Wednesday, April 16, 2014

On-again, off-again character traits

In the last post, we looked at part of Alyssa’s question. Here’s more: I gave my MC the ability to know if people are lying just by looking into their eyes, and if they are lying, then she can learn the truth. Also, she can understand the cries of infants. I realized that the eye-reading ability I gave her isn't in use much. I might use it three times in one page, then not mention it again for about 20+ pages. The infant-cry-ability isn't used at all.

I've also been thinking about expanding this eye ability. She goes through a lot of complicated stuff, so she ends up hating a lot of people, so I've been thinking about making her able to kill people just by staring at them hard enough/long enough. Does that sound too violent? 

Also, she can write really well (mainly because it is my first real attempt to write and publish a complete novel and that is what I know best), so I have her writing a diary. I noticed the same thing with the diary entries. I put them into the story, but they have started becoming less and less frequent. 

I have started trying to add these abilities into the stories more and more, but I've almost got 100 pages and I don't see many spots where I can work it in. Do you think I could just revise my story a bunch and make the writing and the eye-reading more common? Or would it be better to just write them out altogether? 

I like the diaries. They give more of an insight to my MC's character and thoughts and the effect all of this stuff is having on her, and I have an excuse I can use for her not having written much, but the eye-reading seems like it would be a lot more difficult to fix. I might have an excuse to get rid of that, but I really like her having it.

In Alyssa’s story the ability to recognize a lie is a super power, but in other tales catching a lie by an ordinary MC can come up, as it has for me more than once. Here’s a link to a recent story in The New York Times that sheds light on the subject and reveals how difficult lie-spotting can be: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/25/science/in-airport-screening-body-language-is-faulted-as-behavior-sleuth.html. The information may be helpful if you write about a sleuth or a liar.

Starting with the fatal-staring ability: I can’t say if that power is too violent, which depends on the story and the writer’s (and reader’s) preferences. But if we want our MC to be likable, we make that harder if she’s staring people to death right and left. Probably can be done; it’s just harder. But if she has a stare that feels lethal to her victims even if they go on breathing, the likability hurdle is lower.

When I introduce a character trait I worry that the reader will forget it and be surprised when it crops up again. I don’t want that moment of surprise, because it takes the reader out of the story for a moment. The solution is to introduce the trait solidly at the start and have it crop up a few times soon after, which generally should be early in our story. Let’s take Alyssa’s MC’s journaling, and let’s call this MC Ophelia. We can describe Ophelia’s diary from her first-person POV, possibly like this: Thick, but no larger than my hand; bound with blue thread, an ancient practice, which connects me to centuries of diarists; covered in plain, anonymous manila upon which I would never write, not even a single mark to identify the diary as mine. The whole book fits neatly into a brick-red cordovan case secured with a silver locking zipper. That zipper, which has never been breached, gives me a measure of security, though I realize the leather wouldn’t withstand a razor.

There. I hope I’ve made this diary distinctive enough to be memorable.

A digression: I googled bookbinding to get ideas for describing the diary and came across the creepy practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy, that is binding with human skin, which continued into the nineteenth century. You can look it up. Ew!

After that description, we know the diary is important to Ophelia. Next we show her writing in it. Let’s say we write a scene in which she speaks to the manservant who attends the crown prince. As soon as the manservant goes off to perform some duty, Ophelia pulls out her diary to record their conversation as well as her thoughts about what was said. She keeps writing when a servant with a broom sweeps by, but as soon as the Countess enters the corridor, Ophelia tucks the diary in her pocket. The Countess says something or does something and passes on. Out comes the diary again, and this time the reader is shown what Ophelia wrote, which includes the conversation with the manservant and whatever happened with the Countess. The reader understands by this that Ophelia is devoted to keeping a record of events and that she probably has an important reason for doing so. After that, we don’t need to show the diary whenever something happens. The reader will assume that diary writing is going on. We do have to reintroduce it occasionally so the reader remembers, but not that often. If the diary comes into the plot directly–for instance, if it’s discovered by a possible enemy–so much the better. But it doesn’t have to actually be discovered. The reader will worry if he’s led to fear discovery. If we can make him scream internally, Put that diary away, Ophelia! Now! Hurry! then we’ve done a good job.

And making the reader worry leads me to plot. The character traits Alyssa mentions (or any character traits) will remain present for the reader and will recur naturally in the narration if they figure into our MC’s struggle. They’ll also crop up for us most readily if we see a role for them in our story. We can see this role ahead of time if we’re the kind of writer who plans her story. If we don’t plan and we plunk in a trait because we think it’s cool, because we think it will make our character more layered, then we have to keep it mind as we keep writing. We have to look for ways to work it into our story line. For example, I made Ella clumsy at the beginning of Ella Enchanted without any forethought, but the trait becomes one of her obstacles in finishing school.

If a trait turns out not to do much for the plot, we can certainly cut it in revision. I’ve done that.

Back to Ophelia’s lie-detecting ability. It may be fine–unless this skill makes things too easy for her. If she can see through the deception that threatens her safety or her happiness, then her problem collapses. So we have to watch out when we give our characters super powers.

Here are three prompts:

Let’s use Ophelia’s lie-detection. She attends the coronation of the new king. One courtier after the other steps up to swear loyalty to the new ruler, but Ophelia realizes that three of them are lying. Write the scene and what comes next.

Ophelia writes the names of the false courtiers in her diary, along with her suspicions about them. Write the scene in which the diary falls into the wrong hands.

Or, closer to home, she hears her parents tell her older brother about the day he took his first steps and understands that the entire story is a lie. Write what happens next.

Have fun, and save what you write!

37 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Oops, I deleted that comment. Here's what I was going to say: On the eye reading ability - If Ophelia (Sticking with Mrs. Levine's name for her) uses it a lot, no doubt she sees stuff that annoys, scares, or creeps her out, so she is cautious using it. And when she kills someone (Accidentally? If she doesn't know she can and does it on accident, then I would feel bad for her, not quite so upset.) she get's scared. Maybe she deliberately doesn't use it, hides from it maybe even, doesn't make eye contact with anyone at all. Like Elsa in Frozen. On her baby-speech - Is this necessary? I mean, baby's don't exactly see the big picture. They don't understand everything that's going on around them. If they could talk that early, they'd say things like "I'm hungry" or, I'm wet," or "My foot hurts." Or maybe even talk about the bright colors hat pass around them. Nothing very important for a story unless Ophelia happens to be an assistant in an orphanage, or if she is the maid to a woman who has just had a child, or if she has a baby herself, or is taking care of someone else's baby for a good part of the story. If she's good enough at baby-speech, she could even be able to understand the things that the baby talks about to himself that he doesn't understand himself, but she can put two and two together and figure out that so-and-so was in the room about an hour ago going looking through her stuff while she was out in the garden writing in her diary.

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  3. Another thing you could try, although I think somebody already suggested this, is putting a diary entry at the start or end of each chapter.

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  4. Great article!

    I have an idea, roughly inspired because of the ingenuousness of the fact that Marvel Studios took bunches of separate superhero characters and brought them together in an epic finale (the Avengers). I want to do that for my book series (which I've already written the first book for), but I don't know how to make the 'other' characters to introduce, which will come in in the 'epic finale' as interesting and lovable as the first ones. Thoughts?

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    1. "Interesting" and "lovable" are high bars to clear. I'd concentrate instead on their roles in your story and what kind of people they need to be to do what they need and want to.

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  5. One more thing (which is completely unrelated): I've been thinking of making it so that my character is less 'special' and 'chosen' in a cliche way by making it so that his friend is, too, and there's a question of who is the real savior. Just wanted to see what anybody thought.

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  6. Sounds interesting! I wonder how a story from the POV of a character who has to watch their best friend become the Chosen One would work?

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    1. That would be cool. Kinda of like Harry Potter from Ron or Hermione's POV... I want to try that now!

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    2. That would be very intriguing...

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  7. Alyssa: About the possibility of Ophelia's eye-detecting ability making things too easy for her... If that is the case, I would play around with the issue and try giving her some limits as well. Like perhaps she can only detect the presence of a lie, not what the lie is exactly. Or perhaps she can't distinguish between a full-out lie and subtle deception. Maybe you could give her some sort of weakness just to offset her 'superpower.' I know this was just a potential problem brought up by Mrs. Levine, but if it is actually an issue for you, then hopefully this helps. :)

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  8. I've been thinking lately. I see a lot of 'fairy tale retellings' of stories like Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wizard of Oz. To me those aren't fairy tales. They're longer and we know exactly who wrote them. Reading them feels more like an adaptation than a retelling. It makes me wonder if we'll see retellings of The Hobbit or Chronicles of Narnia once the copyright expires.
    What's your opinion on this?

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    1. If they're still popular I think it's quite likely. I can imagine many more adventures for Bilbo Baggins! To me, this isn't bad. We all build on the work of others.

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  9. I'm going to attempt a Rumpelstiltskin retelling, with a modern twist, but I'm a bit stuck. Chloe Miller gets a job working for King Cole (a notorious criminal kinda person) but I don't know what her job is. It has to be a replacement for the whole straw-into-gold thing. I'm kinda stuck. Anybody have an idea?

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    1. I'm doing a Rumpelstiltskin thing too! It could be a paper mill, a bakery since millers made flour, a jewelry store (gold), pawnshop (the whole trade thing), or maybe something to do with stock markets since they allegedly make money out of nothing.

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    2. Eliza, I LOVE all of your ideas! They are so awesome. One one hand, I really like the jewelry store thing, because she could be asked to make him a specific piece of jewelry or something, (And, I like it too because I myself make jewelry) and on the other, I absolutely adore the pawnshop idea (I asked my brother about the different options, and he emphatically went for the pawnshop choice) and its quite perfect because "King" Cole is a criminal and he would need a place to sell his stuff, and a pawnshop is perfect. And I also love the stock-market thing. I can't decide. They're all wonderful!

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    3. On, I meant to say "ON one hand", not "one one hand."

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    4. Oo! If you make jewelry, you can use that to add verisimilitude to your story. Cool!

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  10. Weird idea that just popped into my head:

    Maybe, since Old King Cole is always calling for his Fiddlers Three, they're constantly breaking strings, and the king has heard that Chloe knows how to make indestructible fiddle-strings.

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    1. I like it. That is a really cool idea.

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    2. Me too! Really cool idea! I wasn't going to add in the fiddlers three, but I will now! Because it's a modern day tale and not exactly sci-fi, no indestructible strings, but you inspired some other really interesting ideas. Thanks!

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    3. Maybe she or another character works in a music shop. You could call it The Fiddler's Three as a shoutout to the nursery rhyme. Just an idea here...but maybe she meets someone, like a love interest, when King Cole sends her on an errand to find new fiddle strings.

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  11. Hey, everybody, I have a question. It's not related to Mrs. Levine's blog, but I need a hand with names, and when Mrs. Levine needed names for her new book, everybody here came up with some great ones. A friend of mine is working with me to set up a blog in which we'll be writing book reviews, and we really need a good name, but we're stumped. Any ideas? We're not reviewing a specific genre of books (though there will be a lot of fiction and teen fiction that we review). Mostly we'd just like a fun name for our blog that also describes what the blog is about.
    ~Thanks!

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  12. Random thoughts (I haven't looked to see if any are already taken):

    Pixels About Pages
    Reviews, Ink.
    Under Covers
    We'd Like To Have A Word With You
    Page Turners
    Read Any Good Books Lately?

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    1. Thanks, carpelibris! Those are great ideas. :D All the ones I'd bee coming up with were really boring...
      Review World
      World of Reviews
      Teenfiction in Review....:P
      I like yours. :D

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    2. We chose a variation on Under Covers: Under Cover Agents. We and other guest reviewers will be agents. Hard to explain, but thanks for the idea. :D :D

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  13. Hi Gail, I doubt you remember me but back in 2000 I wrote you a letter about getting your advice on becoming a writer (I was 14 at the time) and was fortunate to receive a handwritten card back from you (the cover the card had a Piccaso painting on it). I still have it and cherish it to this day. You are one of my favorite writers and Ella Enchanted left a great impression on me, as I'm sure it continues to with young readers till today. Thank you for being so thoughtful and encouraging. I'm getting my masters in urban planning now and have had some small publications here and there over the past couple years, but have not abandoned my dreams of being a full-fledged writer yet. Thanks for being amazing! <3 -Alina Din

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  14. Alina din--Wow! Thanks! Good luck with the Master's, and congratulations on your publishing success!

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  15. I just have to tell you this. I haven't been keeping up with your blog as much as I used to but I am still enjoying your books, even the picture ones! I babysit for this little four year old and we went to the library together and I checked if they had your Betsy books and they did :)
    I was a little too excited...anyways, we checked them both out and she absolutely loves the Betsy Red Hoodie! She was laughing the entire time and made me read it four times in a row. Just wanted to let you know that it's not just older kids that adore your books.

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    1. Thanks for spreading my books to the youngest generation!

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  16. Just wanted to let you know that your book has been included in the Write Kids' Books roundup of 15 Kindle books under $10 that will help you write a great children’s book… and 3 to skip. (Don't worry; yours WASN'T one of the ones to skip!)

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