Why Tell a Story?

Typewriter - Once upon a timeFor as long as I can remember, I have been observing people. Not in a creepy, stalker-ish way, or at least not according to the local authorities. But as a watchful, introverted child attempting to make sense of the world, and later, as a watchful, introverted adult, still attempting to make sense of the world and my place in it.

People are fascinating. How they can say one thing and do another. How they are capable of great feats but falter at the smallest tasks. How they can smile at you and promise the world, right before crushing you under their heels. Continue reading

Writing Characters Outside the Box

Fisheye Scorn - You're in Deep TroubleI hate stereotypes. I get why they exist; human brains like order. They process a lot of information, so they want to sort things into boxes and get on with the day.

But we—individual people—are not tick boxes on a form. We are not the sum of the things people claim we are. We are not X, Y, and Z because our skin is a certain color, or our grandparents were born in a particular country, or because of whom we love.

When I think about how stereotypes apply to writing, I keep coming back to an amazing author and professor I studied under years ago, who cautioned women writers never to write from a man’s point of view. It’s a topic I’ve tackled before but it still applies to so many situations. Continue reading

A Character by Any Other Name

Along with their physical descriptions, speech patterns, and those quirky gestures however irritating or endearing, your characters’ names can speak volumes about their personalities.

Consider Cruella de Vil from A Hundred And One Dalmatians. Would she inspire the same fear if she were named Becky Jones? Would Hannibal Lecter be as menacing if he were Sheldon Greenblatt? What about “Call me Fred?” Doesn’t have quite the same je ne sais quoi, does it?

But how do you come up with just the right name for your character? Here are a few things to think about:

1. Choose something age-appropriate. If I’m writing an American, middle-class character about my age, I think back to high school. Kathy, Lisa, Donna, Mary, and Karen were very popular names for girls, and there were a lot of guys named David, Steven, and Mike. Not that you wouldn’t find something more unusual floating about, but in fiction, readers are more likely to go with the probable than the possible. If my character is in her thirties, he or she may have a spunkier name like Jason, Jennifer, Stephanie, or Stacy. (My thirty-something protagonist of The Joke’s on Me is named Frankie.) A teenager may have been named after his or her mother’s favorite pop culture star. Hence the number of Ashleys, Olivias, Justins, and Britneys floating around.

2. Choose something regionally, ethnically, or culturally appropriate. This is a dicier area, because you don’t want to offend your readers by using a cultural or ethnic stereotype. If you have a character in your story who comes from an ethnic or cultural group different from your own, do some research. In some countries, babies are given very specific names based on their meanings. In some cultures or religions, it’s considered bad luck to name a child after a dead relative, while in others, this is done frequently and almost expected. What has helped me is a directory of worldwide baby names with their meanings. And my good friend, Google.

3. Consider your character’s role in the story. An unlikely hero (or heroine) may have an unassuming name, like David Copperfield or The Grapes of Wrath‘s Tom Joad. Or, a timid character saddled with a heroic name (or a larger-than-life relative’s name) may struggle to fill those big shoes.

4. Avoid making a name into a “reading bump” if possible. I loved the name Lisbeth for one of my characters, but my writing group’s feedback convinced me to change it to something simpler because they kept getting stuck on it and feeling distracted from the story. She’s now Liz. No harm, no foul, no “reading bumps.”

5. Unless you’re writing comedy or a funny children’s book, avoid any name that rhymes with “said.” I never thought about this until I wrote a contemporary novel in which I’d named the husband Ted. Imagine page after page of “Ted said” and all those readers laughing to themselves because of the unintentional rhyme. I actually considered putting the whole thing in present tense so I wouldn’t have to deal with that particular issue! It was much easier, and better for the story, to change the husband’s name.

6. If your character cries out for an unusual name (think Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye or Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces), he or she will most likely pay the consequences, just as in real life. But this is rich material for character development. These consequences (teasing, bullying, even scorn for being named after an infamous figure) may end up shaping the character.

7. Still stumped? Open the phone book, peruse baby-naming books, or scan popular culture for an interesting, appropriate name.

How do you name your characters?  What are some of your favorite character names from the books you’ve read? Any that you felt didn’t fit the character? Or fit him or her exceptionally well? Any name you’re really tired of hearing? Let’s talk about it!

How to Heighten the Tension In Your Novel

Your novel’s protagonist has a goal. It could be as simple as bouncing back from heartache or as complex as saving the world from an evil genius and his army of giant, irradiated Madagascar hissing cockroaches. But if your character achieves his or her goals too quickly or too easily, it will make for pretty boring reading, and mire you in that dreaded dead zone of a manuscript: the sagging middle. Here’s how you can raise the stakes and heighten the tension:

1.  Toss in a good, old-fashioned monkey wrench. Imagine your protagonist is a bored kindergarten teacher who teams up with her father, a retired detective, to solve mysteries on her summer break. She agrees to meet a potential source in a dicey neighborhood. But she gets lost. Yes, she has a high-tech GPS gizmo that will help her find the address in a trice, but how much fun would it be if everything went according to plan? Have her leave it in her father’s car. Or break it. How else could she meet that sort-of creepy guy on the corner who gives her directions and ends up being an undercover cop who saves her life?

2.  Let things go terribly wrong. It’s hard, I know, to see any pain befall your beloved protagonist or secondary actors. But adversity can build character. Does the kindergarten teacher quit the case because someone tosses a brick through her window, poisons her dog, or tries to shoot her or her father? Or does this just double her resolve to see justice done?

3. Add a few unintended consequences. The kindergarten teacher’s mother, hating the whole idea of her daughter traipsing off to God-knows-what dangers with her obsessed husband, and worried sick when it’s one in the morning and she hasn’t returned, drives off into the night to find her. She makes an inquiry to the wrong person at a seedy bar. The bad guys kidnap her to force the kindergarten teacher off their tails. Okay…now what is our fearless detective to do?

4. Always ask, “What if?” Mom is no slouch. She tries to escape from the bad guys, using the lock-picking skills she developed while a student at a very unusual boarding school for girls. What if she gets out of the shed in which she’d been held prisoner, only to overhear the bad guys planning their next heist? They desperately lack a safe-cracker. What if she goes rogue and joins them? What does she have to do to convince them she’s on their side?

5. Let a character hit bottom. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A woman is like a tea bag–you never know how strong she is until gets in hot water.” In our kindergarten teacher’s story, perhaps all looks lost. Her mother has gone to the dark side. Her father is drinking again. And someone just blew up her car, broke into her apartment and rearranged all of the jars in her spice rack. As she’s calling the police, she hears footsteps. She turns to see a man with a gun. It’s her ex-husband, a sketchy dude, but the love of her life. He assaults her, steals her purse and takes off, leaving her bloodied on the living room floor. Now what? Okay, she’s allowed to brush away a few tears (she’s only human), but a strong protagonist in a situation like this will rise to the occasion. She’ll solve the mystery. She’ll give that bastard what he deserves and clear her mother’s name. Then she can collapse, perhaps in the arms of her now-sober father, and gather her strength for the sequel.

How’s your middle these days? A little soft? How do you raise the stakes for your characters?

Get Your Hands on This Book

Apologies that I’m late with this one (with a book coming out, I’ve been a little distracted), but I just finished reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

It’s fabulous. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in recent memory. And well worth its Pulitzer.

Ignore the media flap. Ignore what might or might not have been said, ignore who or who did not get her panties in a bunch, and get your hands on this book, especially if you are a writer. This is a master class on structure, the use of fictional time, character development, dialogue, and point of view selection.

For me it combined the three best qualities of a “literary” novel: I couldn’t stop reading it, I didn’t want it to end, and I’m still thinking about it.

The novel is laid out as a series of linked short stories circling around a rock promoter and his assistant. I don’t want to spoil too much, although this has been a topic of media consternation since its early reviews, but one of the stories is told as a PowerPoint presentation. And it was one of my favorites.

As a reader, I appreciated the compassion Egan had for her characters. Some of them are deeply flawed and make choices that could be considered unsavory, like Sasha, a young woman who can’t control her impulse to lift an unguarded wallet in the first story. But Egan doesn’t judge her, or her other characters. She helps us understand them and empathize with them.

As a reader, I also enjoyed trying to figure out where I was in time and space in each story, depending on the characters that showed up, and where they were chronologically. Rather than, say, employing an easy chapter subtitle like, New York City, 1983, Egan conveys the time and place as an integral part of the story, using the cultural events going on in the background or the stage of the recurring characters’ relationships with each other. Readers like to feel smart, like they’ve figured out the riddle without having it spoon-fed to them.

I’m looking forward to reading her earlier books.

Did you read “Goon Squad”? If so, what did you think?

What Is Your Character’s Deepest Desire?

Maybe you’ve heard this canard tossed about in writing conferences or on writing blogs: your protagonist has to want something.

So, what the heck does that mean? Isn’t it enough, you might think, to just tell the story?

Well, technically. That’s the bare bones of the beast. But to really make your fiction pop, your protagonist needs a compelling goal that will keep readers turning pages to see how he or she is going to achieve such a seemingly impossible task.

Think about some of your favorite and most riveting novels. The ones that kept you up past your bedtime, while you read another chapter and another chapter and another chapter. The protagonist probably wants something desperately, deeply, and so badly that he or she would be willing to sacrifice anything up to and including his or her life.

For example, in Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, one of the protagonists, Miss Skeeter, desperately wants to tell the stories of the African-American women who work as maids in the racially-charged environment of 1960s Mississippi, where the consequences of telling these stories could mean getting the maids fired or imprisoned. She wants this so badly that she turns her back on societal expectations of a white woman in that time and place and finds herself ostracized by her former friends. But she still does it. And we keep reading because we want her to achieve that goal.

For the two young Afghani women at the center of Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, their desire is to stay alive in their war-torn country under the thumb of various oppressive and violent regimes. As readers, we’ve developed sympathy for them and pull for them to succeed.

This overarching desire doesn’t always require bigger-than-big heroic action. It could be quieter, but still as compelling. The protagonist of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist just wants to get on with his life after losing his son in a random shooting. The nonagenarian nursing home resident of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants just wants to tell the story of his amazing life with the circus.

What about your protagonist? Is it an old score he wants to settle? An unmet desire?  Curiosity about the path not taken, when she meets an old friend who took it? (This is basically both protagonists’ desires in the film, The Turning Point. Excellent rental, by the way.) Or is your hero in danger and looking to escape? If you’re writing literary fiction or something with a more character-driven plot, see what drives your character. This should give you some hints about what’s important, what’s worth leaving the comfort of his or her daily existence for, and maybe, what’s worth risking everything for.

Still have no idea what your protagonist wants? Sometimes, all you have to do is ask. Try this writing exercise that’s really worked for me. Get into a quiet place, where you won’t be disturbed. Take a few deep breaths, and imagine that your protagonist is sitting right next to you. Fill in as much detail as you can in your mind, down to what he or she is wearing, and even the subtle gestures this character makes. Then do a little interview. Ask your protagonist what he or she wants. Be patient and pay attention. What you learn might surprise you.

What are some of your favorite protagonists from the novels you’ve read? What moves them? What do they want? What keeps you turning the page?

What’s In A Name?

I’m pretty sure that everyone writing fiction has at some time been stumped for a name for a character. It has to feel right for the character, match his or her personality, age, socioeconomic status, historical era. Sometimes I’ve been lucky and the right name just bubbles up out of my subconscious. Sometimes I flip through a reference like the telephone directory or the thick baby-naming book I keep on a shelf in my studio. But usually I draw on people I’ve met throughout my life. Maybe it’s a first name, or last name, or sometimes both. After all, that handy disclaimer at the front of the novel absolves me from litigation if someone doesn’t like the way I portrayed his or her crooked teeth or penchant for pornography or stiff drink.

But character names used on television and in the movies get far more scrutiny. Lift a well-known person’s name or portray a famous likeness too closely and you might find yourself in court. Or at least slapped with a nasty cease-and-desist order.

I often wonder if on-screen characters’ names also come from people in the writer’s lives, and in at least one case, I’m right. A reliable source (a livery driver who once drove the “real person” to the airport) gave me the story behind one of the minor characters on the television show, Seinfeld.

If you’re a fan of the show, you may remember Lloyd Braun, who popped up in three episodes played by two different actors (Peter Keleghan and Matt McCoy). He played George’s childhood friend and nemesis. Even though the character had a short grip on reality after a nervous breakdown sparked by losing the mayoral election for David Dinkins, George’s mother (in the classic episode “The Serenity Now”) often scolded her son by saying, “Why can’t you be more like Lloyd Braun?”

Lloyd Braun is indeed a real person; a television executive and producer who did some projects with NBC during Seinfeld’s reign. He’s probably best known for greenlighting Lost for ABC, and became the voice that began each episode with “Previously, on Lost….”

Prior to this, he was an entertainment lawyer, representing, among other clients, Seinfeld co-producer Larry David. The two were also golfing buddies. According to my source, a friendly wager between Lloyd Braun and Larry David on the links led to Braun’s allowing David to use his name on the show in any way he desired, however egregious.

Braun lost. (Wonder what kind of bet Art Vandelay lost?)

Another instance of a real person – though not actually a person – making it into fiction was a little more personal.

If you’re a Psych fan, look for a minor character named Penny Pascaretti, who appeared only once in the first couple of seasons. One of Psych’s writers, Andy Berman, a former child actor who had a recurring role on The Wonder Years, once dated someone in my family. On a walk down my street during a holiday visit, Berman met a neighbor’s dog, a yappy but lovable little thing. Penny belonged to the Pascaretti family. Berman liked the sound of the name and made good on his promise to use it in an upcoming episode.

Other than those two, in the words of George Costanza, “I got nothin’.”

What’s your favorite character name, in print or on screen? Do you know of any drawn from real life? If you are a writer, how do you choose your characters’ names?