Archive | October 2014

Water a plant and watch it grow. Give your character life and watch her develop

Watching a character grow over time, as she learns to overcome a fear or bitterness, sadness or insecurity, is suspenseful.  Our audience  wonders if she will be able to overcome the anger from her childhood, or if she will learn to trust herself in the end. As  the pages turn, the reader remains anxious to see what she will do next,  eager to see her outcome.  And eager to see how it will make herself feel.

If you plant a seed and water it you will see it grow.  Will it develop into a sunflower, tall and bright and strong, swaying steadily in the summer breeze?  Or will it grow into a relentless vine of poison ivy, hiding under the trees, tricking us into rubbing against it, to receive its pain.  Which will  our seed become?

When we, as writers, plant the seed of our story ,watering it with our words, we watch it develop over time, working hard to make sure that  it survives the storms of our self doubts, that it thrives under the sunshine of our creativity and perseverance. Whether it starts out with flaws, thorns sprouting on its stalks as obstacles to overcome or without blemish, perfectly shaped and smoothed, unprepared for a potential downfall, we hope our readers remain loyal, turning the pages eagerly.  Wanting to know how it will turn out, which plant it will grow into, our readers must dangle in suspense.

Our characters, like our readers and like people in general, are born, nourished and grow.  They journey through hardships and happiness, developing continuously, making mistakes and producing successes as they go.  And for those of us who watch them, whether it be the family and friends of a person, or the readers of our character, feeling the suspense keeps our blood running and our hopes up.  And like the sunflower and the poison ivy who are watered and nourished along the way, our characters will become who they are meant to be, joyful or painful, blossoming in their own unique beauty for everyone to see.

Our feelings are intimately tied to what we think

Remember in school when sometimes we were told to start an essay with a question.  “Debate an issue” our teachers would tell us.  “Present both sides of the argument and your essay will flow from there”.   Perhaps we chose to write about abortion or adoption or euthanasia.  We could start our essay with a question like  ” If your mother  was suffering greatly and begged to be given enough medication to put her out of  misery since her days were limited anyway, would you take part in ending her life?”  An interesting essay would incorporate both sides of the argument, even though you were supposed to hold true to your own view.

Many of the discussions we engage in at dinner parties, holiday gatherings or at any social gathering involve theories of good versus evil, science versus religion, the psychological make up that drives a person. Those are philosophical topics that we question every day.  Perfect subjects to argue.

In The July 2014 The Writer magazine, Roger S. Gottlieb says in his excellent article ” The Big Questions”,  that the philosophical meaning of a person’s life is just as important  in helping our characters to  leap off the page as describing how they look or sound, what emotions they feel such as hate or jealousy or joy and how they grow through the story ( he says          “what happens to them -growth and change, rise and fall, challenge, defeat or victory.)

He tells us that although many readers or critics will say fiction is about life, not ideas, and “certainly not about the rarefied abstractions people suffer in Philosophy 101″, he disagrees with that opinion.  And I agree with his opinion!

I agree when he says ” the most important writing has a philosophical dimension.”  What IS real?  What IS true? What IS good or important? How should I live?  Aren’t these the questions behind truly great writing? ”  YES  I say!  YES, YES, YES!

Mr. Gottlieb warns us,however; that the arguments are not just laid out word for word by the writer; the questions and answers emerge from the setting, character and plot thereby weaving the story.

” One reason philosophical fiction is so powerful is that the beliefs in question are held by “real people”- distinct individuals who live in particular social settings, inhabit personal histories and undergo traumatic or liberation experiences and make critical choices from which they do or do not learn.  Your task is to show how the particular philosophical position the character has, whether it’s an explicit belief or a value that is lived without being thought about much, is rooted in that character’s reality. Furthermore, you can craft a narrative in which philosophical development or learning is essential.”

We have all been taught that the key to creating a great story: one that  will “hook” the reader is to make our audience empathize or relate to our characters.  If we are able to reveal the way it FEELS to be one of those characters, to connect the reader to the experiences of our characters we are able to draw her in to explore questions of morality, human nature, social justice, truth, evil or other philosophical issues.  But, keep in mind, if we are to bring up a question -we should know where WE stand on  it in order to persuade or engage the reader , whether we are in favor or against the issue.

Mr. Gottlieb adds ”  allow the reader to trust the good faith reasoning of each side and leave us with a deepened understanding of a painful dilemma rather than just the cold comfort of the “right” position.”  Wow.  Now that is the basis of great writing.

After all, our feelings are intimately tied to what we think.   “Our most intense feelings are connected to our most deeply held philosophical visions of justice and value.”  I keep this in mind as I work on my own novel;  the actions of my characters are directly tied to their thoughts  and subsequently their feelings and I must be careful to thread that in and out  throughout each thing they say and do and think.  A great story is sewn out of connecting the reader to the thoughts and feelings of the characters, therefore, our task as writers is to keep showing how the character is thinking and how that thinking contributes to their emotions, ultimately resulting in their actions.

Don’t we all have issues we care about in the world that drive us in all that we do?  Don’t our own philosophies and beliefs contribute to how and who we choose to connect with; the friendships, relationships, jobs we choose.  What we think drives us.  And when we develop characters who imitate  how we think and feel, we not only create great fiction but we enrich the lives of our audiences and of our own.