Good Character(s)

This summer I made my first foray into Jane Austen, reading Mansfield Park. I found the novel more thought-provoking than enjoyable, and one of the issues it raised for me was the relationship between moral goodness and good characters. Fanny Price, the novel’s heroine, is probably the most emphatically good (in the moral sense) character I have ever experienced, and also a bad character in the sense of not being compelling or enjoyable. She is, in fact, one of the reasons the book drags as it does (the other is that the simple plot takes far too long to unfold). I began to find her tiresome; Jane Austen’s own mother called her insipid.

I call Fanny Price emphatically good not because she is the most moral character I have ever read but because the whole book emphasizes her goodness. Austen’s admirable theme is that the meek shall inherit the earth, and her intriguing purpose is to cross-examine the true value of the witty, vivacious belle who was (is) the ideal of high society. Fanny exists as a kind of living counterpoint to all the defects of the upper classes – lack of principle, lack of kindness, form over substance, glitter over gold. Her goodness, as central to the novel’s ideas, is inescapable, but it does not do her many favors.

Yet I am sure that it is not due to excess goodness that Fanny Price is (to be kind) unengaging or (to be like Jane Austen’s mother) insipid. Fanny would be both a more enjoyable character and a more accurate representation of goodness if Austen had not mishandled the virtue of humility. She portrays it quite badly – though, in fairness, most authors do. In Mansfield Park, Fanny is humble; this means that she has a pathetically low, and generally false, valuation of herself and accepts other people’s negative opinions of who she is and what she deserves to a point that seems almost weak-minded.

Nor is Fanny a moral paragon in all respects. The narrator repeatedly reminds us that she is anxious and timid, and it’s certain that she has almost no courage at all. It is to Austen’s credit as a writer that she created such limitations in her character, and if you stop to consider it, Fanny’s timidity lends a poignant note to her climactic resistance to an unwanted marriage. Ironically, though, Fanny would have been better company for four hundred pages if her virtues had extended a little farther, and that would have done more for the novel than a little poignancy.

Additionally, Austen – who excelled in creating sharp, lively portraits of female characters – failed to do so with Fanny Price. Fanny gives little impression of anything except strong moral convictions and a puddle of weakness besides. Details such as her physical grace and her love of reading are barely seen and certainly not felt. Her passivity is the stuff of legend; her only contribution to her own destiny is to reject Henry Crawford – in other words, manage to do nothing when someone else is trying to get her to do something (usually she is just carried along when other people do things).

What makes a good character is ultimately disconnected from what makes a good person. White knights and black villains have alike succeeded as characters, and have alike failed. Even the case of Fanny Price proves that what matters is not the amount of goodness a character possesses but how it is used, and what the character possesses besides.

Arresting Attention

The topic of the hour is superheroes, so I am going add my two cents, or less, to the conversation swirling around this cultural and cinematic phenomenon.

I was never that into superheroes.

On to a new topic. Good openings, endlessly emphasized in modern fiction, are defined by being evocative, and it doesn’t really matter of what. What counts is arresting the attention of the reader, whether through humor, originality, mystery, or a felicitous turn of phrase. Here is a list of beginnings that showcase the art of the good opening, being not only evocative but memorable. You will note that famous, immortal, and timeworn first sentences, such as “Call me Ishmael,” are omitted from this list. You will also note that other famous, immortal, and timeworn first sentences are included. There is no good reason for this.

Please share in the comments any book openings that would complete this list, or whether any opening included makes you want to pick up its book.

 

There is a young legend developing on the west side of the mountains. William E. Barrett, The Lilies of the Field

Marley was dead: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

I dreamed of Goliath last night, strangely enough, considering it was Joab, David’s general, who died yesterday. Eleanor Gustafson, The Stones

The young prince was known here and there (and just about everywhere else) as Prince Brat. Not even black cats would cross his path. Sid Fleischman, The Whipping Boy

These tales concern the doing of things recognized as impossible to do; impossible to believe; and, as the weary reader may well cry aloud, impossible to read about. G. K. Chesterton, Tales of the Long Bow

April is the cruellest month. T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

I am old now and have not much to fear from the anger of gods. I have no husband nor child, nor hardly a friend, through whom they can hurt me. My body, this lean carrion that still has to be washed and fed and have clothes hung about it daily with so many changes, they may kill as soon as they please. The succession is provided for. My crown passes to my nephew. C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

In a hole in a ground there lived a hobbit. J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

The universe is infinite but bounded, and therefore a beam of light, in whatever direction it may travel, will after billions of centuries return – if powerful enough – to the point of its departure; and it is no different with rumor, that flies about from star to star and makes the rounds of every planet. Stanislaw Lem, “The Seventh Sally

Monsters do, of course, exist. Matt Mikalatos, Night of the Living Dead Christian

The only possible excuse for this book is that it is an answer to a challenge. Even a bad shot is dignified when he accepts a duel. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Technically, the cucumber came first. Phil Vischer, Me, Myself & Bob

I don’t remember one thing about the day I was born. It hasn’t been for lack of trying either. I’ve set for hours trying to go back as far as I could, but the earliest thing I remember is riding in the back of Floyd’s wagon and looking at myself in a looking glass. Jonathan Rogers, The Charlatan’s Boy

Had he but known that before the day was over he would discover the hidden dimensions of the universe, Kit might have been better prepared. At least, he would have brought an umbrella. Stephen Lawhead, The Skin Map

Review: Power Elements of Character Development

What is it that makes a sympathetic hero, a compelling villain, a persuasive and realistic character? I can sum it up for you in one golden word. But you really should read the book for yourself.

Power Elements of Character Development is the second book in the Power Elements of Fiction series, written by Rebecca LuElla Miller. Some time ago I read and reviewed the first book, Power Elements of Story Structure, and I knew then that I wanted to read this one, too. Characters are my favorite part of stories, and I am a writer. I knew I’d enjoy this book about writing characters.

Power Elements of Character Development is only 138 pages long, but it is divided into 45 chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. These chapters organize the book effectively, moving easily over many different facets of characters, their creation, and their overall place in fiction. Minor characters, dialogue, inner conflict, antagonists, character arcs, character death, and what qualities make characters memorable or compelling are all considered.

Most importantly of all, this book emphasizes that characters should drive the story rather than be driven by it, and their actions must, in turn, be driven by – and this is the golden word – motivation. It may be a beginner’s lesson that characters shouldn’t be passive, but even experienced writers can get lost in the blurred distinction between an active character and a reactive one. A character can be very active in his reactions, especially if what he’s reacting to involves live ammunition, but heroes should do more than just respond, and I appreciate how clearly this is established.

I found the emphasis on motivation invaluable, and how it must be present not only as the story’s end goal (what the character ultimately wants) but also as every scene’s purpose (what he is trying to do right now). The insight regarding motivation helps to focus plots and scenes and characters, a prevention and cure of writer’s block.

I enjoyed Power Elements of Character Development as a lucid, concise, broad-ranging review of the creation, use, and role of characters. Its points, especially about motivation, help me to focus and evaluate my own writing. Recommended to writers of all stripes.

 

I invite you to check out Power Elements of Character Development on Goodreads and Amazon, and I highly recommend you visit Becky Miller’s writing blog Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

Fame is Fugacious

Not long ago, I took a vocabulary quiz. In the process of it, I learned two new words, avulse and fugaciousfugacious. It struck me as unfortunate that I would have to look long and hard for an opportunity to use avulse, and I would probably never get a chance to use fugacious at all. They’re just too obscure.

We stand heir to a vast accumulated vocabulary, with words that range from everyday to rarefied to absolutely arcane. This has spawned one of those perpetual debates among writers and editors and agents, and in which readers have their own well-deserved opinions. The never-resolved question is: What words should writers use? What words are too old, too different, too long?

At the heart of the debate is a tension between two competing, legitimate principles. The first principle is that the ultimate aim of writing is to be understood. Far more than self-expression (because then why not just keep it to yourself?), writing is communication. You are not communicating if people cannot understand you.

The second principle is that writing cannot be reduced to the lowest common denominator. Some words are more apt than others, and sometimes the long word or the old word is the one that sings. Although writers should not, on the risk of being obnoxious, consider it their duty to expand their readers’ vocabularies, neither have they failed if they send their readers to the Dictionary.

The tension between these two principles is worked out book by book, sentence by sentence, word by word. There is no universal rule to lay down. I think it worth stating, however, that the thing really to be avoided is not the unknown word but the odd-duck word. These are the words that sound awkward or weird or (perhaps worst of all) funny. These are the words that jolt readers out of a text, and that is something all writers strive devoutly never to do.

Words often drop out of use because language evolves and culture changes, and they don’t fit anymore. Consider the wordoxblood,” a shade of red that is not actually what you would imagine ox blood to be. Ox blood was once used as a pigment in creating dyes and paints. This would explain why oxblood is a dark color, and not the bright red we normally associate with blood: It was originally associated with ox blood that had dried or been mixed with other ingredients or soaked into materials such as wood or leather.

In our own day, when these associations have been lost, oxblood has lost much of its power. Even people who can define the word do not possess the images that first inspired it. Writers develop literary crushes on words, but it is good to consider whether those words, transplanted from the soil where they first grew, will truly thrive.

With most obscure words, the trouble is not dead cultural associations but simply the sound. Some are so unusual, so odd, that your eyes trip over the syllables. Others don’t sound like what they mean. This is the trouble with fugacious. It means fleeting, but to modern ears it only sounds silly, and I would sound silly, too, if I tried to used it (“Fame is fugacious”). Possibly, though, I could play it for humor: “My lunch hour was fugacious.”

By contrast, I have more hope for avulse (“to pull off or tear away forcibly“) because similar, well-known words like repulse and convulse also have vaguely violent meanings. Encountering an unknown word does not, in itself, jar readers out of a book. But the unknown word must flow, must give an impression in tune with its actual meaning. This is why you will not go wrong with words like invidious and deleterious: They sound as bad as they are.

There is a time, Solomon wrote, for everything, and probably a place for every word. No word should be summarily rejected, or uncritically accepted. In a living language, words fade away and sometimes ought to, but it takes a long time for a word to fade beyond all use.

Summer, Intellectuals, Imbeciles

Summer is here early, and I don’t say that because of the weather, which is, at this particular place and time, overcast, rainy, and certainly no warmer than 60. I say it because the school year is over and done, and I’m settling into summer routines. My job takes less time than the classes, with attendant tests and papers, I’ve been occupying myself with since January, so now I’m turning to other things. Writing queries, a short story or two, an epic hermit crab essay. This blog.

I also have a summer reading list, which consists solely of books that possess these two qualities: (1) I choose them; (2) I don’t have to write papers about them. The first of these books is Imbeciles, which is not what it sounds like.

The book title is taken from a declaration made by Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes regarding the case Buck v. Bell: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” With the ruling of Buck v. Bell, the Supreme Court upheld the forced sterilization of the socially unfit – those deemed criminal, insane, or “feeble-minded”. This is eugenic sterilization, the elimination of undesirable genes through sterilizing undesirable people, and it is now largely forgotten. A hundred years ago, however, it was being mandated in American law.

I am about one third of the way through Imbeciles. I’ve just finished reading about an expert witness called in to support the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck, the young woman at the center of Buck v. Bell. This expert never met, let alone examined, Carrie, or her mother and daughter – the first and third of the supposed three generations of imbeciles. He did, however, request comprehensive data regarding her genealogy, blood relatives, and their literacy, social status, mental test records, and physical and mental development.

What strikes me is that, before testifying that a young woman should be sterilized by the government, he wanted to see her family records, but he never wanted to see her. He was interested only in data, facts and figures about people without faces. It occurs to me that it is through this divorce between data and people that intellectuals get themselves into trouble.

And their victims.

Appendix of Names

During the earliest development of The Valley of Decision, I established this pattern of naming: of Gaelic origin, unusual enough that the names would not be common in our own world, but not too unusual. I avoided names like Ruairidh because it just looks too foreign. Who would care to guess how to pronounce it? So I ended with names like Torradan and Artek and Belenus – different, but easy enough.

I made various exceptions to this pattern – none without rhyme or reason, except perhaps naming the capital city of Alamir Ataroth. The rhyme and reason of the other exceptions will become clear.

This appendix is not a dramatis personae, listing the characters of the drama, but a compilation of the origins and meanings of many names in the book. Because of this, and how I began the naming process, there are some notable omissions. Neither Caél nor Keiran, the book’s heroes, appear in this appendix; absent with them are other lesser (but still important!) characters – among them all three lieutenants of the Hosts.

The reason for their absence is this: As part of my preliminary research, I made lists of Gaelic names that struck me as fitting the story. With the exception of the Fays (Fays are always an exception), the earliest-existing characters were named from this list without regard for the name’s meaning. Keiran, Caél, Torradan, Artek, Lachann: the cream of those lists.

Other patterns emerged. A majority of the Fays share names with Celtic deities, and several place-names are just two words with the space between them deleted: the Coldlands, the Wildheath, the Northwood. A few names, such as My’ra, have neither a particular origin nor a particular meaning, but the longer I worked on the story the more I rejected these. Even minor characters like Emain and Labras have names of Gaelic origin, and so of a certain flavor.


Appendix of Names
to
The Valley of Decision


Achadh: A Gaelic place-name meaning ‘field’

Ailill: ‘Elf’; the name of several Irish High Kings

Alaunos: The Celtic god of healing

Ataroth: An obscure Canaanite city conquered by Joshua and Israel

Brandr: A Norse name, meaning sword; Brandr was, after all, an earl of the northern Coldlands

Belenus: ‘Bright, shining one;’ the Celtic god of the sun

Dochraitay: A slightly more phonetic rendering of dochraite, a Gaelic word meaning ‘friendless, oppressed’

Droheda:: A slight alteration of Drogheda, an Irish city cruelly subdued by the English under Oliver Cromwell

Glahs (Forest): Glahs is Gaelic for ‘green’

Hrolfr: Norse, meaning sword

Jarmith: An alteration of the Gaelic name Jarmin, which means German – a foreigner in Ireland, as Jarmith was among the Dochraitay

Kobuld: This elder blacksmith of the Trow was named after the Kobold, a race in German folklore who were said to live in mines and be expert metalworkers

Morrigan: The Celtic goddess of, among other things, war

Muireach: A diminutive form of the Gaelic name Muireadhach, meaning ‘lord, master’; this is the least majestic name owned by a Fay

The Northmen: An old name for the Vikings, on whom the Men of the Coldlands were loosely based

Nuadha: ‘Protector’; the Celtic god of the sea

Sgrios: Gaelic word meaning ‘ruin’

Tullach: A Gaelic place-name meaning ‘little hill’

Volund: Of Norse origin; in legend, the name of a great smith

Sundry

As usual when I have trouble alighting on a topic, I’m going to talk about myself today.

This past April I finished the raw draft of The Shameful Years, which I’ve (nearly) re-titled The Time Door. This manuscript has been different, and in some ways more difficult than what I’ve done before. I didn’t quite understand, when I began, what challenges I was setting myself with the premise. I was pleased with the manuscript when I finished it, but as every writer knows, that’s not the gold test.

The Time Door is sci-fi, and the first book of the Eternities series – of which my novella Cards is, to date, the only published work. I have planned Eternities as a series of free-standing novels, each book a complete story and each a significant episode in an imagined history beginning in the middle of the twenty-first century and continuing into the twenty-second.

Such a history holds innumerable stories in potential, and I hope to be mining them for years to come. But not any more this year. I decided, on completion of The Time Door, that I liked it and wanted to write something different, ideally with dragons. After exploring various ideas for a new project, I am now writing about …

A painting emperor. And his half-wild brother. And space pirates.

In this manuscript, I’m taking the characters of the Sons of Tryas series and giving them a much broader drama on a much larger stage. Since spring, I’ve been dividing my writing time between that and editing my raw draft to a polished draft.

Finally on the writing front, a young reader recently gave me this picture. He drew it after reading The Valley of Decision; I recognize the characters, the scene, the quotations. It is incredibly cool to see a moment of my book brought to life by another person. So, with appreciation for the gift that it is, I present the meeting of Keiran, Captain of the Hosts, with Kobuld the elder blacksmith of the Trow, as drawn by Christian.


Express Review: Power Elements of Story Structure

Regular readers of this blog – and I appreciate you both, by the way – are no doubt saying to yourselves, “What is an ‘express review’? There has never been an ‘express review’ here before!” And you are absolutely right.

An express review, briefly put, is not a real review at all, but would like to be one when it grows up. It is – and this is the defining quality – too short. I never wrote short reviews until I joined Goodreads, and it is that, and not a shortened attention span due to excessive video games, that has led to this abbreviated review.

So here is my express review of Becky Miller’s Power Elements of Story Structure, which luckily is longer than its own introduction.

But not by much.


In this brief instruction book, Becky Miller examines the ‘bare bones’ of a story – beginnings, middles, and endings, and the basic elements of tension, plot, backstory, and foreshadowing. She carefully defines and explains each of these, and then advises authors how to create them.

This book is spiced with excerpts from contemporary novels and (what is more fun) fairy tales, used for illustration of various points. Becky also weaves in quotations from a plethora of authors, all interesting enough to make the bibliography she provides at the end noteworthy.

A few writing exercises are included. I didn’t do them, actually, but they did make me stop and think. In fact, I paused, throughout the book, to consider it and (I admit it) to evaluate both my most recent manuscript and my newest effort.

Power Elements of Story Structure is written with great clarity and lucidity, cutting a clean line between the lowest common denominator and esoteric heights. Most helpful to new writers, but interesting to any writer who enjoys the study of his craft. I finished wanting to read the next book, Power Elements of Character Development.

And the story of the monkey and the crocodile.


The End.

And that, readers, is an express review. But the question remains – what happened to the monkey? I hope he didn’t get eaten, but fairy tales are vicious like that, sometimes.

New Release: Power Elements Of Character Development


Power Elements of Character Development
(book two of The Power Elements of Fiction series)

Rebecca Luella Miller


Power Elements Of Character Development, second in the series Power Elements Of Fiction, offers practical instruction for fiction writers about how to create engaging characters. This manual covers such topics as the character arc, a character’s inner as well as outer goals, qualities that make a character compelling, how character development fits with plot, how setting affects character development, character flaws, character voice, well-developed minor characters, realistic antagonists, and more.

This guide provides helpful reminders to the seasoned author, tips to help the intermediate writer raise the level of his storytelling, and instruction for the beginner. The occasional writing exercises offer writers an opportunity to apply what they are learning to their own works in progress.

Finally, Power Elements Of Character Development includes a list of resources for authors who wish to dig deeper in any given topic.

In total, this manual is a succinct blueprint for fiction writers to create characters that intrigue, entice, and compel readers to follow their story.


Available on Amazon


About the Author

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Rebecca LuElla Miller has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 2004. She has covered high school sports for a Los Angeles area newspaper group, published articles and short stories in several print and online magazines, and placed in the top twenty-five in the 2006 Writer’s Digest Short, Short Story contest. She currently blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction.

Her editing credits include non-fiction and fiction alike, most notably four titles in the Dragons in Our Midst and Oracle of Fire series by Bryan Davis. You can learn more about her editing services and read her weekly writing tips at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.


Until Tuesday, May 19, Power Elements of Story Structure – the first book of the The Power Elements of Fiction series – is free on Amazon.

CSFF Blog Tour: Personal Predilections

As a rule, it is easy, when one dislikes a book, to see why. Obvious, even. So it was an interesting experience to get about three-quarters through Storm Siren and try to figure out why I was just waiting for the book to change. True, the section I had been reading was less than action-packed, but I have never needed action to be interested in a book. Those chapters of Storm Siren explored the characters and their world, all in beautifully written prose, and I felt I should have enjoyed it more than I did.

What dimmed my enjoyment, I finally decided, was the romance and angst, dosed out too generously for my tastes. I never doubted the novel’s craftsmanship, even when the content made me restless for something more. This left me thinking of something I realized some time ago: There is a difference between a good book and a book I liked.

We who judge books – as reviewers or simply as readers – need the discernment, and perhaps the humility, to distinguish between honest judgment and our personal predilections. We all have our natural tastes, and it’s human to mistake our innate liking for an inherent superiority. But in fiction, as in everything, there are higher standards than our own tastes.

To know how well a book succeeds, we have to understand what it was meant to be. Once I read a historical novel about Jane Austen that was, at times, rather too slow, but I found it hard to fault the author. A novel like with that, with any fidelity to history, can involve only so much excitement. If the author had decided to write a novel in which Jane Austen was an undercover French spy during the Napoleonic Wars, and her works were actually written by Francis Bacon – well, that would have been more exciting. I might have even liked it more. But it would not have been a historical novel.

I take it for granted that many books have succeeded admirably in becoming the sort of thing I don’t like. I avoid those genres where I expect to find them. Even in the sort of books I enjoy, elements I dislike inevitably surface, and sometimes I criticize. But as time goes on, I realize more and more how subjective these things can be, and how vital the difference between subjective and objective criticism is.

A lack of logic in the plot, a lack of believability in the dialogue, a lack of motivation in the characters – these are objective criticisms, and come far nearer to the question of whether a book is good or bad. It’s only subjective to say that a book had too much romance; all that really means is that it had more romance than I liked. There is no objective measurement of how much is too much.

I don’t mean to discourage subjective criticism. It can be very interesting, and it’s especially useful in reviews; it helps people to determine if the book in question is something they would like. But it should be recognized for what it is, and given its proper weight. A book’s quality is not measured by how much it appeals to us personally.