Finding Inspiration for your Characters

41hjTdanuNL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_Inspiration can come from the most unusual places.

This week, I’ve been reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath:  Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. I picked it up mostly because it was .99 at Goodwill, and also because it sounded interesting – I feel like a misfit most days, and I have my share of giants to take down! (Don’t we all, though?)

In this book, Gladwell discusses why the epic battle between David and Goliath is often misunderstood. He argues that you need to look at it in the historical context. David, a shepherd, was used to taking out would-be predators with his slingshot. It was not only the preferred weapon for defending your flock; it was the only weapon! So for him to walk out onto that field and take out Goliath – who anticipated hand-to-hand combat – in such a way shouldn’t actually surprise us at all. All David did was use Goliath’s own skills and assumptions against him.

That’s interesting, obviously, but Gladwell goes deeper, looking at famous people – some you may have never heard of before, like Jay Freireich, who pioneered the use of extra platelets to stop leukemia patients from bleeding to death, and developed the cocktail we now call chemotherapy. He argues, in part, that sometimes great adversity – losing a parent, having dyslexia, etc. – can actually fuel greatness in a person, because they learn to compensate and then succeed in spite of that.

But that’s not what got me totally interested. No, what had me reaching for my pen to scribble, in great big blue ink letters THIS IS NICKY!, was the idea of hits, near misses, and remote misses.

To explain, imagine you’re in the London Blitz of 1940 – 41. The German Luftwaffe is dropping bombs on the city almost every night. But night after night, you don’t get hit. Maybe the neighborhood over does. Maybe you know someone who was killed. Or maybe your house gets hit, but you survive without a scratch. You start to think hey, this is all right, it’s not great but I’m still here, so why bother worrying about it? And eventually, depending on your mindset, you might even start to think of yourself as invincible. Freaking Germans couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn, let alone my bloody house! Lousy shots, the lot of them. 

It sounds crazy. Totally crazy. But the reason I scribbled OMG this is Nicky! on pages was because it totally IS Nicky.

Nicky is my little 14-year old rumrunner. And he fits the entire profile of this book. He lost his dad at age 8. He had to support his family because his mother totally checked out. He’s the smallest kid in his class and is constantly being bullied, and has to learn to defend himself. And then there’s the rumrunning!

One thing I always sort of struggled with in my mind was the question of how likely it was that Nicky could/would survive so many go-rounds with the law and the Klan and still get away with it. I mean, he’s good enough to not only get away from the Klan/law in one scene, but also to make sure their cars go off in the creek; he eludes the Feds; he evades them again when he’s set up by a rival.

Sure. I set it up. Nicky’s a damn good driver, and his car is one of the best in the county. He should know – he helped build it. He’s got the skills. He’s got the guts. And he knows how to use his knowledge. Furthermore, he knows how to use the ‘knowledge’ of the Feds and the Klan against them. Who would think a runty 14-year old in a souped-up Model T could do all the things they do? But he does.

And there was tiny part of me that questioned if people would really believe it.

But, according to the Misses Theory above, if you have enough near and remote misses, you start to believe nothing can happen to you. And, the more trials and hardships you endure in your life early on, the more likely you are to take risks normal people wouldn’t take, simply because you have no other options. Nicky 100% fits that profile. He lost his dad, he could barely earn enough to make ends meet, he basically raised his twin siblings. By the time he’s forced into becoming a rumrunner, he has no other options. So between these two things – feeling invincible and being forced into a corner – it all makes perfect sense to me.

So if you’re struggling with character motivations,  you might want to see if there are any books out there that cover that character’s issues. Characters with issues are characters we care about, after all. We root for the underdog. Harry Potter should have died as a baby, but he didn’t – so he went into that final battle with Voldemort as the clear underdog, and yet (spoiler alert!) he still won. Seabiscuit was the underdog of the 1930s – there was no reason a small horse who’d never won a race in his life ought to be able to be a great racehorse, but he did it. A few years ago at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, a German Shepherd captured everyone’s hearts because he’d been rescued from an abusive situation in which he almost died – and yet went on to win Best in Group.

Underdogs have reasons for winning. Take inspiration from them. Take inspiration from psychology books, from self-help books, from everything around you. I had no idea David and Goliath was going to help me be more at peace with Nicky’s exploits – but it actually helped me understand that in truth, Nicky’s story is actually, already, the only way it could ever possibly be, because of who Nicky is.

Inspiration. Go get some!

 

Link to David and Goliath at Barnes & Noble:  https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/david-and-goliath-malcolm-gladwell/1115837698?ean=9780316204378#/

 

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“How could the ending go so wrong?” Finales, endings, and ‘The Alienist’

Like 47 million other people, I’ve been glued to my TV for the last several weeks, watching the television adaptation of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist. If you’ve somehow had your head in the sand since January – well, let me catch you up. Trump is being sued by a porn star, Linda Brown died this past week, millions marched for safer schools, and The Alienist is a novel set in 1896 New York, about a trio of allies trying to save the city’s most vulnerable children from a predator.

The trio is as follows:

  • Dr. Lazlo Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl) – One of a new breed of psychologists who want to explain crimes by explaining why criminals act as they do – in short, a forensic psychologist.
  • John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans) – well-born, wealthy, and living with his grandmother after his engagement was called off in what we suspect was a very bad manner. Also a newspaper artist.
  • Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) – an intrepid woman intent on making her own way in the world. She’s starting by being the first woman ever hired by the New York City Police Department.

Truthfully – I loved this show. As a historian, I appreciated the reality of it – the grittiness, the dirt, the obvious disconnect between the social classes (there’s a scene in which John gives money to a child prostitute, hoping it will help him escape that life . . . and only later realizes that he could/should have actually taken the child in. But it takes him nearly the entire series to even give him money!), and the sheer reality. History’s not clean. It’s not neat and tidy. It shouldn’t be, anyway, because it wasn’t. And The Alienist never shied away from that.

the alienistI loved the historic reality, which included Theodore Roosevelt as a main character (he was Commissioner of the New York City Police Force during this time anyway; he kind of had to be in there). Now, I haven’t read the book yet – it’s in my to-be-read list – but I suspect a great deal of Roosevelt’s character in the show came from Carr’s novel. If so, my hat’s off to Carr. 🙂 There’s one scene in particular that I love:  at the opera, Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan come face-to-face. In real life, and in the show, the two are enemies; they despise each other completely. And in this scene, the disgust is palpable. Both stare at each other; then Roosevelt, as the social inferior, gives Morgan the barest of nods. “Morgan.” Morgan, in return, gives him a curt, “Roosevelt.” And I’m sitting there in my mind screaming Yeah, in ten  years, you’re going DOWN, Morgan! And Roosevelt’s going to be the one that brings you down! (Yeah, you’ve got to be a historian to get it, I know.)

So for the past several weeks, I’ve been glued to my television at 8pm. Great storytelling, fantastic acting. Luke Evans is my new fantasy crush. You do get the sense that you’re missing things – adaptations from 600+ page novels do need to cut things, I suppose – but overall, it’s been a hell of a ride.

That is . . . until the finale.

And I hate to say it – you’ve no idea how much I hate to say it – but I’ve rarely been more disappointed in a series finale in my life.

Not the acting. No, LOVE the actors! Luke Evans is amazing, Dakota Fanning is amazing, everyone is amazing. No. Sadly . . . it was the writing.

Like most writers, I can only imagine what it would be like to have my novel adapted for either film or television. What most people don’t understand is that the authors may actually have very little input into how that adaptation is made. Look at Outlander, for crying out loud – I don’t think the writers on that show could screw things up more. I imagine that rabid fans of Caleb Carr were equally aghast at changes made to their beloved novel, but I have to say that as a viewer only, I didn’t see them, so they didn’t affect me.

Yeah. Well. Until tonight.

The entire series has been about seeking a murderer – a sick psycho who preys on boy prostitutes, killing them gruesomely on holy days. Many of them have been on their own for ages; they have created a family, but they have also learned to be street-smart and self-reliant. One of these boys, Joseph, is befriended by John Moore – and then kidnapped by the killer and held in a secure location until the next holy day.

That’s not the problem. Raise the stakes. Every good writer knows that. MY problem stemmed from the way these scenes were handled by the writers. Joseph is street-smart and resourceful (he’s lived to the ripe old age of ten or twelve, after all). Yet here he lies on a stone floor, with his hands tied in front of him, left alone for most of the time, and yet he never tries, not once, to escape? This is the point where the entire show just – stopped. And lost all credibility with me. Joseph’s a prostitute, for God’s sake. He’s done and seen just about everything. He knows this man is going to kill him. Yet . . . he does nothing to save himself. Not one freaking thing. It’s as if the writers needed an excuse to get John, Kreizler, and Sarah to the scene of the crime, so they let Joseph be helpless. It was truly disappointing. I don’t know if the ending in the novel is the same way or not, but if so, it’s going to be disappointing, too.

And yes, grittiness is good, but in this same scene, the killer kills a cat in front of Joseph, for no reason. This really bothered on several levels, not the least of which is that I’m a cat lover and I hated this scene. But as a writer, it was – pardon the pun – overkill. Newsflash:  we KNOW the bastard’s evil. We get it. We don’t need more evidence. Show us the villain is evil . . . make us believe it . . . and then get on with things.

And for things out of character . . . Kreizler. OMG.

For the entire season, Kreizler has described the killer – rightfully so – as a ‘monster.’ He wants to understand him in order to stop him. That’s it. He doesn’t want to feel pity for him. He doesn’t want to feel sympathy for him. He wants to stop him. End of discussion. But at the end, when the killer is shot and runs away, Kreizler first tries to stop the shooting, and then runs after the killer and cradles his head as he dies. He calls him a ‘damaged child.’

I can’t even. Seriously. It was SO disappointing to see this sudden about-face. The thing murdered innocent children and cats, for God’s sake! I just can’t see Kreizler suddenly changing his mind and feeling sympathy for him. I just can’t. Again, I don’t know if Kreizler does this in the book or not – I hope not, or at least, if he does, I hope the reasons for it are better explained than they were in the show – but for me, it was a slap in the face.

So a great show, a great season, kind of ruined by the writers. Sure, there have been other disappointing series finales. The X-Files comes to mind. But that came at the end of three years that really never should have been. There was never any hope for that finale. But this one? I feel like the writers let me down. Big time. It might have helped if Joseph had been tied up correctly (hands behind the back, chained to a pipe in the wall, ANYTHING) – at least, in some manner that he couldn’t escape on his own. It might have helped if they had made it more clear why Kreizler had his sudden change of heart (and no, the fact that his father was borderline abusive doesn’t cut it with me; Kreizler turned out fine, after all).

In a show that go so much right . . . how could the ending have gone so wrong?

 

 

 

Minor Characters: can they do more?

Sometimes, you can read a book or watch a movie several time, and never notice something important in it – until one day, you see it. And that changes the entire book or movie for you.

truman show

This past week, my Philosophy class watched The Truman Show. If you’ve never seen it, it’s an awesome movie! The basic plot goes like this:  Truman Burbank (played by Jim Carey) is a normal man living a normal life, with his slightly overbearing wife, slightly overwrought mother, and slightly less-than-ambitious best friend. But Truman has one ambition:  to leave his hometown and travel. And this, the directors cannot let him do.

See, Truman was adopted at birth, and is now the unwitting star of a television program that has been running, nonstop, for 29 years. His wife? An actress. His mother? An actress. His bet friend? Say it with me . . . an actor. (Hell, half the time he’s being fed his lines directly from the show’s producer!) As Truman slowly begins to realize that his life is a total fabrication, he’s forced to confront all his fears and – eventually – the unknown world.

My Philosophy students watch this to better understand certain philosophical questions and theories – Plato, Locke, Descartes, Spinoza, even Camus comes up in discussion. Of course, as a writer, I look at it from a slightly different perspective. For Truman, everyone is an antagonist; everyone is out to keep him from his goal of finding his lost love and sailing away to Fiji.

Or are they?

See, this is where that whole ‘watch something a hundred times . . .’ thing comes in. There is one character – a very minor character – who, I finally realized, isn’t actually trying to hinder Truman at all. And that character is the bus driver.

bus driverYup. Bus driver.

In one scene, Truman attempts to escape Seahaven by taking the bus to Chicago – which, of course, cannot happen because a.) the entire show is filmed inside a huge dome, and b.) you can’t let the star escape. The poor bus driver is ordered to figure out a way to stop the bus from leaving, and intentionally strips the gears. As everyone else gets off the bus, he looks back at Truman – still sitting in the back, with his little plaid suitcase – and then walks back to him and says, “I’m sorry, son.”

You think, at first, that he’s merely repeating a line. What else would a bus driver say, after all?

But later in the movie, when it’s discovered that Truman has escaped in a sailboat and is trying to find a way out, the producers order the ferry to be launched. The bus driver (who has no name, apparently), is brought to drive the ferry and – voila. Strips the gears.

Coincidence? I’ve read essays about the show that claim this is about white superiority and ensuring that the only non-white character really shown is ignorant and incompetent – but you know what? I think that’s total BS.

I think the bus driver did it on purpose. 

And, I think he did it to help Truman. 

soapboxHere, give me my soap box. That’s better. 🙂

I think he is the only character, in the entire movie (except for Truman’s true love), who has any sense of decency, compassion, or morality. Everyone else has to be pushed to the absolute outer limits of murdering Truman before they call it quits! But not the Bus Driver. Here, I’ll capitalize his title. 🙂 It only took me what, a dozen times of seeing this movie to figure it out? But. I think this is a very subtle, almost Easter-egg-like, thing the movie’s writers slid into the script. Maybe the Bus Driver really can pilot the ferry. Who knows? The point is, he didn’t. I think he took his opportunity to give Truman a fighting chance to escape. Had the ferry started up, they would have caught Truman, and that would have been the end of it. But because the ferry couldn’t run, Truman had his chance to escape. And he does it in a way that is totally in keeping with his character and the show’s plot.

And suddenly, what looks like a random, rational event that helps Truman escape becomes a real plot point. From a minor character, no less!

So. The question becomes, how can your minor characters change the odds for your main character? For better or worse? Is there any place where a minor character can drop a hint to your MC, even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time? Say something, randomly, that jogs a memory or makes a connection? Provide them with some bit of knowledge they need for their journey? JK Rowling does this a lot – small, seemingly insignificant things in the beginning of the book become Very Important later on, and almost all of them are from secondary – sometimes, even minor – characters.

So think about those throwaway characters. Can you give them a little heart and soul? Can you give them a real reason to be there?

Just some food for thought. 🙂

Trusting the Reader

The other day, I was talking with a friend (who is not a writer, but IS an avid reader) about the problems I’m having with one of the novels I’m working on. He’d asked me about my goals for the summer, and I told him I wanted to finish at least one novel draft.

“Your rumrunner?” he asked.

“No. It’s got too many problems,” I said. “I don’t know where it’s going or what to do with it anymore.”

“What’s wrong with it?”

So I told him that one of the main issues I’m having is trying to figure out why my antagonist – who has already killed three people in cold blood – doesn’t just shoot my 14-year old rumrunner one night. Or burn down his house while he’s out on a run. “It makes no sense,” I said.

“Maybe he’s not as bad as you think he is,” my friend said.

“No, he is,” I said. “Every time I try to write from his POV, all I get is how much he hates Nicky and wants him dead. So why doesn’t he just shoot him one night? I can’t answer that question, and I feel like it’s a big plot hole.”

“Why do you have to answer it?”

“Because! It’s  . . . I can’t just leave this hole there. Hargrove is bad. Really, really bad. He was a soldier in World War I. He kills people. He doesn’t blink an eye. So why not Nicky? I know he hates Nicky. Why doesn’t he just get him out of the way?”

“Well, maybe that’s something you need to let your readers decide for themselves.”

There was about a fifteen-second pause while my brain attempted to process this information. “WHAT?!”

“Let them decide that reason for themselves,” my friend said. “Every time your antagonist has a chance to kill Nicky, he doesn’t. Let the readers wonder why. Let them draw their own conclusions about it.”

“But . . . it’s a plot hole!” 

He laughed. “Does the antagonist have a reason not to kill Nicky?”

“Well  . . . he does have PTSD from the war. Shell shock. So he doesn’t carry a gun; he carries a knife, because he can’t take loud noises.” (There’s a couple of others, too, that we didn’t get into.)

“So that could be a reason. Remember, antagonists aren’t all bad. Maybe it’s just that Nicky IS fourteen, and he can’t bring himself to kill a kid.”

I had my doubts about that. I know Hargrove, and I know he wants Nicky dead. But my friend’s thoughts have made me think about things a bit differently. Because honestly, this was one of the things holding me back from continuing with Nicky – I could not figure out how to get around the fact that Hargrove should just kill Nicky and get him out of the way. And no matter how I tried to move forward with the story, that was the thought standing in my way.

Or . . . Is it possible that I’ve been standing in my own way here? I’m still not quite convinced of this, but . . . if I can make myself trust the readers, if I can make myself ignore the voices in my head that tell me I have to sew up what I still consider a giant plot hole, could this be the answer to my problem? Could it be that I don’t need to explain absolutely everything?

Trusting the reader is something that we kind of skirt around as writers. We’re not really sure that we’re getting our point across, so we tend to beat it to death. We tend to not let our descriptions, or our characters’ actions, speak for themselves. We tend to feel we have to explain everything. But do we?

Last year, on a message forum, some of were discussing favorite authors. Several of us chose Diana Gabaldon, and I’ll never forget what one person – who disagreed – said:  “I know there are sex scenes, but she never describes what’s going on! I don’t KNOW what’s happening!” And I remember thinking, WHAT?! Diana’s sex scenes are some of the hottest around – in large part because she doesn’t do that annoying A-tab-into-B-slot stuff. She lets the reader figure out what’s going on for themselves. She lets our imaginations take over. She lets us become involved in the story.

And as writers, shouldn’t that be our end goal? To let the readers become part of the story? 

In a blog post, writer Michael J. Sullivan gives us another example:

In the novel “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” David Sedaris provides a simple example of this technique where he speaks of a young boy thinking of all the things he did that he might be in trouble for and one of those items listed is: “…altering the word hit on a list of rules posted on the gymnasium door…” Mr. Sedaris never says how he altered it. He leaves this for the reader to figure out. The result is like a perfectly delivered punch line.

So the question becomes . . . how far can we, as writers, trust our readers? And maybe more importantly, can our readers trust us? This is the hallmark of every good mystery novel – the writer needs to leave the breadcrumbs of clues that a savvy reader will pick up on. This makes the reader invested. They’ll read on to the end to see if they’ve come to the same conclusion as the detective.

But even if we’re not writing a mystery novel, doesn’t the same hold true? Don’t we have to trust our readers to get our descriptions, understand our characters’ actions, figure out what’s going on?  

That is, if we give them the means to do so.

A tricky balancing act, that.

So this week, as I mull over my friend’s words and wonder if I can pull this off, I encourage you to pick up some books and see how – or if – the authors have been able to make it work.

Trust me. You’ll know it when you read it.

 

Michael J. Sullivan’s blog post on trusting the reader:  http://riyria.blogspot.com/2011/09/writing-advice-12-trusting-reader.html