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Tag: characterisation (page 1 of 3)

Masks In Storytelling

When creating characters, storytellers draw a distinction between what Michael Hauge refers to as ‘identity’ (masks) and ‘essence’.

  • Identity refers to the faces people present to the world, also known as masks.
  • Essence is the (one) true self.

The underlying message of most stories is the same no matter the genre: It’s only when a mask (false identity) comes off that true happiness can be found.

Genre And Masks

The Love Genre

This distinction is important in the love genre. The audience is clued in about who is right for each other because even if the romantic pair start off fighting, they eventually get to know the other’s essence. All other romantic rivals never get past the ‘identity’ stage of knowing. Continue reading

No Country For Old Men Film Study

No Country For Old Men is a 2007 Coen Brothers film which sticks pretty closely to Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel of the same name. This is a transcendent example of a crime story, reckoning with the nature of humans, the nihilistic worldview you can get after a lifetime of crime fighting, and an upended take on the crime genre in general — bad people don’t always get what’s coming to them.

Business Insider ranked the Coen Brothers’ movies from one to seventeen and No Country For Old Men comes in at number three. (Did you know the Coens had written quite this many movies? I didn’t.)

HUMOUR AND IRONY

It is said in that same article that No Country For Old Men is without irony:

Many say “No Country for Old Men” is objectively the best film the Coen brothers ever made. They have a point. “No Country” earned them their first Oscars for best director and best picture. The awards were well-deserved. At first, this doesn’t feel like any Coen brothers film ever made. It is dead serious and unironic. The lively soundtrack has been replaced with dead silence, creating an absolutely brilliant sense of dread.

But is that really true? I go by the idea that all stories are inherently ironic. To use Matt Bird’s definition of irony, in every story there’s a gap between story outcome and audience expectation. It’s certainly true that this Coen Brothers movie is significantly different in tone. But there is indeed irony: Continue reading

Nice Does Not Equal Good

A lesson we must all learn at some point: ‘nice’ person does not equal ‘good’ person. I use these words as shorthand for ‘outwardly amenable’ and ‘morally generous’. Defining morality is a mammoth task in its own right and a nihilist might argue there’s no such thing as morality. I take the view that there is a shared cultural view of morality. Stories for children conform to that shared view. Banned books are usually at the vanguard of social change, which is why they are banned in the first place. Most banned books are tomorrow’s classics, their authors upheld as yesterday’s soothsayers.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE NICE?

naughty is not the opposite of nice

Classic fairytales explore the difference between niceness and goodness, though with problems: In fairytales, if a character was good-looking they were also unquestionably good. However, they did get into duplicitous behaviour, and the way people conceal their true motivations by acting in a friendly way. In classic fairytales the characters are archetypes, so there is no possibility of starting out nasty and later becoming nice.

In Snow White, the wicked stepmother dresses as a door-to-door pedlar woman. She is ‘nice’ to Snow White, offering to sell her a shiny, red apple. Snow White falls for the niceness. The audience learns she should have looked harder. Significantly, in most versions the step mother is illustrated as an ugly old woman with missing teeth and a face of wrinkles. This is her ‘true nature’, using the visual fairytale shortcut that ugliness equals bad character. The stepmother is most ugly at the moment her ugliness comes out.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE GOOD?

Even after centuries of fairytales, we must all learn at some point that

  1. Looking good doesn’t mean being good
  2. Behaving nicely also does not mean being good.

The first is the easier lesson. The #metoo movement is highlighting the extent to which contemporary adults are still wrestling with the distinction between nice and good.

monsters nice not good

It’s hard to deal with the fact that nice people can be sexual predators or, rather, that sexual predators are most often very nice.  A boss who is nice to you may be very not nice to someone else, in private. An unwillingness to believe victims when they speak out is partly an unwillingness to believe women (because abuse is gendered), but is also an unwillingness to acknowledge that we are not as good at discerning character as we previously believed. Once you learn, really learn, that nice does not equal good, that skilled people with good jobs and families of their own can be terrible, you must embark upon the lifelong work of not turning into a complete misanthropist.

In adult literature, Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies does a great job of portraying an abuser who is also ‘nice’. But during promotion of the American TV adaptation, various commentators showed a fundamental misunderstanding of how abuse works by saying it was really interesting to see a successful family man also be an abuser, as if those things don’t usually go together.

But when is it developmentally appropriate for children learn this lesson? That’s another question altogether. If we teach children too early that the nice people in their lives might just as easily be terrible behind closed doors, are they able to deal with that in their vulnerable positions?

Only parents can decide. If you would prefer your children to learn this sooner rather than later, there are children’s books which touch on big issues in a gentle way.

NICE DOES NOT EQUAL GOOD: HOW TO WRITE IT

CREATE NICE BUT NASTY CHARACTERS AND CONTRAST USING ‘SHADOW IN THE HERO’

Terry Pratchett writes for an adult/YA crossover audience. His Tiffany Aching series (starting with Wee Free Men) features elves who are beautiful and magical and give children candy, but they are incapable of compassion or caring. The witches who watch over the people are petty, argumentative, difficult and always have a sharp word on the tip of their tongue. However, they do what’s right even when it’s the harder choice. Pratchett uses various ways of approaching this message,  but overall, Tiffany isn’t learning to be nice. She’s learning to do what’s right. Via the viewpoint of Tiffany, the reader is also asked to consider appearance vs morality.

Different in voice but similar in theme we have The Girl Who Drank The Moon. The characters are complex and our understanding of them evolves as the story progresses, with the character initially perceived to be evil/not nice (Witch) ultimately being revealed as good, while the character initially perceived as good/nice (Grand Elder) is ultimately revealed to be evil. Perception and deception are emphasised.  Superficial judgements may not accurately reflect true character. This makes it a more modern fairytale — in traditional tales, nice and nasty are inherent, immutable traits.

CREATE A MAIN CHARACTER WHO IS ASKED TO DO THE RIGHT THING EVEN IF IT MEANS SACRIFICING SOCIAL CAPITAL

Joyce Carol Oates creates such a character in her YA novel Big Mouth and Ugly Girl. ‘Ugly’ refers to the way the heroine is seen, and how people in general (particularly girls?) are perceived by others whenever they stand up for what’s right. There’s no way of standing against the status quo without facing criticism from peers who are too afraid to stand up themselves.

I suspect female characters are more commonly used in these types of stories. We’re moving through a social period in which girls — for the first time ever — are properly taught to respect their own feelings and to reject social conditioning which teaches female people to prioritise others’ feelings over their own.

Similarly, witches have been used in many ways throughout the history of storytelling but the witch has turned — modern fictional witches may look nasty but their warts and hooked noses belie upright morals. Who’s in a better position to recognise injustice than witches, after all?

See also Gregory Maguire’s reimagining of the Wicked Witch Of The West in his novel Wicked.

CREATE A FAKE-OPPONENT WHO TURNS OUT TO BE AN ALLY

J.K. Rowling used this trick in her characterisation of Snape. The message?  Teachers who are the most scary are sometimes also the most ‘good’. Appearances can be deceptive. Not just how someone looks, but their lack of social graces or unwillingness to ingratiate.

It’s impossible to give further examples of this technique without also spoiling stories, because the true intent of the ‘villain ally’ is utilised as a major reveal.

In any case, this ‘villain who’s actually an ally’ plot encourages readers to reconsider who are the real opponents and who are the real allies in their own life. At their best, these stories ask readers not to judge others too soon.

The inverse ideology would be: Trust your gut about people. This is also an ideology worth exploring.

Main Characters and Diversity In Storytelling

Most of us writing about story pick one of the following terms and stick with it:

  • Main character — shortened to MC
  • Hero(ine) — the feminine form has pretty much died, though we still often say ‘actress’
  • Protagonist — which these days means ‘main character’

On this blog I use these terms at random, though I’ve started to drift away from ‘hero’ in favour of ‘main character’. When I learned that technically ‘protagonist’ means ‘the character who starts the action’, I dropped it completely, because it bothers me to use a word ‘incorrectly’ even though language does change.

The more I reflect on this terminology, the more obvious the need for some clarity. We have entered an era in which it’s no longer acceptable to write the same stories about the same few kinds of people. It’s time we move past tokenism. Our main characters need to be as diverse as they are in real life.

But how do you say who is the ‘main character’ in a story? Any story? This isn’t as clear cut as it seems. John Truby has a pretty good method which works most of the time: Who changes the most?

Pair this with guidelines shared by John August back in 2005: What’s The Difference Between Hero, Main Character and Protagonist? In 2016, the Draft Zero guys discussed John August’s post in relation to Mad Max, Star Trek and a couple of other films.

I’m particularly interested in how these ‘functions’ of character can be useful when critiquing a story in terms of diversity. We’re never going to progress beyond faux-representation in narrative unless we start thinking en masse in terms of what John August calls ‘character function’. Continue reading

Ghosts, Flaws and the Psychic Wound in Fiction

There are various words to describe the event from a main character’s past which holds them back in the present: the fatal flaw, the psychic wound, the ghost. I’ve even heard ‘scars’.

A character becomes their scars. That’s not to say they’re defined by them, but their responses to them are.

@SamSykesSwears

Fatal flaws aren’t always fatal and suggest they tend to be inborn. Fatal flaw refers to what I prefer to call the psychological weakness, and the ghost is a bit different.

‘Psychic wound’ is good, but other people use the word ‘ghost’. (John Truby, Karl Iglesias.) This is even better because I can visualise this thing as an alter-character following the main character around, actively getting in the way of their goals. However, ghosts refer to supernatural creatures, so let’s stick with ‘psychic wound’.

Most often, the Ghost involves traumas such as abandonment, betrayal, or a tragic accident which leaves the character permanently injured or disfigured, or causes guilt if the character feels he has caused another’s death. It can also be the death of a loved one. Basically, any traumatic incident that created a sense of loss, or a psychological emotional wound. […] The difference between Backstory and Ghost is that the first molds the character’s personalty, whereas the latter is still an open wound which haunts the character in your story and affects his inner need. Both, if interesting, can add emotional complexity and fascination to your character.

— Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias

Notice Iglesias mentions injuries and disfigurements. A disfigured character is a trope of yore, and modern writers need to be careful about that one. In these more enlightened times we know that a disfigurement or injury or missing right hand does not actually say anything about that person at all, but earlier stories conflated physical wounds with evil and mal-intent.

MOST COMMON TYPE OF PSYCHIC WOUND

Continue reading

Children’s Stories and Northrop Frye

Northrop Frye was a Canadian literary theorist who died in 1991 aged 78. Frye was considered one of the most influential literary theorists of the 20th century. Sometimes his theories applied equally to children’s literature; at other times he was off the mark. One of his theories — The Displacement Of Myth — does not apply well to children’s literature.

Northrop Frye’s Five Stages Of The Displacement Of Myth

Frye treated literature as ‘displacement of myth’. Here are Frye’s stages, in consecutive order, between full-on myth to what we get today:

  1. Characters are gods (superior to both humans and to the laws of nature)
  2. Romantic Narrative (idealized humans who are superior to other humans but not to the laws of nature)
  3. High Mimetic Narrative (humans who are superior to other humans)
  4. Low Mimetic Narrative (humans are neither superior nor inferior to other humans)
  5. Ironic Narrative (characters are inferior to other characters)

northrop frye

(Terminology note: The ‘mimetic modes’ are also known as ‘realism‘. Mimesis basically means ‘copying reality’.)

Examples Of Modern Popular Characters From Each Of Frye’s Five Stages

  1. Superheroes in general, though writers sometimes limit their powers in aid of a more interesting story. Superman is one of the few who actually fits this category because Superman was never meant to be relatable. (Before he was known as Man of Steel he was known as Man of Tomorrow, in a much more optimistic age when it was thought that humankind is making its way closer to the ideal mindset of altruism for altruism’s sake.
  2. The male love interests in Harlequin romances, in which the story ends before more human aspects of his character are revealed.
  3. Walter White and other genius characters who live among us e.g. Marty Byrde of Ozark which seems to be modelled upon Breaking Bad.
  4. Don Draper; the alter egos of secret-identity superheroes. (See: A Psychoanalysis of Clark Kent.)
  5. Mr Bean,

If you try this exercise yourself, you’ll probably find that contemporary stories tend to fall into the bottom two categories. It’s much harder to find genuine examples from the top two tiers in particular. Some have argued a case for more heroics in stories for adults.

The conventions of literary fiction are that the bourgeois hero (more likely the heroine) be vulnerable, prone to shame and guilt, unable to fit the pieces of the larger puzzle together, and on the same banal moral plane as the “average reader”: sympathetic, in other words, someone we can “identify” with, who reflects our own incomprehension of the world, our helplessness and inability to effect change.

– an example of why we need to read about amazing characters, in an opinion from Anis Shivani

The Displacement of Myth and Children’s Literature

How does Northrop Frye’s Five Stages map onto children’s literature? According to Frye, children (and animals) fall into the fifth category — children are regarded as inferior. Since almost all children’s literature stars children, this suggests all children’s literature is ironic.

This is not the case.

In fact, the corpus of children’s literature includes characters from each of Frye’s levels. This has been pointed out by specialist of children’s literature, Maria Nikolajeva, in Aesthetic Approaches to Children’s Literature: An Introduction.

Examples Of Children’s Characters From Each Of Frye’s Five Stages

  1. The superhero side of Miles Morales; Christopher Robin who to the toys seems like a God. (This also applies to Andy of Toy Story.)
  2. Edward Cullen and other paranormal love interests in young adult romance; Harry Potter winds up here.
  3. Rory Gilmore types, who is herself the granddaughter of Anne of Green Gables (very smart). That said, Rory Gilmore had been cut down a peg or two in the Gilmore girls revival, and Anne With An E showed a more vulnerable side to Anne Shirley. Perhaps this means a contemporary audience likes to see more ordinary characters?
  4. Laura Ingalls, Tom Sawyer, Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins and all of these kids’ descendants populating realistic fiction, but who sometimes enter a fantasy world. (That said, entering a fantasy world often in itself denotes ‘chosen ones’.) In YA we have Francesca Spinelli (Saving Francesca), the ensemble stars of Tomorrow When The War Began and other ordinary teens who learn to become self reliant after some kind of adversity.
  5. Greg Heffley, Timmy Failure, Nikki Maxwell and many other stars of middle grade, humorous, illustrated novels starring characters who are mean, dim-witted, accident-prone, or who otherwise feel put-upon due to being the middle child, wearing braces or whatever. We see these characters in cartoons, too e.g. We Bare Bears. Comedy is full of them because these characters are easy to poke fun at. We also have serious YA characters such as Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower, or James Sveck of Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, who are basically overwhelmed by all the changes happening in their teenage years.

As shown above, children’s literature is as diverse as adult literature when it comes to this particular theory of character. ‘Children’ cannot be lumped into the bottom category. The opinion from Anis Shivani above may in fact mean it’s easier to find heroic characters in children’s stories than in stories for adults.

As a side note, animals can’t be lumped into the ironic category, either. That’s because animals in literature are very often stand-ins for humans.

Character Study: Walter White

Following a television trend started by The Sopranos, Walter White of Breaking Bad is an engaging example of a modern antihero.

walter white portrait

“I want to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface over the life of the series.” — Vince Gilligan

I have already taken a close look at how the pilot of Breaking Bad engenders empathy in the audience.

In my mind, the best television series to date is Breaking Bad. When I analysed Tony Soprano, I found him to be a 12-dimensional character. Walter White has almost 16 or 18 dimensions. He is maybe the most complex character ever written by anyone, for any medium. He generated five or six seasons.

A dimension is a consistent contradiction in the nature of the character. Walter was capable of being very gentle, and he was for five seasons with certain characters—and violent and brutal with others! The dimensionality fascinates the audience.

By the time that last episode was executed, we absolutely knew everything about Walter White and his Heisenberg doppelgänger. He was ready to die because he was completely expressed, up to the last scene.

Walter changed every week. We never knew where the hell Walter was. Every time he did things one way, and we would feel that that was who he was, he would just reverse himself and do things in an opposite way.

Robert McKee

Here’s another reason why Walter White is so engaging: Continue reading

Films With Genius Main Characters

In stories it isn’t always the smartest or the strongest who become heroes — it is often the character who perseveres or works hardest. The villain is often smarter and stronger than the hero.

What about really smart characters? Ironically in storytelling, the genius character is often the underdog. Their genius is also their weakness, or they have another big weakness which undermines their intelligence. Oftentimes their genius ostracises them as loners.  It’s common for a genius character to also be supremely lonely or depressed or pessimistic.

Because of the cultural fascination with genius, it remains a supreme object of desire, despite its associations with tragic oddity.

— Nancy Bombaci 

The character arc for a genius character is often to show the world how smart they really are. (The “I’ll show them!” wish fulfilment of many stories for adults), or to win friends and lovers.

In life, there may be many different choices one can make to accomplish a goal. In films, there is often only one, and the hero gets to show how smart s/he is by figuring out what it is.

— Suber

Contrast the genius character with the Every(wo)man. Even an highly relatable character must respond in surprising ways in a story, otherwise they’re not sufficiently interesting to engage our attention. One way an Every Character can respond surprisingly is by being smarter than the regular person.

1. Proof

This is one of the few with a girl math nerd. That makes me like it.

2. 21

This is one of these stories about a really nice guy who turns bad for a while but is ultimately redeemed. I think the end goes on for about five minutes too long. You also sort of know how it’s going to end, but the journey is great. I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat.

Oh and the story weaves together so well I don’t believe for a moment that this movie has much to do with the true story upon which it is based.

3. The Social Network

Another kind of protagonist is incredibly smart, irritatingly aware of it, and these people are driven to go beyond themselves, which often leads to spectacular failures. Or, in this case, win out in the end with lots of money if not one hundred per cent pure happiness in what he has achieved.

The Social Network was voted the number two film of 2010 according to Margaret and David’s viewers’ poll  (after Inception).

When I saw it, I doubted the authenticity of the strippers and the Asian fangirls. Mark Zuckerberg has said himself that in reality it was just a bunch of guys cutting code. It’s interesting, though, that toilet cubicle sex and nightclub stripper scenes are now ‘obligatory’ in any coming of age/success story, even when those things don’t really fit the story.

Even Mark Zuckerberg isn’t Mark Zuckerberg.

Are viewers so hungry for those done-before scenes that we’ll refuse to sit through any film which refuses to include them for the sake of authenticity?

4. Good Will Hunting

I didn’t really buy Matt Damon as a nerd. I watched it recently and that bowl haircut looks suitably nerdy, but only because it’s dated. Robin Williams played another inspirational teacher figure.

The phrase, “I’m going to see about a girl” felt cheesy. Mainly because it reminded me of the well-known phrase (at least around these parts “I’m going to see a man about a dog.” And last impressions last.

ps ‘Has a critic ever commented on the fact that Matt Damon clearly ripped off the interview scene in Trainspotting for Good Will Hunting?- courtesy of @sarahlapolla

5. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Lisbeth Sander is appealing because she is first and foremost a trickster:

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” series have given us female tricksters, women who are quick-witted, fleet-footed, and resolutely brave. Like their male counterparts—Coyote, Anansi, Raven, Rabbit, Hermes, Loki, and all those other mercurial survivors—these women are often famished (bulimic binges are their update on the mythical figure’s ravenous appetite), but also driven by mysterious cravings that make them appealingly enigmatic. Surrounded by predators, they quickly develop survival skills; they cross boundaries, challenge property rights, and outwit all who see them as easy prey. But, unlike their male analogues, they are not just cleverly resourceful and determined to survive. They’re also committed to social causes and political change.

– Maria Tatar

Part of what makes this book a page turner or a movie suspenseful is that extreme wrong is dished out to this young woman, and many of us have to keep reading because we know she’s going to exact revenge. There is something very sweet about being underestimated. It’s so much more satisfying than being overestimated.

Suspense in the crime story comes from wondering whether the plan will work. We’re rooting for the bad guys because they are smart, organized, and daring. The ride will be a bumpy one.

6. 17 Again

Ned Gold is the classic fantasy and SF loving nerd into cosplay and learning Elvish who is tortured through high school then makes it big after high school by inventing software that prevented people from pirating music. He also invented the thing that allowed people to pirate music, but ‘that was a happy coincidence’.

As the main star of this movie goes through torture in his life life, it’s apparent to me that nerds are the happiest sort of person in life, and in fiction, because their interests and obsessions never let them down.

7. Vitus

This was described in the TV Guide as ‘uplifting’, so I knew I could watch it with the three year old hanging about. Sure enough, she took an interest, then went over to the piano and banged out a few tunes. Well, I should really put ‘tunes’ in the quote marks they deserve. This was a good family film for a rainy day, as long as your family doesn’t mind reading subtitles.

 

 

8. Arrival

The screenwriter of Arrival talks about the difficulties in writing smart characters here:

The script itself was a challenge like no other. I was writing for characters much smarter than myself, facing their own greatest challenges. Ted’s story offered me some groundwork, but I had to find drama and conflict within the linguistic theory to sustain something for a feature film. And a linguist and theoretical physicist couldn’t talk like I do, or else it felt like they were talking down to me. I had to let the smartest people in the room act like it, even if it meant I couldn’t always keep up.

— Eric Heisserer, LA Times

The other thing is, the job of the writer is to make the audience feel smart.

 

Related Links

Gendering Intelligence and Sexuality on The Big Bang Theory from Flow TV

The Learning Secrets of Polyglots and Savants from 99 Percent

Are Smart People Getting Smarter?, from Wired

The genius who lives downstairs – extract, from The Guardian.

For an example of a smart protagonist in TV see Freaks and Geeks.

Opening With Action or, In Medias Res

Have you ever been told by a teacher, or by someone in your writing group, that your story must open with action, not description? If they’re being fancy about it, they might advise you to begin in medias res.

lights-before-action

 

But as John Truby says, certain genres demand the establishment of a norm, e.g. The fish out of water story. (A fish has to be ‘in water’ before s/he can be out of it.)

It’s tempting for a short story writer to open the story right in the heart of the action. Crash, bang, guns blazing, lovers screaming. It’s an easy way to hook readers, right? Place them right in the action, and they’ll be forced to keep turning the pages to see what happens next.

So page one has fire. Page one has promise. But what happens when you get to page two?

This is the short story writer’s dilemma, says two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee David Lavender in the August 1942 issue of The Writer. So your main character is in peril. So what? asks the reader.

The finest fight, the dearest love in all the world means little to the reader” until he or she knows the characters and the motives behind their antics.

David Lavender: The Short Story Writer’s Dilemma

Don’t start with action. Start by making establishing what your character wants. If this happens to occur in the middle of a big action scene, so be it.

What’s really meant by starting ‘in medias res’

Definition Of In Medias Res

In medias res is a Latin phrase used by the poet Horace; it means “in the middle of things.”

(Poet Horace was describing the ideal epic poet.)

In Medias Res In Film

There is … a problem in beginning a movie with such major dramatic scenes. It is axiomatic that drama is structured around rising action, that as we move through the real time of the film the tension increases, emotions rise, and the pace often quickens until we reach the climax. If the first scene is intensely dramatic, it sets up the expectation that the film will reach even higher levels, which can be a problem when it doesn’t.

— Howard Suber

In Medias Res And The (Modernist) Short Story

The modernist short story, which emerged at the beginning of the 20th century, begins in medias res, replacing “once upon a time” beginnings. Ends were foreshortened to meet middles and also separated from they by silences that frame epiphanies.

— MARY ROHRBERGER

An example of a modernist short story is The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield.

Further Examples

Hamlet begins after the death of Hamlet’s father. Characters make reference to King Hamlet’s death without the plot’s first establishment of said fact. Since the play focuses on Hamlet and the revenge itself more so than the motivation, Shakespeare utilizes in medias res to bypass superfluous exposition.

Modern novelists known to extensively employ in medias res in conjunction with flashbacks include William Faulkner and Toni Morrison.

Well-known films that employ it include Raging Bull and City of God.  Star Wars IV: A New Hope starts in medias res: it opens in the middle of a chase and battle scene.

The guidelines are different when it comes to novels vs short stories. Ansen Dibell writes in Elements of Fiction Writing: Plot,

My strong advice is that if establishing a pre-existing norm isn’t absolutely vital, skip it. Leave it out altogether, if you possibly can. Instead, start in médias res. In general practice, that means starting your actual narrative just before, or even during, the first major conflict or confrontation: the point at which things start to get serious, when they start moving toward final crisis.

Specifically, that means starting a short story just before the main crisis which will provide the story’s resolution. Start a novel during the first crisis, because you’ll have time to draw back and explain how things got that way later in the first chapter, or even in chapter two.

Don’t tell how the protagonist decided to go out and buy fireworks, how much they cost, how he brought them home, how he stored them, what his wife said. Begin when the fuse is lit and the reader sees a bang coming any minute.

Boring Mrs Bun by Juliet Martin and David Johnstone (1986)

What sort of story is Boring Mrs Bun?

boring mrs bun cover

Almost every story in the world is structured like this.

But #NotAllStories

Rather, not all books we’d call stories. Not all picture books are stories. Some are abecederies. Others function simply to introduce the young reader to new concepts.

Every now and then you get a mood piece.

Boring Mrs Bun is a character sketch.

There is an inevitable problem that comes with character sketches, at least of the thumbnail kind. Spending an entire novel delving into the psychology of a character is a completely different matter, but the best authors avoid thumbnail character sketches.

You may notice that picture book authors avoid them completely. This isn’t because of the common prejudice that children do not like descriptions, preferring scenes and dialogue (because it has been shown empirically that actually children enjoy the pauses in picture books as much as adults do) but comes down to something else:

  1. The wish for reader to see themselves in the character (the Everyboy and the Everygirl)
  2. The wish to avoid stereotyping.

It’s impossible to describe a character without that description meaning something, possibly something you don’t intend at all.

Let’s take a look at Boring Mrs Bun as a case study.

The book opens with this image:

boring-mrs-bun

Mrs Bun works behind the counter of a cake shop. She always looks the same.

She wears a long grey overall that buttons to the neck.

She scrapes her hair back from her face and knots it in a bun.

People look at Mrs Bun and think that she is BORING.

But we know better…

Overleaf:

fun-mrs-bun

We know that when Mrs Bun gets home from work, she rips off her uniform and rummages through her wardrobe for clothes she wants to wear.

She finds jaunty denim dungarees, a sunny yellow tee-shirt and purple running shoes. She shakes her hair loose from its bun and styles it into spikes.

“Ah!” says Mrs Bun. “That feels better.”

And we think she looks COOL.

Already you can guess at the author’s message: Don’t look at an old lady and assume that’s all there is to her. In fact, don’t look at anyone and assume that what you see is what you get — there is always much more to people than the part you see.

Using the same structure, the book goes on to contrast the boring image of Mrs Bun at work with the woman who:

  1. lifts weights in leotards behind the garage
  2. does splits on the kitchen floor
  3. goes snorkelling at the beach
  4. drives a sports car
  5. has a colourful and wild garden
  6. paints abstract art
  7. is in a band and plays drums
  8. wears orange footless tights and goes out dancing
  9. rides a motorbike through the city at night

Finally we are told:

So next time you see Mrs Bun behind the cake shop counter, be brave enough to look into her sparkling blue eyes.

Catch the twinkle… watch her smile… listen for the bubbles in her laughter as they fizz up like lemonade.

BECAUSE WE KNOW THAT MRS BUN IS NOT BORING, DON’T WE?

The unintended consequence of this message is that the grandmother trope is not actually subverted, because having tea parties with your friends, watching TV and then turning in early and ‘scraping’ your hair back off your face and wearing grey clothes done up to your neck is — for women — the undesirable version of ageing.

This is a celebration of youth over age, because the behind-the-scenes Mrs Bun does youthful things and is full of unlikely energy.

The youthful Mrs Bun has her lips and eyelashes emphasised, because she is dressing in an acceptably feminine way.

The youthful Mrs Bun smiles, whereas the old lady Mrs Bun feels no need to smile for your benefit.

Whichever version of ageing you aspire to, it’s clear that the book comes down heavily on one side over the other. A different author/illustrator team might well come up with a story with the exact opposite message — that old lady Mrs Bun feels no need to subscribe to your narrow ideas of acceptable ageing and is past the emotional labour of smiling in a bakery, thank you very much.

And that is the problem with writing character sketches. Sometimes you want your ideology to shine through but other times you don’t. Even if you do, the reader might not get what you want out of it. Also, it’s almost impossible to describe a character without the stereotypes and prejudices of the era shining through.

CHARACTERS AND DETAILS

There are lots of ‘character details templates’ floating around on the web. Writers can download these and fill these out. They can be a very useful part of the writing process, but that doesn’t mean all those details should end up in the final product.

Pretty much every writing teacher warns against giving too many character details.

In reading for character, readers conventionally use their knowledge of the way people in the world around them usually behave to assign traits to characters, to guess about their motivations, to reconstruct their past, or even to predict what they might do after the end of the story.

Reading in this way implies that fiction is a kind of gossip. It assumes that authors say a little bit about the characters they describe so that readers can have the fun of guessing about all the aspects of character and experience they are not told about. […] But, like gossip, guessing about literary characters can misrepresent them by fitting them into categories readers already possess. Readers who want the pleasure of perceiving something more than or something different from what they already know or believe about human nature have to work with a different assumption: that authors carefully select what they choose to say, and that their choices–both what they say and what they don’t say–define what they wish readers to understand.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Perry Nodelman and Mavis Reimer

 

I’ll go into detail about how a character looks if I think it’s really important to the storytelling. For instance, Butch the T-Rex, I wrote him to have scars and be very large.

— From interview with Pixar writer

 

Only spend time describing what it’s important to describe, what’s going to matter in the rest of the story. That may be what your characters look like; then again, it may not. You decide.

And even if your characters’ appearance is important to you and your story, the story’s very beginning may not be the best place to go into any great detail about it. You want your readers to be able to imagine your characters, not describe them for a robbery report. Have your people talking and doing: that will make the stronger impression.

— Anson Dibell

Attributes are those elements of character that people have little or no control over because they have been received as part of genetic inheritance or socialisation…Aptitudes, similarly, are largely beyond conscious intention or control, and thus part of our ‘fate’…Memorable characters are those that go beyond their attributes and aptitudes — they are defined, not by what they are, but by what they do. … Aptitudes, similarly, are largely beyond conscious intention or control, and thus part of our “fate”. … Memorable characters are those that go beyond their attributes and aptitudes — they are defined, not by what they are, but by what they do.

— Howard Suber

Be mindful of the difference between ‘characterization’ (age, looks, IQ, job etc.) and ‘true character’ (that behind the mask).

— Robert McKee

 

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