At a youth conference a couple of years ago, I attended a class entitled, “Learning about our ancestors helps us know ourselves better.” It occurred to me recently that most writers know their characters better than their ancestors. We spend hours building our characters, imagining their physical traits and mental state, failures and triumphs, and their memories and opinions until they come to life in our heads and on paper.
As writers, if we know our characters better than our ancestors, perhaps we are missing an opportunity to know ourselves better.
So, my Writer’s Challenge for this month is this: Choose an ancestor and find out everything you can about her. Do a little research to discover what her life might have been like. Then, assuming that you and your ancestor have some character traits in common, fill in some of the missing pieces with aspects of your personality. Then use the character profile that you just created and find a story— a home in your writing—for that character. That home doesn’t have to be in your ancestor’s time period or even her setting.
As you write her story, you will naturally discover more about your character, your ancestor, and perhaps even about yourself.
One of the definitions of the word “Contrast” at Dictionary.com is the “opposition or juxtaposition of different forms, lines, or colors in a work of art to intensify each element’s properties and produce a more dynamic expressiveness.” Contrast is arranging opposite elements together, like light and dark, rough and smooth, large and small. Combining two contrasting components creates interest, excitement, drama, and can direct the mind to a particular point within the piece.
Contrast is not limited to visual art; we can produce “more dynamic expressiveness” in our writing by pointing out opposites. Contrast shows how elements like characters, setting, and voice are different. Contrast is the antonym of a simile, which compares using the words “like” or “as.” Think of Contrast as “unlike” or “different than.”
Here are a few examples:
“The TV also brought into my life two appealing characters named Laurel and Hardy, whom I found clever and gentle, in contrast to the Three Stooges, who were blatant and violent.” (Steven Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life. Scribner, 2007)
“I expected a grandmother, wiping her hands on a gingham apron, to come from the kitchen. Instead I got Brenda. Young, sullen, pink uniform, bottlecaps for eyes, handling her pad the way a cop does his citation book. The menu said all breakfasts came with grits, toast, and preserves. I ordered a breakfast of two eggs over easy. ‘Is that all you want?'” (William Least Heat-Moon, Blue Highways, 1982)
“There are about four times in a man’s life, or a woman’s, too, for that matter, when unexpectedly, from out of the darkness, the blazing carbon lamp, the cosmic searchlight of Truth shines full upon them. It is how we react to those moments that forever seals our fate. One crowd simply puts on its sunglasses, lights another cigar, and heads for the nearest plush French restaurant in the jazziest section of town, sits down and orders a drink, and ignores the whole thing. While we, the Doomed, caught in the brilliant glare of illumination, see ourselves inescapably for what we are, and from that day on sulk in the weeds, hoping no one else will spot us.” (Jean Shepherd, “The Endless Streetcar Ride,” 1966)
“Nothing is more useful than water; but it will purchase scarce anything; scarce anything can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use, but a very great quantity of goods may frequently be had in exchange for it.” (Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, 1776)
One way to show the qualities of a character is to put him in a setting where he doesn’t belong, thus showing the contrast in the situation. Think of all the contrasts shown as we see Harry Potter living in a closet under the Dursley’s stairs and later on when the Dursleys match wits with Hagrid. Light/Dark. Large/Small. Day/Night. Hungry/Greedy. Humble/Proud. The contrast between these opposites brings interest, excitement, and drama to this story and speaks volumes about the character that we learn to love. Contrast can do the same in your writing.
Too often novice authors rely only on miscommunication between characters to create conflict in stories. Harlequin editor, Victoria Curran, reminded 2014 ANWA Conference attendees that our conflicts need to be strong enough so that one good conversation between the characters won’t resolve all their problems. But have you considered that your characters can be role models for others, especially children and youth? Have you thought about putting at least one character in your novel, perhaps a mentor or a sidekick, who is an example of a good communicator? We can teach light and truth one word at a time. Here are some characteristics of a good communicator:
Good communicators apologize when they make mistakes.
Good communicators resolve conflict without confrontation.
Good communicators speak positively and express gratitude.
Good communicators think before they speak.
Good listeners pay attention.
Good listeners don’t interrupt.
Good listeners don’t make judgmental generalizations.
By making one of your characters a good communicator, then the communication errors of your other characters will be more obvious. If the good communicator is a main character, then it will force you to create a conflict that can’t be simply resolved by the characters sitting down and having an honest conversation. Try good communication in your writing—and if not in your writing, try it in your real life!
The writer, T. S. Eliot, insisted that the most important element in writing is the “objective correlative” which evokes emotion by describing the objects in a setting in a way that the emotional state of the character seeing the scene is shown without telling the reader the motivation of the character.
To help teach the concept of the “objective correlative” to his students, a famous creative writing teacher, John Gardner, developed this exercise:
Write 250 words describing a bus stop from the point of view of a middle-age man who has just found out that his only son died. Don’t tell the reader what has happened. Instead, evoke emotion by describing the sights, sounds, odors, colors, and details that the man notices in his surroundings.
It’s the holidays—that wonderful time of the year when you have too many things to do, too many places to go, and too few dollars and time to get there. With everything going on, it’s easy to ignore your writing. So my writing challenge comes from the words of ANWA’s illustrious founder, Marsha Ward, who has been blogging about her newly released fourth novel, Spinster’s Folly. She advises, “Write at least 25 words a day.” That sounds like great advice from someone who knows. But I only have one question—Does my 25 word shopping list count?