Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Characters Matter

Characterization is a crucial aspect of fiction. We know this because it's drilled into us at school, in workshops, and in all the how-to books and journals we read. The protagonist must come across as real and interesting enough to pull the reader all the way through to the end of the story. A common mistake, however, is to focus too much attention on the protagonist. When you read a great book or watch an outstanding film, it's usually the antagonist that lifts the story above the ordinary.

Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western film
A favorite villain: Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West
Protagonists, especially those of the heroic breed, are bound by rules and common perceptions that somewhat inhibit creativity. Antagonists, on the other hand, are wide open for manipulation. They can be bad to the bone like Hannibal Lector or Chigurh. They can be nasty or evil, but mend their wayward ways like Ebenezer Scrooge or Darth Vader. The reader may be misdirected to believe the antagonist is bad and then everything is flipped around like with Boo Radley and Mr. Darcy. 
Antagonists can make a story memorable even when they are not even human, like Moby Dick or Christine. The one thing these antagonists all have in common is great character development.

Concentration on character development shouldn't stop with the protagonist and antagonist. Nobody willingly hangs around with boring people and nobody wants to read about characters with cornmeal personalities—not even the bit players. Everybody inside the covers of your book has to be interesting. Give each of them a distinct personality. If you have a character like a postman or waitress that appears only for a couple pages, don't slow down the story by describing their personality, show it. You need to do it with dress, movement, or dialogue. Show, don't tell, is more difficult with the brevity of a minor player, but you only need to spice the character enough to make him or her three dimensional.

A fictional work has a single writer with a single personality. If you populate your work with slight variations of yourself, you'll create a homogeneous universe that will bore people silly. A writer must suppress their own personality when developing characters so they are all different from each other. It's not enough that they look and talk different—they must think and act differently. They must be different people.

The fiction writer's personality will show up in the total work, but it's best if it's not directly reflected in the characters, especially the protagonist or antagonist. Have fun with these two. Make them unique from yourself and every other character in your work. This is especially true for the antagonist. 

A really good bad guy or gal gives a hero a reason to be heroic.

Monday, June 22, 2015

9 Golden rules for the Road Runner and Coyote

cartoons humor, film hollywood

Chuck Jones created 9 Golden rules for the Road Runner cartoons. These famous rules insured that fans received exactly what they expected from these Loony Tunes characters. First the rules, and then some storytelling lessons we can draw from this popular series. 
Rule 1. The Road Runner cannot harm the coyote except by going “beep, beep!”
Rule 2. No outside force can harm the coyote—only his own ineptitude or the failure of the Acme products
Rule 3. The coyote can stop anytime—if he were not a fanatic. (Repeat: “A fanatic is one who redoubles his efforts when he has forgotten his aim.” George Santayana)
Rule 4. No dialogue ever, except “Beep Beep!”
Rule 5. The Road Runner must stay on the road—otherwise logically he would not be called Road Runner.
Rule 6. All action must be confined to the natural environment of the two characters—the Southwest American desert.
Rule 7. All material, tools, weapons, or mechanical conveniences must be obtained from the Acme Corporation.
Rule 8. Whenever possible, make gravity the coyote’s greatest enemy.
Rule 9. The coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.

writing tips television and hollywood
Chuck's handwritten rules

Previously, I published the 7 rules for the television series Bonanza. Television series, movie franchises, and even cartoons need a list of dos and don’ts so the characters and action remain consistency from episode to episode. Book series need the same. The protagonist must remain true to his or her character and the plot cannot go too far afield without losing fans. If you write a series, or even a single novel, write down the plot and character rules. This little exercise brings clarity and dependability to stories.

There are additional lessons to be gleaned from the Road Runner and Coyote. All stories revolve around an antagonist making life difficult for the protagonist. Different stories can have a multiple number of one or the other. Although Steve Dancy is the main protagonist in my Western novels, he has two (and now three) characters in secondary protagonist roles. Multiple bad guys or gals are also not uncommon. 

Warner Bros. Loony TunesAfter these main characters, the entire story is usually populated with all sorts of supporting and bit players. What if we were to whittle this down to the bare essentials? Could a story be told in a world populated by only one protagonist relentlessly pursued by a single antagonist? Steven Spielberg’s first movie Duel meets this criteria, as well as Tom Hanks’ Cast Away. These are intimate, tense stories. Of course, the Road Runner cartoons fits this minimalist construct. In fact, the Road Runner has no dialogue except for a single word repeated twice.

How in the world can you keep audience interest with these limitations? Watch. You’ll see storytelling reduced to its barest elements. Even if you have a cast of thousands, you can keep the reader’s interest by following the precepts displayed so eloquently by Road Runner cartoons. 

cartoons and old hollywood storytelling

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Looking for a Father's Day gift?

father sonThe best gift is a vacation … and the least expensive vacation is a book. A novel effortlessly transports the reader to another place and time. With a good book, dad can take a fifteen minute vacation or while away an entire afternoon. Either way, he returns feeling refreshed and more content with life.

father daughter
Gift books don’t have to be fiction. A respite with a nonfiction book about a special interest can also be relaxing. The great thing about books is that there are numerous ones for every interest, hobby, sport, or enthusiasm. If for some reason, your dad can’t get away to fish, golf, or whatever, he can frequently find a few minutes to read about his favorite activity. A good book allows him to indulge himself and possibly pick up a few pointers.

There is another reason I like to give books as gifts: I can write something personal on the flyleaf that won’t get thrown out like an old greeting card.

car enthusiast
The most important thing is to remind your father that you love him. The perfect book is far more personal than most gifts because it’s aimed directly at what you father enjoys. Put some serious thought into the right book to show you really tried to please him.

Here are a couple previous blog postings about Father’s Day.

Father's Day Tribute

What to give for Father's Day?

P.S. It's Saturday. Forgot to shop for a Father's Day gift? It's not too late. Support your local independent boookstore and get dad something he'll really enjoy.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

People Love That Story

storytelling by an expert storyteller
Kurt Vonnegut

I'm collecting writing tips from famous author's. You can read them here. In this post, I'm adding Kurt Vonnegut’s writing tips. Good advice from an expert storyteller. 

Although I posted it before, I also wanted to share his amusing description of story forms. Behind the entertaining presentation, Kurt presents some solid analysis of the art of storytelling. So if you want to hear it from the horses mouth, watch the video below. 

Here are Kurt Vonnegut’s "8 Tips on How to Write a Great Story."
  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

FX’s Justified Lives on …

My favorite television program is Justified.  I don’t lament its demise because I watch TV programs on Netflix or Amazon Prime. I don’t need to be first on my block with an Apple watch, I don’t care about the Kardashians, and I never banter with co-workers. I’m retired and way past the age of needing to be hip, cool, with it, or whatever. (Thank goodness I write historical novels.)

Being out of fashion is liberating. I can wear clothes without an emblazoned logo, drive a 2000 model car, shun Instagram, and watch my favorite television shows whenever and however I want. My way is after the season’s over. I can binge-watch or spread them out, and I’m not even bothered with a need to fast-forward through commercials. Life is grand without a remote in hand.

All of this is to note that I’m in the middle of season 5.  So please, no spoilers.

Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant, Walton Goggins, and a host of other fine actors, is a character-driven modern day western based on a short story by Elmore Leonard. I believe bad guys and gals make heroes heroic, and Justified has a bevy of really bad characters. Our hero has sidekicks of course, but basically, it’s Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens against this cast of misfits, hoodlums, and felonious masterminds. Good actors portraying interesting characters in a tightly written drama presented with masterful storytelling. Who could ask for more?

If you haven’t watched Justified, you should. Here are a few links to articles about the program. The first consolidates all the professional reviews of the final episode. I glanced at it, but quickly closed my browser window before I happened upon a spoiler.

Episode Review: Justified Series Finale by Jason Dietz at Metacritic
Trigger-Happy by Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker
What ‘Justified’ Reveals About Manhood by Rachel Lu at The Federalist
The Literary Genius Of ‘Justified’ by John Daniel Davidson at The Federalist

John Daniel Davidson wrote some lines that seem apropos to Justified and westerns in general.
“an extended meditation on grand themes: the price of sin and violence, the ties of blood and kin, the difference between justice and vengeance.”
“the western is at heart about the tension between civilization and barbarism—and the interplay between the two.”
“Ford’s films, like the Greek epics from which they’re drawn, portray civilization as a fragile thing, always under threat and always in need of protection—a task that often falls to those willing to step outside of civilization and into a state of nature. Hence, heroes like Ethan.”

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Growing Up in a Movie

I grew up in the South Bay. This post was prompted when I watched the above video of my old stomping grounds. The South Bay was the nickname for the beach cities south of Malibu and Santa Monica, which included Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, Redondo Beach, Torrance, and the three cities on the Palos Verdes peninsula. My homes were in Redondo Beach, and then Torrance for most of high school. The South Bay in the Sixties: a wonderful place and time to be a teenager.

At fourteen, my mother allowed me to tuck a canvas surf raft under my arm and walk to the beach with friends. This was early in the morning because the waves were best before the cooling onshore breezes picked up. After hours of riding waves on our rubbed-raw bellies, we lunched at Taco Bell, and wandered home by way of a variety store on Pacific Coast Highway. No one bothered us and we were only mildly bothersome to others. Everything was cool at home as long as I wasn’t late for supper.

My high school years were great. I exchanged my raft for a surfboard and joined the surfer clique. High school was different back then. They had rules against leaving campus during class hours and most of us brought lunch from home. Getting caught playing hooky got an immediate three-day suspension, which made no sense because our misbehavior rewarded us with three more days of surfing. The dress code was strict, but self-imposed. Surfers wore 401 Levis, a white tee from Penny’s, and a blue nylon windbreaker. Tennis shoes were the only variable and they had to be the latest trend. I groaned whenever I spotted our style leader sporting a different brand or style of shoe because it meant another argument with my cash-strapped mom.

Early high school was my period of delinquency. We requisitioned little red wagons without permission from our siblings. After hammering together some two-by-fours and nailing on a few carpet remnants, we attached the wagon wheels to make a surfboard hauler to tow behind our bicycles. One wagon provided wheels for two surfboard carriers. Somehow, we thought this justified our vandalism. Actually, finding the wagon under a pile of garage junk convinced us that nobody would notice the Radio Flyer somehow sat closer to the ground. (Washers and dryers were in the garage in those days and mothers notice everything.) At this late date, I’d like to apologize to our younger brothers and sisters.

Now, instead of walking to the beach, we rode bikes in packs, which irritated more than a few drivers hurrying to work. Couldn’t be helped. We had to get to the beach before seven in the morning so we could surf three or so hours before the wind came up and tourists defiled our paradise. We didn’t like tourists, or any non-surfer, for that matter. We did like their bikini-clad daughters, however, so we hung around until late afternoon.

Our life was perfect. They even made movies about us. You might think I mean the Beach Party films, but we thought they were dreadful. Evidently the multitudes that lived east of Pacific Coast Highway didn’t share our opinion. Unbelievable to us, Hollywood took this horrible film and made six sequels, each progressively worse. The popularity of Annette in a bikini incited an invasion of our beaches by Inlanders.

Anette in her thong bekini
Bruce Brown before Endless Summer

They did make movies about us we liked. In fact, we went to see them in droves, filling school auditoriums to watch live narrated surf films by Bruce Brown, John Severson, and Bud Brown. It was raucous. Wild yelling, screaming, and pounding on seat backs. These were real, and we all dreamed of being highlighted in one of these films or in Surfer Magazine. Actually, Hollywood came around to make some pretty good depictions of our life. Big Wednesday, starring Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey came close, while Lifeguard with Sam Elliott got it pitch perfect.

Sam Elliott in first leading man role

Our teenage years had a custom soundtrack, as well. The Beach Boys and Dick Dale made music about our lives, although we normally only listened to the Beach Boys because our girlfriends liked them. Then we called them gremmies, today they’d be posers. Songs were pretty good though … and again, they were about our lives.

Dick Dale, the real deal
The Beach Boys, not so much

So we had movies, music, and magazines dedicated to our lifestyle. And surfing was the rage across the fruited plains. Everyone wanted to be like us. You probably think that made us feel special. You betcha! We knew we had it good. It was a magic moment. The roots of the surfing culture came before, and you can find remnants to this day, but for a few years, everything came together to create a perfect coming-of-age experience. 

Related Post: Idle Away! showing I still surf on occassion.

P.S. Someone once asked why I didn't write about a surfing protagonist. Disappointing question because the hero in The Shut Mouth Society is a surfer. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

Writing Advice from George Orwell

Orwell's Rules
35 cents for a Masterpiece
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, scientific word, or jargon if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Orwell's Questions
  1. What am I trying to say?
  2. What words will express it?
  3. What image or idiom will make it clearer?
  4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
  5. Could I put it more shortly?
  6. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Friday, May 8, 2015

Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Hercule Poirot, and Harry Potter

The above names are fictional. Make-believe people known the world over. How does a branded character come about? They must be difficult to create because there are few of them. Strong characters, however, are not rare. Think of Elizabeth Bennet, Tom Sawyer, Captain Ahab, Rhett Butler, or Hannibal Lecter to name a few. But for the most part, these were one-offs, while a branded character returns time and again, frequently leaping from the printed page to the screen and stage.

A branded character can be literary, but more often he or she would be
more properly defined as well-crafted. After all, the prime attribute of a branded character is renown … and nothing common can be literary. (Just ask Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Austen, or Twain.)

There’s another characteristic of branded characters: they are enormously lucrative. The inventors of Holmes, Bond, Poirot, and Potter didn’t want for material things. I’m hoping that one day Mr. Dancy will be my meal ticket, but right now there’s another character hogging the limelight. Care to guess who’s today’s strongest branded character? Forbes chewed on the numbers and the winner is … Jack Reacher. It appears Lee Child has the strongest reader loyalty of any bestselling author.

I like Lee Child books, but personally prefer Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger. You can’t argue with Child’s 70 million in sales. David Vinjamuri in Forbes writes, “But what’s most interesting about Lee Child’s creation is not the size of the brand but its strength. Child doesn’t have the largest following among bestselling authors: just over a third of book shoppers are aware of him versus the more than 95% who know John Grisham and the 99% aware of Stephen King, both of whom have sold more books. But while just under a quarter of Grisham and King’s readers count either man as their favorite author nearly a third of Reacher readers mark Child as their favorite.”

If you want to invent a branded character, I suggest reading the article. Vinjamuri provides some insight.