"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: December 2009

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Character Clues

While the best characters have elements of real people to make them believable, real people rarely make good fictional characters. They are often flat and full of minor contradictions that make them non-credible to a fiction reader.

No, fictional characters need to be more than real. They are often essentially an amalgam of credible traits that are easily recognizable as human 'archetypes'.

When constructing your stories, you should think not so much in terms of who your characters ARE but WHY they're in your story. You'll then be in a much better position to understand them and their purpose.

Indeed, taking this notion on board will also help you describe them well and keep their actions and motivations in check.

Because, as I've said many times, there is no story without characters - and when constructing story plots, characters come first. You should know your characters like your best friends - actually better than your best friends - BEFORE you use them to construct your story plots.

That aside, here are some pointers about the type of characters that inhabit fiction - and why they exist.

1. The Neophyte

Also known as the fool, this type of character turns up surprisingly often in fiction. He/she is generally naive or unwise at first - but usually courageous later too, and, of course, heroic.

It is their purpose to tell the story through the eyes of the reader - so that the action and plot unfold for the character at the same time as the reader.

Characters like Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Bella Swann fulfill the role of the neophyte.

2. The Foil

The sidekick in fiction is almost a cliche. It can be done well - and it can be done badly.

The purpose of the foil is to balance the hero and provide the reader's perspective in a story. The sidekick is the reader's anchor in reality - someone who can help weigh the pros and cons of heroic action - and provide the voice of reason.

Sherlock Holmes' Watson, or Hercule Poirot's Hastings, even Kaye Scarpetta's Detective Marino. Also, the foil is often used to help aggrandize the hero in the eyes of the reader.

3. The Father Figure

Sometimes cast as a trusted friend, the father figure is the voice of wisdom and experience, and often a kind of mentor.

The father figure represents the hero's higher ideals at the beginning of a story and usually the mirror to the hero's journey at the end of a story. The father figure is not required to change emotionally during a story, though his persepective is more fully appreciated by the end.

Think in terms of Obi Wan Kenobi, Gandalf and Dumbledore.

4. The Mother Figure

Sometimes cast as the best friend or charming relative, the mother figure is strongly related to the archetypal Earth Mother - someone in sync with love, nature and all things good.

The mother figure exists to counter the classic 'masculine' motivations like power, justice and revenge with more nurturing elements like understanding, compassion and forgiveness.

Dan Brown's female characters, Sophie from the Da Vinci Code, Vittoria from Angels and Demons and Catherine from The Lost Symbol fulfill the mother role in his books - which is probably why Robert Langdon doesn't end up sleeping with any of them!

5. The Lover

Usually a strong motivating force for the hero's actions, though often fairly dormant in the character development front.

To be found in life threatening jeopardy, she is almost always beauty personified and worthy of supreme sacrifice. She is literally 'to die for'.

Her purpose is aspirational as well as motivational - in terms of her representation as the reason for the contest, and its ultimate prize.

Think Princess Liea and pretty much every hero's girlfriend who usually gets captured and held hostage by the bad guy...

Which brings us to:

6. The Antagonist

Psychologist Carl Jung said that the reason why we never tire of bad guys is that they represent our personal inherent fear of evil, uncertainty, danger and villainy.

The bad guy and his henchmen are the more obvious examples but other things like corrupt governmental systems, deadly viruses and natural calamities can also be used as antagonistic elements in stories.

The important thing is that the antagonist is threatening to the stability, well being and even sanity of the heroes.

Think Darth Vader, Snape, and Hannibal Lecter, to name just a few.

I hope the above examples of characters help you in your fiction.

When deciding on the stories you want to tell, it's often productive to question the roles of the characters - and fully understand their purpose in the context of archetypes - before you start plotting.

I think when you do, you'll find that your stories are stronger.

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy
Your Success is My Concern

Thursday, December 10, 2009

What's a Writer to Do?

There's really only one way to achieve success in writing and it's very simple to learn: to keep writing!

I know this is my call sign - but I chose it for a reason. 

It's based on my experience of watching thousands of writers over the years. 

The truth of it is very basic. That is, the Universe favors those who do not give up.

It's obvious really. 

If you set out on a path and commit to it, many things in the world need to change for you to accomplish your goals.

People around you need to think of you as a writer. 

Publishers, agents and editors need to know that you are a writer. 

They need to see you working and taking your craft seriously.

You need to be building a catalog of work - articles, short stories, novels, non-fiction work, e-books, websites, blogs, anything that proves that you live your life through writing.

The Universe needs to see you improving - and wanting to improve - so that it can then do its bit: creating unseen connections for you, working behind the scenes on your behalf, setting up relationships between people you may not meet for years.

Every writer needs to believe that their time will come - whether sooner or later. 

It's an act of faith, to be sure, especially when it seems as though you're not getting anywhere, are ignored or unappreciated, or constantly rejected.

But hey, as my first success coach used to say, no-one ever said that following your heart was going to be easy. 

Quite the opposite. 

We know from history that every great battle, every movement forward was preceded by persistence and tenacity and the self belief of those who would be taken seriously.

Why should our careers be any different?

Yes, some people seem to get there quickly - but mostly, if you study these things - this is an illusion. 

Even if you have famous parents, are rich enough to kick butt, or get a few lucky breaks, you still have to deliver the goods once you get there.

You still need talent and staying power to reach the top of your game.

Just because it may appear that some people hit the big time out of the blue, doesn't mean that's what has actually happened.

People with talent - especially writers - are noticed, then nurtured, then thrust upon the scene largely by their own volition - and then the public must decide whether they are worthy.

In the modern world nothing much happens by accident.

Instant fame is, more often than not, planned carefully by many people behind the scenes - and usually based on endless positive feedback - and, of course, sales.

It takes a lot of faith from artists to keep to their path and not give up. 

But I would argue it takes a lot more faith from a lot more people to support an artist.

If you want to be a successful writer, you need to be a rock of dependability - an inspiration in your own right. 

You need to show others that you are focused on your writing, committed to your writing, and convinced of your own worth as a writer.

A tall order?

Perhaps - given that most artists are tough on themselves - and not always convinced of their own talent!

But that's the first hurdle - something I've dedicated my career to overcoming. 

My Writing Academy was set up to help writers get over their self-doubt - to fill them with confidence.

Writing, like nail biting or overeating, is habit based.

Writing needs time - your time, no-one else's!

As much as we might like things to be easy, there are dues to pay. 

There are hours to spend doing the actual work at the coal-face.

No-one and nothing can write for you.

All the software, the gizmos and all the will in the world won't eradicate the blank pages that needs your words to fill them.

As I've always said, it starts with your mind. 

Your mindset is the beginning - and you need to get that clear first, before anything else.

Your must be clear on what being a writer means to you, you must have good reasons why you want to be a writer, and you must have the confidence - even if you need to fake it at first - to continue, knowing that things may not always be easy along the way.

The most successful writers just stick with it.

They take rejection - sometimes years of it - in their stride. 

They keep going, gently pushing, improving all the time, until finally the gates of opportunity open up and the Universe's gatekeeper is there saying, "Okay, now it's your turn."

I hope by then you will have learned your craft well - because you're going to need every ounce of talent and tenacity to hold on to that opportunity.

But there's hope - because writing really can be easy, once you get your mindset in the right place. 

And the best part about that is you can do it right now.

You've always had the power, inside, just waiting for you to tap into it. Trust me, it's there.

Keep Writing!

Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Writing Academy

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Why is Writing like Dancing?

There are so many dos and don'ts nowadays for writers to absorb that it's a wonder we don't all crack under the strain.

How are we suppose to get inspired - and write from the heart - when at least 90% of what we might want to put down on paper is considered bad practice or dull, ineffectual writing?

When starting a new story, for instance, and you find yourself describing the weather or including oodles of back story - or now apparently too much detail of any kind - what are we supposed to do?

Stop and start again?

Wait for a more inspired thought?

Keep beating ourselves up until we're better writers?

I would suggest none of the above.

Because if you let all the constraints and possible criticisms get to you, you'll most likely end up blocked - and writing nothing.

Show Don't Tell

I had an email from an esteemed subscriber this week who asked me a question that seems pertinent to this issue.

Here's the gist:

"I've been reading a lot lately about 'show don't tell', and I agree with it but when writing I invariably fall into telling because I guess I like it. Is that a bad thing?

"Also I'm a big Sci-fi and Fantasy reader where a lot of telling is done... But to me (and maybe I'm just crazy) telling is part of the fun. I mean when I read I like the telling, the information... I mean as long as there's some action, the telling is fine with me. Am I the only one who feels this way?"

First of all, my subscriber is not crazy - far from it!

Our love affair with 'telling' is innate - it's in our natures to be able to glean information in this way. We accept the sense of detachment, indeed even welcome it sometimes. It's pleasurable to us. And it's certainly not a crime for an author to indulge in it.

The advice regarding show don't tell is more to do with how some writers go about creating immediacy and empathy for their characters. It's great once you know how to do it. But even the best 'showing' authors know that for pacing at least, you sometimes need to step back and 'tell' the story for a while.

My feeling is that you need to read - and write - what you most enjoy.

We are all influenced and affected by other writers - and hopefully we learn from the best techniques and the styles of others. But we should also listen to the way we feel inside - on a more visceral level. If our emotions are engaged and we are absorbed in the stories we read, then we should respect those feelings - rather than reject stylistic 'flaws' on principle.

There's nothing wrong with emulating writing styles that we feel work - even when we're told they're bad practice.

It's up to us to find our own method of self expression before getting bogged down by the apparent need for stylistic perfection.

Write First - Edit Later

Nobody writes perfectly the first time out. It's not possible, especially when writing a longer work.

How can you know whether your first paragraph is appropriate until you've finished the whole book?

Why waste time honing a chapter to perfection when you might want to drop it completely later on?

I see this a lot. 

Writers flagellate themselves over passages that are hard to write - when it's often the most easily written parts that become the most effective when the work is complete.

Take a lesson from this - and don't beat yourself up. 

Let it all out naturally, with ease, enjoying the process as you go.

The best writing style for you - for any writer - is the one that comes most naturally to you. If the writing is hard, you're not engaging the right pathways in your brain - and your work will often look forced.

When you're enjoying the writing process, you're more in tune with your unique self - that part of you that is more likely to be original and inspired. Quite apart from the simple fact that if you enjoy writing, you'll do it for longer and more consistently, both of which are prerequisites of a writing career.

Dance Into The Fire

Back to the dancing question in the title...

I received an email overnight from a lovely new subscriber who used to be a dancer - a champion at that.

I hope she doesn't mind me using her as an example in this article - I haven't asked her permission yet. But she says:

"I do not know all the in's and outs of writing and how to make a living at it as I have done with dance. I have been on so many web sites, but you are the only one I have spent money on...

"I have a doctorate in the arts, and will now write about the arts, and so much more. Please accept my thanks for the programs, chat room, stories about Hollywood movies... all the thoughts outside the box. Good job, and thanks for the confidence shot."

And here's part of my response:

"You sound like you've led a fascinating life and my advice would be for you to apply yourself to writing in the same way as you have to dance.

"Learn all the moves - the techniques - but then let your instincts tell you what is right. I'm sure you'll do well then."

The Dance Analogy

Writing is an act of self-expression. 

How can you express yourself properly when you have critics - inside and out - heckling your every word?

It's like being a dancer, rehearsing all the right moves. It's a necessary part of the eventual performance. You need to practice and work through the kinks to get fluidity of movement and give the illusion of ease. Dancers will tell you that illusion is the hardest part of their job.

So it is with writing.

Think of your final manuscripts as your 'performance' - a public exhibition of your talent for all to see. But don't be afraid to work hard behind the scenes: polishing and honing your style by making mistakes and writing badly, freely, in your own way.

Because it's by being true to yourself and constantly striving for improvement, step by step, that you will achieve success.

As someone famous once said: "Everybody makes mistakes. That's why they put an eraser on the end of a pencil."

Make all the mistakes you want - in private. Don't be afraid to be yourself. Push yourself. Try new things. Try old things. Try.

It's all good practice until that day you feel you're good enough to take your work out to an audience - and give it a public airing.

Your readers will love your apparently effortlessness and skill - and, while transported by your performance, will largely be unaware of the hard work and discipline that went into creating it.

That's why writing is like dancing.

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell
Your Success is My Concern

The Writing Academy

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