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Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Psychology of Character Development, Part III

If you’re an author, your characters are all different parts of you, right? Wellllll not exactly… Yes, they all emerged from the depths of your subconscious, but they are not you. If they were, all your characters would be so alike there’d be no tension in your stories. And not much in the way of interest either.
There’s a technique used in Jungian dream analysis where the dreamer writes down the major elements of the dream, free associates to each and then engages his/her psyche in something called active imagination—something like a spirited discussion with one’s soul. Jung used to have out-loud dialogues with a projection he’d named Philemon. They even wrote letters back and forth to one another. Yes, yes, I know. Today he would have been labeled certifiably insane. But, in his day, he was seen as a visionary. And, he still is by those of us who embraced his philosophies which were not only years ahead of his time, but also timeless.
Jung tapped into the imaginal world when he and Philemon had conversations. Writers also tap into the imaginal world to bring stories to life. Sometimes, when I’m hot and heavy into the midst of a novel—or even a short story—my head is so full it’s hard to re-focus on the “real” world. But, who’s to say my imaginal world is any less “real” than the one where I see clients, push paper about on my desk and am both wife and mother?
It’s odd, but those two worlds co-exist nicely—at least for the most part. I do think you need to have a life outside of writing to be a writer. Otherwise, where would your ideas come from? Oh, there would be a few, but they wouldn’t carry you very far. The very best writers write from a richness of experience. At least in my opinion, you need to keep refreshing that experiential base to have grist for the authorial mill.
Back to characters. I’ve been thinking a lot about George RR Martin lately, probably because the long-promised fifth (or is it the sixth?) book in his Fire and Ice series is once again supposed to come out very soon. And, along with George, I’ve been thinking about his character Tyrion Lannister. Tyrion is an antagonist, or is he? He certainly has a host of, ahem, unsavory character traits. But, along with them, he has empathy and compassion. Because he is a dwarf, he has been the butt of other’s jokes ever since he was born. He manages the bitterness this ongoing derision has engendered with a quick wit and a self-deprecating sense of humor. The bitterness is why (and how) he murders his jerk of a father. The compassion is why he doesn’t force his child-bride, Sansa Stark, to consummate their marriage and one of the reasons he doesn’t try harder to find her after she flees. Of course, the other is because he is imprisoned, accused of the murder of Joffrey Baratheon.
Joffrey is one of Martin’s rare characters who is truly one dimensional. He is a bastard in more ways than one. Product of an incestuous liaison between Cersei and Jaime Lannister while Cersei is married to the King, Robert Baratheon, Joffrey doesn’t have even one saving grace. I figure Martin killed him off because Joffrey had become an embarrassment and an inconvenience and Martin didn’t know what else to do with him. As a reader, all I felt was relief when Joffrey was finally out of the picture. Of course, he was out of the picture too late to save Sansa Stark…
Regardless of the glitch with Joffrey, the magic in Martin’s writing is he’s able to build characters his readers care about. He does that by making them each unique and by giving them impossible responsibilities that tax their personalities to the max. It is struggle and resolution that make for fine story-telling. And, Martin is a master at recognizing each of his character’s abilities and shortcomings. So, for example, Catelyn Stark’s efforts, after her husband Ned is murdered, are limited by her own particular set of weaknesses. And, it is those weaknesses that are her eventual undoing, binding her to a half-life as revenge annihilates her.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Psychology of Character Development, Part II

What makes a character believable? Well, what makes you believable? There are actually several things. Probably the most important is a constellation of personality traits that make sense together, that are consistent over time and that are congruent with your thoughts and actions. Humans tend to be predictable. So do characters. And, since it is humans who are doing the writing and creation of characters in literature, it is not accidental that every protagonist (and antagonist) in fiction is made up of human traits.

One of the frequent tricks of science fiction writers is to focus on one trait, giving the rest of them short shrift. Spock in Star Trek comes to mind. He was certainly Mr. Rational, but he had rare flashes of emotion, too. The series creator, Gene Roddenberry, used a similar motif for all his alien creatures. Klingons were violent, Vulcans were “reasonable” (and supposedly emotionless), AIs were logical, etc. The thing about the Star Trek characters is that they were consistent and predictable. In that way, fans came to love the series. I still remember the aliens who tunneled into rocky caverns, killing the crew of the Starship if they got too close. Turned out those tunnels were their nests and they were protecting their young. Again, an all-too-human motivation. And one that viewers could be sympathetic to.

So, what does that mean to writers? At the front end, it means giving some thought to the primary characters in one’s book or short story. Who are they? What do they look like? Where did they come from? What kind of educational and experiential background do they have and are they embracing it or running away from it? What does their emotional make-up look like? Are they warm? Funny? Cold? Calculating? Loving? Jaded? To put a finer point on it, all of us are combinations of things. The trick to building a believable fictional character is to pick constellations of traits that go together. And then to have whatever that character does be congruent with his/her personality traits. It’s fine if there’s, for example, a shy, retiring character who begins by dreaming of glory and ends by actually engaging in an act of heroism. That’s congruent. What’s not is the same reticent character who, out of the blue, dives in front of a speeding train to pull a child to safety. We love characters we can relate to. And we relate to characters who feel real.

One of the primary errors many authors make—at least in my opinion—is that the antagonists in their stories either one or two dimensional. Even the hardest of hardened criminals has a soft spot or two. And, if a reader is going to feel anything when the bad guy goes down in flames, they will need to have experienced at least a flash or two of empathy for him/her.

That’s what successful writing is all about. Feelings. It’s also what makes readers want to buy books. Books are entertainment. They make us feel things. Happy. Sad. Worried. Curious. If you look at the most successful authors, their work brings up all those feelings, and more as well. Those are the books we remember; that we drag about in our heads: the ones with characters who haunt us. It takes very little for me to cull up an image of Scarlett O’Hara raising her fist in the field back behind Tara and saying she’ll never be hungry again.

Think about the fictional characters who have stayed with you. They did because they resonated in some way with your internal landscape.

Part Three of the Psychology of Character Development will follow next week.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Excerpt From Daddy's Girl

While part 2 of the psychology of character development is percolating in my head, I thought I'd post the first few pages of my short story Daddy's Girl. It was just released by Misanthrope Press in their Title Goes Here quarterly anthology, Issue 7. If you like it, you can find the rest at

Daddy’s Girl
Ann Gimpel

“Marni, get yourself down here.  Your supper’s nigh onto stone cold.”  Mom’s voice drifted up to me from downstairs, her West Virginia accent tinged with irritation.  She was right, though; I had been holed up in my room for quite awhile…hours maybe.  Feeling the need to hurry, my fingers flew over the computer keys as I worked on getting just the right combination of white balance and contrast into the photo I was working on.  It was of the small pond in the woods behind our house.  I’d caught it yesterday, right as the sun had been going down.  Orange rays practically bounced off its surface making the prosaic little body of water look almost magical.  A starburst of a sun flirted with the horizon and the forest seemed alive with possibilities.
“In a minute, Mom.”  My voice raised to carry down to the kitchen, I hastily added a smidge of warmth.  Nope, too much.  Moving the slider back the other way, I cocked my head to the side surveying the results.  Ah, just the tiniest of tweaks…  There!  Exhaling loudly through pursed lips, I shut my eyes.  Photo editing was an intense process.  Some said it was cheating to use the computer-based programs to make your pictures better; but all the really good photographers did it.  And, that was what I wanted to be more than anything.  A good photographer.  I smiled, eyes still closed, as I corrected that thought.  No, what I wanted to be was a great photographer.  It was what I dreamed of.  I’d saved every dime of my babysitting money since I’d been twelve to buy my digital SLR camera, along with a rich assortment of lenses and filters.
Oh-oh, Mom was royally pissed now.  “Be right there.  Really!”  Narrowing my eyes in concentration, I looked again at my photo before punching the save button.  And then I looked again.  Where had that come from?  In the bottom corner of the picture, curled up by the base of a young sycamore tree, was something that looked an awful lot like a wolf.  How the hell had that gotten there?  Why hadn’t I seen it before?  Had I been so intent on the sunset, and getting the color balance just right on the computer, that I’d just not noticed?  I closed my eyes, scrunched them tight, rubbed at them with my fists, then opened them again.  What I saw made my breath catch in my throat because there was no wolf this time round.  With hands that were suddenly less-than-steady I saved my work, then saved it again to an external hard drive.  I found I couldn’t think about what must have been a hallucination.  I sort of tried to, but my mind just danced away from the subject as if it knew better than to examine it too closely.
“Maybe I do need to eat,” I muttered to myself as I pushed wearily up from my chair, gathering my long blonde hair into a rough pony tail so it wouldn’t fall into my food.  As I passed through the door that went into the upstairs hall, I plucked a rubber band off the door knob, securing the pony tail, before tromping down the wooden risers.
“Well, it’s about time.”  Mother looked up from her sewing, her blue eyes rheumy from the fine work.  A few stray hairs, blonde going gray, escaped from the severe bun she always wore.  “Your supper’s in the oven.  I put foil over it so’s it’d stay warm.”
“Thanks, Mom.”  I bent to peck her on the cheek.  It had been just the two of us for as long as I could remember.  Dad had died in the Gulf War.  I’d only been five when he’d left and he’d never come home.  For whatever reason, Mom had never remarried.  Hell, she’d never even dated that I knew of.  But, she and I didn’t talk about things like that.  We talked about me and my future and about the weather and the myriad of things we had to do—like growing vegetables and canning—for us to get by.  I guess I take after my Dad.  At least it seems that way when I see his old photographs scattered around our house.  I have the same hazel eyes and square jaw.  And the same tall, lanky build, all bones and broad shoulders.  Mom is shorter.  And her features far more delicate.  She was really beautiful when she was young.  When I was little, I used to think she was like some exotic fairy hovering over my bed at night.  Now, she just looked tired.  And sad.
I gathered up a hot pad and pulled my dinner from the still-warm oven.  Pouring myself a glass of goat’s milk from the old, cracked blue pitcher in the fridge, I scootched a chair up close to her.  “Is something wrong?” I asked as I started eating, the wolf-mirage in my photo almost, but not quite, forgotten.
Mom sighed.  Then she reached out and patted my cheek.  “No, Marni.  Nothin’s wrong.  Just eat your supper.  Then you probably need to get on to bed.  School time will come early tomorrow.”
“But I only have another week left and then I’ll be done with school.”  I was talking around a mouthful of vegetable casserole.  Swallowing, I added, “Probably wouldn’t be the end of the world if I missed a day at this point.  My grades are all turned in and I passed everything.”
“You still wantin’ to go to that fancy photography school?” she asked, an odd tone in her voice, mouth half-curved into a smile.
“Well, uh, sure.  Of course.  But, Mom, we don’t have the money for that.  I’ll just go to the JC here in town.  They have photography classes, and I can get a two-year degree.”  I kept shoveling food into my mouth as I talked.  Now that I was eating I realized how hungry I’d been.  That must have been what had happened upstairs.  I’d been light-headed and just imagined that there was something in that photo…
“I could sell this place.”  Mom’s voice broke into my thoughts, and I looked up, shocked.  I opened my mouth, but she held up a hand.  “No, Marni.  Let me finish.  It’s a lot of work here.  That it is.”
“But I’d still be here to help you,” I interrupted.
“Not forever you wouldn’t.”  There was that same bittersweet smile again.  “Ah, baby girl.  We haven’t done so badly, you and I, but it’s time for you to move on out into the world; and I can’t handle the work here all by myself.”  She was still sewing, glancing down from time to time to ensure a straight seam. “Well, maybe I could do it for awhile more, but surely not ten years from now.  I’ll be close to seventy then.  I’ve given this a lot of thought; and it seems to me like you could use money now, not when you’re closin’ on thirty.”  Sitting back, she looked right at me as if daring me to contradict her.
I just sat there dumbstruck, fork mid-way between my plate and my mouth.  “But…but, I couldn’t let you do that, Mom.  This place…”  I set my fork down and gulped some milk.  “Dad left us this place.  You can’t sell it.  It’s all we have left of him.”  Where had those words come from?  It was like someone else was talking through me.  My recently consumed supper began to curdle in my stomach.  Out of nowhere, I was suspiciously close to tears.  I hadn’t really thought about Dad in months, maybe not in years.  I didn’t understand why I was feeling so upset—he’d been dead for thirteen years after all—but an unfamiliar inner voice was broadcasting that this house, and the acre of land it sat on, anchored our family together:  Mom, me and our dead husband and father.  Shaking my head briskly, more to unseat whatever had taken up residence in my head than anything else; I turned back to Mom since she’d started talking again.
“…maybe that’s why it’s long past time we got out of here…” she muttered.  Then she kept on talking, but not to me.  It was almost as if she’d forgotten I was there.  “Some nights,” she went on, “Danny still walks these halls.  Him, or the others.  And, when I’m half asleep—or half awake—I can feel his hands tuggin’ at my hair and hear his voice tellin’ me things…”  Breaking off abruptly, she met my eyes.  “Marni, I can’t have a life of my own less’n we leave here.  I know you’ve likely wondered why I never found you a new daddy.  Well, it’s because it feels like I’m not really a widow.”  She laughed hollowly.  “I’ve said a piece too much here, I reckon,” she mumbled, looking embarrassed.  Standing up, she carefully folded her sewing and laid it atop her mending box.  “Think on what I said.  Be sure to finish your supper.  You don’t eat enough.”  Then she walked out of the room leaving me feeling…  Ah, what was I feeling, anyway?  Confused?  Scared?  About ten years old and wishing someone else would still make all my decisions for me.  The big ones anyway.
Mechanically, I finished what was left on my plate and carried it over to the old fashioned sink.  Rinsing it, I laid it in the drainer, still thinking about what Mom had said.  Geez, she’d practically told me that our house was haunted.  And that she was…was trapped in some way by the ghost of what had been my father.  As I trailed up the stairs to brush my hair and my teeth, I glanced at the grandfather clock on the landing.  It was barely .  Deciding I could do a little more photo editing, I gave my teeth and hair short shrift, pulled the chain to douse the bathroom light and headed for the computer.  The nights in early June were still chilly, so I snugged one of my favorite well-worn sweatshirts over my head, luxuriating in the feel of the faded, red cotton against my goose-bumped arms. 
Reminding myself to keep an eye on the clock, and with an internal promise that I’d button things up by ten, I brought up the hundred or so shots I’d taken the previous afternoon at sunset.  Drawn almost beyond will and reason, I clicked on the one I’d been working on before Mom had chivied me down to supper.  Opening my eyes—gulp, I hadn’t realized I’d closed them—I examined the computer image.  And, there it was.  My wolf was back.  Except this time there was someone with him.  The someone looked familiar somehow, but that part of the photo was just too small on the screen.  Without thinking much—or I probably wouldn’t have done it—I clicked on the “actual pixels” tab and scrolled down to that corner of the picture.
What I saw made my heart start pounding.  Mouth suddenly dry, I jumped out of my chair so abruptly that it fell over with a clatter.  It couldn’t be.  But it was.  The man in the picture, with one arm wrapped about the wolf, was my father.  Shit!  Had Mom been right about him still being here?  I’d taken what she’d told me earlier with a grain of salt, but faced with the reality of what my camera had recorded…  Shakily, I righted my chair and began to pull up the other photos.  Would he be in them, too? . . . . 
(For more, scroll to the top and click the link to Title Goes Here.)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Psychology of Character Development

Welcome to my blog! I will post weekly on some aspect of psychology as it relates to writing fiction. Once I've run out of those topics--if I ever do--I'll move on into the marketing aspect of what I'm beginning to see as a new era in publishing. Maybe by then I'll actually know enough to write cogently on that topic!   

Since psychology is a comfort zone for me, it seems logical to begin this blog with a discussion of the psychology of character development. Have you ever wondered why some fictional characters feel so real it seems you could easily know them, while others feel wooden and contrived? Or worse, when an author builds a character who feels real up until they suddenly don't because of some event that simply jars your sensibilities; and you toss the book aside feeling cheated. Or, when you get partway through a book and all the characters feel alike? Or, they're two dimensional and it's difficult to understand why they're doing what they are. And you find yourself paging backwards to see if you missed something. Of course that's much harder to do with e-readers. (My only pet peeve w/my Kindle . . . I've never been a "linear" reader. So, to have lost my ability to go easily backwards and forwards in the Kindle is annoying.)

I'm sure all authors address character development a bit differently. And, truth be told, I wish I could because the way my characters come to life is intrusive. Once "born", they run about in my head like little mad things. And, if I try to make them do something they don't like, they let me know about it in no uncertain terms. That's why I'm an "organic" writer. I've tried outlining my material and found it to be a waste of time when my protagonist simply thumbs her nose at me if I push her in a direction she doesn't want to go. Me patiently explaining about my plot has proven meaningless. Besides, people think I've gone bonkers when they see me having conversations with myself!

Before I started writing fiction, I didn't understand this at all. So, years ago when I read an interview by Diana Gabaldon when she complained about her protag, Clare Randall, who simply refused to cooperate, I just rolled my eyes. Now, I understand perfectly. Apologies, Diana!

I suppose most of my books begin in my head with a protagonist. Once I have the protag, I need to figure out which setting would work best for them. Is it modern day America? Or do they live in a high fantasy world, or a science fiction one? They usually let me know right away if I've gotten it wrong.

Characters are just like us--except they're larger than life. What that means is, while you and I might think about an unusual act of heroism, my characters will actually do it. Oh, they'll be plenty scared; but they'll mow right ahead in spite of it. And, when you think about it, a working definition of courage or heroism is action in the face of fear. If I have a character in a situation that would scare me, of course it will scare them too. Unless, of course, the character is a sociopath. They aren't particularly sensitive to the feelings that plague the rest of us. Things like compassion, fear, honor, etc. Sociopaths manipulate others and are able to do so without much in the way of emotional fallout . . . at least to themselves. Everyone around them suffers terribly, of course.

So long as we're on the topic of sociopaths, the very best books have well-drawn, three dimensional antagonists as well as strong protags. Without digging too terribly deeply, I can generally find something in any antagnoist to at least try to link to a reader's sensibilities. For example, one of the antagonists in my novel, Psyche's Prophecy, had a perfectly wretched childhood. When he finally dies, my protag is able to engage in a believable moment of compassion when she thinks to herself that he never had a chance because some things that happen to children just can't be undone. Humans usually have mixed feelings about lots of things. It's important for characters to be able to see things from more than one point of view as well. That's one of the tools an author has to make characters feel believable.

Part II of the psychology of character development will follow next week.