Slap Happy Larry

picturebooks, apps, eBooks, short stories

Tag: characterisation

Mirrors and Reflections 03: Mirror Moments In Literature

Mirror Moment: a moment in midpoint scene of a novel or screenplay when the character is forced to look within and reflect on who he is and who he must become in order to achieve his goal. If he decides to continue on as he always has, he will surely fail (tragedy).

If the story is not a tragedy, the hero realizes he must either a) become stronger to overcome the odds or b) transform, shedding his biggest flaws and become more open-minded to new ideas and beliefs. One way or the other, he must better himself in some way to step onto the path which will lead to success.

– from Story Midpoint & Mirror Moment: Using Heroes’ Emotions To Transform Them 

 

When I think of a ‘mirror moment’ I think of a movie, in which a character looks into a mirror, or a reflection in a shop, or perhaps even a father looking at his son or a similar variation. Novels allow for much more interiority, and therefore a mirror moment doesn’t need an actual mirror. The reader can be told just what any character is thinking (depending on the POV choice).

In her book Second Sight, editor Cheryl Klein says this of mirror moments in children’s literature, and I’ve heard it said by a variety of lit experts:

We base our first impressions of people off what we see and what they say — so your descriptions of your character’s appearance can be important to establishing him in the reader’s mind. I say “can” because too much emphasis on appearance can cut both ways. There’s a terrible cliche in fiction where the main character will stop and look in a mirror and catalogue his or her features somewhere in the first chapter in order to establish the person visually in the reader’s mind. But that never really works for me — partly because it’s such a cliche that it annoys me and marks the writer as less interesting than s/he could be, and partly because that description defines the character in the reader’s mind as someone who likely looks different than the reader, which perhaps weakens the reader’s identification with the character. (None of Sarah Dessen’s book covers feature the faces of her protagonists, at her request, because she wants readers to be able to imagine themselves into the lives of her characters.)

On the other hand, there are are certain types of novels — fantasy especially — where you really want to have the characters described so the reader can visualize them, because the point of the book is that the reader falls into this world and experiences it fully. Or, if your novel is written in first person, we want to see what that main character sees when she looks at other people, which will help characterise those other people for us (and characterize your main character by showing us what she notices about others). So it depends on the point you’re going for whether you’ll want to spend time on appearances.

 

Sarah Dessen Book Covers

 

I have noticed that readers differ in the amount of description they want for a character. I remember once writing a short story then uploading it to my writing group for critique. In the short story I’d mentioned about halfway through that the main character had a beard. I’ll probably always be amused by one beta reader’s comment: “It’s a bit late to spring a beard on us.” (My emphasis.) Now I look at beards on men and think of how the beard might suddenly ‘spring upon’ me… which has pretty much ruined beards, if they hadn’t sort of ruined themselves… Anyhow, moral of that story is that some readers didn’t mind learning he had a beard whereas others had already constructed a strong visual in their mind and didn’t want it altered. So if you are going to describe a person, do it early. That said, I’ve read plenty of popular work in which description is drip fed to the reader.

 

CONCRETIZATION

There is a term used in reference to literacy: Concretization. It is thought that children are better at ‘concretizing’ than adult readers, who no longer require it in order to follow a story. So it’s possible (hypothetically) that children’s literature might provide more in the way of description than books for adults.

 

EXAMPLES AND ALTERNATIVES TO MIRROR MOMENTS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Fairytales are not necessarily ‘children’s literature’, at least not until the Grimm Brothers saw a lucrative hole in the kidlit market, but mirrors and reflections have a long tradition in fairytales around the world:

from The World Of Angela Carter: A critical investigation

from The World Of Angela Carter: A critical investigation

 

This is my copy, showing Jonah with that classic 90s bowl cut. I prefer the version with the old man.

This is my copy, showing Jonah with that classic 90s bowl cut. I prefer the version with the old man.

Lois Lowry The Giver Book Cover

In The Giver, by Lois Lowry, the absence of mirrors is significant to the story. In this book, individuality comes a far second to the welfare of the group, and this is symbolised by the absence of mirrors:

Mirrors were rare in the community; they weren’t forbidden, but there was no real need of them, and Jonas had simply never bothered to look at himself very often even when he found himself in a location where a mirror existed. Now, seeing the newchild and its expressions, he was reminded that the light eyes were not only a rarity but gave the one who had them a certain look — what was it? Depth, he decided; as if one were looking into the clear water of the river, down to the bottom, where things might lurk which hadn’t been discovered yet. He felt self-conscious, realizing that he, too, had that look.

Even in the absence of mirrors, Lowry  manages to create a ‘mirror moment’ by having the protagonist, Jonas, see himself in another person.

Another interesting thing about visual revelations in The Giver is that [SPOILER ALERT] we don’t know until partway through the book that Jonas’ world is devoid of colour. For readers who don’t like beards sprung upon them, I wonder if this works so well.

 

 

Picturebook Study: Character Desire and Need

This post concerns the sorts of picture books with a storyline, as opposed to the increasingly popular ‘concept’ picture books (e.g. Press Here) or look-books (e.g. the work of Richard Scarry, Where’s Wally).

It’s clear that in a successful, award-winning book for middle grade readers and above, the main character of the story requires both a surface desire, and a need, which can in turn be broken down into ‘psychological need’ and ‘moral need’. (See John Truby’s book Anatomy of Story for more on that.)

Now for some picture book case studies.

THE TALE OF TWO BAD MICE BY BEATRIX POTTER

The Tale of Two Bad Mice cover

Click for the full story on Project Gutenberg

Continue reading

“Women are shamed for having desire for anything – for food, for sex, for anything. We’re asked to only be the object for other people’s desire. There’s nothing that directing is about more than desire. It’s like, ‘I want to see this. I want to see it with this person. I want to change it. I want to change it again.’ It’s like directing is female desire over and over again, and film is the capturing of human emotions and somehow men were able to swindle us into believing that that is their specialty. All they told us our whole life is we’re too emotional to do any real jobs, yet they’ve taken the most emotional job, which is art making about human emotions and said we’re not capable of it.

– Jill Soloway calls for a matriarchal revolution: There is a “state of emergency when it comes to the female voice”

Bear in mind that most protagonists in Hollywood and in stories generally are male. Also bear in mind that a good protagonist must start with psychological and moral weakness, closely followed by desire. As John Truby says: ‘A story doesn’t become interesting to the audience until the desire comes into play…Desire is the driving force in the story.’

If characters must have desire in order to be interesting and, as Jill Soloway has noticed, women aren’t permitted desire in the dominant culture, it follows that any female characters are likely to be less interesting than male characters, relegated to supporting roles and turned into objects.

But it’s rare to see any film, much less a PG-13 one for broad audiences, present a woman as a sex object as blatant as Lady Lisa, a fantasy who falls into a man’s arms without so much as a word

from review of Pixels in Vanity Fair. Pixels was released in 2015.

More often than not, middle grade books about friendship changes are explained away with bullies and Mean Girls.  There’s usually a clear hero(ine), a clear villain, and that’s that.  But we all know that real life is much more murky and complex, and real-life aggressors look more like Astrid [inin Victoria Jamieson’s delightful graphic novel Roller Girl] than a Disney villain.

– Nerdy Book Club

Stories Must Start With Character Desire

levels of desire

When starting a story, your main character has to desire something otherwise the story won’t work. Don’t skip this step.

At the most basic level, the MC only wants to escape. The MC has been reduced to ‘the level of an animal’.

At the other extreme you have a high fantasy plot, in which the MC desires to save the entire story world.

Once your character has her desire line, she’ll generally need some allies to help her with her goal. In film, the allies will also function as sounding boards, though this shouldn’t be their only function. Use this ally to define your MC. Never make the ally a more interesting character than the MC. The story should be about your most interesting character.

– notes from John Truby, The Anatomy Of Storytelling

Likable Characters In Children’s Literature

The assumption that as readers we necessarily must identify with some character in the story we are reading has been seriously questioned by contemporary literary theory. Children’s writers have successfully subverted identification by creating a variety of repulsive, unpleasant characters with whom no normal human being would want to identify.

– Maria Nikolajeva in The Rhetoric Of Character In Children’s Literature

There’s been quite a bit in the press this month about expectations of likability in novels for adults:

WOULD YOU WANT TO BE FRIENDS WITH HUMBERT HUMBERT?: A FORUM ON “LIKEABILITY” from The New Yorker

Claire Messud to Publishers Weekly: “What kind of question is that?” Do you like Jonathan Franzen’s characters? David Foster Wallace’s? Roth? Then stop asking Claire Messud about hers, from Salon

And I do like the word ‘subversion’ in reference to some of the most popular fiction for children. I had two favourite authors as a child: One was Enid Blyton (for the fantasy) and the other was Roald Dahl. I have to admit, that was probably partly for the subversion of likable characters.

Wicked And Delicious: Devouring Roald Dahl from NPR

 

 

© 2015 Slap Happy Larry

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑