it interesting that many stories (in fact, some of the best) do this.
We as the readers or viewers are invited to participate in that to whatever degree we have shared the experience.
This “sharing” of experience pans out in one of two ways.
In a sense, it’s a flashback whose purpose is to reveal information to us, not to recall it with us. A classic example is the flashback in Once Upon A Time in the West, where we see what Henry Fonda’s character did to Charles Bronson’s character long ago in order to explain why Bronson has been seeking revenge the entire movie. Or even It’s A Wonderful Life, in which the entire first hour and a half are, technically speaking, a flashback on George Bailey’s life in order to explain what has brought him to his present situation.
In this type of “reflection,” the reader or viewer does not actually engage in the act of recollection—we only perceive that the character is reflecting.
Take the film Up. At the beginning, we see a very brief but powerful montage of Carl Fredricksen’s married life with Ellie, before he is widowed and goes on to live out the main adventure portrayed in the story. When he rediscovers the old photo album near the end of the movie, we feel that we have lived those memories with him as he pages through. We can not only appreciate his nostalgia sympathetically, but empathetically, because we were “there” when he had those experiences. Ellie is not only a part of Carl’s memory—she is also a part of ours.
There is more to be said on this, which is why I’ve decided to make this topic a short series of posts. But for now, I want to open the discussion and see what you think about these two types of reflection that occur in storytelling.
Are certain kinds of stories prone to using one of these forms of reflection?
Are there some examples of books or movies that do just fine without any such pauses of reflection?
In either case, I think it’s noteworthy that so many stories play to our sense of memory in order to draw us in. Perhaps it’s a testament to the universally human nature of reflection, whether or not you consider yourself a sentimental person.
I don’t mean simply multiple appearances of said person in a variety of different hist-fic books, shows, or movies. I mean different works both devoted to that person, whose portrayals clash in some significant way.
Take for example the legendary King Arthur and Guinevere. Countless versions of their story have been told, many of them giving vastly different depictions of the main characters. I mean, the 2004 film stars a strapping young Clive Owen alongside Keira Knightley—as opposed to The First Knight, which embodies Arthur in a majestic-but-aged Sean Connery whose marriage to Guinevere is nothing short of cradle robbery. Oh yeah, and then there’s Camelot…
This really is no surprise, though, considering how longstanding of a legend King Arthur and his knights are.
Having first seen the movie The Young Victoria, written by Julian Fellowes (the same guy who wrote Downton Abbey!) and starring Emily Blunt, I got a very different impression of the woman whose story was later adapted in the BBC series Victoria by Daisy Goodwin. Of course, there would be some variations, as one is a standalone movie that only presents the beginning of her marriage and reign, whereas the other follows her life for three seasons (and counting).
There were definitely some points of overlap, probably due to known historical facts. In both, she is portrayed as a very independent, determined woman who spoke her mind freely. We also see her reluctance towards motherhood and her strong temper—two documented facts. But the thing that did not seem consistent between the two—in fact, was disturbingly inconsistent—was the nature of her marriage to Prince Albert.
Julian Fellowes captured one or two quarrels between the couple in his feature film, which suggested Victoria’s capacity for overreaction and irrational behavior—but it seems this is the norm in the world of BBC. It’s a rare moment when Victoria and Albert aren’t in a tiff over something.
I guess this confused me because I had never thought of their marriage being particularly tumultuous. After doing some research of my own, it seems like there might actually be something to this portrayal of constant conflict. Granted, some of these articles give only cursory (and potentially sensationalized) glances at the facts, but it made me wonder. Either the movie glosses over reality, or the show over-dramatizes reality, because the two depictions of Victoria are not entirely compatible.
Obviously historical fiction/elaboration is not inherently unethical, but it holds the power to either baptize or demonize a figure of the past.
Of course some figures have nobler legacies than others, but even the best and the worst of them were still human. When you’re telling stories about real people, the goal shouldn’t be to glamorize them beyond reason, and it shouldn’t be to simply state the cold, hard facts—that’s what documentaries are for. If you’re going to get creative with someone’s biography, it’s best to do so in a way that brings them down to earth or speculatively fleshes out their personality. Because no matter what other information might be missing, we know they were humans… and so is your audience.
This is probably an odd question, but it occurred to me the other day after finishing a journal entry. I haven’t journaled regularly in a long time. But when I paged through the spiral-bound, indigo-bluish notebook that has pencil-scrawlings from ten-year-old Shiloh and on, I noticed that almost every significant life event was in there. Not only that, but also what I thought or felt about it at the time it happened.
In a way, I can visibly trace the development of my internal character over the years.
Good heavens, at least I hope so. But why is that unnerving?
I guess because I think in terms of stories. Narratives.
In any story you read or write, you have a window of insight into each character. You may not have each character’s full biography or autobiography, but you usually have enough information to make some intelligent assessment about him.
You might know why the misfortunes befall him in the first place, while he’s left wondering.
You might see how his behavior changes as he grows older.
You might even be there when he dies.
But unless the story is told as a first-person narrative (literally documenting the character’s thoughts) or from an omniscient perspective we never know exactly what’s going on in his head.
Let’s consider historical fiction for a moment. In any fiction based on a real person, we are usually given the actual deeds of the person… explained by whatever motives the writer attributes to him/her. The writer has enough factual information to describe what the historical figure did—but, unless the person left behind detailed memoirs, the writer must infer the why. And the why that the writer comes up with is what frames the person as either good or bad within the story.
We see what other people do. They may even give reasons for their actions. But at the end of the day, we only have what they say and what they do. Nowhere are we given an objective window into their mind that shows us their real motives. We may not even observe them long enough to form a consistent impression of them. We may always be left speculating about their motives.
My journal contains my motives. If someone were to read it, they would see exactly why I made those hard decisions that marked turning points in my life. But they won’t. All they will see is the course of action I took—and the results.
People can’t read our minds, nor do they usually read our diaries. The “character” you are in life is, for practical purposes, determined by what you do. Those around us are left to deal with the consequences.
This is all another way of saying, from a literary perspective, that what we do with our time here matters. It matters because it shapes reality. And it matters because it defines the quality of our character in the narrative of life.
Imagine you’re sitting on the edge of your seat, engrossed in a movie or show. The characters are unique, the plot is gripping, the tension is building, and then suddenly your worst subconscious fear comes true—
Where did the originality go? The fresh energy?
No matter how interesting the first half-hour or so was, much of what follows grows stale, because you already know exactly what is going to happen 90% of the time.
Enter the princess… you know she’s going to fall in love with either the most eligible prince or the least-eligible-but-most-attractive outlaw.
Enter a member of the opposite sex that annoys the protagonist… you might as well save the date for their wedding.
Enter a wise old man… you know he’s going to give the protagonist the answer to all his problems, but it will just take the entire movie for the protagonist to follow the advice.
Well, you get the idea. Introducing a cookie-cutter scenario can take the wind of an otherwise unique story.
I ask this because, as both a reader and writer, I find it hard to draw the line between necessary tropes, or conventions, that establish the genre of a story and the tropes that feel like a sheet of recycled paper. One set helps raise some general expectations for the story, while the other makes the plot painfully predictable.
For instance, a windswept town with about 27 tumbleweeds rolling by gives “Once Upon a Time in the West” the familiar feeling of a Western. And yes, it ends with a gunfight, so it’s definitely a Western. But the mysterious and gradual development of the plot and characters almost feels like a Charles Dickens novel. While you have your typical handful of outlaws and gray-hats, you have no idea what they’re all going to do to each other and who’s going to get the girl in the end. And then, about halfway through, you think you know what’s going to happen based on how the trope pattern goes—only to find out you were wrong.
Then you have the cult film “The Princess Bride” (which, by the way, is equally hysterical in its novel form!). This story commits just about every fairy tale trope you can think of, and delivers you the ending you expect all along… but it intentionally delivers all this in an unexpected manner. As a satire, it never ceases to surprise you with its cheeky dialogue and self-aware humor, making it anything but your run-of-the-mill princess story.
I think this is a hard question to answer, but I suspect it has something to do with defying the expectations that a trope raises. In other words, if you introduce a scenario or a set of characters that triggers the audience’s anticipation of a predictable pattern, you have to surprise them in some way. Whether that means making the star-crossed couple realize they’re actually related (ahem, Star Wars) or having both the heroes ride off into the sunset without the girl (okay, I just spoiled Once Upon a Time in the West for you, but you should still watch it!), there has to be something that the audience doesn’t see coming. Otherwise, why should they bother continuing?
Some tropes are definitely more overused than others, but I think even the most recycled ones can be redeemed by an unexpected resolution or twist in the story’s plot.
Do you agree?
What are some tropes that make you yawn as soon as you see them? What books/shows/movies fall into predictable patterns too often?
Are there any stories that you think maintain their originality, even with a couple of tropes?
I’ve spent the past three weeks unpacking the character foils found in the TV series The Last Kingdom, and I promise next week we’ll move on to something else. 🙂 But I couldn’t help spending one more post on perhaps the most central foil relationship in the whole series: the relationship between Uhtred of Bebbanburg and Alfred the Great.
In fact, I think their constant fluctuation between friendship and rivalry makes up the main drama of the first three seasons.
Uhtred is pagan, Alfred is a devout Christian.
Uhtred is torn between loyalties, Alfred has a single-minded drive to unite England.
Uhtred is physically robust, Alfred suffers constant physical ailments.
Uhtred is passionate and often wrathful, Alfred remains cool and cunning.
Even after leading Alfred’s men into battle and fighting alongside the king himself, Uhtred struggles to maintain a stable relationship with Wessex and its ruler. As I watched them oscillate between loyalty and suspicion, I couldn’t help wishing they’d just get along. Why couldn’t they just respect each other?
Alfred recognizes Uhtred’s merit as a warrior early on, but soon Uhtred finds himself behind bars for not following the Saxon rules within Saxon territory. This becomes a point of leverage for Alfred—in fact, it marks the beginning of the cycle that keeps Uhtred coming back to Wessex again and again, despite his wish to leave. Alfred repeatedly solicits Uhtred’s sword through manipulation, even going so far as to arrange a marriage for Uhtred that will steep him in debt. Each time Uhtred gets himself into trouble with Wessex, Alfred’s “clemency” consists of making him swear service to him for yet another duration. But why does he do this?
First of all, he knows he needs Uhtred. But, as a Christian king whose authority is new, Alfred fears having to rely on a pagan whose military prowess outstrips his own. So in order for Alfred to feel comfortable keeping Uhtred close, he must keep him in the more dependent position.
Uhtred, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to be the free lord of Bebbanburg, independent of any other ruler or kingdom. Naturally, he chafes under the constant state of dependency in which he finds himself with Alfred. Eventually he begins to fear he will never be released from Saxon hold—a fate his Danish friends Ragnar and Brida frequently warn him against. And yet even after Alfred’s death, Uhtred once again promises service to Wessex: this time to see Alfred’s son Edward secured as king.
So much that they fear one another’s hold.
It’s tempting to say that they might have been good friends if they didn’t need each other—and yet they never would have willingly entered each other’s lives if they had no such need. Two such opposite men would never seek out one another’s company and confidence. They were forced to out of necessity.
And so it seems that same necessity and co-dependence is both the cause and the bane of their ever-turbulent, yet ever-present relationship.
Less than friends, more than rivals… this tension alone was interesting enough to make me keep watching.
Do you find that complicated relationships between characters make a story inherently more interesting?
What are some other books/shows/movies where you’ve seen an unending dance of tension between two main characters? Do you think this dynamic makes the story more true-to-life?
It’s easy to chock it up to a good vs. evil conrast, but it seems that the more complex and realistic the characters are, the less purely good or bad they are.
Last week we talked about how good writing in the TV series The Last Kingdom avoids typecasting characters as one-dimensional reflections of ideologies. Lady Aelswith and the nun Hild are both devout Christians, yet one of them serves as an antagonist and the other as a support to the lead protagonist—the pagan Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Although the two women hold firmly to their faith, their dispositions and roles in the story are nearly polar opposites, making their characters foils to each other.
We first meet Aethelwold as the profligate son of King Aethelred, Alfred’s brother, in the second episode of the first season. We quickly learn that, although the son of the king, Aethelwold has approximately zero chance of inheriting the throne upon his father’s death because of the consistently irresponsible life he leads. Even when he protests the legitimacy of Alfred’s kingship and promises to reform his own ways, it’s obvious that he has no intention of doing so—as he repeatedly winds up hung-over in a haystack.
Essentially, his behavior undermines his claim to the throne so that we understand perfectly why no one listens to him. As a result, he begins to look for support beyond Wessex’s borders where his wayward reputation is unknown, while using his knowledge of the kingdom’s internal politics to subvert Alfred’s military efforts.
Uhtred, having grown up as a Dane, had to earn his keep from a young age—whereas Aethelwold has used his protection as the king’s son as a safeguard for his licentious behavior. But as I looked at the two characters more closely over time, I realized they had some notable points of overlap:
A strong sense of pride.
Irreverence toward the Christian religion.
Difficulty (deserved or undeserved) overcoming others’ suspicions against them.
I could go into more depth explaining these, but I think there’s one commonality that deserves special attention because of its implications for the entire narrative: the fact that both of them have been denied their “rightful” titles.
This may seem like a superficial trait—it’s definitely a circumstantial one—but it sets the stage for every other contrast drawn between Uhtred and Aethelwold. Looking at their position as disinherited lords, we might initially expect them to see some of the same behavior as they go about trying to secure their rights.
The fact is, even though they overlap in the other areas I mentioned (pride, irreverence, etc.), the way they handle these issues and govern themselves is almost always opposite.
Aethelwold’s pride leads enables him to betray others when expedient, whereas Uhtred’s pride forces him to remain loyal.
Aetheulwold feigns piety, while Uhtred can’t even pretend to be Christian.
Aethelwold has to trick people into trusting him, while Uhtred lets his integrity speak for itself.
At one point, Aethelwold attempts to lure Uhtred into a joint scheme to recover their claims, arguing that their similar status binds them together as equals. Uhtred responds that no equality of external circumstance can make up for such an enormous discrepancy of internal character.
Although the two do not clash swords until the end of the third season, I think the development of their characters as foils throughout the series drives home this very point. Uhtred’s courage and Aethelwold’s cowardice, Uhtred’s loyalty and Aethelwold’s treachery, Uhtred’s integrity and Aethelwold’s deceit—all of these contrasts consistently prove that no man’s conduct can be dismissed as an inevitable result of the hand he was dealt.
In a sense, Aethelwold is right: he and Uhtred were dealt the same hand. But it is how they play their cards that makes one of them a villain and the other a hero.
Do you find this way of juxtaposing a hero against a villain to be compelling?
What are some other ways you’ve seen writers develop meaningful contrasts between heroes and villains?
And to be honest, I didn’t plan to when I first started The Last Kingdom, but by the time I finished season 3, I couldn’t help looking back and asking what it was about the connections between characters that made the story so rich. I’ve already mentioned that it didn’t take long to become personally invested in the characters, but all the while there was another subtle, artful web being spun: the web of foils.
Here are a couple of basic definitions:
I prefer the second definition here, because it widens the scope to include contrasts between more characters than the protagonist. This is helpful when looking at a series where so many characters are well-developed— like the Last Kingdom, where I could draw almost countless comparisons and contrasts between major and minor characters alike. There are three though that I’d like to focus on, because of their salience to the themes of the story.
After the death of his brother, King Aethelred of Wessex, Alfred receives the throne in place of the former king’s profligate son Aethelwuld—a turn that provokes Aethelwuld to constant scheming and eventual treachery (stay tuned for next week!).
From the beginning, Lady Aelswith knows that her husband’s reign is precarious, threatened both internally by dissenters in Wessex and externally by the Danes occupying large parts of pre-England. She also knows that Christianity is still young in the land, and that the military enemies of Wessex and its sister kingdoms face are steeped in pagan religion. Thus, when the Danish-adopted Uhtred of Bebbanburg enters the scene, Aelswith immediately senses a threat to both Wessex’s political and religious stability.
While we as the audience know Uhtred to be a man of his word (though a little on the violent side), all Aelswith can see is a godless heathen whom her husband should not trust. And I have to say, the writers did a good job making her character solely obnoxious for the first several episodes, as she constantly seeks to pull Alfred away from any alliance with Uhtred. It wasn’t until much later that I actually started to feel any sympathy for her.
But here we have her: a woman devoted to her husband and her God, who, for all her consdescension and narrow-mindedness, tries to do what she thinks is best. And for her, that means removing Uhtred’s influence from Wessex.
She quickly becomes a member of his party and, in time, one of his most trusted friends.
Though we know little of Hild’s back story, we do learn that she was once a mother and that she suffered abused at the hands of Danes. Like Aelswith, she is devout and wishes to see the Christian faith advance. In fact, these two are the most deeply religious women we ever meet in the show—which is why I think it’s noteworthy how vastly different their characters are.
What Aelswith lacks in exposure to the heathens she fears, Hild possesses in spades. And yet Hild, having experienced genuine hardship from the Danes, is still able to recognize the good in “Uhtred the godless.” Time and again, she defends him against the prejudice of Saxons like Aelswith who, in their religious zeal, can only see Uhtred as the devil’s henchman. Although Hild disagrees with his paganism and would like to see him accept Christianity, she acknowledges his integrity and the value of his loyal service to Alfred.
What’s interesting to me is that both Aelswith and Hild are primarily dedicated to the faith they share in common—yet the way their beliefs affect their choices is nearly always opposite.
Most times I see any religion portrayed in film, its followers are either depicted as all good or all bad: one-dimensional, single-minded characters completely defined by their faith—or rather, by what the writer thinks of that faith. If the writer disagrees with that religion, he makes all its adherents in the story diabolical and hypocritical. Or if he likes the religion, all its adherents are impeccable. And regardless of whether you find the writer’s depiction of that religion offensive, it honestly just makes the characters boring and predictable.
But by setting Aelswith and Hild alongside one another as religious equals, but opposite one another as agents in the story, it makes them both stand out as unique components in the web of characters. Not only that, but I think it drives home some central themes throughout the whole series:
Trust must be earned by actions, not assumed based on shared beliefs.
Refusing to see the good in someone because of disagreements is short-sighted.
I’m sure there are many more points to be made here, which is why I so highly recommend the series—if you like finding this sort of hidden connection. And if you either don’t mind the MA rating, or just avoid watching the unseemly parts (like me!).
So with that, I’d like to know what you think.
If you’ve seen The Last Kingdom, what other parallels/contrasts do you see between characters?
What other examples of character foils in literature or film stand out to you? How do those foils ultimately serve the themes of the story?
Also, what are your thoughts on the depiction of religion in film? What are some movies/shows that bring the writer’s bias into the characters too much? Which ones do a good job avoiding this?
Four weeks after finishing Season 3 of “The Last Kingdom,” I am still formulating my opinions on the series as a whole. I will say that as the show progressed, it became clear that the intended audience is primarily male, which is maybe why I have to say I kept watching in spite of some aspects. But obviously I found it interesting enough to persevere through all three seasons, so I’ve made an effort to break down what exactly kept me hooked.
For those who aren’t familiar with The Last Kingdom, it is based off of a series of novels The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell, tracing the unification of England circa 850-900 A.D. through the eyes of a Saxon-Danish warrior, Uhtred of Bebbanburg. While the protagonist is loosely derived from a real Saxon eaolderman of Northumbria (Uhtred the Bold), his adventures precede those of the historical figure, and thus a large amount of liberty is taken with his character. This makes for a fascinating angle on history, as we follow the fictional Uhtred through the labyrinth of politics and battles that surrounded the reign of Alfred the Great.
After the first 58-minute episode, it was too soon for me to be overly invested in the characters, but I had to know what happened next! By about the third episode, however, I’d begun to form an attachment to the protagonist and a couple of minor characters. With time, as I finished the first season and moved on to the second, I realized that my interest in the story was no longer just intellectual curiosity in the plot, but a personal investment in what would happen to the characters.
I’ll say it—I’m not a fan of blood and gore! In fact, I spend a good deal of time during the battle scenes focusing on my cherry juice and dark chocolate (a great combo for late night snacking, for your information!).
So the show is probably geared toward men, but who cares? Some of the best-developed characters are women (the nun Hild and Lady Aelswith, to name a couple), which also proves that male writers really are capable of portraying complex, believable female characters. In fact, one of the most masterfully depicted elements was how both of these women came to different convictions on how they as Christians should relate to the “heathen,” but valiant, Uhtred. (More on this next week!)
Needless to say, the series illustrated a number of qualities crucial to good historical fiction, and gave me plenty of food for thought… which is why I’ll spend the next few weeks delving into some of those themes and asking for your feedback!
So for now… What do you think are some key elements to a good historical fiction book/show?
What is most likely to make it worth your time?
When you pick up a hist-fic book or show, are you more interested in meeting compelling characters or in the events surrounding those characters?
Hopefully you’ve also had the satisfaction of seeing a good film rendition of a favorite book, but it seems that experience is less common.
Why is that?
I’ve often wondered why it is some movies based on books flop while others don’t. Sometimes it’s the director, the actors, or the screenplay’s deviation from core elements of the book. But it seems there is another factor at work, which can be harder to pinpoint:
For one thing, a book has the freedom to elaborate on the characters, their thoughts, and their backstories in a way that is difficult to visually depict. While the events of the story are usually capable of being portrayed physically, this is harder to achieve with abstract elements or thought processes within a character.
Take Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (yes, if you read last week’s post, you can tell I’m a Dostoevsky fan): while the novella has enough action that could be visually portrayed, the richness of the story comes from the internal dialogue of the narrator. In fact, if you were to watch everything the main character says and does without hearing his motives, you would completely misinterpret his actions.
On the other hand, some books with complex character motives are compatible with the medium of film. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility are both rich with three-dimensional characters whose visible actions do not always reveal their intentions—and yet both books have received successful film adaptations more than once. So it must not be solely the complexity of a book’s characters that determines its suitability as a film…
But then what is it?
There are so many possible answers to this question, and I’d really like to know what you think. I certainly don’t have a definite answer. But there is one thing I suspect might play more of a role in our assessment of movie adaptations than we realize: the story’s setting. If you’re any kind of historical fiction or fantasy fan, you probably know what I’m talking about. How many times do we give a movie a chance because it’s set in a different era or place? Isn’t there something about the mystery of another time period or world that piques our curiosity?
I for one admit that I have sat through a number of movies or tried shows whose writing and acting were sub-par, but whose costumes, music, sets, and scenery were elaborate and convincing. And so I wonder: regardless of whether a book is actually well-suited to the screen, isn’t there some part of us that just wants to see the story’s world brought to life? And if the costume and set designers and cinematographers can immerse our senses in that world, are we less likely to mind the cheesy acting and choppy script?
Please let me know your thoughts on this.
Which movie adaptations of books do you think work, and which don’t?
What other factors do you think play a role in whether a book can be translated into film?
When you hang around people, you usually start to adopt their mannerisms, turns of phrase, and attitudes. Or at least, theirs begin to influence your own. I’ll let the social scientists give us the details on how that works, but it seems this principle holds true in a number of areas—not just in real life.
This post is more geared toward the authors out there, as the central question is one you can only answer if you have some level of experience of writing:
That might sound like a nebulous question, but let me break it down into a couple of categories.
Let’s call that everything that you, as the author, fill the pages with. It’s the paragraphs of description, narration, and explication that does not occur through dialogue. Different authors (and different works by the same author) will vary in the style, flow, and nature of the text’s form—and there’s a number of factors that can explain that. For instance, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia move at a very different pace, emphasize different kinds of details, and each has a distinct tone in their narration. (This is partly, of course, due to the different audiences for which each work is intended.)
That being said, do you ever notice the form of a book you’re reading has begun to influence the form of whatever you’re writing? You might feel compelled to spend more time explaining a character’s thoughts to the reader, insert flashback sequences, or speed the action along according to the patterns of the book you have been reading. Although I have seen this effect in my own writing process, it has not happened to me as much as the second category of influence.
This is everything the characters say and how they say it. Of course, if you are writing from the first-person perspective, this will overlap with the story’s form. It seems that, between the two, this is the influence that can more significantly shape the story—depending on what parts of another books’ character are rubbing off on yours. If the only change you notice in your characters is that they start picking up similar speech patterns, then probably not too much of your content will be affected. But if they start catching the attitudes or mindset of another book’s character, then you might have some issues on your hands.
For me, I happened to read both The Catcher in the Rye and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (both first-person narratives) while writing The Exile, and there is no doubt that the voices of both Holden Caulfield and Huck made their mark on Delta. This is not to say, however, that her character or mindset changed—in fact, I had already known her quite well before picking up either book. Rather, the way she expressed herself to the reader was what evolved as I learned from both Salinger and Twain’s narrative style.
Moushmi Radhanpara at The Aesthetic Miradh wrote an article not too long ago on the question of originality: Is it ethical to borrow some ideas/elements from other authors? This got me thinking. Obviously there is a deliberate choice you can make to use or not use elements from another story… but what if some of those elements simply rub off on you without your noticing right away?
First we ought to watch that we are not conforming our plot and characters to another author’s, and second we ought to be deliberate about what kinds of books we read during the process of our own work. For example, there is a humorous picaresque novel that’s been brewing in the back of my mind for years now, but I’m currently working through Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which everyone kind of acts and talks like a psycho. Unless I want my novel to catch neurotic and dark undertones, I don’t dare do more than background research at this point!
So what are your thoughts on this?
Do you, as a writer, catch the characters of other books infiltrating or informing your own? If so, do you find this problematic or helpful?
Let’s face it: whether you’re a reader, writer, or both, having the right background music can work wonders to get you and your imagination in the mood. A number of scientists, bloggers, and authors have studied the connection between what you listen to and what happens in your brain—and let me say, there is more research out there than I can fit in this little article.
I recently read a great article by Amy Evans at Kobo Writing Life that discusses the importance of listening to music set in whatever era/culture a story takes place. This makes perfect sense, and I can personally attest to the effectiveness of era-specific music in mentally immersing myself in the story’s world.
But there are a couple of exceptions to the rule that I found, especially while writing The Exile. Perhaps you can identify.
Regarding the historical era of my music choice at these moments, all bets are off! I chronically found myself listening to “Desperado” by The Eagles while unraveling Delta’s inner conflict and deciding how much of that struggle she would actually share with the reader. Weird, I know. But I think it connects to the questions raised earlier about time period and narrative voice. Just as using some modern language can help readers relate to a character, listening to music that expresses the basic, most human elements of a character’s inner state can help the author relate to his/her own narrator.
While James Horner, Hans Zimmer, and Patrick Doyle have a plethora of music capable of both transporting listeners to a time period and stirring up emotion, it can be challenging if you have already formed mental associations with their melodies. In fact, I find my ability to distance myself mentally from the soundtrack’s original context inversely proportional to my love for the movie/show. For instance, it is because I have every line and scene of “Braveheart” memorized and engraved on my soul that I cannot easily write while listening to Horner’s bagpipes.
On the other hand, as much as I’ve come to enjoy “The Last Kingdom,” the haunting tones of John Lunn’s “Lívstræðrir” are not impossible for me to separate from the show. (Side note: maybe this is because, as a musical theme in a TV series, the occurrence of “Lívstræðrir” is not tied to any one particular scene.)
Do you ever find that listening to a soundtrack from a movie you have already seen makes the creative process more difficult? In other words, does the association of the music with another story hinder your own storytelling?
And if so, does the same go for soundtracks from TV series? Or does the recurring nature of a show’s music make it easier to distance yourself from the context?
Or similarly, do you listen to certain types of music while reading in order to help stimulate your imagination?
A lean novel is one whose words center on the story— the muscle, if you will, composed of characters and their actions. The details that do not directly impact the muscle (if excessive) add “verbal flab”—something that could be trimmed off without detracting from the essential plot and character development. For instance, if you find yourself able to skip large sections of description without missing crucial details or a hidden layer of symbolic meaning, the value of those sections becomes questionable.
I remember slogging through the 300+ pages of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, and thinking that at least 100 of them must be dedicated to the description of food: the planting, slaughtering, harvesting, cooking, and consumption thereof. In fact, by the end of the novel I felt that the subject matter I grasped best from the book’s time period was the food.
To be fair, I have to credit Frazier with his diligence of detail—clearly he has a mastery of knowledge regarding the way of life during the late 1800s, as well as the military mechanics and events of the Civil War. If nothing else, the book presents a thorough depiction of the geographical, political, and physical environment surrounding the main characters as it would have been.
All readers have varying attention spans and patience for dense detail, because on one hand we need description in order to establish the story’s world and augment the plot/characters… but on the other hand, a novel is at its heart a story, and the story occurs through the actions and words of its characters.
One way this principle impacted my writing of The Exile was that it caused me to focus on details that evoked some sort of reaction in Delta, the narrator. As such, the description of her world remained secondary to her opinion of it:
“Upon entering the town, I realized I would have a great deal to adjust to. If I had found the streets and walls of Dramin constraining, Levna drew me near to the point of suffocation. The buildings, primarily made of wood, pressed tightly on either side of the squalor that served as a road, offering but a narrow channel of passage through which people flowed like a human current…
I barely heard the voice from the story overhead above the general ruckus cry, “Look out below!” before a cascade of sludge sluiced past my face, missing me by a hair’s length. It was then that I understood with a shock of revulsion the source of the air’s odor.
Raising my eyes in search of relief, however, I saw there was little to be found, for the buildings on either side of the street rose lopsided, each story protruding outward over the one beneath it. The two sides grew like a tunnel, shrouding the town from above and choking any view of the sky. I was beginning to question the wisdom of civilization.”The Exile, p. 119-120
One novel whose description stood out to me was John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. This was because the description, although at times extensive, either directly enhanced a character/his lifestyle or resonated with the deeper themes that transcend the story. The details were intimately connected with the telling of the story, not simply with painting a vivid (although historically accurate) picture.
For writers, this poses a similar question as the one mentioned a few weeks ago regarding time-period language: how do we bring our readers into the story’s world without bogging them down?
For those of you who are writers, how do you decide the appropriate level of detail for your descriptions?
I’ve shared with you my thoughts, but how do you, as a reader, assess the value of description in a novel?
I noticed when we arrived at the longhouse kitchen that there were some men tarrying around, eyeing the women at work. I happened to glance and see Clare stirring a pot that hung over a rod in the nearest fireplace. A tall young warrior was standing against the wall, his eyes fixed on Clare. I caught the look in his eyes as he gazed silently at her, rubbing a blade of grass between his fingers. I’d seen that look before.
The woman closest to Clare approached me and my companion, receiving the water we brought, but I saw something that made me tense. That young lad took a couple steps closer until he stood beside Clare. She didn’t seem to notice him there—she simply kept stirring the pot like she was told. Uncertainty gnawed at me like dogs on a bone. I knew what was coming, but something made me stay and watch.
The warrior lifted his hand to Clare’s shoulder and slid it slowly down her back. Clare’s head turned sharply and her eyes widened on him, but she did not cringe. Instead she tried to talk.
If you read last week’s post about female warriors, you’ll remember that the entire concept of the shieldmaiden has always been shrouded in lore—to the point that historians can’t decisively prove or disprove whether or not these women fought alongside men. This gave me the freedom to speculate what life might have looked like for The Exile’s narrator, Delta, if such a woman could have existed in early medieval Scandinavia.
Let me pause here to clarify a couple of things.
First, the exact time during which the novel takes place is intentionally obscure. The prologue mentions that the kingdoms and wars precede the Viking era, but beyond that no details are given. Essentially this sets the stage for the story without pretending to give a factual account tied to real civilizations and places.
That being said, the description of clan life and warfare is inspired by the known details of Norse clans and culture. I intentionally did not include any of the religious traditions that would have likely been present—mainly because it didn’t serve the purpose of the story—but instead focused heavily on the aspects of slave life. In that regard, I can assure you that the struggle for survival Delta faces is one that any slave (“thrall,” in Old Norse) in a real Norse clan would have faced.
Andrew Lawler from National Geographic draws attention to recent archaeological findings that suggest thralls were housed and even disposed of alongside animals. The same article describes evidence of slave killings, suspected to result either from a master’s death or as a form of human sacrifice. As for a female slave like Delta, she would have in fact been viewed as a piece of property to be used for both sex and manual labor.
To be honest, this element of the novel was one of the hardest parts to write. Because her past is such an integral part of Delta’s character, I didn’t feel I could skimp on it—but at the same time I found myself struggling with the question of how much was too much. This is still a question I’m grappling.
So I ask you: when it comes to the unsavory stuff in history, how much detail should a writer incorporate?
Is it worse to under-elaborate or to over-elaborate? How does one decide this?
What are some books/movies that would benefit from a more thorough depiction of the era’s brutality? Which ones go too far?
Dodging past some battle-ready men, I glided into one of the lodges and threw the door shut behind me. Fairly ripping off my dress, I pulled on the men’s leggings and tunic that warriors wore, strapping the leather belt about my waist. For a moment I was stricken dumb with the familiar pleasure of being in warriors’ clothes once again. But the cries that sounded outside the hut reminded me of the need for haste.
Quickly I slipped my feet into the sturdy but light-weight leather boots and strung them tight against my leg, snatching up the knife that lay on the floor near the other garments. The last thing I took was the bow and quiver of arrows leaned against the wall, and then I left the lodge to go find Clare.
The Exile, p. 34
The camp was in an uproar now; Falker and Blakkrthorn swords clashed, and arrows hissed, while slaves scurried to and fro, trying to hide somewhere safe. Having not witnessed a camp raid in seven years, I’d forgotten how bloody they are. Members of the attacking clan lose themselves in the lust that overtakes and drives them to kill, to burn, to sack, and to destroy everything in their path. Homes go up in flames, wells get polluted, animals end up slaughtered, children end up dead. If I had ever been on a raid, I imagine I would have done the same.
But that question wasn’t enough to stop me—a sentiment that countless other writers apparently share. I mean, have you seen the sheer volume of warrior princess stories out there?
Number 1, because Delta is not a princess; and number 2, because she spends very little of the novel actually being a warrior. Because of this, it wasn’t terribly problematic to think that the female warrior phenomenon might be a myth.
That being said, I couldn’t help noticing during my background research a lack of solid facts in early Scandinavian history regarding women. Some archaeological findings suggest Viking women may have fought, but historians and scientists seem unable to agree decisively.
Even so, it seemed odd to me that contemporary culture would have such a fascination with the medieval female warrior if no such women ever existed. Even in shows such as “The Vikings” and “The Last Kingdom” whose main protagonists are men, you still have women like Lagertha and Brida who charge into battle alongside them.
If you want a simple yes or no, you’ll be disappointed. On one hand, it is entirely possible that the female warrior is the product of imagination. But on the other hand, we were not the first to imagine it.
The most commonly known female warriors date back to ancient Greece: the Amazons. You’d think that once you go back far enough, you’d find some hard and indisputable facts. But as Amanda Foreman points out, even the earliest references to the Amazons are shrouded in legend. Even closer to home, I found that the Norse did in fact have accounts of shieldmaidens—but their status as legends has made it difficult for historians to separate fact from fiction (see also Valkyries). Professor Joshua J. Mark sums it up, “It seems clear that the Norse culture valued women enough to not only include female deities in their pantheon but also attribute to them the same martial skills and ability to determine their own fate as men were allowed.”
What becomes clear is that, even if the female warrior is a creative invention, it is not a new invention—and so the sharp criticism of contemporary stories about female warriors (yes, even the “warrior princess” stories) is not warranted. If the Vikings fantasized about women fighting in battle, so can we. The value of a story in this genre shouldn’t be based on whether the genre has a right to exist or not. It does have a right to exist—unless you want to argue with the Greeks and the Vikings. The real measure of value lies in the story itself—the vivacity of its characters, the originality of the plot, the quality of the writing.
Is there a problem with today’s depiction of female warriors?
Is the subject simply too cliché at this point? Or are modern portrayals just too unrealistic?
“You don’t look like the rest,” Clare said, her eyes traveling over the scars on my skin.
“I was a warrior,” I told her. “But I can tell you’re not from any clan at all.”
She lowered her eyes and glanced at her sister briefly. “It’s true,” she admitted. “We did not come from these parts.”
I knew it. “Then where did you come from?”
She looked uncomfortable for a moment, then bent her knees in a strange gesture royal folk call a curtsy. “My name is Clare; how do you do?”
“I’m all right,” I answered, struggling with surprise. It was rather uncommon that someone should take interest in my personal well-being.
“This is my sister, Runa.”
I sensed it was my turn to say something about myself, but I never had to, because at that moment I heard someone calling me from outside in a most foreboding tone.The Exile, p. 3
Part of the reason I knew Delta had to narrate The Exile was because hers was the voice I could hear most clearly—her tones, attitudes, and editorials all demanded expression. Not only that, but it seemed a large part of the story’s substance hinged on her commentary and interpretation of other characters and events. That being said, however, the main challenge of writing in her voice became apparent:
The thing is, it’s not hard to identify a character’s voice as formal or informal. What is hard is knowing how to give a historical character a colloquial voice. This is especially true when little is known about the culture’s dialect.
I did my share of research regarding early medieval life and Scandinavian clans—so while the names of characters, clans, and places are fictional, their descriptions and hierarchies adhere closely to the historical reality. But when it comes to the actual languages, finding a way to make medieval Scandinavian vernacular sound laid-back and familiar would take a kind of linguistic wizardry I’m not sure exists. So the question becomes, “How do you strike a balance between sounding simultaneously historical and relatable?”
Some writers lean more modern than others, going so far as to insert a number of anachronisms or phrases that, while you’d never hear them in the story’s time period, make the characters and scenarios feel less foreign to us contemporary folk.
A prime example is Daisy Goodwin’s TV series “Victoria.” Although the costumes and accents are pretty convincing, I had to laugh when one of the dukes added, “Just saying” at the end of an otherwise elevated conversation. While most of the dialogue doesn’t drip so heavily with modern lingo, it’s still obvious that Goodwin gives her characters some current turns of phrase to make them more accessible.
Because, although some modern phraseology can lower the barrier between character and reader, it can also polarize those who want to see more historical accuracy. Because of the challenges surrounding The Exile’s setting (and because Delta’s relatability was so central), I chose to err on the more modern side—something not everyone would agree with.
And of course, if you have read/are reading The Exile, please let me know what you think about this particular aspect of the novel.
Her name was Clare. She came on a dark day when my body was still sore from its latest beating two nights ago. They brought her into camp with her sister, both of them quiet and skittish.
When I first saw her I could tell by her countenance that she was different. She carried herself in a dignified fashion, holding herself upright, but not so tall as to flaunt—not like the women of my clan. But I wasn’t with my clan when she came to me. I was with the Falkers.
As for me, I never bothered with posture or honor. I knew I wasn’t important, so I didn’t try to be.
Oh, I was dirty and base and soiled, but she tried to change me. I suppose I did change a little, if only so she wouldn’t pity me, but not as much as she would have liked. Besides, this was before all that began.The Exile, p. 1.
The truth is, when I first sat down to write The Exile, there was no question as to whose voice would narrate the novel. Even though the majority of the plot arises from Clare’s quest, the story would invariably lose some of its meaning if it were told from her perspective—or rather, the layers of meaning would change.
I think this is something that writers themselves are more likely to appreciate, as the beginning of each new story requires us to make a conscious choice: “Who is going to tell this thing?” It could be one character or several. Or it could be a voice removed from the story itself.
While there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer, we can’t deny that the choice of narrator inherently affects the tenor, themes, and even content of the novel. Imagine if a classic like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were told by Jim! We would gain all of the perspective of a mature, African American man forced to suppress his own intelligence, but we would lose the naiveté of an otherwise savvy boy coming to see the world for what it is.
What if Fitzgerald chose Daisy, rather than Nick, to narrate The Great Gatsby?
Or what if both Twain and Fitzgerald used an omniscient third-person narrator, giving us unilateral knowledge of each character’s inner thoughts?
The question of narrative perspective isn’t particular to historical fiction, but it does connect to another topic I’ll address next week that every his-fic author has to wrangle. But no matter what genre we read or write, I think exploring the different possible narrative perspectives in a novel can give us insight into why the author chose the one he/she did—which in turn can help us better understand the meaning he/she wanted to communicate.
What stories can you think of whose substance would change radically if told from another perspective?
If you are a writer, do you find yourself writing more often in the first-person or third-person? How do you decide?
“When the Scandinavian princess Clare finds herself and her sisters sold into slavery to the ruthless clans inhabiting the unsettled mainland, she meets Delta—a hardened slave girl with a history of her own. Although their morals and perspectives clash initially, each recognizes the other as her chance to escape captivity: for Clare, to rescue her beloved sister; for Delta, to return to her own clan.
In their struggle against predators, prejudice, and their own secrets, each woman must question what is worth living for and what, if anything, is worth dying for.”
When I first sat down to write The Exile I didn’t have a particular setting in mind. In fact, only after completing the first two drafts did I settle on Scandinavia as the geographical stage for the novel.
Why was that?
Even prior to writing the first manuscript, it was evident that the characters themselves would constitute the primary energy source that drove the story forward. In that sense, Delta the slave and Clare the princess could have lived in any medieval civilization, provided that it allowed for clan warfare. All other circumstantial elements (political corruption, denigration of women, and a constant struggle for survival) could characterize almost any culture in medieval Europe.
Other than the Vikings, not much is commonly known about its history—and unless you’re writing alternate history, it’s precisely those gaps that give you room to create a story. That being said, once I delved into Scandinavian history, it inevitably began to reshape and inform elements of The Exile— and let me add, there is still plenty of room for exploration.
At the heart of this process, though, I realized there lies a central question regarding historical fiction.
The truth is, some plots/scenarios can be extracted from their original setting and placed in a different time period or culture. Some characters can receive circumstantial facelifts while still preserving the integrity of their voice and personality. I am often struck by how much of a story’s plot could have unfolded in a different context, whereas other stories draw heavily on the historical setting for their content.
Take Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables: while Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert find themselves caught amidst the French Revolution, the game of chase and the core ethical dilemmas that define the story are not inherently tied to the time period.
On the other hand, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain tells the coming-of-age tale of a boy whose perspectives are largely shaped by the ideas surrounding the American Revolution. In that sense, the history is central to the themes of the story.
And yet both Les Misérables and Johnny Tremain manage to transcend their time periods in meaningful ways.
How does this happen?
From the author’s perspective, how do you know whether to choose the setting or to develop the plot first?
On the reader’s side, how can you tell when a plot was tailor-made for a particular setting?
What other stories could have taken place in a different time period? What are some whose plots/characters seem inextricable from their setting?
In any case, it seems this trend should impact our understanding of what it means to be “timeless.”
At this point, you might be wondering two things:
Chances are, if you landed on this site, you are also either a storyteller or a history geek—or better yet, both. Or maybe you’re just an avid reader of folklore, fantasy, or historical fiction. In any case, I’m glad you visited, because there’s a lot to talk about—hence the name.
By now, you’ve derived that the “inkpot” theme comes from past eras…
The fact is, no matter how documented and complete our history of a given time period, there will always be things we don’t know. People whose names were forgotten. Events that slipped through the cracks, or were deliberately left off the books. Historical purists find that problematic—I find it exhilarating, because where the known facts end is where the imagination begins.
There is a caveat to this, and it marks the line between fact-finding and storytelling. If a well-informed person reads Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl or watches Randall Wallace’s “Braveheart” expecting a 100% accuracy score, they will be disappointed—and rightfully so. Neither of these works presents itself as an authentic historical account. Instead, both invite the reader and viewer to explore a real time period and ask real questions faced by both real and imagined characters. This is the same adventure I invite my readers to join.
Each addition will open with a post related to one of the stories I have published, or genres/time periods I am currently researching—but that is just the beginning. The rest is yours. If you share the same curiosity in the past or in storytelling (either as a reader or an author), then you have something to contribute. Raise questions. Answer questions. Tell us about whatever you’re working on, or whatever fascinating gems you know about a particular era. Come join the adventure!