Surprise! A Way to Develop Character

September 26, 2011

On our first day in Paris during a family vacation, we were hit with a number of surprises. It got me thinking that the element of surprise is a great device to develop the characters in a novel. Using my own experiences as examples, I’ve categorized them into three types: observational, experiential and thwarted expectations.

Observational surprises can be physical or a change in self-awareness. For example, during our airplane descent, I caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and the structure a reddish brown, not silver as I had expected. I also notice a change in my typical behavior. I’ve been accused of planning every second of vacation time. A reputation I have earned over the years. I had a plan of attack for activities our family would do on arrival. My husband and I had worked on this itinerary for months. Instead, during our first day, we left our rented apartment and randomly walked the streets. Rather than being disappointed in the change of plans, I felt a strange sense of freedom.

Experiential surprises are those that I define as those derived from interactions with people or things. In Paris, I was totally caught off guard when a French woman asked me for directions. Another experiential surprise was how much I enjoyed taking photos of my family imitating poses on statues. Here we are in Paris, looking at the Louvre and Norte Dame, and that silliness will be a highlight of my first day in Paris.

Thwarted expectations are surprises that are unpleasant. Our shuttle driver in Paris was 20 minutes late in meeting us, during which time I kept thinking we were either waiting in the wrong area or we’d been scammed (we’d prepaid). I had not used the restroom and when our driver said it would only take 20 to 30 minutes to get to our apartment, I decided to wait. Two hours later, and I suspect several wrong turns later, we arrived and then I had to wait even longer for the apartment key. Also, I went in search of lunch and the crepes I brought back for were blackened on one side. Not overdone, but charred. I was famished and ate them anyway. But I expected the food in Paris to be perfect. But it got me pondering the question what a given character in a novel would do – storm back to the restaurant and ask for his or her money back? Throw the crepes in the garbage and shrug it off? Take his anger/disappointment out on his or her family?

Which of these categories do you think is the most valuable for character development?

The Need For SetUp

September 17, 2011

I attended a professional conference this week at a government building.  The meeting kicked off with a few building facts, including a side comment that they had been having fire drills on a daily basis.  The participants in the audience were instructed to listen to the announcement and determine whether the fire hazard related to only specific floors or if the entire building must be evacuated.   Sure enough, several hours later an alarm sounded and floors 12 through 14 were asked to vacate the building.  Ever since 9-11 when I heard that occupants of the twin towers were advised to remain in the building and, those that followed instructions, perished, I have wondered whether or not I would listen to a nameless voice that asked me to remain inside.  I honestly don’t know how I will respond to a given an emergency, so had I not had the heads up about the fire drill, I may very well have left the premises.   

The point of this anecdote is that an advance warning was given which set the stage for a forthcoming event, something that is critical in a good novel.  If you have a cat that is about to thwart a killer by batting away the murder weapon, said cat must be introduced to the room at the beginning of the scene.  If it magically appears at the 11th hour, readers are likely to be annoyed that there was a cat in the room all along and the writer never bothered to mention its presence.   Likewise, if a long lost boyfriend is going to appear at a wedding to stop the ceremony, this event should be preceded by both the introduction of the boyfriend as a character and some indication of the bride-to- be’s feelings for the interloper.  Not only will the reader not feel cheated by the sudden turn of events, but the setup can lend itself for more story tension.

Have you ever read a book or a story where you felt cheated by the appearance of an undisclosed character?

Retreats – Proof That Writing Does Not Have to Be Solitary

September 13, 2011

My critique group organized a local writer’s retreat at Westminster Retreat Center last month. This was my second retreat experience. The first time I had joined a group where I knew no one. My productivity was fabulous, the setting was beautiful, but I did not experience a sense of comoraderie, so last fall I proposed the idea of a getaway for my critique group. The idea was well received and within a month we’d settled on a location.

A contract was signed, checks were written, and we issued a few invitations to expand our group to meet the required head count.

The lodge grounds were quiet and peaceful and the food was fabulous. We were fortunate to have mild weather and a swimming pool where we could cool off. At 5:00 p.m., we had a wine and snack gathering.

I suspect this will become the first annual WOTJ retreat. Participants had an overwhelming positive response by the morning of the second day. It was a privilege to spend time amidst talented, creative individuals. Not only did my novel improve in leaps and bounds, but I had a marvelous weekend.

Writing for the Ages

September 10, 2011

My wife and I sit on our deck enjoying a rare lightning and thunder show in the clouds to the east.  Sunset earlier displayed spectacular colors, from vivid pinks and oranges in the higher clouds to ominous grey-blue streaks below.  Our small market umbrella protects us now from the spit of raindrops shared wth us thirsty ground dwellers.

This is an ancient late summer theme.  A worldwide occurance that reminds us that the BIG change of seasons is just around the corner. Time to move – to get your act together.  Clean out those rain gutters! Unclog the drains. Find safe haven for those garden shovels and picks that have leaned in the open air since May.

It is also time to reflect on some enduring lessons of writing.  The pieces I have written often reflect on the timelessnes of life.  Whether or not we human hangers-on are around tomorrow is of no consequence to the bigger picture. Nature has her way of both accomodating us and leaving us to our destructive ways. She will be here tomorrow, and the next day. We may not.

There is a timelessness to writing also. It endures beyond us. Our writing is a leaf that blows down the path on the right breeze. And if we are so fortunate to have a piece published, it lingers in a lee, sheltered from the relentless wind a moment or two, but not forever. What is timeless though is the act of writing itself. As long as we breath, we will write. Perhaps of the simple act of breathing, and perhaps of something more profound. But we will write until we rejoin our earthly family.

I try to capture in my writing this timeless quality. The unbending laws of nature, of survival, demise, and regeneration. I also try to communicate the everlasting bonds of love. Between a granddad and his cherished grandson, between college sweethearts that find themselves in their sixties and still in love.  Between dogs and cats, birds and bees. While we are focused on the stock market ups and downs and whether our nesteggs will outlive our livers, we lose sight of the amazing relationships that surround us every moment.

Writing reminds us.  Refocuses us.  Grounds us in universal truths and unending struggles.  I remind myself that it is okay for my stories to take the reader back to simpler times, gentler relationships.  Stories don’t need to be “edgy” to be remembered, to be “”dark” to change someone’s life.  Stories have a life and vividness of their own. Whether they are set in 8th century England, 18th century Hawaii, 20th century Venezuela, or in your own backyard this morning, the lines you write may save – or destroy – someone’s life.

Be careful! The castles of Europe have stood for a thousand years.  The writings of Aesop, Chaucer, and Shakespere have changed many lives.  Our humble contributions to the human experience may also live well beyond what we could imagine.  What a glory! Immortality may be within our grasp.

Write as if every phase were  devinely inspired.  As if your words will save a life.  I know they have saved mine.

Creating Unique Characters

September 8, 2011

What makes an individual unique? One aspect is how they view the world. Even if you are putting a character in an exotic setting, why not have them do something unexpected?

For instance if your novel takes place in Paris, rather than send them out to explore the Louvre, have them do something lesser touristy like go on a tour of the Paris sewer. Or if the character does visit a renowned location, have their perspective reveal their morals or even be symbolic of the plot. A protagonist might climb the tower of Notre Dame and observe how one of the gargoyles appears to be about to consume a modern building. This could be poignant if the theme of this book centers around a conflict of following tradition versus progressive attitudes.

Even the simplest details can add value. If you character is traveling by train across the countryside, they could notice all the cattle are white or how the dilapidated state of the farmsteads reflect the economy. What is noteworthy to the character is a reflection of who they are and what they stand for. Such details will add depth to your story or novel and make your character feel real.

Bye, Bye Bubba

September 3, 2011

Bubba Smith, the football player extraordinaire turned actor, died last month.  When I heard the news, I was zapped back in time, back to Orange, Texas to the Tiger football stadium in the early 1950’s.  Bubba and I shared space in the stadium – at least when colored football teams played.

Yep.  In those days on the Texas Gulf Coast, African Americans were called “colored” – “Negro” if you were being high faluttin’ or putting on airs.  That’s the way it was back then.

Since football is to Texas as the Pope is to Catholicism, everyone went to the football games, no matter who played.  If the Stark High Tigers,  the white team, played, the band and home team fans sat in the wooden bleachers on the announcers side of the field.  The visiting white team and their band occupied the stands on the opposite side of the field.  If colored people attended the Tiger games, they sat in the end field seats, the Crow’s Nest.

If the Wallace Dragons, the colored high school team, played, all the white fans crowded into the home stands.  The Wallace High fans and the competing colored team shared the visitors’ bleachers.  Since Wallace High was the home team, Coach Willie Ray Smith and the Dragon players used the coaches’ bench in front of the packed home team stands.  Coach Smith’s three sons sat with him.  One was Bubba.

Coach Smith’s boys paid rapt attention to the game.  They jumped up, clapped, yelled and all the while fetched errant footballs, and carried equipment where needed.

Mother, a tried and true Texan, dragged me to the football games, even by way of public bus if Daddy needed our car for work.  As a grade school child, I did not share Mother’s enthusiasm for football.  In my opinion, the two most interesting things about football were the cheerleaders and the marching bands.  Once the half time with all its sparkle was over, I inevitably complained of an abrupt onset of an illness with vague symptoms, an overwhelming attack of sleepiness, or a sudden night-air case of Gulf Coast frostbite – all of which Mother ignored.  Pat, my seven-years-older-than-I sister, never sat with Mother and me.  If teenaged Pat had her way, Mother and I wouldn’t have been in the same town, let alone in the same stadium.

I liked the Bengal Guards, the all girls band.  They stepped off in a fast paced cadence even as they formed up under the wooden bleachers.  The Bengal Lancers, the boys band, was not, in my opinion, as interesting.  Why weren’t all those high school boys out on the field playing football like all the other normal Texas boys?

Wallace High suffered under the Separate But Equal Doctrine of that time.  While certainly separate, the shabby school was not at all equal.  I overheard my sister discussing Wallace history books.  According to Pat, Wallace history books did not even mention World War II.  I didn’t know when the war was, other than a long time ago, and should have been mentioned in colored history books like the white ones.  The budget for the band, and most likely the football team, suffered as well.  While the Bengal Guards and Bengal Lancers marched in smart fitting and up-to-date uniforms, the Dragon band uniforms seemed dated, ill fitted, and worn.  However, what they lacked in funding for smart band uniforms, they made up for with enthusiasm, loud cheering, and gymnastic tricks.  Upon leaving the field at halftime, even some of the Dragon football players turned flips or cartwheels, much to my delight.

When one of his Dragons failed to execute a play as expected, or if an official miscalled a play, Coach Smith jumped from his bench to limp up and down the sidelines.  Something was wrong with one of his legs.  The gossip was that Coach Smith had a wooden leg.  Polio, I guessed, caused his limp.

Coach Smith ruled his football players with an iron hand.  During practice, some said he smacked his players with a deflated bicycle tire inner tube as an incentive to better performance.  Many Dragon players held after school jobs – dishwashers and janitors.  If they worked in the evenings, Coach Smith required a written statement from the employer as to what days they worked and until what hour.  Coach Smith made personal visits to each player’s home for bed check.  If absent or unaccounted for, that player risked a beating, or worse, being thrown off the football team.

Soon after my family moved to Maracaibo Venezuela, Coach Smith moved to a better coaching job at the colored high school in Beaumont.  Under his father’s direction, Bubba Smith became a valued player.  Bubba played college football for Michigan State University.  Later he went on to play pro football for the Baltimore Colts, the Oakland Raiders, and the Houston Oilers.

I’ll miss you, Bubba.  Or, maybe I’ll just miss those long ago innocent days when life, as I saw it, was simpler . . . not equal or fair, but simpler.