Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Creating Effective Characters For Writers: Listen To A Smart Puppy

Oliver: Future Writer?
To my readers who are writers (and all the rest of my readers, too, for that matter), recently I learned a lesson, which for a middling old dog like me isn’t always easy. I’ve been struggling on a project, trying to define a lead character and his supporting cast and as you writers out there know, sometimes characters are just... flat. They walk and talk like real people, do the same things real people do but on the page, they fail the “I’m-really-real-come-on-folks-read-about-me” test.

The characters lack the elemental spark of authenticity.

So I’m a bit stuck, struggling to find my way when my wife and I buy a new puppy, a new addition to our family, and like any change to a family structure, there have been growing pains, but no matter the struggles of integration, our newest family member, Oliver, is one of my ‘people’. He nips and plays rough (as puppies do) and getting him acclimated to living in a house with rules (no chewing shoes, piddling on the floor or 1 AM barking/playing/whining, etc.) has been a challenge greatly offset by his adorable puppy face, but still a challenge.

My anticipation of the dynamic has been altered, as Oliver seems to better respond to my wife than to me instead of treating us the same, and thus far he prefers attacking the garden plants to chasing the ball. My minds eye, as we drove him home, featured a far more idyllic (hollywood-ish?) script. I thought his chew toys would provide entertainment, he would sit beside my chair in the evening with his only wish to have his belly scratched and that after an exhausting day, he would be content to sleep through the night on his nice new LL Bean bed.

But Oliver is a puppy. He also has a mind of his own, a personality with depth, a character that is independent of my desires and uniquely his own. In short, Oliver grows and goes in directions I can’t anticipate.

Just like any of my ‘people’, the people who make up my family, the people who make my life have meaning, with all the joys and conflicts and the daily highs and the daily lows. I can’t anticipate any of them, can’t make them do anything. We all act and interact off, with, against, because, despite our connections. Our personalities shape and are shaped by each other. To predict that shaping, that fluid organic nature of family, doesn’t work. It can’t work, because no matter the planning and the desire, each individual is just a part of the whole- we play our part and receive our cues from those around us, who in turn receive their cues in response to us.

This brings me back full circle to the new trick I learned (or really, re-learned thanks to Oliver), that when you try to force outcomes, when you lose respect for the individual and try to impose a personality on a character, there almost always is some negative push-back. I can influence and guide and shape, but just as with puppies and people, as a writer I’m just part of the whole, not the whole itself.

To create a character that feels alive on the page, you have let go of the plan and allow your character the freedom to make mistakes, to make choices that originate from that characters organic development rather than a master plan sketched out in advance. Shape and direct, sure, put if you try to squeeze, well, then you end with something flat and lifeless. That isn’t good for puppies, people or or fictional characters.

Now, if only Oliver could teach me how to reach the six figure income bracket. Maybe that’s asking too much from a puppy, even one as clever as Ollie.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Game Of Thrones Review: Response To Neil Genzlinger

To be respected, I learned in school, a person had to be educated. Everyone who became something in life did so through education, by improving themselves, learning and growing, achieving lofty dreams and succeeding. Being an intellectual was my goal from earliest memory. I wanted to be smart, maybe because in all other facets of my life, I saw only limits and no possibility to matter.

Poor kids think of escape. Poor kids think of respect.

I understood the stigma of poverty, the crushing weight of shame, the embarrassment, the feeling of being less than your classmates. The message was taught in subtle ways but crystallized when I was in third grade when a teacher sent me home with a check for twenty dollars so that I could buy boots. Without boots I couldn’t play at recess in the snow with everyone else but my feet were growing too fast and with three siblings it was either sneakers or boots, not both.

I never asked for that check, never once spoke my disappointment as I stood on the shovelled pavement and watched my friends run unfettered but there it was, a check that screamed, “You’re poor!”

I returned the check the next day, smaller inside, determined to not allow that kind of hurt affect me in the same way. I was smart and people would see that instead of the run down clothes, the re-used school supplies most kids threw out, the much repaired backpack.

Poor kids know about fear. Poor kids know about ridicule.

Being caught out as dumb was a constant fear, a condition avoided above all else. An A- was reason to cry before exhaustion took me to sleep. I didn’t want to be average, couldn’t afford to be average, and to me, anything less than perfection was a crack that could be exploited.

Writing was something I did to step out of a life that often was full of expectations and failures and unspoken fears. Creating worlds where the intent of hearts actually mattered, where heroes were judged on deeds, not wealth, worlds of triumphs affected by hard work and merit. I created worlds where having boots meant less than how far you could walk with your head held high, proud in the knowledge that your actions mattered more than anything else in life.

Poor kids keep secrets. Poor kids share everything except who they are.

I wrote mostly fantasy and sci-fi. I knew how destructive to my goal of being considered an intellectual my preferred genres represented. I knew to hide what I wrote from everyone, to downplay my interest. Scribble in notebooks, random scraps of paper, but mostly keep the stories where they were safest, inside my head.

My parents would have been horrified, I think, to know how I felt. They were supportive, loving and hard-working. At the time I felt trapped by that singular thought of being an intellectual and so I kept my secrets. Years crushed predecessors until hiding away was no longer a thought but a way to live, as if no options existed. I grew to love literature, to embrace what is considered sophisticated, to attempt to embody the intellectual ideal as I saw it to be.

Poor kids grow up. Poor kids learn what’s important.

Approaching my forties, getting married, letting go of the poor kid stigma, learning to say ‘fuck you’ to doubters and pompous intellectuals elites, finally finding comfort in who I am, allows me to understand how wrong I was to believe I had to pretend to be different than who I was at birth.

I’m proud of me and saying so, I announce that I like fantasy, I like sci-fi, I enjoy a beer on a weeknight on occasion; I swear, split-infinitives, misspell words (caring not a damn) and actively enjoy many other low-class pursuits with hardly a twinge of the shame I formerly felt.

New York Times columnist Neil Genzlinger wrote a review of season two of HBO’s Game Of Thrones and it represents everything that I struggled my entire life to overcome; the fear, the shame, the sense of not being good enough, not being able to escape to something better because deep down I was too uncultured, too unintelligent, too low-class. I would never be one of the favored, one of the elite, or so I always thought.

But of course that’s bullshit.

Genzlinger writes, “What Game of Thrones needs if it is to expand its fan base beyond Dungeons & Dragons types”. It’s a flashback from childhood, the insults from the privileged who so casually demean others without seeming injury to themselves, not caring about the damage they cause others.

Liking fantasy is not a measure of intellect Mr. Genzlinger. It’s okay not to be a fan, to think it’s silly because hey, it’s your right to have an opinion but remember that this is our playground and on our playground we outnumber you and bullies, Mr. Genzlinger, bullies are not welcome whether they be physical bullies or intellectual snobs who try to make others feel bad just to make themselves feel good.

Try hard Mr. Genzlinger to understand that you don’t have to put down a group of people to express how you feel and you certainly don’t have to go out of your way to target or demean a group of people who have had to deal with your type of smug superiority for far too long. Watch something else, sir, or judge Game of Thrones on the merits as you would any other show and not on your imagined view (and limitations) of the fans.

I, for one, have had enough.