Article about the real "Downton Abbey Downstairs" experience

10pm

It’s the end of a long day. The footman serves the family supper, if required, and hands bedroom candlesticks to each member of the family as he or she wishes to retire. He assists the butler in shutting up the house and locking doors, while the kitchen maid checks the fires are safe and shuts up the kitchen. The junior housemaid takes up hot water bottles to the family and guest bedrooms and, finally, goes to bed.

Sympathy Through Struggle and an Infinite Number of Leather Jackets by James Rasley

 

Making a character sympathetic to your readers or audience is a common goal and stumbling point for writers. What draws the reader or audience to certain characters and pushes them away from others? What is it that intrigues us about characters like Odysseus or is less interesting like Achilles? I think one of the reasons is struggle. If we see a character struggle, we instinctively sympathize with that character because we have struggled ourselves.

            For example, in 2018's “God of War,” Kratos struggles to be a father to his young son after the death of his wife. We see him try to comfort his son Atreus, but hesitate and ultimately fail to do that. If we do not see that failing, then he is just an angry guy who is not a very good father. But when we see him try to connect with his son, fail, and hurt as a result, we instinctually begin to sympathize for this grieving father.

            Motivation matters to in making a character sympathetic, Joel from the game “The Last of Us” commits many acts that are, shall we say, questionable morally, but he does so not only to protect Ellie, but also because he has already lost a daughter and cannot go through that again. Since we have seen him hurt and struggle through the loss of his daughter and the twenty years of grief after, his actions may not become any more or less moral, but the audience can understand and sympathize with his pain and actions.

            Sometimes an initially unsympathetic character becomes sympathetic through how she acts and is treated. Britta from the TV show “Community” is an extremely contradictory character. She is cool, as she lived in New York, and she is an activist that is not active. Perhaps most importantly for sympathy, she is the target of most of the show's jokes. At first she was cool personified, so the audience's reaction was predominantly, “I will decide what is cool.” As the show progressed, however, Britta is shown in a more awkward way-- she made fun of, gets caught cheating, and among other things throws a cadaver onto the schoo'ls lawn in a practical joke gone about as wrong as humanly possible. Through this she becomes a character that we can sympathize with along the way. Without this struggle, without this hardship, she would remain a character that is trying to tell you what is cool. Intstead she is now being the lovable goof trying and failing to “pwn” high school kids with her discman and infinite number of leather jackets.

            Characters need flaws, or they are unrealistic and superficial. Characters need to struggle internally and externally, or your story is not very interesting. But we need to see this struggle. We need to see them try and fail and get beaten up by the world or the villain. It has to show in the story. If Odysseus spends ten years off-screen trying to get back to Ithaca, then who cares. If Roland in Stephen King's Dark Tower series doesn't grieve his sacrifice, then he is just a jerk junkie addicted to a tower at the center of the universe. It is these flawed characters who draw us in and intrigue us and motivate us to write meta blog posts about struggle in fiction.

The Problem with Omniscience

The Problem with Omniscience

Here's an article (SPOILERS!) about the plotting problems created in Game of Thrones and other stories by an omniscient (all-knowing) character.  I'm going to read it through again, but what I got from this was that it's just too tempting to the writer-- having this character who can see everything and know everything without ever having to work for it.

There are plot benefits to characters having to struggle to discover, learn, figure things out. The shortcut of using an omniscient character can cut short that process, and make almost automatic what ought to be earned by the characters.

It is tempting, however! 

I would suggest that if we use omniscient or telepathic characters, we can make it more interesting by:

1) Creating a cost for the knowledge (like she gets terrible headaches or he loses a month of his life for each vision)

2) Making the knowledge less than obvious so the characters have to interpret it, and might interpret it wrongly.

Struggle is interesting! 

Family Motto: Another Characterization Question

Let's try a thought experiment: Family motto!

family motto.jpeg

We probably all have one: The family motto.  By this I mean the secret or open aphorism that expresses the family's attitude towards the world, the family worldview.

I'll give you some examples. My family's motto (secret) was "You can't trust anyone but family." No, we are not members of the Mafia, but you aren't wrong to think we would fit right into those Godfather movies (except for all the crime stuff).

 


My husband's family motto: You can never be too careful.  One of my preoccupations is the permutations of class, and that is the "middle-middle class" family motto. Stay safe. Don't lose what we've attained. You're just one firing or accident away from losing our security. You can never be too careful!
Others I've gathered:

(From a working-class family): Don't get above yourself.

An immigrant family: Where there's a will, there's a way... so if you fail, it's your own lack of will.

A rich friend: You owe it to the family name. ("It" being whatever she didn't want to do-- marry her father's choice, work in the family firm, ride horses rather than snowboard.)

A friend from a family with many secrets: Can you keep a secret?

Sam, whose family was successful and competitive: You have to fight for what you want.

Emily, whose parents were hippies: Live and let live.

The friend who discovered as an adult that his father had another secret family: What you don't know can't hurt you.

The glamorous friend whose mother was so elegant: Don't wear white after Labor Day.

--

Okay! So if you have/had a family motto, or one of your characters does-- what is it?  

What effect might that have on how and what you write? Just remind yourself of your own motto, your family's motto-- whether or not you believe in it, it shaped you, and might be very different from your character's. You might create characters in reaction to your own family's motto-- that is, if you were raised with "don't hang out the family's dirty linen," you might create a character whose motto is "let it all hang out," but in both, there would be a preoccupation with "discretion vs. honesty" that would be something important in your life.

Your characters are not, of course, you, but their "family motto" will be there in who they are and what they value-- and what they rebel against-- what causes conflict.

So what's your family motto, and what was your character's family motto? And what can you do with it?

TenthJustice(1).png

Example of "motto effect."  I was just reading a book that I thought illustrated something about how the "motto" helps create conflict and keep the character and plot together-- coherence.

The Tenth Justice is a legal thriller by Brad Meltzer, who is pretty successful (but not like John Grisham). His stories aren't amazingly plotted, and his prose is no more than it needs to be, but I read everything he writes. Why? I think one reason is because his work is so "coherent". Everything works together to reflect what I'm getting is his sort of central belief, which has to do with, well, disillusionment. "Things are never what you expect." Or—Expect the unexpected. This motto runs through all of his work that I've read, but it's especially clear in this book, and it's reflected in all aspects. The first line is: "Ben Addison was sweating like a pig, and it wasn't supposed to be this way." Right from the start, the book reflects that idea that our illusions-- "what is supposed to be"-- will always prove to be less (less good, less bad) than the reality.


So the brilliant young men come to DC to conquer the world... and they find that the world doesn't care. They have to settle for low-level jobs that don't recognize their abilities.  The one young man, Ben, who gets the fancy job (Supreme Court justice law clerk), quickly exposes another illusion vs. reality. We all think of course that the decisions of the court come from the wise, experienced old justices... but Ben learns what he didn't expect-- that the clerks-- kids just out of law school-- have way too much influence on which side wins.

The theme of "illusion v. reality" is carried through in the characters. Ben is fooled by someone pretending to be his friend... but that's possible because Ben is pretending to be experienced and knowledgeable when he's new at his job and knows nothing.  

Meltzer is a smart author. He sees the value in exploiting the juxtaposition in his motto: illusion vs. reality. By identifying and embracing that, he's setting up a great pace, because there is always a twist coming up-- whatever is expected... well, that won't happen.  (Notice that this is a different motto/theme than "Things aren't what they SEEM." Things aren't what you expect gets YOU in there, the creator of the futile illusion.)

His "voice," then, embraces that preoccupation with "disillusion" which is so much a part of his worldview. (Yeah, it's kind of pessimistic... but he also, I think, understands that as a necessary part of growing up.) So he has paragraphs where he sets up what he expected (say, that the judges are wise and powerful), and then undercuts the expectation with the reality (that the silly young law clerks actually are the ones who make and justify decisions).

The "reality bites" meme influences everything from story choice (a legal thriller is all about the disillusioning effect of getting close to the justice system :) to word choice-- often I notice he chooses an unexpected word or image. He likes to play with that unattractive and unwanted "sweat" (from the first line), especially in this opening.

Just an example. As you read books by an author, and they seem remarkably unified, see if you can identify the author's or character's motto as a controlling concept. Any examples?   

waterfowl-mallard-young-young-duck-159864.jpeg

"The family that swims together... stays together."

9 Effective Ways to Cut Lotsa Words When Your Story Is Too Long: Scalpel vs. Broadsword

I was just asked for a few tips on cutting big bunches of words. You know, you were aiming for a nice 75K novel, only this ended up at 95K words.  And from your perspective, it works! But it's too long for the line or the editor or the type of story, right? So how can you trim words without deleting meaning? 

scalpel-1316221-1280x960.jpg

It's hard. It can be done. I had to cut 35K from one of my books once, and it was hard, but I don't think afterwards the reader could tell what was missing. (Okay, okay. Theresa did most of the cutting. I did most of the whining and whimpering.)

 

While the plan here is not to go back, it can really help to think that nothing you're doing is permanent, that if you realize you cut something important, you can restore it. So be sure to save the original version first, then save the version-to-be-cut under another filename. Just in case you want to UNcut later!

So here are some tips if you want to cut 20K words:

1) The first option is to cut a whole scene. That's a broadsword rather than a scalpel approach, but let's say you wrote this book in a white heat during Nanowrimo. There are probably scenes you wrote or started to write which ended up as unimportant or irrelevant, or you later did a better version and both versions are still in there. 

A whole scene might well be 5,000 words. That's a pretty good cut! And cutting it might make for a stronger, tighter plot. Then again, you might accidentally cut out something essential like a clue, or an important step on your character's journey, or the satisfying "reunion" scene the reader has been waiting for. 

To do this, however, you have to look at scenes not as groups of words but as part of the action of the plot. So try this: Outline the book as you have it. Yep, a scene outline. List -- in order they occur, every chapter, and every scene or scenelet or passage (complete or not) within each chapter. 

Then you can evaluate if there are scenes that can be deleted without causing plot/emotion problems.  

2) Look also for adjacent scenes that can be combined.  That will let you delete some of the set up and transition between scenes. Be watching for "single-purpose" scenes, especially several in a row-- a scene where he argues with his brother, and then a scene were he discovers a clue to the mystery, and then a scene where he travels to where the robbery took place. You could combine those into one scene where he argues with his brother, leaves and discovers the clue, and ends with him deciding to go to the robbery site. Really, once you start looking at what happens from scene to scene, you might find several which can be combined.

3)  If you can't cut a whole scene, look for passages (especially at the beginning) which are mostly set-up. That's where I found the most opportunities to trim, at the start of scenes, where I might have spent a couple pages describing the setting and establishing what the characters are doing there. 

Here are some other "cutting" options:

4) Look for mini-scenes (I call them "scenelets"-- 1-2 page bridges usually from one important event to the next) that don't much matter. Often these involve a main character interacting with a minor character or a "walk-ons" like a waiter who will never be seen again in the book. An example might be a cab ride to the convention hotel. There might be good character interplay with the cabdriver and give a good sense of the main character's mood, but if you want to cut, that's an example of a good 'non-essential' scenelet. Usually these aren't full scenes but intros to more important scene passages. You can always argue how this bit is important or clever or enlightening, but you know, you have to trim something, and a scene without an event to change the plot is usually trimmable.

5) Try the Jane Austen tactic-- in dialogue, if there's no conflict, do narrative summary. (They reminisced for a few minutes, then she remembered, and said insultingly, " ". :) There are going to be parts of scenes the reader needs that might have no conflict (like a moment of grace where two characters share a cigarette), but those are best kept fairly short and fairly rare. 

6) Look for those passages where there's nothing-dialogue-- often when there's some movement from one setting to another. ("Let's go into the den and watch TV/What do you want to watch?/ I thought this season of The Voice was starting. Did you record that?/No, the last one was so annoying, I didn't bother. But we can probably get it on-demand." :) No, I never actually wrote that passage, but that's the sort of "transition conversation" that's usually easy to cut away.

7) Also look for long passages of introspection where a character is thinking. Sometimes these are important, and the way they think is important to show, but the deeper we get into the story, the less long introspection is needed. (The reader knows more about the character by the middle of the book, and probably just needs a hint of what they're thinking, or only introspection when something unexpected is felt and needs explanation.)

broadsword.jpg

8) Try my ruthless technique: Decide on a page goal, like "cut 50 words out of this page". This takes awhile, but it's usually easy to find at least 20 words to cut. Or "cut one sentence or sentence part out of each paragraph". Or "trim two sentences and combine them into one shorter sentence". This is actually my favorite thing. :)

9) Even more ruthless: If you know there are words you over-use (for me, it's "then" and "just"), do a "find" for them and for each one, decide whether it's needed. Delete if not. A friend of mine cut two pages out just by getting rid of justs. :)

Because all this is so "voice-centric," it's probably best to do it yourself first and see how much you can cut. That way you'll still have control of the scenes and the interactions between characters and how that's presented. 

Then again, an outsider might be able to be more objective, as Theresa was with my over-long book.

I can tell you from experience, trimming is hard to get started, and painful, but after awhile, it's easier to see where something can be discarded, or  how scenes or sentences can be combined.

Broadsword/scalpel experiences you can share? 

Alicia