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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Travelin' Tales

I just got back from about a month on the road. Saw a lot of interesting things and, as always, was left with a sense of awe about just how big the United States is. And how much undeveloped land there still is. Other than in Texas, most of those are public lands. People everywhere are nice and helpful. I've pretty much always found if I run into problems in my travels that I can rely on the kindness of strangers. So in many ways, traveling restores my faith in human nature.

I met any number of people who are "permanent" RVers. And I spent some time thinking about how I'd like that. I've always been quite the homebody and I decided I really need roots. So, while I enjoy seeing new things, I also really like having a home to come back to. We were gone long enough that even the dogs seemed grateful to come home.

I had a lot of fun at the conference in San Antonio. Met some great people there. Authors and publishers alike. There's nothing like meeting someone face to face in this e-age. I think it makes a difference. My workshop on Mythology and Modern Storytelling reminded me how much I enjoy teaching. It's good to have a lot of interests. (Note to self: do not add any more. I don't have any time as it is.)

I did a bunch of touristy things. Visited Mesa Verde and Carlsbad Caverns and Sonora Caves and Fort Bowie. Climbed Guadalupe Peak in northern Texas. Skiied at a couple of new places. Went through three time zones. For a while, if it weren't for the iPhone, I wouldn't have been able to figure out what time it actually was since Daylight Savings Time kicked in while I was gone. Not sure that the time really matters much, but when you've told someone you'll be somewhere, it's poor form to show up an hour early--or late.

The next long, away from home trip will be in late May. Between now and then, I hope to do some backcountry skiing. The snow cover here in the Sierra is still pretty thin, but we shall see. Tried skiing yesterday afternoon and the snow had turned to mushy pea soup from sixty degree temperatures.

What are some of your favorite places to visit? What was it about them that made them stick in your memory?

Monday, March 19, 2012

To Kill Or Not To Kill: That Is The Question!

Many of you probably remember the Artemis myth. She’s one of the most widely known of the Greek goddesses. Her Roman counterpart is Diana. Artemis is a departure from the maiden/mother/crone depiction of women in that she was a virgin goddess. Women who attended her also had to be chaste. What she’s probably best known for, other than tending to the moon with her brother, Apollo, is righting wrongs.

Years ago when I was in Soundpeace, a metaphysical bookstore in Ashland, Oregon, I plucked a silver pendant off its black velvet backing. It was about an inch-and-a-half in diameter and had a woman with a dog by her side and a bow behind her, carrying a light. This was long before I’d studied much in the way of mythology. All I knew was that I was drawn to that pendant and had to have it. It’s been around my neck for most of the thirty years or so since then. In the intervening years, I’ve come to recognize my pendant goddess for who she is: Artemis.

So what does that have to do with my life? Or with writing? To answer the first question, I’ve always had a finely etched sense of what’s right and have fought many a losing battle because I didn’t want to see the other side, mostly comprised of big businesses like pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies win. While my ideals may have been admirable, retrospectively, I never had a chance. The magic of writing is you can make everyone an Erin Brokovich. Remember? She took on a big corporation that was polluting water and won the largest class action suit ever.
It probably won’t surprise you to know that in real life things like that don’t happen very often, which leads us to the answer to the second question.  In fiction, they happen all the time. I think that’s why people read. At least it’s why I do. To transport myself to the world of the possible. To have heroes I can root for.  A skilled author can scare me half to death that things won’t go well, even when I know in my heart of hearts they won’t kill off the protagonist. Or, maybe they will. George R.R. Martin is quite good at that. Though, I must admit I didn’t like the series nearly so well after Eddard lost his head. It started feeling like a Greek tragedy after that.

There is a fine line to who to kill off in a story so you don’t alienate your readers. That’s something I struggle with. I might add maim and traumatize to kill. There are lots of ways an author can stress his/her characters. Each stressor adds depth to a character, but only if you can tie the wounding back in with how the character acts after it happens. The character shouldn’t overreact, but they can’t underreact either.

To put a finer point on things, it’s easy to kill off a character no one liked in the first place. Face it, even the author didn’t particularly like them which is why you, the reader, saw them as vapid and shallow, too. This is why drawing three-dimensional antagonists is just as important as creating fully developed protagonists. The reader has to feel something when a character dies or gets hurt—other than relief because the character seemed superfluous and annoying anyway.

To the extent fiction mirrors real life as much as possible, we can relate to it. That’s one of the reasons I set my novels in “real world” settings rather than a more typical, high fantasy world. I want that dystopian, near-future to feel real enough to make readers think. I suppose that’s my Artemis complex creeping in, but there’s not much I can do about that. One of the reasons many of Stephen King’s books work so well is they start out feeling fairly normal. The creepy, crawly elements often don’t intrude till near the end, like in Bag of Bones, for example. I don’t think the ghouls came out until the last fifty pages. By then I was so caught up in the reality of the world King had drawn—because it was my world—the addition of fantastical elements felt perfectly logical.

What have some of your favorite books been? Why?

What drew you in and made the world feel real?

Who are some of your favorite fictional characters?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Who Are You??

No, really, who are you? Is a string of adjectives pouring out of your mind? Things like wife, mother, son, chemist, librarian, athlete, physicist, cook, chauffeur? All of those things describe either where you fit in a family system or what you do to earn a living. Or how you like to spend your spare time.

What happens if you strip all that away? How would you describe yourself if you couldn’t include familial data or vocational and recreational pursuits? Not all that easy, huh? It’s important, though, because this is the basis not only for self-knowledge, but for developing three-dimensional, believable characters.  In most evocative fiction, the main characters lose things—a lot of things. It’s what’s left that forms the bedrock of personality.

Jung proposed a dimensional theory of personality. One of the dimensions was introvert-extrovert. All of us lie somewhere along that continuum. Extroverts gather their information about the world from others; introverts from themselves. The next dimension is intuitive-sensate. Intuitives gather knowledge about the world from their inner landscape. Sensates rely on body knowledge. Then we have thinking-feeling. Some of us lead with our hearts. Some with our heads. There is a fourth dimension, but it was developed after Jung’s death, so I won’t include it here.

If you’re curious about yourself, go online and type Myers Briggs Type Inventory. There are some free versions of the MBTI you can take.

Even though much of this exists at a subconscious level, I believe really good authors place their characters in situations with challenges that fit their personality structures. Character consistency is really important. When you build story people, they need to feel like the same person from start to finish in the book. One of the tools is to structure their personalities and have them act congruently.

Do I engage in a conscious thought process of, well this character is an introverted intuitive and that one’s an extroverted sensate? No, not at all. But by the time I’m done with the first few chapters of a book, I know my characters pretty well. If there are a lot of them, I’ll use a story board so I can keep what they look like and sound like straight. I’ll also add a few notes about basic personality.

In addition to basic personality structure, there’s a social veneer many of us adopt. That’s what allows us to smile pretty no matter how we’re feeling inside. Some of us do that a lot. Some of us thumb our noses at convention and say, “Hey, world. This is who I am. Like it or leave it.” Ditto for fictional characters. I mean, what are story book people, but projections of ourselves? To the extent they mirror something that resonates for us, we can relate to them.
Let’s take a quick look at Lara McInnis and Trevor deGroot, the two protagonists in Psyche’s Prophecy and Psyche’s Search. Lara is an introverted intuitive who leads with her mind. Trevor is an introverted sensate who leads with his heart. Trevor has quite the social veneer. He’s very good at keeping secrets. Lara, on the other hand, is fairly thin-skinned. The two of them have complementary personality traits, which makes them a good bet as a couple. It’s really hard to pair up with someone just like you. They have your strengths, sure, but you both have the same Achilles’s heel. So, the pairing works fine when the waters are smooth and way less fine when you have to deal with stressors as a couple.

One of my beta readers for the last book of this series, Psyche’s Promise, commented that she wondered why antagonists in fantasy are so often filthy, stinky and dumb. I took her words to heart. There’s not much I can do to give Gradoxst, my primary antagonist, a bevy of personality traits he didn’t have in the first two books. What I did was write another novel—YA Contemporary Fantasy—and build an antagonist who’s a truly worthy adversary. He’s stunningly beautiful—sort of a male equivalent of a Siren—cunning and very smart. Outwitting him wasn’t easy—for me or my characters. In fact, there’s a place where he actually won in spite of my best efforts.

Circling back to the question at the front end of this blog post: Who are you? How much of that are you willing to share in a comment?