Monday, August 31, 2015

Bullies and Sheep

Yesterday in church we had a guest speaker come for a presentation on avoiding bullying. This is a topic that's fueled many a writer, so it must be important.
 It was.
I especially liked the comment by my friend and critique partner, Cindy Stagg. She compared people to sheep (in the milling around, oblivious sense, but if we fear public opinion and let bullying go on, then it works in the mindless sense too) and bullies to wolves. Bullies are best stopped by peers. One "sheep dog" who takes a stand can make a difference. And the best thing is if a group of peers will band together and speak up. One simple, "Cut it out" can make a difference.
I sat there thinking, "That kid over there, the one whispering through the whole presentation, should really shut up and listen to this."
But then I realized, If I go over and make him feel bad, I will ruin the whole point of the presentation, which should be creating kindness, love, and unity in our congregation. If the kid gets angry and embarassed, he isn't going to listen at all. What will be better is if the other kids sitting around him stop chatting and listen. If the cute girls on the next row pay more attention to people's hearts than how colorful their outfit might be. If they then use a little peer pressure to make the teasing stop.
My judgmental thoughts could have ruined the hour for me, too. Instead I sat on my hands and tried to let it go.
None of us are perfect. I may not consider myself a bully--still, in fact, a bit scarred by my sixth-grade tormentors--but I can still learn to think of others more. Am I always as kind as I should be?
Is anyone?

In BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, Katherine Ann Patterson crafts a bully who is memorable, in part, because we understand her motivation. And while not all bad characters need to become good ones, her redemption is one of my favorite parts of the story.
A bully is more interesting, and realistic, when we see the good and the bad juxtaposed inside her.
I never pan books publicly. so I won't say the name of the otherwise-good book I've been reading, enjoying yet grinding my teeth over the love interest. He's just too intensely perfect and attentive. He is unfailingly devoted no matter how whiny or downright mean the girl gets.
If I had that kind of permanent PMS, my longsuffering, generally kind husband would eventuallly say, "Cut the crap already." A sentiment, frankly, I'm still hoping book boy will say to his female protagonist. Trust me, perfect-page boyfriend, she'll respect you more.
Like bullies and other villains, good characters shouldn't be so perfect that their halos are visible. Sure, it's good wish fulfillment, but what real boy is ever going to live up to that kind of ideal?
In real life, no one should be a bully. In books, no bully or boyfriend should be 100% black or white wool. Like clothes, book characters come best in a variety of colors.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Create Memorable Characters without Boring the Reader

Great books begin with memorable characters. But how do you make your character stand out without putting the reader to sleep?
Avoid overly long and wordy descriptions. In a recent class, author Ann Dee Ellis said writers sometimes give tons of background description, hoping to make characters memorable. But lengthy descriptions make the story drag. She advises, “Details must move the story forward.”
2.       Choose concise details. In place of long descriptive paragraphs, Ann Dee suggests “very powerful words used sparingly,” such as in the short story, Mama Gone. Author Jane Yolen uses small, concise details to create strong characters. Instead of pausing the narrative to describe the father’s sadness over his wife’s death, Yolen describes how “He rubbed his head against the cabin wall over and over and over and made little animal sounds.” This single in-scene detail packs more power than any long description.
Remember, memorable doesn’t have to mean weird. The best details resonate with the reader because s/he can somehow relate. In Mama Gone, we don’t have to possess the characteristic (being a motherless father and child) to understand the common emotion (loss) at its core.
 Prioritize the details you choose. Are your MC’s deep amber eyes as important as his compulsive hatred of haircuts? The protagonist’s long curls, however, might be an important characteristic that hints at parents who insisted on short hair and every other form of pulchritude.
Instead of a kitchen sink approach that catalogs every aspect of height, weight and shoe size, pare your character descriptions by choosing a few succinct details that carry meaning.
3.       Weave details into the action: A recent study reported that the average U.S. attention span is now shorter than that of a goldfish. While I’m optimistic that avid readers have higher spans, you can’t risk putting your story on hold for long.
 As Ann Dee Ellis says, “Writing novels are like writing poetry. Every word matters.” As you keep these tips in mind, your characters will matter more as well.
(Originally posted on the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers Blog)