Emotion and Characterization in Fiction: Fear as a Paralytic

skulls-1417416-mToday’s topic concerning characterization and the common forces that motivate our characters is FEAR.

Last time we discussed love and hate. Fear can somewhat intertwine or interfere with relationships of love and hate, but of course, fear is also involved when we confront or panic over things that have nothing to do with human relationships.

There are many kinds of fear. We fear death. We fear failure, perhaps because failure reminds us of our mortality in a way few other things can. We fear being snubbed or looked down upon; in other words, we fear judgment.

Then there are phobias, which take fear to strange heights that people who don’t share a particular phobia can’t even begin to understand.

FEAR AS A MOTIVATOR: OR A PARALYTIC?

One of the biggest distinctions we as authors need to make is the distinction between the two ways fear commonly and understandably affects us.

  • Either it motivates us to take action…
  • Or it freezes us up. It forces us NOT to do anything.

Of course, as with most things concerning humanity and emotions, there is no clear cut “either-or.” Fear might slow us down to a degree, but not completely. Or it might shut us down utterly, but only for a short period, after which we are able to charge in renewed with a new sense of purpose and clear cut goals.

What we fear, how those that fear is to being actualized, what our personal strengths and weaknesses are…. All these things play a part in determining to what extent a fear is going to freeze us, or freeze our characters.

Also, fear is rarely the ONLY emotional force at play when a person needs to make a decision: to choose whether, or how, to act. It can be the major factor or simply a contributing factor that authors should take in account when figuring out what a given character would do next.

Therefore, if a character’s fear is of a type that would tend to paralysis, one really has to ask whether that tendency to paralysis is strong enough to offset other motivating factors: love, faith, anger, hatred, etc. Obviously, the more a character’s paralyzing fear is able to dominate other and opposing forces, the stronger the paralysis it will cause.

COMMON HUMANITY AS AN AUTHOR’S MAJOR CONSIDERATION

Now, I don’t think this comparison among forces is something we have to really sit there and hash out for long periods. I’m not suggesting we set aside an hour or two in the middle  of writing a scene to consider all the emotional forces at work upon a character.

That is the true beauty of fiction: when we write fiction, we write about what it means to be human. Because we ARE human. We know all the emotions our characters will face, even if we have never encountered the exact situations our characters do. Therefore, our acknowledgement and understanding of such emotional balances are often unconscious and instinctual.

When a situation is particularly complex–one of those situations from which great tragedy arises, in the true and Greek sense–it can make sense, as an author, to think things through on a character’s behalf.

So, what is “true tragedy”? Sometimes a character has to choose not between a good and an evil but between two mutually exclusive goods, each of which requires sacrificing the other: duty to family and country, perhaps. Or duty to God and to king. Something like that. But in most cases, we all know  which kinds of fear are going to stop someone cold and which won’t necessarily do that.

NOT WEAKNESS

Now, I don’t want anyone thinking I’m saying that a character (or person) paralyzed by fear is necessarily weak, or that someone who is motivated by fear, by contrast, must be strong(er).

There is a huge logical fallacy involved there. The fact is, to stare great evil in the face, for what it is, can sometimes paralyze (if only temporarily) the holiest, meekest, most emotionally strong people. You must be strong enough to recognize evil for what it is in order to be struck by its magnitude.

I was watching “Doctor Who” the other day, and I saw a great example of this. The Doctor is struck almost dumb for a moment when he realizes why it is the Daleks–his greatest enemies, who live only to destroy all life forms that are not Dalek–do not destroy mad or “broken” Dalek life.

It is because to the Daleks, the hatred that all Dalek life exemplifies is beautiful.

The fact that the Daleks can see beauty and honor and awe in hatred is enough to freeze him in horrified awe, not because he is weak, but because he is able to see how truly twisted such an idea (or ideal) is.

So, what are your favorite examples from films or novels of paralyzing fear? Does anything come to mind? Maybe Luke Skywalker at Darth Vader’s classic revelation?

I’d love to get a conversation going about this topic. And don’t forget, if you enjoyed this post, to stop by again for my next post, which will explore when and how fear can motivate a character.

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

 

On Making Sure Your Characters Aren’t MIS-motivated by Love and Hate

flames

It’s so interesting how both love and hate can be symbolized by a blazing fire….

Today I want to start of series of posts on the forces that motivate characters, and I’d like to start with some reflections on topics that are often overdone, overemphasized, made cliche, or glossed over because they are such basic human emotions: love and hate.

I understand how cliche an author’s treatment of love and hatred can become in fiction. I understand it well enough that I feel like this post is a big risk. I worry that I can only give a cliche treatment of such a topic. So please bear with me. I think if we can cut through the cliche there’s a lot of consider.

The first thing that occurred to as a direction to take this post was the quote from BBC’s “Sherlock” that says:

Bitterness is a paralytic. Love is a much more vicious motivator.

I think that is very true, even self-evident upon a little reflection, so I don’t want to say too much about that. It’s quite true that love doesn’t merely turn people into sappy, defenseless schmucks or (to paint a better picture) sacrificial saints, although it can. It’s also quite true that both the schmuck and the (perfect) saint are very, very difficult characters to write in an original, interesting way.

I’d rather focus on another, far more common quote:

There’s a thin line between love and hate.

Don’t worry; I’m not getting into love-hate relationships here. The thing that strikes me reflecting on this quote is this: We are often blind when we deal with or judge ourselves, but really, the qualities and the tendencies we hate the most in others are the ones we hate in ourselves and don’t want to recognize as part of us.

To really boil my point down–and I know this loses a lot of subtlety and complexity, but it works as a basic summary– we want to respect ourselves. We often prefer to focus on our strengths and so we sometimes ignore our weaknesses. And we hate when someone who shares those weaknesses reminds us about them.

I definitely think this is true in my case, if nothing else. I hate self-pity because I’m prone to it. I hate when people blow up about the little things because I tend to be far too serious. Now, I don’t hold grudges. And I don’t hold little things that people do against them; but I do let little inconveniences bug me more than I should.

Anyway, this fact can hold true for characters. And I think it works best in fiction when it’s true in a subtle way, or subtly hinted at rather than really blasted to shreds.

I’m realizing that this is what I’m trying to pull off in my new companion piece to the Herezoth trilogy. It tells the story of “The Crimson League”-well, of sorcerer Zalski Forzythe’s coup–from the point of view of a palace servant who supports him.

She is motivated by a lot of things, but mainly by how much she hates the hypocrisy of her nobleman father, who will have nothing to do with her because she’s a bastard. She loathes him for all the flaws common to most of the ruling class that he exhibits.

What I think, though, that she really loathes is that she is a part of the noble class, or should be. She hates that she can identify with him. She loathes how a part of her she always denies does long for the things he has: the security, the luxury, the power.

I’m excited that I’ve realized this about Verony. I don’t think she merely wants revenge on him. I think the hatred that motivates her runs deeper; I think that at the core she really does hate that she doesn’t hate him more, because she recognizes that she wants the life he has.

Now, I’m hoping to reflect this under the surface.

  • I don’t plan to have any character outright accuse Verony of longing for what her father has, or necessarily even have Verony understand or recognize it.
  • I hope to demonstrate this in subtle ways. Perhaps Verony can make a throwaway comment or two about a group less prestigious than hers. Rather than have her say, “I want that life,” or “I belong there” and look like a petulant, jealous child, I’ll have her legitimately ask: “Why does he deserve those things, and not me?”

The difference there is subtle, certainly, but it’s real. And it’s important. It’s the difference between a surface-level recognition of jealousy and a deeper reflection upon a true injustice and the innate equality of all humanity. It adds a layer of complexity and makes Verony–if nothing else–a character I can respect just a smidge more.

So, what examples in literature of love and hate as motivators are your favorites? How do you try to work and balance love and hate in your writing? Any thoughts?

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

One Thing Authors Shouldn’t Leave Out of A Story’s “Big Moment”

Just because a character is acting quickly, or must REact, doesn't mean she doesn't have a real motivation for the choice she makes.

Just because a character is acting quickly, or must REact, doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a real motivation for the choice she makes.

Today’s post is about the big moments in fiction–the action-packed, “everything is changing because of what is happening” moments–and about one thing in particular that authors shouldn’t leave out when writing such a vital passage.

What inspired this post was reflecting on why I am not, in general, a huge fan of the Harry Potter films (especially the 3rd and 4th) when I love Rowling’s books as much as I do and they have impacted my life and writing as much as they have.

The answer, I realized, is particularly clear in the case of the fourth film, based upon the fourth HP book, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” (No spoiler alert necessary, I promise, though I assume that by now, most people who have any intention of reading the HP series have done so.)

THE EMOTIONAL IMPACT

I was incredibly, horribly–perhaps almost inexpressibly–let down by the fourth HP movie. It wasn’t JUST that the first half hour was so jumpy that it made little sense. My major problem was that the screenwriters, editors, and producers tried to pack SO MUCH of the story into the film that they had to condense everything.

They condensed the “Big Moment” at the end as well. And while they kept the plot largely intact, the plot hardly affected me it should have or as I expected it to. The reason?

They condensed the “Big Moment” by cutting almost all sense of emotion, of emotional implication. Now, I understand that it is much, much more difficult in film to delve into thoughts and feelings, to demonstrate fear and doubt and consolation and courage. It is harder to show what precisely is motivating a character when he has to make a big decision a very small amount of time.

Still, the “Big Moment” of book 4 is literally the halfway point of the entire series. It is a BIG moment in every sense of the phrase. It’s a moment that changes the course of the rest of the series, perhaps of Harry’s life. Without giving spoilers, you could say it epitomizes the idea of a life-shattering event.

That means it is an emotional moment. And the movie, for me, did NOT portray that aspect of the plot. In contrast, Rowling’s narrator gets inside Harry’s head.

  • We can see Harry find courage in the midst of a very real threat. We see his mental steps, follow his thought process, through the course of very exciting and engaging events that nonetheless do not swallow human issues that are in some sense larger: Who is Harry at heart? What is courage? How will Harry respond when everything he claims to be is tested? Why does any of this matter?
  • Rowling gives the emotional aftermath of the “big moment”–as characters (and especially Harry) react and begin to move forward–adequate and developed treatment. This drives home how big a moment the big moment was. Rowling puts the big moment in perspective by showing its immediate, tumultuous effects. However, the movie completely glosses over any emotional trauma. This left me unsure about how much what had happened REALLY did matter.
  • Rowling’s narrator does not rush the pace of the end of “Goblet of Fire.” And that feels somber and rightly respectful. It gives the reader as well as the characters a chance to digest the big events. The movie just blows through everything, because…. well, this movie is already almost three hours long, DANG IT! We need to wrap things up!

Now, before any fans of the HP movies have a visceral reaction, or any writers want to respond in confusion or disagreement to what I’m saying, let me make a few more points.

  • I’m not saying that a big moment has to stop, or pause, or even considerably “slow” its pacing in order to inject emotional or subjective content. I’m not even saying that there needs to be a 50/50 balance between action and thought/emotion.
  • My major point in this post is this: a moment in fiction big enough to constitute becoming a “big moment” will necessarily have an emotional impact on your characters. And that needs to be recognized. Maybe that recognition isn’t feasible in the midst of action. Maybe adrenaline is pumping and there is honestly no time to think or plan. Your characters realistically need to REACT. Nothing more. But after the fact, they will face their emotions.
  • I do understand that SOMETHING had to be cut to make “Goblet of Fire” into a movie. Unfortunately, what I feel the moviemakers ended up sacrificing was the story’s heart. All of its heart. They kept the plot without any of its commentary on the human condition. At least, that’s how it felt to me. Maybe you don’t feel the movie removed the heart of the story, and that’s certainly a valid opinion. I respect it; I just feel differently. At least we can find common ground in saying that, theoretically, it’s never a good idea for a film to cut the heart of the story it’s based upon.

So, how do you try to keep emotion–highlighting things like courage, fear, doubt, pride, anger, humility– present in some kind of balance with plot and action in the midst of a big moment? Is this something you are able to do instinctively? Do you find yourself toning some things down or drawing other things out during editing?

Which side you prefer to weigh heavier in your balance: the emotional aspects or the action aspects?

And if you’ve seen the movie “Goblet of Fire,” do you agree or disagree with my assessment of how it handles the big moment?

RELATED POSTS:

Is your “big moment” big enough to satisfy readers?

On dispersing “high tension” scenes throughout your novel

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

AUTHORS: Four Reasons We Sometimes Write (Too) Slowly

escargot-2-1382762-mWe authors love to write: and sometimes we write slowly. Sometimes that’s intentional, part of our personal process. Other times, it’s indicative of obstacles getting the best of us.

In exciting news, I have begun to balance preparing the Herezoth Trilogy’s second edition for an Autumn release–I hope to have a date soon, so stay posted!–with starting a first draft of a companion piece that tells the story of Zalski’s coup of Herezoth from the point of view of one of his supporters, a servant girl in the Palace named Verony.

This has gotten me frustrated at how SLOW the process is going. I mean, WRITING. Actually WRITING again after doing nothing but editing for so ridiculously long. Looking back, I haven’t written a first draft of something fiction-y since NaNoWriMo 2012. 2012!!!

Naturally, I’ve been examining why things are going slowly, and trying to determine whether that’s a problem or it’s just how I create. All three books in my Herezoth trilogy had long pauses and slow progress. But I ended up happy with the results. I plowed through my NaNoWriMo novel in 2o12 and am convinced it is so dreadful I can never make anything of it. (At least it’s proven good fodder and given me some characters for my new first draft.)

ANYWAY, for good or bad (or for… neutrality? neither?) here are some of the reasons writing is going slowly for me, and might be going slowly for you too.

  • The transition from editing to writing again. This switch is always a transition. I’m going from working three novels that were more or less cohesive already to the grand mess that is a first draft. The difference in quality is obvious, and I can’t help but mark it. It makes me want to fix it. Which leads to….
  • Perfectionism. Because perfectionism is always a paralyzer. A sedative. It stops you in your tracks.
  • Overthinking. Which is different than perfectionism. If nothing else, it’s a different “shade” of what we call “perfectionism.” For me, it’s the difference between being afraid of making any mistake and being afraid of making a monster error. There is a big difference between (1) wanting things to be perfect and (2) just wanting to make sure you aren’t screwing up a major, huge, early choice your protagonist has to make: a choice that, if you get wrong, you’ll have to rewrite everything. That’s not fun. And I don’t want to go to there. So I end up going nowhere.
  • Not a lot of prepwork. Some writers like to wing it. That’s why I didn’t say, “not ENOUGH prepwork.” Is it possible, when we are writing slowly, that we could benefit from more detailed, organized prewriting? Perhaps. It all depends on the individual writer, how their process works, and whether writing slowly is a frustrating thing for them or not. Again, the fastest first draft I ever wrote is one I could find no real potential in at all. Writing “fast” does not equal “good writing” in every case, for every person.

So, what do you think of this? Are you a slow writer or a fast writer? Does writing slowly frustrate you, or do you accept it as part of how you, personally, go about the creative process? Have you found that prewriting makes writing more enjoyable for you? If so, does the fact that prewriting makes writing go FASTER its major draw?

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

Narration vs Dialogue: A Clear-Cut Distinction?

1382970_talking_guysNarration versus dialogue in fiction: are they as diametrically opposed as they sometimes seem? In what ways do they overlap?

I’ve been speaking lately about how our unique styles as authors and our approaches to creative writing often boil down to where we lie upon a spectrum between two extremes, rather than simply adopting one extreme over another.

First of all, I think every writer early on discovers that they have a preference for, or are better are writing, pieces of dialogue or narrative passages. I’m sure there are exceptions to this and authors who haven’t given the matter much thought. But personally, I prefer writing dialogue.

I feel I am better at dialogue in some respects. Dialogue can be tricky, of course: especially because it has to sound natural, which means that not ONLY should the way a character says something make sense, but the simple fact that the character is speaking such and such information, at such and such a time, should make sense too.

Of course, an obvious spectrum exists between narration and dialogue if we consider what percentage of our word count consists of the former versus the latter. That breakdown could be 80/20. 60/40. 55/35. 10/90. We could place any novel on a chart and compare its makeup with other books that way.

Even that kind of spectrum, though, highlights that we often make a clear-cut distinction between narration and dialogue. We feel forced to choose between the two. Really, the two are friends, not enemies, and we should concentrate more on how to make them work together, to strengthen each other.

First of all, first person narration is very much a unique blend of dialogue and narration, seeing as every narrative paragraph written in first person is supposedly written by a character and is presented in a character’s voice.

But beyond that, there IS a fun way to combine narration with dialogue that we don’t often discuss. I only learned about this, or had my attention drawn to it, by studying Spanish grammar.

It is called “indirect discourse.”

INDIRECT DISCOURSE

We all know what dialogue is. And we all know what narration is. To put it simply, indirect discourse is when an author writes or presents dialogue as narration.

Confused? Don’t worry; it will all make sense in a second. You have definitely seen, and almost certainly written, indirect discourse before, even if you never have read that terminology.

Dictionary.com defines indirect discourse as “discourse consisting not of an exact quotation of a speaker’s words but of a version transformed from them for grammatical inclusion in a larger sentence.”

The best way to clarify that definition is through example. Here is a piece of dialogue that I’ll rewrite as indirect discourse:

“I’ll pick up the groceries after work. Just make sure to remind me. I might forget otherwise.”

Joe said he would pick up the groceries after work; just make sure to remind him, because he might  forget otherwise.

That paragraph just above is written as indirect discourse: you are told what Joe said in such a way that you could even recreate the dialogue piece by piece if you needed or wanted to. It comes in Joe’s voice but it isn’t written as dialogue. It’s included as part of a larger narrative segment, and as such, verb tenses have to change to reflect this style of presentation.

Joe might say, “I’ll pick up the groceries.” But you wouldn’t write, “Joe said he’ll pick up the groceries.” You would write “Joe said he would pick up the groceries.”

I’m not going to get into the nitty gritty of tense choice here and how to use verb tense properly when writing about the past, and especially when writing about two different moments in the past, one of which represents the future of the other. This is something that (luckily) we generally understand naturally in regard to our native language, and if you have doubts or it gives you trouble, don’t worry: this is precisely why proofreaders exist.

My point her is that we get very, very used to thinking of “pure narration” and “pure dialogue” as two options. And while indirect discourse is certainly one kind of narration, it’s narration that does represent or lie closer to dialogue than most other forms.

It is an option of representing what a character has said that I, at least, often overlook. We don’t have to write a character’s words as dialogue. Nor do we HAVE to summarize what a character said in a narrator’s voice, though we could do that. We can also use indirect discourse.

What makes indirect discourse so useful is that it maintains a character’s voice in presenting what he’s said, but without forcing the breaks that dialogue naturally imposes. It keeps pace steady and it can take emphasis away from something that’s not important enough to relate in full dialogue mode.

So, what do you think of all this? Do you use a lot of indirect discourse? Do you feel it is useful in any particular kind of situation? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

AUTHORS: Is “Showing” versus “Telling” Truly Either-Or?

business-graphics-1428664-mToday I am continuing a series of post about opposites in fiction that writers often consider to be cases of “either-or” but in reality may be seen to be the ends of a spectrum instead.

By the very nature of saying that a spectrum exists, there is a whole line connecting the two “opposites,” and any particular case may fall anywhere on that line, combining qualities of each “purity” (represented by the end points) in varying degrees.

My last post examined philosophical versus action/plot-driven fiction as such a spectrum. Today, I wanted to explore the hot topic of “showing versus telling” as a spectrum.

Now, showing versus telling is such a hot topic that it honestly has become over-examined and even boring. The basic point everyone is always saying: Showing is better. Don’t “tell.” Demonstrate. Illustrate.

On a (very) simplified level, I think we all agree with this: show, don’t tell. Showing is better. The problem is that writing is never simple, and we often try to adhere to this as a hard and fast rule when really it isn’t and can’t be.

My two points today:

  • “telling has becoming extremely underrated as a narrative device
  • “showing” and “telling” are on a spectrum.

First of all, whenever we “show” in fiction, we are also telling. We may choose to “tell” that Amy ran out the room, covering her face with her hands and slamming the door, in order to “show” that she is upset, and probably upset with reason (if we know Amy is not prone to overreacting.) We may choose to “tell” what Amy does in order to demonstrate her emotional state, rather than “tell” directly that “Amy was upset by what James said.”

One one level, “telling” what Amy does is “showing” what her emotional state is. And that is one problem with saying simply, “Show, don’t tell.” It’s just not a clear enough directive.

The fact is, you can write in such a way to show one thing and simultaneously tell another related thing. Perhaps when telling that Amy ran out the door, you are also showing that her relationship with James is in trouble and even a bit dysfunctional. If another character “tells” someone that Amy is afraid of James, point blank, you just might be showing (in very few words) that Amy and James’s relation is abusive, or you might be showing that this friend is misinformed, or that this friend has an ulterior motive for making Amy angry or for spreading rumors about her (depending on the story and the circumstance).

The Upside of “Telling”

Is it always good to tell? Of course not. But are there moments when “telling” makes sense? Most definitely.

First of all, our current tendency to disparage “telling” has killed the art of description in storytelling, and that is a shame. Long descriptions can be beautiful and very much worthwhile given a particular author’s style and purpose, even if those descriptions constitute  “telling” and even if they don’t directly contribute to plot.

Fiction is more than plot. Than action. Narrative art is more than a simple account of who did what and when.

There are ways to “tell” well and ways to “tell” poorly. And if you “tell” well, you are writing well. Take, for instance, the first line of C.S. Lewis’s “Voyage of the Dawn Treader.”

“There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

This line most certainly tells, rather than shows, who Eustace is. Just as certainly, it works. I think it is one of the best first lines I’ve ever read in my life. Here’s why:

  • It packs a punch. And it packs a punch because it’s short. It accomplishes a lot in few words. You get a real picture of who Eustace is in far less time than it would take to “show” that.
  • It is beautifully funny. Honestly, it has a comedic effect that I just love.
  • It sets the scene and prepares the reader to be dealing with an unpleasant character. Sometimes, a reader does need to know a major character is going to be a pill. If we don’t expect it we’re far more likely to grudge it and stop reading.

I can’t imagine any editor reading that first line and telling Lewis, “Show, don’t tell!” Sometimes telling is just fine. Sometimes it just works. So if you find you have a passage that does a lot of telling, but it does it in a unique, creative, and engaging way, a way that accomplishes what you need and adds to the readability or the charm of your story, RELAX.

That’s not a problem.

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

Viewing Creative Writing Choices as a Spectrum, Rather Than “Either-Or”

1285311_direction_signsWhen we talk about writing, there is so much discussion about “This” versus “That.” Today I wanted to get a discussion started about how faulty and how limiting that kind of thought is.

Art is self-expression. Writing is art. And while any kind of art will have natural boundaries and limits built in by its very nature, it’s not always healthy to impose unnecessary boundaries.

There are so many things we talk about as cases of “either-or,” when really, what exists is a spectrum between two things, a spectrum that blends and combines elements of opposing styles to varying degrees as the story, author, and scene dictate.

Think about:

Philosophical fiction versus “Action” fiction

I wrote about this yesterday, in a post that discusses how we approach these two varieties of fiction differently, both as readers and writers.

The thing is, fiction is rarely ever purely philosophical or purely about action, story, and plot. As readers of my last post (rightly) argued in their comments, by the nature of the term “philosophical fiction,” all fiction that tends to be philosophical involves making an argument or developing a philosophy through the use of story. So story factors in to SOME degree, always.

A story can be philosophical to a great degree and still be an engaging, action-packed story. Philosophical fiction doesn’t have to be two characters discussing the merits of adopting the Catholic worldview versus the materialist world-view, for instance, though I suppose it could be.

Even Chesterton’s “The Ball and the Cross,” which has some scenes that could be described exactly as I note above, has a story attached. Heck, there are scenes where the major two characters–the Catholic and the Atheist–both dream that they are “rescued” from an asylum by Satan (whom they don’t recognize at first) and with whom they debate in an air-machine, both refuting the arguments he makes and ultimate deciding to jump out, quite possibly to their deaths, rather than keep on with him.

That is STORY and PLOT attached to philosophy. I was so gripped: was this just a dream, or was it real? Would they really die? Would this experience convert the Atheist when all said and done?

The opposite also holds true: even the most “storied” of stories make a point about life. They argue something. They present some things as good and favorable, and others as worthy of disdain or rejection.

If you are interested in reading about the moral obligation of the author–about the idea that all fiction, all stories, are in essence philosophical and have a moral weight attached to them–I’d direct you to Wayne Booth’s “The Rhetoric of Fiction.” I read this book in grad school. It is really eye-opening.

Don’t get the impression that Booth is preachy. He is not, at all. In fact, I have no idea what philosophies of life he held or what his religious beliefs, or lack thereof, were. This is not a religious book.

It explores, academically, the concept that fiction must, of necessity, make SOME kind of philosophical argument by the simple fact that characters choose some course over another, and that the implied author (more on that here) demonstrates either approval or disapproval of those choices.

Anyway, focusing on philosophy versus story/plot in fiction is truly a spectrum. It is NOT a case of either/or. More than anything it is a balance that we keep throughout the novel as a whole and throughout individual scenes, some of which may lean more in one direction than other scenes, some of which may lean more in one direction than the novel as a whole.

So, what do you think? I expect a lot of people will agree with this assessment, as comments on my last post tended to promote the view of a spectrum. Do you think your fiction leans MORE toward being philosophical or being action-centered? Or is it somewhere in between? There’s no right or wrong here, just personal preferences.

I hope you enjoyed this post. Next time I want to talk about “showing” versus “telling” as another spectrum case, not an “either-or” situation. And if you like this concept of spectrum, you might like this post on the style spectrum of minimalist/ornate (or as I call it, Hemingway/Faulkner).

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

FOR AUTHORS: Philosophical vs Character-Driven Fiction

This photo felt rather philosophical to me.

This photo felt rather philosophical to me.

I’ve been reading G.K. Chesterton’s “The Ball and the Cross,” and it’s really got me thinking about philosophical fiction, and what differentiates philosophical fiction from character-driven fiction.

I generally say that fiction should be character-driven. That’s certainly my personal approach to writing: I figure out who my characters are, struggle to understand the situation they are in, and then let then react as they would react given who I’ve decided they are.

If they aren’t doing what I want or need them to, most of the time I learn to go with that and trust “their” inclinations. If necessary, I tweak the circumstances that surround their choice.

My characters still need to make an organic, realistic choice, of course; by altering the criteria they have to factor in, I can intervene to alter the decision they come to (or rather, I can “make them do what I want” in a way that reads as sensible and logical.)

Philosophically-driven fiction is much different. On a basic level, those characters still have to read like real characters. Their decisions have to make sense given what plot line there is. But just as much as a philosophical novel tells a story, it also makes an argument. Sometimes it sacrifices story for the sake of argument. How justified a choice that is, of course, is a matter of opinion.

The plot line, however, has an entirely new significance in philosophical fiction, one far more drastic the plot line of a character-driven novel. The reader feels personally affected. Personally drawn in. The reader feels how something that  lies at the core of him or her is at stake, or in the balance, or is challenged, torn down, or built up.

For instance, “The Ball and the Cross” is about a young Scotchman, a Catholic, who goes to London for the first time, reads the window of the office an atheist newsletter (where he sees a horrible insult against the Virgin Mary), and breaks the window. In court he challenges the editor of the paper to a duel.

This novel has me totally gripped. I feel like something of utmost importance is going on, even though the plot (by an action standpoint) is rather thin.

I feel as though it matters–honestly matters–how this book will end. Whether they ever are able to duel to the death, whether one of them survives, or they bury the hatchet, or they somehow kill each other, or both die before they can by some force of nature intervening: it is weighty.

The novel works because both men are respectable and decent men. Both recognize that the other is a respectable and decent man who simply happens to be wrong. If you know anything about Chesterton, you know he was a staunch Catholic, but his atheist character, James Turnbull, is not a strawman. He is a likeable man who is honestly trying to make what he believes would be a positive difference in the world.

You can tell Chesterton respects the character of Turnbull, and assuming you are Catholic and on the side of MacIan, the Catholic, you know he wants YOU to respect him too. He wants you to admire a number of aspects of his character, in fact.

Looking back, I realize that many of my favorite novels have philosophic veins, even if they are not fully philosophic novel.

  • Les Miserables is incredibly philosophical, although I also love the pure story. It has a fox and hound police hunt plot, a war plot, a love story plot…. It is very complex and interwoven. But it is, more than anything, the story of Jean Valjean’s redemption.
  • Don Quixote is unique in that you CAN read it in a deep or philosophical way, if you want to. You can also just read it as a “funny book” and enjoy the story and laugh with or at Don Quixote, as the case may be.

I think that people, FIRST, either like philosophical fiction (as a general concept) or they don’t. If they read first and foremost to be entertained, they are not the target audience of any of the more philosophical works.

Secondly, I think a person has to share your worldview to truly enjoy your philosophical fiction. If not, it just feels boring, nonsensical, preachy, and wrong.

Can something you agree with at core be presented in a preachy way? Yes, of course. But I think we are all much more sensitive to the “preachy” factor when the message is one we reject.

I will never forget trying to read a book by D.H. Lawrence in college for a class. I think we were assigned “Women in Love.” It was AWFUL. I hated it so much. I could not even get close to finishing the thing, it grated on my nerves so much.

Why?

It is extremely philosophical. It is also staunchly opposed to almost everything I happen to believe, to the point that I just couldn’t stomach it.

Anyways, what do you think of philosophical fiction? Do you like it? Do you write it? Do you find that there is a spectrum of character-focused and philosophy-focused fiction? That it’s not a pure case of either or but one of “percentages” (for the sake of simplicity)?

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

AUTHORS: 2 cases to consider cutting a paragraph before fighting to make it work

1148655_vintage_fountain_pen_3Editing is ALWAYS tough, and I honestly think authors learn how to be editors– how to trim down their work–the hard way. You kind of have to. It’s the only way you can learn that kind of a skill: by doing (read “by attempting, failing, and trying again.”)

At least, learning by doing was true in my case. And I’m still learning. If nothing else, by now I can say I’ve made a ton of editing mistakes that I’ve learned from.

First and foremost, perhaps, is  the lesson not to wait to ask “Can I fix this problem by cutting?” Don’t waste time trying fruitless to fix something, or fixing it up halfway , only to realize you really haven’t solved the problem.

Make sure you ask “Can I make a cut?” FIRST. It will save you a lot of frustration and a lot of time.

Here are some circumstances when you should ask “Can I cut?”

1. AWKWARD WORDING OR FLOW

Sometimes, it’s true, your wording is simply awkward. What you need to say is important, and you’re simply not saying it in the simplest way or the best way or in a way that emphasizes what you need to emphasize.

More often, though, I’ve found that when I come across a paragraph or a sentence that feels awkwardly worded–in the sense that it doesn’t flow–it’s because some part of the content (if not all)  isn’t necessary. It’s repetitious, or it weighs things down, or it complicates silly things that don’t need to be made complicated.

Many times, when my writing feels awkward to me, it’s because I’m trying to explain too many things at once. And I’ve made various attempts to make things sound better that don’t REALLY work because the problem is as much “how much I’m saying” as “the way I’m phrasing things.”

Can I improve things by rephrasing? Generally, yes, to a greater or lesser extent. But I have found, far more often, that I can only get the passage sounding right by cutting. Cutting cutting cutting.

Saying too much at once is always a problem. But, you might be thinking, what if some of that information is needed? What if it’s vital to the story?

In that case, consider moving it to another place in your story. Considering placing that description or that piece of backstory elsewhere. Get creative: I have been so wonderfully surprised at how moving half a paragraph, or a paragraph or two, can improve not ONLY the spot in my novel where all the clutter was, but also the scene where it finds its new location. Its true fit.

It’s like that information was meant to be in that second home all along.

2. SOMETHING FEELS TOO COMPLICATED

Through the course of a trilogy, you get lots of characters. And lots of complicated relationships and backstories. Referencing them, or reminding readers who a minor character is when that character appears or is mentioned, takes a lot of finesse.

One tip about backstory: it should be backstory for a reason, meaning, it’s not as important as the actual events of your story. If it were, your story would start earlier on to include these epically important events. Remember:

  • Backstory rarely needs to be as detailed or as intricate as we first believe, by the simple nature of what “backstory” is
  • You don’t have to reveal EVERYTHING about backstory all at once, in one big word vomit. Give up pieces and parts. Craft a mystery about the past to get readers asking questions and wanting answers. Just make sure you answer later on.

I have spent SO much time trying to find the right way to transition in and transition back. To explain things simply. To keep things  understandable. I try this and then that. I almost never think to ask, “How much of this backstory reminder is truly necessary?”

I have found myself cutting tons of the first chapter of “The King’s Sons” as I prep for a second edition. And I’m excited about the positive changes. Also, frustrated that I didn’t see this fix the first time around.

You see, you need to put yourself in the reader’s mind. And I’ve figured out I can  trust my readers to remember the major background of the protagonists from my previous two installments. I don’t need to worry about people picking up book 3 who have never read the first books; notes at the start explaining how this is book 3 of a trilogy should settle that and clear up any confusion.

So, have you found, like me, that after exhausting yourself editing, fixing, and changing, and rearranging, you just end up cutting because you needed to cut all along?

Sometimes, that’s not a bad thing. Sometimes it takes trying other things first and failing to make us see, “this passage just isn’t needed. That’s why I can’t make it work.” But still, the less often it comes to that, the better, don’t you think?

Victoria Grefer is the author the Herezoth trilogy, which begins with “The Crimson League” and has new editions coming out this Fall. She also has a writer’s handbook out, titled “Writing for You: A Novelist’s Guide to the Craft of Fiction.”

Lessons about Life and Literature (well, Writing) from “Les Misérables”

The Bishop of D-'s candlesticks change Jean Valjean's life in ways he never could have expected.

The Bishop of D-’s candlesticks change Jean Valjean’s life in ways he never could have expected.

There’s nothing like a favorite book to teach us how to live, how to read, and how to write. In my case, my favorite books are my favorite books because they teach me these things.

Today, I admit, I was bone dry for inspiration about something to write about. That being the case, I figured, I could always go back to where I always go for inspiration: the classics. The pillars of literary achievement that have done so much to shape me.

Since I write fantasy, I’ve written before about the lessons I’ve taken from Harry Potter and from “The Once and Future King.”

Now it’s time to turn to my favorite book of all time: Victor Hugo’s “Les Misérables.”

Whether you’ve read the book or not, you can be sure I have. Multiple times. In multiple languages. And I know that the book has reinforced a lot of valuable tricks of the writing trade in my case.

  1. IT’S MY NOVEL, AND I’LL DIGRESS IF I WANT TO. Hugo’s masterpiece is full of digressions–including 1oo “unneeded” pages about the Battle of Waterloo–that tie amazingly well into the novel’s theme of chance versus providence. Today, no one would have let Hugo publish that. Every editor on earth would have asked him what the heck he was thinking. But the digressions work, in their way. Lesson: you’ve got to be true to yourself and the spirit of your work.
  2. CHALLENGE YOUR CHARACTERS’ WORLDVIEWS. SEE WHAT HAPPENS. We all have crises of faith and of other sorts. We all can relate to that, and the human spirits finds value in exploring such events. When Valjean and Javert, at different moments, each have to confront a moment of mercy rendered unto them that completely shatters everything they believed about life…. Those chapters are some of the most powerful I have ever read.
  3. YOU HAVE TO PREPARE YOUR READER FOR TRAGIC EVENTS. Hugo’s masterpiece is tragic in many respects. But the novel works because the tone of the piece–everything about Valjean’s history, about Javert having been born in a prison to a prostitute–prepares the reader for the losses s/he’ll experience. I’ve mentioned in a post or two here, and I state in my writer’s handbook as well: make sure you aren’t leading your readers on to expect eternal bliss if that’s not what you’re going to give them. That’s not fair.
  4. CHARACTER MATTERS. In the sense of who we are and being true to what is right and not letting others browbeat us into betraying that, character matters. As a lifelong Catholic, I firmly believe that. Character also matters in fiction: character development, getting to know and exploring the depths of who your characters are. I feel that contemporary fiction is MUCH less character-centric, in a lot of ways, than older fiction. Contemporary fiction is more action-driven because the goal is to “entertain.” (Just think of Nirvana and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”) But I encourage you to challenge your readers, and to force them to think, by delving deep into character. You don’t have to have whole chapters where nothing happens but thought and planning and psychology. That said….

The chapter in “Les Miserables” where Jean Valjean learns that someone else has been arrested for theft and for breaking parole, mistaken for Valjean, is incredibly, incredibly moving. Nothing happens in an “action” sense. The whole long scene is a tortured Valean pacing his bedroom, trying to think, trying to figure out if he could live with himself if he let this man, this stranger, go to prison in his name for the rest of his life as a repeat offender.

The back and forth, the agony of it all, the arguments he makes and then breaks down and then refutes or feels tempted to accept, are incredibly absorbing and thought-provoking. You can’t help but wonder: would I have the strength to do the right thing in this situation?

Have you read Les Misérables? Seen the play or the movie? What did you think? What do you think of the points I describe? Please feel free to comment.

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