Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Structure and “Are You My Mother”

Probably the best structured of any children’s picture book that I have read, and the book that best illustrates structure for any piece of fictional writing is, “Are You My Mother?” by P.D. Eastman. Structure of fiction books and movies is not the three act play that most of us are brought up to think of. They have three acts but the acts are not equal.

In a movie the first twenty minutes is the introduction to the character and the situation in which the character finds himself…. at twenty minutes (1-3 pages in a children’s picture book or 1-2 chapters into the novel) there is an “inciting incident” which causes the main character to make a decision that sets him on the track of the rest of the movie, novel or children’s picture book. Generally, he thinks it is the thing that is going to solve his problem. In a well structured novel, the first chapter or two is the equivalent of that first twenty minutes of a movie or the first few pages of a children’s picture book.

In “Are You My Mother?” the set-up takes the first two or three pages. The mother bird is sitting on an egg. She sets off in search of food. The baby bird hatches, doesn’t find its mother. The inciting incident, that sets it on the track for the rest of the book, is the decision to set off to find its mother. From that moment on, it’s on a track that turns every one or two pages to within two or three pages of the end (every 15 minutes in a movie, 1-2 chapters in a novel).

In “Are You My Mother?” the baby bird meets a dog, a cow, a cat, a chicken, a boat, a plane, a car… and always his question is “Are You My Mother?” and always the answer is, “No.” Each time the question is asked or thought, the answer is slightly different. The plot is turned and each section of the plot is handled slightly differently. If you use the seven Harry Potter books as samples of that template each chapter leads to a different confrontation with a variation of Lord Voldemort, or someone else or some elucidating situation or circumstance. Each situation and each confrontation is different. Each chapter adds to our knowledge of the wizarding world, or Harry or Lord Voldemort until you have the entire tapestry before you.

Finally, in each modality there is a visit to the Valley of Death in which all is apparently lost for the lead character. It doesn’t matter if it’s a comedy, tragedy, Sci Fi, mystery, novel, movie, children’s story – in a well structured book there will be a moment at which the lead character finds himself in a hopeless situation. In “Are You My Mother?” the baby bird meets a “Snort.” The snort, which is a steam shovel, picks up the baby bird – at which point the bird thinks it’s a gonner – so does any child listening to the story for the first time.

Then follows the resolve. The snort puts the bird back in his nest. His mother comes home. They recognize each other. They snuggle lovingly. All in 2-3 pages.

In a well constructed book – like the Harry Potter books – Harry is confronted by a variation on the theme of Lord Voldemort and survives. The end of Book Three is slightly different in that Harry saves Serius (his godfather) and does not actually confront Voldemort to do battle. That is a transition book. It allows Serius into Harry’s life and it sends Wormtail (Peter Pettigrew) to the aid of Lord Voldemort. Number six is also a transition book. It takes out the powerful Dumbledore, it introduces the first Horcrux, and it sets Harry onto the path of ending the fight with Voldemort in which one of them must die.

The “Die Hards” bring up another problem. What happens when you have a strong character who has met many Valleys of Death and isn’t intimidated by them. In that case the Valley of Death is applied to someone he cares about (his wife, his daughter) and the character confronts it on their behalf. Whatever is going to elicit the emotion of all is lost is what the writer uses.

Structure is fascinating to study. After you’ve enjoyed a good move or book for the first time, read it for the way in which the author handles structure. Watch any studio-created action adventure (a high concept movie which plot you can encapsulate in a sentence or two) with a stop watch and at 20 minutes the action changes to the track the movie will ride on. At about 110 minutes the Valley of Death appears and you slide into the resolve. Legally Blond, Miss Congeniality, the Die Hards, the Lethal Weapons, they’re all structured in the same way. The interesting thing is how brilliantly and differently each of them does the exact same structure.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Villain Allies

Villains have friends. They have lovers and wives, dogs and cats. The people around the villain contribute to our understanding of that villain and to the advancing of his or her objectives. How he treats each of them and how they in turn respond to him help describe him. Does he treat them well? Does he love them? Hitler loved dogs, he loved Eva Braun, he had allies that both carried out and dictated his wishes. Villain allies can help the hero by creating a whole cadre of villainous people that must be overcome rather than limiting the hero to battle to one villain - this in turn enhances the strength and greatness of the hero.

Movies like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon, to name just a few, have great cadres of villain allies. Harry Potter rarely does direct conflict with the arch villain Voldemort – at least until the end of each book. He usually does battle with surrogates like Bellatrix Lestrange and Lucius Malfoy. In Harry Potter the lines of the villain allies are not always easy to see.

One of the more interesting villain allies is Severus SnapeHarry Potter’s potions teacher at Hogwarts School of Witches and Wizardry – because Snape is a profoundly effective double agent. Snape is so effective that Harry does not recognize his goodness until the end of book seven. Snape is both a devoted ally of Albus Dumbledore and the right hand of Voldemort. His allegiance to Dumbledore and Dumbledore’s complete trust in him is a subject of much discussion and internal conflict throughout the series. J. K. Rowling is so effective as a writer that the audience does not come to grips with the fact that Snape really is a good guy until the last pages of the last book and then you see the bread crumbs that could have told you about his devotion to the side of good all along if only you’d been privy to a few more conversations.

If you want to explore another villain ally, read Silence of the Lambs. Actually Hannibal Lecter isn’t a villain ally – he’s a hero ally who is himself a villain. He represents evil incarnate, one of the most interesting allies ever written because he himself is so patently wicked, cruel and dangerous. As an ally to the young Clarice Starling whose bravery was proven by standing up to him, he was brilliantly interesting and enhanced Starling so that when she took on the true villain of the story we knew that her youth and inexperience wouldn’t stand in her way because she had already dealt with Lecter. Lecter gave her credibility. When he became the villain in his own right, he had nowhere to go with his evil. He became just another psychopath and far less interesting even though his character traits were unusual. Indeed, Hannibal Lecter as the villain was less readable or watchable than Hannibal Lecter the ally.

Each villain ally should have his or her own relationship to the villain. He or she should be as three dimensional as the villain or hero.

Describe the villain’s allies. How do the villain allies advance the plot? How do villain allies give us more understanding of the villain or of the hero? Write brief biographies of each of them. Make certain to create memorable traits, behavior patterns or habits. Analyze their relationship to the villain and why they are his allies from his point of view and from their point of view.

Monday, December 7, 2009

“Monkey Mind” or "Mind Chatter”

Everyone has Monkey Mind at some time or another – indeed Monkey Mind is one of the things that separates man from beast. It’s that nagging nasty voice that says things that upset us…. Or take us off course… or lead us into making delusional mistakes. It is the antitheses of reason or intuition.

This author once wanted to make a cartoon illustrating Monkey Mind.

It’s a two part cartoon titled “Eve and the Tree of Knowledge”

* In part one, the serpent is tempting Eve to partake of the apple, and she does.

* In Part two, she turns toward Adam and thinks, “I just know that he thinks I’m too fat.”

As Harry Potter and Ron Weasley enter their teenage years in book four, J.K. Rowling introduces the idea of Mind Chatter – not specifically but through the thoughts and reactions of both boys – as Harry drives himself to distraction with rage as he feels more and more isolated and put upon by the weight of his life’s purpose and Dumbledore’s strange attitude toward him. Ron is distracted by his own false beliefs that Harry hasn’t included him in his activities. It is part of Rowling’s genius that she includes those thoughts and feelings, with which all of us struggle, for examination in her characters. Not only do her books create a parallel universe, but they create parallels of thought and belief with which all of us can identify.

There are three lines of thought for all of us including the characters we read, write, read about and act:

* Conscious and reasoned: which is problem solving, logical and ordered.

* Intuition: which is a quiet guidance, sometimes considered to be divine, that leads smoothly to perfect solutions of problems.

* Monkey Mind which is a nasty, screaming, worrying voice that occupies a great deal of our waking time and can lead us to making grave mistakes.

* Insanity: which is Monkey Mind run amok – disjointed and disconnected to any links in reality.

Hamlet’s Ophelia is a great exploration of insanity within the context of character. Shakespeare does not take her into dark realms, of which she might actually be unaware given her innocent nature, but keeps her young and unexposed, and lets her go insane in character. The outcome is the same, she dies. And it’s much more interesting than if she had suddenly turned into Lady MacBeth - who he also drives to insanity – dark, frightening insanity commensurate with her life and deeds. Shakespeare explores a unique concept with Ophelia - the concept that torture and torment don't have to be dark and chilling.

Shakespeare explored Monkey Mind in the “To be, or be” speech in Hamlet. Characters who contemplate suicide, even in iambic pentameter, are definitely at the effect of “Monkey Mind.” Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem from which the character can see no escape. It is a cry for change. Suicide itself is change incarnate.

A wonderful writing or acting exercise is to explore the character’s Monkey Mind. A marvelous term paper idea would be to create the underpinnings of Monkey Mind that lead to some action that the character took. Mind Chatter that the author may not have explored in the actual writing. The characters in almost any Elizabeth George book could lead to hours of Monkey Mind exploration because they’re so psychologically rich. Indeed, she explores the Monkey Mind thinking of her villains in great depth.

Questions about Mind Chatter include: Give examples of the character’s Monkey Mind. Contrast Monkey Mind with the character’s reasoned thought and intuition. How does Monkey Mind advance the plot? How does it enhance the conflict between characters? How does it advance the reader’s understanding of the character? What Monkey Mind would you give to a character that you feel the author left out of the story?

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Collections in Character Development

People collect all kinds of things. They collect scalps, they collect rich husbands, antique cars, art, newspapers, original editions, bottle caps, guns, cats, ceramic frogs, baseball cards, salt and pepper shakers. The things that people collect, and the way they keep what they collect, speaks volumes about their personality.

Native American warriors used to wear scalps on their belts. Of course it was the French who started the tradition by demanding proof of kills. Later, businessmen (rarely women in those days) were known to collect the scalps of their competition.

If you look at the movie “First Wives Club” you will find a perfect example of a collector of rich husbands in Gunilla Garson Goldberg played by Maggie Smith – delightful, classy and perfect – a high class meets low class contrast to the social climbing collector Shelly Stewart played by Sarah Jessica Parker. In fact, the writers cleverly used a sale at Christy’s to accentuate the collector qualities of both characters. It’s subtle and brilliant.

In Harry Potter, chocolate frogs come with cards of famous wizards who drift in and out of their pictures. This is another perfect example of J.K. Rowling’s parallel universe; recognizable but different. She uses this particular tool to advance the unexposed young wizard Harry to Albus Dumbledore as well as to ways in which the wizarding world differs from the muggle world.

In the 1954 edition of My Brother’s Keeper, Marcia Davenport created two brothers who collected obsessively until they died of their compulsion.

Collection Questions: What does the character collect? How does he take care of what he collects? What do the things he collects contribute to our understanding of the character and those around him? How does what he collects contribute to our understanding of his world? How does what he collects contribute to the plot? Does what he collects contribute to conflict with other characters? What would you have him collect that the author didn’t have him collect and why?

Monday, November 23, 2009

Dental Records in Character Development

Since many of us would rather be dropped out of a plane without a parachute rather than go to a dentist, it is amazing that good authors make such good use of dentistry particularly in spy movies and mysteries.

If you have any questions about the importance of dentistry in a book, read Faye Kellerman’s Sacred and Profane a mystery based on forensic dentistry. It is a fascinating look at what teeth can tell about a long deceased person. Good writers often include some reference to teeth or dentistry at some point in their stories. “A pretty girl with bad teeth…” Empire of the Sun shows the disintegration of the main character’s teeth in a Japanese Concentration Camp. It’s subtle but interesting. Transformers 2 has a lovely little comedic bit about teeth. Or, if you really want the chills, check out Marathon Man. That is if you can stand seeing your worst nightmares of a dental office made manifest in torture.

There are all kinds of ways to include dentistry in a story. What is the character’s attitude toward his or her teeth? (i.e. believes he has soft teeth, believes he has ugly teeth or weak teeth). How is that played out? Is there a specific problem involving teeth that defines this character for the reader? What is the background of dentistry for this character (had good care, spent a lot of money on his teeth, never had a cavity filled). Include how he has been treated in dental offices, early traumas in dental offices, etc. How do others see the character’s teeth, if teeth are an issue? How would dental history or teeth in general advance the plot (i.e. Russian stainless steel teeth in a spy story)? Teeth are very much like overweight. People who are aware of their bad teeth don’t smile, or cover their smile with their hands.

Create a full history of fillings, braces, abscesses, root canal, how diseases like syphilis affect teeth, work that has needed to be done but which wasn’t done because of money.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Birth Order in Character Development

Birth order takes on numerous shadings of meaning in character development. These shadings are often very explicit. First children are often hyper-responsible and “good”. Second children may spend their lives being second. Even second in their graduating class at Harvard. Middle children can go in several directions and are often regarded as “mysterious.” If a first child owns the “good little girl” slot, then the other children will find a different slots to own. It’s rare that children raised together share the same character traits. Bad child, brilliant child, lucky child, psychotherapist child, independent child, each child comes with a whole set of beliefs and characterizations.

It is not necessary for any child in a household to take on negative characteristics simply because one or more of the “good” slots are already occupied. Good, brilliant, fun, lucky, sweet, kind are all characteristics that children can notably own.

If you start developing a character and you notice certain characteristics developing (because characters do tend to emerge on their own accord), check those characteristics against his birth order and personality and discover what additional personality traits you can give him. Then, as you develop him in his family setting, figure out his relationship in terms of birth order to the rest of the family.

If your character doesn’t act the way that fits his birth order, figure out the exceptions and make note of them. Some people act exactly the way the experts predict. Some people might have acted that way but something came along that interfered with that line of development. It can be fascinating to figure out what happened, how and why it had the effects it did on the character. Unpredictability, like conflict, makes for good story telling.

How does your character interact with his family from the dynamics of birth order? What role does your character play? What roles do the other members of his family play? Are there exceptions to the birth order rules? How did life change the rules? How does birth order impact the plot?

If you were going to use birth order in a term paper, figure out the birth order, either by the characteristics the author gave the character or because the author told you, discuss how the character you have chosen has character traits that prove his birth order. Or take a few traits that you didn’t find in the story and explain why you would have chosen to add these traits to the character and how that would have benefitted the story.

To find out the rules of birth order and personality go to:


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Amusements in Character Development

Amusements take many forms. The term can refer to way in which character amuses himself (playing solitaire in his room, always seeking the company of other people). Or, the term can refer to the choices characters make in types of amusement they select (playing sports, participation in local theater groups, buying stocks, tormenting cats). Amusements can be very telling in character development because it is an area where the character has made visible choices. Amusements are not something you are born with.

Amusements can be great points of conflict between characters. Characters who find watching hours of television amusing can easily conflict with characters who can’t stand television as a medium. Characters who are ardent followers of sports frequently clash with significant others who call themselves football or baseball widows. A fine example of that conflict could be found in the Broadway musical “Damn Yankees” and the song “Six Months Out Of Every Year” in which the wives complained that six months out of every year they might as well be dead.

Amusements can be great unifiers as well. In the Harry Potter series Ron and Harry are unified by their love of Quidditch, which continually separates them from Hermione who hasn’t a clue about how they feel toward that game. One of the marvelous things about J.K. Rowling is her skillful use of things that are familiar to us as readers and their application to a completely different and very parallel world.

The darker amusements – arson, tormenting and torturing, sexual deviations – are very useful in plots. They can help in the creation of villains and, if blackmail is involved, make other characters very vulnerable to discovery.

Questions about amusements might include: How does this character amuse himself? Is this character capable of amusing himself? Does he constantly require outside stimulation? Does the character want people to know about the things that amuse him? Are his amusements his darkest secrets? What does this tell you about the character? Does the character simply watch other people playing what amuses him, or does he participate himself and if he participates how? Is he a star? Is he always picked last? Does he help facilitate the pay of others? How do the character’s amusements advance the plot? How do the character’s amusements contribute to your understanding of the character?

If you are writing a term paper you might use amusements that you think the character might enjoy that the author didn’t include and justify your choice. If you are writing about historical characters you might write about what amusements a character like Hamlet would enjoy if he were alive today and why.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Lower Back in Character Development

Over the past 10 years, my writing partner Suzy Prudden and I have developed a whole program called Body-Life Therapy. We developed a certification course, wrote a small book and developed body-life cards. What we discovered was that when someone has an issue with their life, they very often have pain, discomfort or other problems in their body. The body problems consistently correspond to the life challenges.

As we were working on this book, Suzy was doing “Energy Breaks” at Carolyn Myss conferences. We had a product table and we put the cards in a basket at the front of the table beside the book. It never failed, if someone pulled a card it would relate to a life and body issue. If someone looked up a body issue in the book, there would be a corresponding life issue.

When I decided to write my book “The Character Book,” which I am using to write this blog in bits and pieces and will eventually post as an e-book, I decided to add body parts as part of character development. If a character has life issues, it expands the character significantly if they have a corresponding body issue.

For example, the lower back:

The lower back symbolizes support of all kinds. In this contemporary American culture money, real property and emotion are the greatest areas of “support” or lack of support that corresponds to lower back pain.

Pain or injury in the lower back occurs when there is a deep fear that there is “not enough.” Not enough money, not enough love, not enough emotional support, not enough work. “Not enough,” covers a broad spectrum.

Don’t let appearances fool you. A very wealthy person can feel that there is not enough money as easily as a poor person. A happily married person can suffer from doubts that love will last as easily as a person who is visibly unhappy within a relationship. Jealousy is unreasonable. Lower back issues are fear based. Fear and trust cannot exist in the same place.

If I were writing or acting a character like Ebenezer Scrooge in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, I would give him a backache. I would actually have him twisted with pain. Characters like Scrooge live in terror of not enough, they are rigid in their lives and their bodies. Most actors will act him with a curved back, his back curving around to protect what he has – to hold onto what he has – which would probably also give him arthritis in his hands. He hoards, he is frugal in the extreme, he is selfish, mean, meager and barren, all antonyms of generous. He could be called “tight” which you can act because you can be both tight in your life and tight in your body. If you are tight in your body you are apt to court injury because of inflexibility.

Within the context of his transformation can come the surprising release of pain and tension in the lower back.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Art in Character Development

Art, choices

A great many good international spy stories take place in museums or galleries in front of specific pictures that often have meaning to the story. You have only to look at Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code to see how art choices can be used effectively in a story. In the Harry Potter stories the pictures move, talk and interact with the students. There is great significance to the portraits and from time to time they play integral parts in the advancement of the plot. They also have that are clearly defined personalities and add great dimension to the story.

Choices like art and literature can be great class signifiers not only for your characters but for you as a writer. They signify background, education, involvement in pop culture and culture in general. You can write to an exclusive audience by making reference to art without explaining it and assuming that your audience will understand your references with out explanation. Or you can help to educate your readers without being condescending to an area of culture that interests you and that you think will be interesting to others. Name dropping of artists, particularly if you pronounce their names wrote can be a delightful put down of a social climbing character. All of Dan Brown’s work explains place, art and symbols so that they expand the knowledge of the reader. Examine the way art is used to define Hannibal Lecter in “Silence of the Lambs.”

As a useful exercise, make a separate page for art choices.

• Cut out pictures of what each character would hang on his walls and come to some conclusions about why he chose those particular pictures.
• Select the art as a madman, a stalker, a poor person who loves art and cuts pictures from magazines or calendars, a fan, a criminal, a thief.
• If you were decorating this character’s home describe what art would he select for his walls?
• Does this character go to museums, to galleries, to sales of classic reproductions in street sales, to Sears? Does art play no part in his life at all and why? I have heard a blind teacher say that the visual arts are unimportant, but after Degas, the famous artist of ballet dancers, went blind he turned to making sculptures.
• Which art and medium would your character choose and why?
• Do particular pictures or artists play a defining role in this character’s life? If so, how?

You can have lots of fun with art and artists in writing. In the movie, based on the book, “Lust for Life” there is great contrast drawn between the artists Vincent Van Gogh – wild, messy, passionate and Paul Gauguin – disciplined, neat, critical. It’s a point of conflict and in fiction conflict is good.

You can also use art to describe scenes that will immediately elicit an understanding of what you are describing in only a few words. The sky over El Greco’s “Toledo” is an instant recall of a certain dark gray, stormy sky, in late afternoon. You don’t have to describe the violent clouds of many shades of gray, set with white, roiling over the city and surrounding fields.

How the writer uses art in a work of fiction is a great term paper subject if the writer utilizes that medium to advance the plot or the understanding of character. What the writer would have chosen as art, if he had described art in his work of fiction, would be of particular interest. For example Hamlet’s house would probably have featured numerous tapestries which were not only used as wall decorations, but to keep down drafts in the uninsulated castles.


If an artist is identified with a certain style of portrait, it is sometimes very easy to describe a character by naming the artist. Heavy-set female characters are often called Rubinesque. You have only to read the “Man Wanted” column in the Newspaper to see how many women describe themselves in those terms. A body like a Greek statue immediately tells you a great deal about that beautifully muscled, well proportioned body of an athlete.

• What artist’s work would you use to describe this character? Why?
• Would the character agree or disagree with that description?
• Would the character be pleased or displeased with that description?

Monday, November 16, 2009

Achievements in Character

Achievement is a point of view because not everyone agrees on whether achievements are actually achievements or whether they have actually been met. Take George Bush and the War in Iraq as an example. Some people will argue that the objectives of the war were met. Some would argue there were no objectives. Some would argue that the objectives weren’t met at all. Still others would argue that the wrong achievements were met.

Achievements can definitely be points of conflict. Going back to Harry Potter, J.K. Rowling made achievements a point of conflict between Ron and Harry. When Ron became Prefect, Harry experienced a jealousy that could have torn the friendship apart. Instead of sticking to this overpowering emotion, he took himself to task for wanting to deny Ron his moment of happiness and served as a role model for readers who are faced with their own loss within a competition. Had Harry become Prefect, as everyone expected, the jealousy, the soul searching, the rising to the moment would have been lost. One of the magical things about Harry Potter is that he’s so very human, so very vulnerable, and so prone to experiencing what we all experience in spite of his heroics.

Achievements can include awards, successes, or something as backward as being a successful failure. The character’s achievement can be negative or positive depending on your point of view. Achievements can include a gamut from things like achieves success as a playboy, president of a large corporation, a bank robber, girl scout, boy with a paper route, soldier, sailor, Indian Chief.

When Achievements overlap, they can create great conflict between characters as in politics or war. In the Harry Potter stories the person with the greatest achievements is Voldemort. He is the world’s greatest villain and because of that achievement he is that much more formidable as an adversary. If Harry’s heroism had been limited to dealing with Dudley Dursley, the Harry Potter series would have joined the ranks of other children’s stories – interesting, well written, and forgettable, instead of become an instant classic.

When I filled out the questionnaire from my publishing company concerning “Tranquillity Initiative,” (my soon to be released novel) they asked me how I felt when I finished the book, an achievement. I felt let down, as I felt when my writing partner Suzy Prudden and I finished our best selling “MetaFitness: Your Thoughts Taking Shape.” There is something wonderful about a writing project. You get to think and discuss ideas and hang out with interesting people. When the book is finished, those wonderful people disappear and all the discussion stops. So the achievement, while a landmark, is also a bit of a let down. The book goes to editing. Two years later you’re trying to remember what the book was about as you discuss it in the media because in two years you’ve written at least two more books. This is a way of showing that achievement can be bitter sweet. Indeed, in many cases the less black and white an achievement, the more interesting it is.

Let’s examine that. If you say, “How did you feel when you finished your book?” And I say, “GREAT!” That’s the end of that conversation. If I say, “It was a let down,” your response has to be, “Why?” Then I get to tell you why, and you get to ask me about what was so wonderful about those characters, or what did you discuss that you found so fascinating. The last thing you want your characters to do when it comes to their achievements is to give a conversation-stopping answer, or have a boring easily anticipated response.

What are this character’s achievements? How does the character view his achievements? How do they help define his personality? How do other characters view his achievements? Be specific. How does the character’s achievement advance the plot? How do achievements conflict with the ambitions or achievements of other characters? How does the character grow or change as a result of his achievements?

Before I actually was a writer I wondered about writing. I remember asking my writing partner – who was then just my sister - whether she thought writers looked at every single word to see if it was the right word. The answer I find is yes and no. Some words just fit and others should be examined to see of another word might have a bigger impact or more meaning, or simply make the reading more interesting. An example is the word “said.” Should it be said, whispered, shouted, ranted, moaned, exclaimed, cried? There are so many words that are more descriptive than the word “said.” By the same token, character should be examined with a fine tooth comb because of the effects your choices have on the impact of your book.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Shopping Patterns in Character Development

Almost anything you can think of can be used in character development. And almost anything can be used to advance ambition or conflict in a story. Shopping patterns are marvelous definers for both men and women, and although shopping is often used to define young women in chic flicks, it is definitely not limited to the young and feckless. People, whether consciously or not, generally use what they buy as statements of who they are. They same holds true for how they buy.


• shop ‘til they drop
• can’t think of anything they like less than shopping
• shop in department stores
• haunt boutiques
• hire professional shoppers
• frequent designers
• only buy from thrift stores (remember “Second Hand Rose?”)
• shop by catalog
• use the Internet.
• spend their weekends at the Mall and it is their social life as well as their source for things
• buy material but make their own clothes, so shop for patterns
• always ask for a discount
• are generally rude to shop personnel
• shop in ethnic stores and neighborhoods
• refuse to shop for people who criticize their taste
• love antiques
• are attracted only to the ultra modern
• are hugely educated about what they shop for

People have shopping patterns that they developed and those that were taught to them by significant people in their lives. This can be a great area for memories that contribute to our understanding of the character’s history. Generally, if you’re going to focus on something like shopping as a focal point, your character’s shopping tendencies have already been established as an important part of the character group you are describing and will quickly serve to expand the audience understanding of the character much like landmarks define geography.

Each person thinks their way of shopping is the way shopping should be done. They may even be totally unaware that there is another way to shop. Friendships are developed through shopping. Feelings can be hurt through shopping. Ethnicity can be defined by the outlets groups of similar background congregate. Shopping in ethnic stores can present dangers. For example illegal immigrants shopping in stores that cater to largely Hispanic shopping traditions run the risk of being raided and arrested by ICE.

What are the character's shopping patterns? What are his favorite stores, favorite departments or favorite neighborhoods? Do shopping patterns contribute to our understanding of the character? Does shopping advance the plot? Does shopping contribute to the conflict between characters or groups of characters?

As a term paper idea, you can approach shopping from the point of view of how the person you have read about would have shopped in his or her day and why that would be important. Or you can make up how that person would have shopped today and justify your choice. You can develop how the author used shopping to set the period, character or groups of characters in the story.

If you’re looking for history there are links to antique catalogs. Here’s one that goes back to 1933 You use these links to find out what was for sale, what the prices were, what was sold and what was made. Newspaper archives are also useful to get a line on what stores were advertising, what they were advertising, what costs were, what people were looking for. Through this link you can brows through the New York Times back to 1858 . I cannot figure out how to make this big enough to read and if someone can – please let us know.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Addictions in Character Development

Addiction –noun
The state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.

Books have been written about addictions. Addictions are wide ranging and don’t always stay within common definitions. You can use addictions to sex, alcohol, wealth, cigarettes, chocolate, drugs, drama, adrenaline, work, danger, power, failure, victimization, adulation almost anything you can think of as a negative habit can become an affective character trait. My teacher Stella Adler used to say, “In your choice is your talent.” So, selecting addictions can be a very good choice.

The following are some questions you might ask if you are analyzing or creating an addicted character:

What is the character addicted to?
How does that addiction play out in the story?
How does it affect people around the character?
How does it sabotage the character?
Like certain medications, how does in interact with other character traits?
Most of all, how does it advance the plot?

One clue that is good to be aware of is that usually people, who are addicted to one thing, are addicted to other things. There is such a thing as an Addictive Personality.

So, if you were examining a character like Rush Limbaugh, for example, knowing that he has an addiction for Oxycotin, what other things do you think he might be addicted to: Food (hence the overweight), chocolate, power, sex (hence the Viagra), nicotine (hence the cigars), rage. Indeed, the character who is addicted is often defined by his addictions. You could say, the addictions predict the character.

Interaction with other character traits can go far beyond the obvious (like narcotics negatively enhancing the effects of alcohol). If a character is addicted to power there has to be a negative connotation to the power. So, in order to gain his power this character has to go on the attack. He has to assure dominance. And the things this character selects over which to assert dominance can be hugely interesting. Limbaugh chooses to assert dominance over the Republican Party among other things. He also plays fast and loose with the truth because the truth is less interesting than the power he gains by playing to the worst fears or most negative beliefs of his audience. So who is his audience and how do they partner him in his dance of power?

Interactions with other addicted characters can also be interesting: the sadist and the masochist, the victim and the victimizer, the successful parent and the failure child, all enter an intricate dance of addictions with one another. The key to addictions is that they always have a negative aspect to them. They sometimes have a positive aspect and they are most interesting when you can see the fallacy in the positive interpretation, or when you can see both sides of the coin.

The same addiction can wear many hats. In a well constructed story, there is generally a turning point (or inciting incident) at which the main character makes a decision that takes him into the body of the story. Generally, he makes a decision that seems to be taking him out of a bad situation but which actually leads him into a worse situation: the pot head who gives up smoking for drinking alcohol and becomes a raging alcoholic. The woman who attracts abusive men into her life (and yes, being abused is an addiction for many people) leaves one man for a worse abuser. Spousal abuse and alcohol abuse are evil twins and complimentary addictions.

Addictions can look like ways to manage your life or manage another addiction. Bulimia and anorexia for example appear to be solutions for women worrying about eating too much or getting fat.

As an exercise: What would you choose as an addiction for a character and how would that play out in your story? How has an author you are looking at used addictions in his story? How would you expand on the way an author has used addictions in a story? Addictions by their very nature have negative consequences. Work is a great ethic, but a workaholic neglects his life and family. Coping with danger as a soldier is good, becoming addicted to danger so that you have to keep going back into dangerous situations, or even generate dangerous situations, in order to feel alive is negative. Describing the dance of addiction is a great way to develop character or examine the way an author has developed character.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Set Ups and Pay Offs Of Character

Good pay offs are like that example that people use – if you can only see the toe nail on an elephant’s foot, how can you tell it’s an elephant? You probably can’t, but when the reader looks back from the full picture, the toe nail is there in full view – obviously a missed clue. For me there is nothing more wonderful than a really good pay off in either the characters or plots of a book.

So often the endings of books kind of drizzle off into after thoughts, almost as if the writer couldn’t think of anything more to say and just stopped writing. Once in awhile, good authors have endings with twisted and marvelous pay offs. Those endings stick with me for years. I was so inspired by the pay off at the end of “The Boys From Brazil” by Ira Levin that I actually shouted when I read it. I used it as a model for the end of my own book “Tranquility Initiative,” which will soon be released. It’s one of those wonderful, totally unexpected endings that leave you with a sense of dread. Indeed the whole book in “The Boys From Brazil” is the set up. It’s a marvelous read and I won’t spoil the pay off for you.

Elizabeth George, is a complete treat of a writer from a great many directions not only her great and many startling pay offs but her use of the English language make reading her mysteries something to look forward to. Many writers are quite simple in their English, not Elizabeth George. I would say that her gorgeous use of language is wasted on a mystery, but it’s not wasted at all. It makes the reading wonderful. Beside the pure joy of the read, she sets up all kinds of clues like bread crumbs throughout her books and the pay offs are amazing.

J.K. Rowling is the quintessential pay off queen. Elephant toes that constantly mislead Harry and the reader litter her landscape. Like Hermione catching and stopping Snape in his perceived attempts to curse Harry off his broomstick in book one, which is constantly used by Harry as a reason to mistrust Snape, gets paid off in Snape’s memory in book seven which we hear Dumbledore ask him to keep an eye on Quirrell – who it turns out was the one making the curse. Indeed book seven is replete with pay offs. It is an amazing example of how, when you only have some of the information, you can jump to erroneous conclusions. In Harry Potter there are long term – full-series pay offs, book-length pay offs and chapter-length pay offs.

Set ups and pay offs are marvelous conversation pieces for term papers. Did the writer confuse the reader with a set up? Was the set up noticeable at the time or only in retrospect? What had to happen for the reader to understand the pay off? Did the writer set it up and hide it well? Did the pay off use a play on words so that it was not only exciting and informative, but clever?

J. K. Rowling’s use of Rita Skeeter as an animagus (a witch or wizard that can turn into an animal or in this case a bug) gave “bugging” new meaning when Hermione finally figured out she was turning into a beetle in order to gather information at Hogwarts. Despite the many clues, including Harry talking about the possibility Skeeter bugging Hogwarts, and Hermione insisting that electronic devices would never work in the castle – which actually gave her the clue she needed – the beetle-bugging solution to how Skeeter could possibly have access to some of the information she wrote about came as a complete surprise to this reader.

Set ups and pay offs are a good reason for outlining. It’s easier to write good set ups and pay offs in the planning stage than to have to search back through a 300 page book to find the places to insert set ups when you come up with a wonderful pay off at the end of the book. And of course it can be done – it’s even been done by me from time to time.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Astrology of Character

As with numerology, astrology gives you lots of information to play with when you’re developing character. If you already have chosen your number, the next step is to select a sign that you think fits the character. I once worked with a character that was born in 1866 which adds up to a 21. She was very blond and blue-eyed, which fits well with Leo. But she wasn’t someone who wanted center stage, in fact she avoided center stage, so I made her a cancer, which meant I added 7 to 21 and came up with 10. I had already decided to make the character a number five because I felt giving her a passionate need for change would create drama in her life – most of it was spent in a prison hospital on a small island where no change was possible. That meant she had to be born on the fourth of July in 1866.
The date of birth is the Sun Sign, but the sun is only the face you present to the world, there are 11 other planets at play in everyone’s horoscope plus your rising sign. Your rising sign connotes how you do things.
There was a conversation that Harry Potter, who was born on July 31, 1980, had with his generally incompetent Divination Teacher, Sybil Trelawny. In typical Trelawny fashion, she guessed that he had a significant Saturn in his birth sign and therefore must be a Capricorn, when in fact he is a Leo – the sign of the Sun. The conversation could have gone further and could have proven her right, because it doesn’t matter that his sun sign is Leo if his rising sign is Capricorn, or if, for example many of his other planets are in Capricorn. That is undoubtedly too much of a discussion for a children’s book, but not too much of a discussion for someone seeking behavior patterns for character development – or a topic of conversation for a term paper.
Not only do you have Western Astrology to play with but you also have Chinese Astrology to add to your mix. In Chinese Astrology, Harry Potter is a monkey – a prankster slightly tempered by his year of birth. Metal Monkeys (1980) are more loyal and settled than other kinds of monkeys. Had I been playing with this fiction I probably would have figured out a way to make him a Dragon…. Which is a much better fit for the story and I would have made Fred and George Weasly the monkeys.
Within both kinds of horoscopes are the compatibility signs. Rabbits don’t get along with Roosters but love Boars. Taurus isn’t always happy with Aquarius but does extremely well with Virgo and Capricorn. So once you have your main character’s signs you can use the signs and symbols to create adversaries, friends and lovers. And you can happily mix and match depending on how you want those adversaries, friends and lovers to play out. If, for example, you want friction in your love match then you would mix signs that don’t get along. If you want to add a wrinkle to your adversaries you would put them in signs for which there are definite attractions for the hero. That adds a psychological conflict to the rest of the conflicts.
Now, you may be looking at all this writing tool negatively, as something that takes a lot of time, and I will repeat this endlessly – for some people spending hours, days and months developing characters is important. For other writers, characters come through like visions, or character isn’t as dominant in their writing as plot. For some people it’s a great way to get beyond writer’s block. For others it isn’t. For still others, it’s against their religion. So here’s my advice. If it’s not important to you, or you don’t consider it fun, don’t do it. If you find it fun and interesting and helpful, do it. Nothing is written in stone when it comes to writing.

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Numerology of Character

In great literature characters have numbers in much the same way that real people have numbers. So I often start with numerology when I begin to think about writing a character. The character’s numbers will lead me toward his or her behavior patterns, attitudes, stress points and even conflicts with other characters.
Although he isn’t an eight – Ebenezer Scrooge – works the issues of the number eight which are power and money. His transformation takes place in the realms of power and money. Interestingly, the number of Scrooge (one - creative) and the number of “A Christmas Carol” (seven - spiritual) combine to make the number eight, which makes sense. The entire story is about eight issues.
Harry Potter’s birth numbers, on the other hand, combine to form a four, the number of work. And from the beginning of the series Harry has a job to do. Fours often have difficulty delegating their responsibilities. Harry’s friends tell him constantly that he doesn’t have to do everything himself. His name number is an eleven – a master number. An eleven is someone who takes on goals and challenges bigger than themselves – goals so big and challenging that they might even intimidate. Eleven adds up to two – the number of partnership – and Harry always partners with Dumbledore, Hermione and Ron.
In my soon to be released novel, Tranquility Initiative, the main character Cassandra Williams – a doctor from the CDC sent to investigate an outbreak of pulmonary anthrax in New York City is number 7. Spiritual but also intellectual, focused, scientific – a seeker of truth, an accumulator of knowledge, self-oriented, a perfectionist and a woman of great mental strength. That allows her to be incredibly effective despite the fact that she is movie star gorgeous.
Using numbers to explore the traits of characters you are inventing, or using numbers to explore characters developed by others, is great fun and can lead you into areas of understanding that would have eluded you without the numbers acting as a guide to consistency. They can help you make choices for the character or solving problems for the characters that would otherwise get in their way.