Tuesday, February 28, 2012

What's in a Name?

One of the more challenging aspects of writing a story or novel is probably naming our characters. Several criteria can come into play:

Does the name mean something?
Does it reflect the character's personality?
Do other characters use a nickname for that character?
Do I, the author, like the name (can I live with it for the duration of the novel)?
Is the name too boring or common?

Some things I also like to consider are these:

* How the name looks on paper. Because most readers don't read aloud to themselves, I think the name has to "look right" on paper (whatever that means).

* Being aware of the name in relation to other character names. (This is only a personal preference) - I don't like character names to start with the same letter. As a reader, when I see Alan, Amy, Andrew, Adam, and Alyssa, I get confused. I tend to skim over names pretty quickly as I read, and if they all start with the same letter, it slows me down. I have to stare at the name, reflect on it. And it takes me OUT of the story.

* Watching out for names that conjure too-personal images. I can't use names that have a strong personal meaning for me--the name of my mother, sister, dog--those are pretty much off limits, because of the heavy association I have with them.

Most writers probably already know this trick -- scouring baby name sites for character names is such a great resource. You can sort by most popular, by country, by gender, etc. Really helpful.

What are some of your tricks or pet peeves, when it comes to naming your characters? I'd love to hear them....

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Steven Tyler's Face

Even if you don't enjoy the show, "American Idol," you still probably know that Steven Tyler (lead singer of Aerosmith) is a judge. And what I absolutely adore about him, as a judge, is that he LOVES music. When he listens to an audition and hears a riff or a note that's amazing, he's got this specific look: eyes closed, leaned back, half a smile, sometimes with a nod. I love it, because it shows that he's soaking it up -- that something, musically, has struck him as special, spectacular. It's no longer just an audition. It's a musical experience that goes a little deeper, taking him to another place.

Example at the 2:10 mark here

And today, as I've been editing, I realize that THAT is the exact face I would love readers to make (well, except for the closed eyes) when they read my work. Not with every sentence, of course -- just that somewhere, in a phrase or a description, they're moved beyond "just a story." That, somewhere, a connection is established and they're taken to another place.

I don't know exactly how to achieve that "Steven Tyler look" in my readers, but I don't think there's a magic formula. And it's not something we should try to manipulate. But if we're truthful in our writing, if we listen to our inner writer's "voice," I think it's possible to get there...

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Great Analogy

Nathan Bransford, in his blog entry today, talks about comparisons made to writing. Interesting way to look at the process!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Downton Abbey - Lessons on Writing

If you're like millions of Americans, you've been enjoying Sunday nights (on PBS) at Downton Abbey - an enormous English estate in the center of an early 20th Century drama. Season 2 was highly anticipated--and highly mocked for its sometimes-outrageous storylines (as a friend warned me, the series started dipping into melodrama about halfway through--and right, she was!).

I could forgive just about anything, as long as it was wrapped up in lovely British accents, beautiful costumes, incredible English settings, and Maggie Smith's classic jibes.

Still, as a writer, I found myself a little disappointed in the writing. An article that a friend sent me details my own thoughts about Downton--and I was thrilled to see brilliant nuggets of writing wisdom punctuating it. Even if you've never heard of Downton, if you're a writer, you'll find some great advice in this article. I found myself nodding over and over again at things like this:

Here's a rule of thumb: If a story could be removed entirely from a season and it wouldn't matter because it had no real effect on the characters, it's a not a good story.

Amen! As I often tell my students: "A sentence (in this case, storyline/character) must EARN the right to live."

 Here's the link to the whole article, by Maureen Ryan. click here.

I've always believed that we writers can learn just as much (if not more) from discovering flaws in other people's works. The same is true, apparently, with something as beloved as Downton Abbey. Thank you, Maureen Ryan, for so eloquently proving this notion.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Empathy is Crucial

I just didn't connect with the main character. If you’ve ever heard these words from an agent or publisher, you’re certainly not alone. That statement is quickly becoming commonplace in rejection letters, and for good reason.

Fostering an emotional connection between the main character and the reader is imperative. It could easily make the difference between getting a work published and not getting it published.

Why? Because if that initial connection with the character is never made, there's less incentive to continue at all. Why keep reading, if you don’t care what happens to the characters, whether they live or die? It’s a waste of valuable time. On the other hand, if an emotional investment in that character is established early on, the reader be willing to go almost anywhere (plot-wise) with the character. The reader needs to fall in love.

So, how on earth do we, the writers, create a tangible connection between an imaginary character and a reader we probably won’t ever meet? How do we manufacture love? How do we capture it, then channel it?

1) Be ‘in love’ with the character, yourself. If you, the writer, are rooting for a character, if you don’t mind spending hundreds and hundreds of hours in his/her presence, there’s a good chance that will translate to the reader. It doesn’t mean you always agree with your character’s choices or have on rose-colored glasses. As in real life, you see the flaws and decide to love in spite of them.

2) Show their weaknesses. As the cliché goes: a perfect character is a boring character. We humans aren't perfect people, so how can we relate to perfect characters? Let us see from the start that your characters, even the well-intentioned, "good" ones, are flawed. Show us their jealousy, their frustration, their temper, their insecurities. There’s no need to hit the reader over the head with these, though. A subtle action—or reaction—can do the trick.

3) Let readers empathize with the character. This might be the most powerful way to establish a fast “connection” between your character and reader. Let your flawed, imperfect character be the object of the reader’s empathy. In real life, isn’t it easier to like someone with whom you empathize? In literature, my favorite example of this comes from Colleen McCullough’s sweeping novel, The Thorn Birds. I read it more than fifteen years ago and can still remember with great clarity the opening scene. On her fourth birthday, little Meggie sits, gazing at her new doll, every detail lovingly described. The doll is precious because Meggie had longed for it for months, and finally, her mother had saved enough money to purchase it.

Then, the unthinkable happens. One of Meggie's rambunctious brothers wrenches the doll from her hands and tosses it to her other brother. She sits helpless, watching in horror as the doll falls between them, watches them rip away the doll’s beautiful golden hair, contort her limbs into unnatural positions, strip away her delicate pink dress. I'll never forget the emotional connection that I had to that little girl at that moment. I sympathized with her. I wanted to scoop her up and hug her, repair the doll for her, make her smile again. And because of that initial connection, I was able to follow Meggie through the rest of the novel, into adulthood—even watching her make irresponsible decisions or display anger and jealousy toward men and even toward God. If it weren't for that first scene, I'm not sure I would have rooted for her quite as strongly as I did.

In the end, it’s not about techniques and manipulating characters into heart-wrenching situations to force an emotional response (in fact, to be believable, the emotions have to feel natural). Ultimately, it’s about letting characters reveal their human nature. And when that happens, readers will recognize themselves in the character—like a mirror—which will establish the strongest connection of all.

Love -- with Caution....

Valentine's Day is a good time to talk about "love" and characters.

It's complicated. Because, on one hand, you want your reader to "fall in love" with your characters. That's what creates a connection between novel and reader.

But on the other hand, we authors can't fall too much in love with our own characters, or else we end up protecting them (from heartache, from flaws, from bad decisions). Nathan Bransford just wrote a great analogy of this, using Game of Thrones --> click here.

So, I guess the trick is balance. We need for readers to love our characters to the point that they feel it when the character endures a heartache. But as authors, we need to love our characters enough to let them fall, to find their own way.