RSS Feed

Making Shallow Characters Relatable

Posted on
Gone with the Wind - Novel Conclusions Blog - Writing Blog - Writing Tips

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell via Amazon

No one thinks they’re shallow (even if others do), and I’m of the belief that it’s very important for your characters to be somewhat relatable in order to matter.  So if a story requires a very shallow character, how do we make that character matter?

For starters, remember that even though these characters are shallow at first glance, there is more to them than meets the eye — and it’s our job as writers to bring that out.  There are a few different strategies to show readers why they should care about a seemingly shallow character:

Give the character context.  In the opening chapter of Margaret Mitchell’s classic Gone with the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara doesn’t care one whit about the coming war (which will be the American Civil War).  In fact, Scarlett tells the Tarleton twins:

If you say ‘war’ just once more, I’ll go in the house and shut the door. I’ve never gotten so tired of any one word in my life as ‘war,’ unless it’s ‘secession.’

Although this makes Scarlett pretty shallow up front, Mitchell gradually shades in the character to give us more about her background and make her more relatable in the context of the story, in the context of the pre-Civil War era.

Give the character an arc that fundamentally changes them.  In the more recent Uglies by Scott Westerfeld, main character Tally Youngblood was so shallow in the first chunk of the book that I almost couldn’t keep reading.  At first, she only cares about being like everyone else.  However, (mild spoiler ahead…) Westerfeld turns this around by revealing the outside world to Tally a little bit at a time, almost painfully slowly at times, gradually changing Tally’s perspective to be dramatically different — and much deeper — than when we first met her.

Shape the narration.  Guiding the point of view also gives the reader subtle clues that there is more to come.  Mitchell does this masterfully, describing Scarlett in the first chapter of Gone with the Wind:

She meant what she said, for she could never long endure any conversation of which she was not the chief subject. But she smiled when she spoke, consciously deepening her dimple and fluttering her bristly black lashes as swiftly as butterflies’ wings. The boys were enchanted, as she had intended them to be, and they hastened to apologize.

These are not things Scarlett could have said about herself, and the implication here is that Scarlett knows what she’s doing and has a grand plan for her situation.  As we get further along in the novel, we come to find out that Scarlett is a master manipulator, and whether we agree with her motives or not, she continues to surprise us and keep us involved in the story.

What else can we do to make shallow characters more relatable?

P.S. For more about Scarlett’s motives, check out Finding Character Motives.

5 Great Books to Read in 2016

Posted on
Neil Gaiman - Graveyard Book - Novel Conclusions - writing blog - literary blog

Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book via Amazon

2016 is looking like a pretty great year on the reading front, y’all. Although I may also reread the Outlander series for the third time (the time travel, the saga, the accents, oh my…), I plan on hitting up a few books that have either been sitting on my shelf for a while or I’ve had my eye on. Here is a very abbreviated version of my to-be-read list in the next couple months:

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Why:  Everything by Neil Gaiman draws you in and builds a world around you.  My favorite of Gaiman’s that I’ve read so far is The Ocean at the End of the Lane, although I’ve loved every one of his books that I’ve read except American Gods – that one was a little too graphic for me.

The Diviners by Libba Bray
Why:  Her lush characters and stories swirl around you like mist.  They hang about in your mind and make you think, not to mention that main character Gemma in A Great and Terrible Beauty was sharp and involving.  Also, the second novel in this series came out, which means that as soon as I fall in love with The Diviners, I won’t have to wait to read the second book – a little silly, I know.

Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
Why:  I have heard so many amazing things about this book. People are talking about it even now, several years later, not to mention the fact that Nathan Bransford endorsed it.  Also, I met the manager of The Last Bookstore in Downtown LA at a birthday party last year, and she said Tahereh Mafi and Ransom Riggs (who were married at The Last Bookstore apparently, cool!) are pretty awesome people, which made me even more curious about their books.  (P.S. Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children series is fascinating — totally worth checking out.)

Split Second by Kasie West
Why:  I saw Pivot Point on my shelf recently and realized that I have to find out what happens to Addie, who did the noble but painful thing in the first book. Does it pay off for her?  If you haven’t read Pivot Point, I highly recommend it; it walks the line of contemporary and speculative fiction cleanly and concisely.

Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin
Why:  (A nonfiction pick, a little unusual for this blog, I know)  2016 is going to be a year of change.  I’d like to make some changes and work on making those changes into habits.  Gretchen Rubin wrote The Happiness Project, which I loved, and when I ran across Better than Before while perusing books at the airport, I had to pick it up.  Let’s all build some good habits together this year.

Have you read any of these books?  If so, what are your thoughts about them?  What are a few books you’re planning to read in 2016?

Related:

The Dynamics of Time Travel in Fiction

Posted on
Back to the Future - Novel Conclusions Writing Blog - Literary Blog - Time Travel

Back to the Future Day via Google Images

Today is a red-letter date in the history of time travel stories – the day Marty and Doc went to the future!  In honor of Back to the Future Day, we are going to explore the basic dynamics of time travel in fiction.  What are the consequences for your characters of the possible rules of time travel?

Each fictional universe works with different time travel rules, but the basic rules fall into 3 categories:

  • Changeable Timeline
  • Resistant Timeline
  • Predetermined Timeline

Changeable

A changeable timeline gives the characters much more freedom – and much more ability to screw things up.  Examples of a changeable timeline include stories like Ken Grimwood’s Replay and, of course, the Back to the Future series.

Although the mechanics are different, both of these stories offer characters the chance to change the future.  In Replay, Jeff and Pamela play out their lives over and over and keep waking up after death at age 18 in 1963.  They make different choices in each lifetime to unravel a mystery they are trying to solve.  In Back to the Future, Marty and Doc are working to rectify their accidental changes to the timeline and change the future back to what it should have been.

Resistant

A resistant timeline, such as in Stephen King’s 11-22-63 or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series, offers the author a very interesting framework for the plot.  11-22-63’s narrator Jake Epping, in an effort to change history, tells us again and again, “The past is obdurate.”  Stephen King uses the obdurate past as an antagonist.  Diana Gabaldon in Outlander, meanwhile, uses the resistant past as sometimes good (e.g. I can’t do too much harm) and sometimes bad (e.g. what if I accidentally prevent someone important to me from being born?).

Predetermined

Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban both provide great examples of a predetermined timeline.  A predetermined timeline sneaks up on our characters; they may know what is coming and have no way to change it.  Or perhaps they know they have to do something but must figure out how to do it.

In the Time Traveler’s Wife, part of the sneakiness of the plot lies in how sometimes Claire knows what’s coming and sometimes Henry does.  In Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry and Hermione only realize just in time what they need to do to save their friends – and they have to figure out on the spot how to do it.

Each of these approaches comes with its own positives and pitfalls.  Which is your favorite?  Which dynamics of time travel did I leave out?  What are other examples of great time travel stories?

A Sense of Home

Posted on
Cabin Painting - Novel Conclusions literary blog - Christina Gerstle - writing tips - writing rules - writing blog - book blog

Cabin with Children Playing by Thomas Birch via Wikimedia Commons

Lately I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to create a sense of home for my main character in my current work-in-progress.  Before the inciting incident in most stories, the author establishes a “normal” that the character will soon be deviating from.  This sense of normality, often a feeling of home, establishes a foundation or a jumping off point for your story.

In Gone with the Wind, Scarlett preens in the spotlight as the belle of the ball before the Civil War turns her world upside down.  Understanding her place in the pecking order helps us as readers much more fully appreciate what she is trying to win back as her journey wears on.  We can relate to her more fully (even though we’re not selfish debutantes, not usually, anyway) because we know where she started.

In Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty, Bray establishes Gemma’s comfortable life in India in order to really underline the differences between her life before the inciting incident and afterwards.  Mild first chapter spoiler ahead – when Gemma’s mother dies (our inciting incident), and she is sent to boarding school in England, the dreary, cold setting contrasts starkly against the vivid view of India that opened the story.  This illustrates for us as readers how much Gemma wants to escape, a theme that plays out throughout the novel.

How do we establish the scene, a sense of home (or at least the foundational “normal”), in our own writing?

  • Make it matter.  A few strong details that we can call back to mind later in the story will do more than long chapters of exposition (I still can’t believe Dickens had an entire chapter about fog in Bleak House.  I never could finish that one).
  • Maximize contrast between the before and the after.  The luxury of Scarlett’s life made the struggle afterwards even more evident.  The festive, colorful atmosphere in India made Gemma’s first few days in England even more dreary.
  • Establish empathy early on (e.g. have a “Save the Cat” moment).  Before the main character hits the inciting incident head-on, when the scene is being set, we as readers need to learn something about our main character that gives us a reason to care.  If we are not given a reason to care, we may not even continue reading.  For example, I turned off the movie Taken after less than 20 minutes because I didn’t care one whit what happened to Liam Neeson’s character; the audience was given no tangible reason to care about him before he got in trouble.

How else can you establish a foundation before your inciting incident?  How do you create a sense of home in your stories?

YA Retellings: an Epic Infographic

Posted on

This post contains affiliate links that help this blog continue to be awesome.

For generations, storytellers, bards, and troubadours — ancient and modern — have been putting new spins on old tales.  One of the oldest collections of stories, the Bible itself, even mentions this in Ecclesiastes 1:9:

That which has been done is what will be,
That which is done is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the sun.

Epic Reads recently put together a gorgeous infographic specifically focusing on these retellings in YA — 162 of them, in fact.  It could even be argued by some that a few of these original stories, like Romeo and Juliet, were based on earlier stories.  You’ll find the infographic below, and a complete list of the retellings can be found here.

I remember loving Robin McKinley’s Beauty as a kid and thoroughly enjoying Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted some years later when I stumbled across it as a camp counselor (that one makes great bedtime reading for a room full of kiddos).  Do you have any favorite YA retellings?  Or favorite retellings in general?

Novel Conclusions YA Retellings young adult novels ya books literary blog

YA Retellings Infographic via Epic Reads

P.S. While you’re here, don’t forget to check out The 10 Most Read Books of All Time.

The Invisibility of Good Writing

Posted on

The Storm - Pierre-Auguste Cot - public domain painting - Novel Conclusions - Christi Gerstle - Christina Gerstle - literary blog - writing tips

The Storm by Pierre-Auguste Cot via Wikimedia Commons

I helped a coworker with a business letter recently, a coworker I consider to be a generally good writer.  This person, who is an articulate communicator in everyday life, still wrote a letter full of passive voice phrasing that overshadowed the main ideas.  As we worked together to polish the letter, the incident reminded me how frequently good writing is invisible.

Good writing helps ideas shine and does not draw attention to itself.  Rather than noticing the writing, the reader remembers the ideas.  If you’re not looking for good writing, you won’t notice it very frequently.  Bad writing, on the other hand, sticks out like a Raiders fan at a Cowboys game – you notice it immediately.  Messy syntax, awkward phrasing, repetition, and heavy use of the passive voice jump up and beg for the spotlight, stealing it away from the ideas meant to draw our attention.

Letting the ideas shine isn’t just about good grammar; it’s also about using syntax and diction in a way that works with your ideas.  Long sentences invite complex thoughts whereas short sentences draw your attention to one specific thing.  Let’s look at an example of each within a couple sentences of each other from the first chapter of Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima.  Young protagonist Antonio tells us:

My heart sank.  When I thought of leaving my mother and going to school, a warm, sick feeling came to my stomach.  To get rid of it, I ran to the pens we kept by the molino to feed the animals.

The first sentence draws your attention to the main idea – narrator Antonio is pretty upset.  The second and third sentences, both compound sentences, expand on this idea and its consequences.  Anaya helps us to focus on the ideas by using sentence structure and diction to his advantage.

Compound sentences generally emphasize the second thought.  For example, listen to the difference here:

  1. The storm raged outside, but Jenny still got to go home.
  2. Jenny still got to go home, but the storm raged outside.

Even though the ideas are the same, the first sentence ends on a much happier note (Jenny got to go home!) than the second sentence (the storm raged).  Every little bit makes a difference.  Imagine what you as a writer are hoping to emphasize, and tidy up your diction and syntax to draw attention to that idea.

What other little tweaks help your ideas shine?  How else can we revise our writing to focus attention on the story?

Related Links

The DNA of a Successful Book

Posted on

Although here in blogland, it seems like everyone is reading e-books, the general public still reads more print books than e-books.  According to this recent Pew Research Study, about 1 in 5 American adults read an e-book last year vs. about 7 in 10 reading any book last year.  However, the rise of e-books is giving us a fantastic new avenue for book-related data.  Reading a book on many e-readers lets publishers know which books people are completing and which books are just sitting on their virtual shelves.

Hiptype recently released a fantastic infographic, The DNA of a Successful Book, that dives into the publishing industry data.  What stood out most to me is that books with a female protagonist are 40% more likely to become a bestseller.  I wonder if that has to do with certain demographics reading more or if it is just a recent phenomenon.  I also noticed that younger groups are reading faster – but I wonder if that means they’re skimming or if they’ve actually learned to read more quickly from being around so much data from such a young age.  It also really took me aback that only 4% of sample chapters and bundled books are completed.  I wonder which bundled books were part of the data sample and what that implies for the broader picture.

What stands out to you?  What strikes you most about these little info bites?  Do you know of any books that match or contradict this data?

DNA of a Successful Book Infographic Reading Books Writing - Novel Conclusions Literary Blog

The DNA of a Successful Book via visual.ly

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 711 other followers

%d bloggers like this: