Showing posts with label characterization. Show all posts
Showing posts with label characterization. Show all posts

01 March 2022

The Importance of Emotional Motivation in Fiction


Writers know their characters should be real, distinct, and engaging, but that's easy to say. How do you go about doing it? Focusing on voicewhat and how a character speaks and thinksis an important part of the process of making your characters come alive off the page. Another is understanding what drives the characters. This latter element played a key role when I wrote my newest story, "Beauty and the Beyotch," which was published last month in issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. Here's the teaser:
"Beauty and the Beyotch" is a story about three high school girls told from two perspectives about one thing: their struggle to make their deepest desires come true. What happens when those dreams collide?
These girls' motivations drive all the action in the story and make them who they are. So, who are they deep down?
 
Elaine is an insecure spoiled girl who yearns for acclaim and fame. She is afraid that Joni (her best friend, Meryl's, new pal) will get the starring role in their school's upcoming musical, Beauty and the Beasta part Elaine not only craves but believes is her due. Elaine is desperate to avoid such humiliation, which she fears would undermine her long-term goals.
Joni is shy, an introvert. The idea of auditioning for the show scares her. But she also badly wants to please her mother, who starred in her own high school productions and who keeps encouraging Joni to spread her wings and make some friends. So, despite her anxiety, Joni decides to try out for the spring musical.
Meryl is caught in the middle of her friends. More than anything, she wants to be a menscha good, kind person. It's what prompts her to befriend Joni, even after she learns Elaine doesn't like her, because she can see Joni needs a friend. Because of incidents from Meryl's past, being good and honest means more to her than anything else. But when Elaine's and Joni's goals collide, Meryl is forced to make heart-wrenching choices that strike at the essence of who she wants to be.
So, we have three distinct characters, each driven by something different. But are their goals substantial enough to justify their actions? To make them believable and to make readers care about what happens in the story?
 
The answer for Elaine is an easy yes. Her dream of becoming an actress is something people can understand, if not relate to. The longing for celebrity is well known in our culture, and Elaine believes getting the starring role in the school musical is a key part in her path to fame. In contrast, Joni's and Elaine's deepest desires are quieter. Joni wants to please her mother. Meryl wants to be a good person. I wonder if readers might be skeptical about these goals. Are they important enough to warrant being described as the girls' deepest desires? Are they strong enough to drive Joni's and Meryl's stories?
Thinking about crime fiction brings these questions and their answer into stark relief. When crimes are committed, we know that there can be a superficial reason driving the perpetrator as well as a more meaningful reason. For example, Bob Smith robs a bank because he needs to pay for his mom's nursing home. His reason is practical, but deep down, it's also very personal. He cannot allow himself to be the son who lets his mom down again, and he will risk anything to be a better person for her, even if it means being a bad person in the eyes of the law. What's driving Bob is personal, all about how he sees himself and wants to be seen in his mother's eyes. Yet I'm sure readers would think these needs are meaningful enough to believably drive his actions and could lead readers to become invested in what happens to Bob, even if they think his actions are wrong. 
 
With that in mind, let's return to Joni and Meryl. Just like Bob is driven by a personal reason, so are Joni and Meryl (and Elaine, for that matter). Each girl's past has turned her into the person she is as the story begins, be it a fame-seeker, a mother-pleaser, or a mensch. They're all desperate to get what they need emotionally, and those needs, those passions, those deepest desires, are believable, even if they aren't what many would think of as big dreams. They've set these three girls on a collision course, and the result is a story that I hope readers will find compelling.
So, when you are crafting your stories, think about what drives your characters deep down. It doesn't matter if their needs involve careers or more personal desires. It only matters that you make the characters feel real. Basing their actions on their emotional motivations will hopefully enable you to bring the characters to life in complex, compelling, and engaging ways.
 
Want to read "Beauty and the Beyotch"? You can buy issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine by clicking here. It's available in ebook form and trade paperback. 
 
The magazine is now edited by Carla Kaessinger Coupe, following the death last year of longtime editor Marvin Kaye. This issue also has a story by fellow SleuthSayer Janice Law as well as stories by Keith Brooke, Peter DiChellis, Hal Charles, Rebecca K. Jones, V.P. Kava, Rafe McGregor, Mike McHone, and Jacqueline Seewald; a reprint by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; and features by Martha Hudson, Kim Newman, and Darrell Schweitzer.

21 November 2021

Character References


Queen's Gambit, girl and chessboard

The Netflix miniseries Queen’s Gambit led me to check out the novel from my local library. I was charmed. Walter Tevis chronicles the professional life of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, an orphan who rises above her expectations.

Her journey reminds me of the vicissitudes of Bobby Fischer, America’s erratic genius. When Fischer faced off against his friend and relentless Russian competitor Boris Spassky in Reykjav√≠k, for the first time the US saw Fischer and Spassky’s battle televised move for move. Those of us with an interest in chess enjoyed the showdown.

When Queen’s Gambit appeared on Netflix, those days came back to me. I was immediately captivated. I’m going to preach heresy– I liked the series slightly better than the novel.

Film has advantages over words on a page and one here was the portrayal of chess on the ceiling. (You have to see it to get what I mean.) Beyond that, the miniseries offered a few subtle enhancements. For example, Beth learns Russian and happens to overhear an opinion about her… a critical opinion that gives her a chance to assess the destructive path she’s taking.

Top chess players often suffer a touch of madness, Fischer among them. The great Paul Morphy committed suicide. Few women play. It might be sexism or women may be too smart to pursue chess. The actress, Anya Taylor-Joy, perfectly portrays that touch of something not-quite-right and does it in an endearing way.

In both book and on screen, the players (her competitors), her mentors, and especially her step-mother are well drawn. Unfortunately, the novel’s sketch of her primary Soviet opponent reminds one of a boar-like Leonid Brezhnev. The movie version opted for a sophisticated, elegantly dressed family man, which carries much better.

The series outlines that male habit of being cautious of interlopers until they prove themselves. Beth’s biggest fans become those she defeats. She earns their respect, unstinting admiration and, in one case even love.

The ending of the miniseries is well done, a fitting ending to a poignant story.

But…

In both book and film, I level a criticism about a small but important lost opportunity. The story opens with Beth’s mother crashing her car into a steel bridge. Later, her childhood friend Jolene asks, “What’s the last thing your mother said to you?”

Beth answers, “Close your eyes.”

Absolutely chilling, or it would have been except both the book and the film felt they had to add background, diluting that simple answer down to nothing. Therein, I thought, lay a lesson.

Oh, the cover, Queen’s Gambit… sheer genius.

chessboard with bottles of booze and pills

28 October 2021

Setting As Character: Coda


Two rounds back in the rotation, I trotted out some notions about "setting as character," and shared a few examples of my personal favorites from the writing of writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Ross MacDonald.

This time around I'm including other examples, suggestions from writer friends which have struck me as wonderfully diverse in their collective approach. I'm posting them here in hopes of giving tangible examples of the ways in which setting is all too infrequently employed to do some of the heavy lifting of getting the author's story out there.

So read on. Hope you enjoy them!

++++++++++

“Living in Seattle is like being married to a beautiful woman who’s sick all the time.” 

— G. M. Ford, Thicker Than Water

"The blacktop road stretched empty in either direction, the sky hazy and the air heavy as a sodden sponge. The heat of the late-morning sun amplified the autumn scent of drying cornstalks, the putrid sweetness of persimmons rotting in the ditch. Insects swarmed the fermenting fruit, buzzing like an unholy plague. Sarabeth brushed away a sweat bee. She walked the long, twisting path from the house to the roadside stand alone, pulling a wagon with one bad wheel, her legs sweating beneath her heavy ankle-length skirt.

"Her little sister, Sylvie, sometimes worked the family's produce stand with her, but today she was home in bed with a fever and vicious sore throat. Their mother had spent the early-morning hours praying over Sylvie and coaxing her to swallow a concoction of garlic, cider vinegar, and honey. Mama was piling more quilts on the bed when Sarabeth left, aiming to sweat out the sickness, shushing Sylvie when she cried that she was too hot. Mama said fever was nothing compared to the fires of Hell, and maybe God liked to remind us. She said to Sylvie, but Sarabeth knew it was meant for her."

— Laura McHugh, What's Done in Darkness

"Dust when it was dry. Mud when it was rainy. Swearing, steaming, sweating, scheming, bribing, bellowing, cheating, the carny went its way. It came like a pillar of fire by night, bringing excitement and new things into the drowsy towns—lights and noise and the chance to win an Indian blanket, to ride on the ferris wheel, to see the wild man who fondles those rep-tiles as a mother would fondle her babes. Then it vanished in the night, leaving the trodden grass of the field and the debris of popcorn boxes and rusting tin ice-cream spoons to show where it had been."

— William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley

"When Chili first came to Miami Beach twelve years ago they were having one of their off-and-on cold winters: thirty-four degrees the day he met Tommy Carlo for lunch at Vesuvio's on South Collins and had his leather jacket ripped off. One his wife had given him for Christmas a year ago, before they moved down here.

— Elmore Leonard, Get Shorty

''I stared at the plaster Negro and felt a little embarrassed....Even in Cincinnati, that sort of thing had gone out with the Civil Rights Act, although I'd have been willing to bet that there were thirty thousand little Negro jockeys sitting in dark basement corners from Delhi to Indian Hill, like a race of imprisoned elves, waiting to be returned to daylight. . . . Racial prejudice didn't die in this city; it just got stored in the basement.''

— Jonathan Valin, Day of Wrath


''There's Treasure Street, and Abundance and Benefit....Humanity, Industry, and Pleasure Streets - all these in the midst of hopelessness and squalor and stone meanness....Maybe some fool put names like that on those miserable streets to give us black folks inspiration. Or to make fun of us.''

— John W. Corrington and Joyce H. Corrington (writing about New Orleans in) A Project Named Desire


"The wetlands dedication ceremony was a resounding success until the gunman showed. Alex Carter had felt happy, blinking in the bright sunlight, gazing out over the green marshy area. The gold and scarlet of fall touched a handful of trees. Where the blue sky reflected in patches of visible water, a great blue heron stood vigil, gazing down for a glimpse of fish. It was sunny now, but huge cumulus clouds were building on the horizon, and she knew that a thunderstorm would descend over the city before the day was out."

— Alice Henderson, A Solitude of Wolverines

"The sky had gone black at sunset, and the storm had churned inland from the Gulf and drenched New Iberia and littered East Main with leaves and tree branches from the long canopy of oaks that covered the street from the old brick post office to the drawbridge over Bayou Teche at the edge of town. The air was cool now, laced with light rain, heavy with the fecund smell of wet humus, night-blooming jasmine, roses, and new bamboo."

— James Lee Burke, In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead


"The sun on the grass was dry and hot. So in plunging into the wood they had a cool shock of shadow, as of divers who plunge into a dim pool. The inside of the wood was full of shattered sunlight and shaken shadows. They made a sort of shuddering veil, almost recalling the dizziness of a cinematograph. Even the solid figures walking with him Syme could hardly see for the patterns of sun and shade that danced upon them. Now a man's head was lit as with a light of Rembrandt, leaving all else obliterated; now again he had strong and staring white hands with the face of a negro. The ex-Marquis had pulled the old straw hat over his eyes, and the black shade of the brim cut his face so squarely in two that it seemed to be wearing one of the black half-masks of their pursuers. The fancy tinted Syme's overwhelming sense of wonder. Was he wearing a mask? Was anyone wearing a mask? Was anyone anything? This wood of witchery, in which men's faces turned black and white by turns, in which their figures first swelled into sunlight and then faded into formless night, this mere chaos of chiaroscuro (after the clear daylight outside), seemed to Syme a perfect symbol of the world in which he had been moving for three days, this world where men took off their beards and their spectacles and their noses, and turned into other people. That tragic self-confidence which he had felt when he believed that the Marquis was a devil had strangely disappeared now that he knew that the Marquis was a friend. He felt almost inclined to ask after all these bewilderments what was a friend and what an enemy. Was there anything that was apart from what it seemed? The Marquis had taken off his nose and turned out to be a detective. Might he not just as well take off his head and turn out to be a hobgoblin? Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sun-splashed wood what many modern painters had found there. He had found the thing which the modern people call Impressionism, which is another name for that final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe."

— G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

"I parked the Charger in the first available space, halfway down the block from the house. Roy Street was steep, like every other street running east-west this side of the hill. Before I got out, I turned the wheel so that the tires were wedged against the curb on the steep grade. Habit.

"I looked at my old neighborhood for the first time in over a decade. Unlike downtown, it didn't seem to have changed much. Two-story homes packed close together on small lots. Most of the cars were a few years old, but none of them showed signs of being permanent fixtures along the curb.

"It was cold enough that the dew had turned to frost on the thicker lawns, and condensation formed on my lips and jaw as I walked up the hill. Damp leaves made the sidewalk slick."

— Glen Erik Hamilton, Past Crimes

++++++++++

And that's it for this round! There are lots more wonderful examples out there. If you have a particular favorite, please share it in the comments.

See you in two weeks!