Nobody’s Perfect

We all want to be liked. Yet we all have flaws. The best we can hope for, perhaps, is that our strengths outweigh our weaknesses.

If you think about it, our notion of character flaws and positive attributes depends on the context and on the person who is making the judgement. Quiet humility, for example, may be considered a positive attribute by many, but in the context of a sales department, it might be considered a drawback.

To you, a man may seem to be full of himself, but in the eyes of someone else who is full of him or herself, he is simply self confident and this is a good thing.

These considerations make it all the more challenging to create believable fictional characters. It’s a tricky balancing act. I’ve been known to put away a novel, albeit very well written, because I’ve not found a single character that I like. On the other hand, if characters have no flaws at all, they seem flat. Two-dimensional.

11532830.jpgThis line of thinking came to me while reading Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, because virtually every major character (if they weren’t a villain) was flawed yet likeable. David himself, hopelessly naive, quick to trust, and quick to fall in love. Arguably much too quick to fall in love, and him not understanding his wife as well as those around him who’d spent far less time with her. Sometimes we want to slap him for being an idiot, yet we also cheer for him as he becomes a mature, successful adult.

Dora Spenlow, a lovely butterfly of a woman, dainty and airy, exceedingly pretty, but truly a child in a woman’s body. Yet, she understood this about herself, and this helps endear her to us.

Mr. Micawber… well, really, the list of flaws is too long. Bombastic, long-winded in the extreme, self-destructive, to name a few. And yet, every time I read this book I nearly cheer out loud when he steps onto the stage because he truly has a good heart. He loves his family, is a loyal friend to David, and in the end sacrifices his good fortunes to bring down Uriah Heep.

Betsy Trotwood, eccentric in the extreme, having walked out of her sister-in-law’s life because of her temerity in giving birth to a boy rather than a girl. She also has an aversion to donkeys. And yet, she gives shelter to Mr. Dick and gives David the first loving home he has known.

Clara Copperfield, David’s mother, too much aware of her good looks, too inexperienced in the world, too ready to give herself to a flattering suitor. But she loves David dearly and he retains happy memories of her all his life.

Interestingly, Dickens’ villains had few or no redeeming features, and so were by definition two-dimensional. And yet in the context of his stories they work brilliantly. Dickens’ villains were like the black-hatted, black cloaked, mustache twirling villains of the silent movies that everyone loved to boo as they tied the damsel to the railway tracks. Of all of his memorable villains, Uriah Heep is perhaps the best known, with his fawning manner, fake humility, cold clammy hands, writhing posture, and his propensity for delving into and exploiting the vulnerabilities of those around him.

As many great characters as Dickens gave us, he had one blind spot: his heroines. They were as pure as snow, as soft as the morning dew on the roses, as good as, well, nobody really. Nobody is as good and without flaw as a Dickens heroine. Much as I love Dickens overall, his heroines were his kryptonite. In this book, that would be Agnes Wickfield. She’s just so… good. So understanding. So calm. So patient. Such a loving daughter. Such a loyal friend to David. And I could go on but you get the idea.

Out of all these considerations I can draw few hard and fast lessons, except to provide your main characters with flaws, especially flaws that move the plot forward and ratchet up the conflicts to be resolved. Sounds easy. And it sounds like something that those of us who are aspiring writers will need to practice before getting it right, or at least, getting it better.

After all, nobody’s perfect.

Writing Miss Fisher

This is one post where I’m not going to pretend to have the answers. Not that I would pretend. Not usually. Rather, I’m going to be asking a lot of questions.

Let’s start with this one: Do you watch Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries? It’s a remarkable show set in Melbourne, Australia in the roaring ’20’s.

miss-fisher-s-murder-mysteriesPhryne Fisher is something of an oddity in her 1920’s setting, being a beautiful, wealthy, independent woman who’s intelligent and driven. Not to mention fearless. Fisher is not one to hide behind the coattails of a man, as she’s rather adept at hand-to-hand combat and carries a pistol in her handbag. She is, in addition, forthright and flirtatious, and enjoys brief flings with attractive, muscular men.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Miss Fisher is the actor who plays the titular character. Essie Davis conveys volumes with her posture, gait, eyes, voice, and phrasing.

And now comes the big question: How would you capture that in writing? Is it even possible to capture in writing some of what is conveyed in moments in visual media, or must we simply concede that visual and written media are different, each with their own strengths and weaknesses?

Of course, the logical thing to do would be to read one or more of Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher books to see how she did it. Succumbing to the inevitable, I downloaded an e-version of Cocaine Blues to my tablet. Say what you will about e-books, when it comes to instant gratification, you can’t beat them.

At any rate, Greenwood makes no mention of what Fisher does with her eyes. Nor voice. Nor posture. Her personality is well captured in other ways, though. In one notable scene, a constable expresses to Chief Inspector Jack Robinson that they could arrest Fisher and take her down to the station. Wearing only a lounging robe, Fisher steps out of the robe and, completely naked, tells the inspector that if she is to be taken to the station, it will be like this. Classic.

But suppose you wish to capture the  subtleties of Davis’ performance in writing? Consider the scene in the pilot episode where Fisher first meets Inspector Jack Robinson. The scene takes place in a bathroom where a man was found dead. A chalk outline is all that remains of the victim. Fisher has wheedled her way past Constable Hugh Collins to have a look for herself. A knock on the bathroom door shortly after, and Fisher admits Collins and his superior, Inspector Jack Robinson.

After surveying the scene quickly, Fisher summarized her findings. “Given the lack of blood stains, I assume it wasn’t a violent death, unless it was strangulation. But the fetal position of the victim outline, although not terribly well executed, indicates a degree of pain rather than the flailing limbs one might associate with a struggle. Then of course there’s the fact that death occurred after breakfast according to Mrs. Andrews which suggests something ingested. All wild surmise of course.”

“Of course,” Robinson said. “Now…”

Miss Fisher interrupted. “Do you have a card? In case I need to call the police? Because I’m a woman alone, newly arrived in a dangerous town.”

Handing her his card, Inspector Robinson said, “I plan to make this town less dangerous, Miss Fisher.”

“Good,” said Miss Fisher. “I do like a man with a plan, Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.”

This is what the characters said, but by itself, this doesn’t at all reflect what actually passes between the characters. Let’s add some annotations.

After surveying the scene quickly, Fisher summarized her findings. “Given the lack of blood stains, I assume it wasn’t a violent death, unless it was strangulation. But the fetal position of the victim outline, although not terribly well executed, indicates a degree of pain rather than the flailing limbs one might associate with a struggle. Then of course there’s the fact that death occurred after breakfast according to Mrs. Andrews which suggests something ingested. [Robinson and Collins share a glance. Robinson nods his head slightly, tacitly conceding that Fisher has a good point.] All wild surmise of course.”

“Of course,” Robinson said. “Now…”

Up until now, Fisher has been lecturing on her findings with the tone of an expert speaking to her pupils. Then, in the blink of an eye, she completely changes gears.

Miss Fisher interrupted. “Do you have a card? In case I need to call the police? Because [Fisher pauses, adjusts her hair, then purrs the rest of the sentence, large, liquid eyes wide, making eye contact with Robinson.] I’m a woman alone, newly arrived in a dangerous town.”

Handing her his card, Inspector Robinson said, “I plan to make this town less dangerous, Miss Fisher.”

“Good,” said Miss Fisher. “I do like a man with a plan, [Fisher glances at card.] Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.” [Fisher eyes Robinson up and down, smiles, then saunters out of the room, hips swaying slightly. Robinson and Collins follow her with their eyes, then Robinson takes a breath and surveys the crime scene with fresh eyes.]

Well, that captures the feel of the scene a bit better, but you can’t leave it like that. Since most of the unspoken communication comes from Fisher, perhaps it would would be best to describe the scene from Inspector Robinson’s point of view.

After surveying the scene quickly, Fisher summarized her findings. “Given the lack of blood stains, I assume it wasn’t a violent death, unless it was strangulation. But the fetal position of the victim outline, although not terribly well executed, indicates a degree of pain rather than the flailing limbs one might associate with a struggle.”

Robinson kept his face even. He’d learned that it was best to let witnesses and suspects talk when they were inclined to talk, and to pay close attention. There was always time for questions and clarifications after they’d said their piece. Still, this woman was something different. Clearly intelligent and surprisingly, perhaps refreshingly, direct. He found that he was becoming genuinely interested in what she had to say. With some bemusement, he realized that she had taken on the tone and body language of an instructor lecturing to her student.

Continuing, Fisher said, “Then of course there’s the fact that death occurred after breakfast according to Mrs. Andrews which suggests something ingested.”

Robinson glanced at Collins, who’d been taking notes. As their eyes met, Robinson found himself nodding slightly to Collins; they had both come to the same realization, that Fisher was making some valid points

“All wild surmise of course,” Fisher concluded.

Robinson wasn’t about to concede that an amateur, and a woman at that, had made some astute observations. “Of course,” Robinson said. “Now…”

Miss Fisher interrupted. “Do you have a card? In case I need to call the police?”

At this, Robinson noted, Fisher’s voice and posture changed completely. Moving closer and adjusting her hair, she proceeded to purr her words, her eyes large and liquid, keeping full eye contact with Robinson. It was with some effort that he kept his face impassive.

“Because,” Fisher continued, “I’m a woman alone, newly arrived in a dangerous town.”

Handing her his card, Inspector Robinson said, “I plan to make this town less dangerous, Miss Fisher.”

“Good. I do like a man with a plan,” said Fisher, pausing to read the card, “Detective Inspector Jack Robinson.”

Surprised by her boldness, Robinson noted how Fisher eyed him up and down, smiled alluringly, then sauntered out of the room, her hips swaying slightly. Without realizing it, Robinson followed her with his eyes, as did Collins. When she was gone, he once again surveyed the crime scene, this time from a fresh perspective.

I could live with that as a decent stab at capturing the scene, but still, you have to be careful how much time you spend on things like eye contact and introspection, for you run the risk of boring your readers. In TV and movies, a glance or a change in expression can occur in a second and it can speak volumes. To express the same thing in writing may take, well, volumes. You need to balance pacing and characterization, and this is where beta-readers can help.

In a similar vein, consider Phryne Fisher’s wardrobe. Fisher sports an amazingly diverse wardrobe and somehow looks good in anything. Her wardrobe nearly becomes another character in the show. But here we come to the same question as before: how do you translate this to the written word? How much space in a short story or even a novel could one sensibly allocate to describing a character’s clothing, and the impact it has on those around her? What vocabulary would you even use? Personally, I’d be at a bit of a loss having to describe in detail 1920’s era women’s fashion.

Questions, questions. But this makes for an interesting thought exercise, and hopefully gives us pause to consider adding some more subtleties to the way in which our characters interact.

Good Writing

A few weeks ago, while returning a book to the library, I happened upon a display that included Joanna Trollope’s re-write of Sense & Sensibility. I’d heard about this. It was part of a project wherein each of Jane Austen’s books was to be brought into the modern age. Curious, I opened the cover and read this:

sense

It was a remarkable view of Sussex parkland, designed and largely planted two hundred years before to give the fortunate occupants of Norland Park the very best of what nature could offer when tamed by the civilising hand of man. There were gently undulating sweeps of green; there were romantic but manageable stretches of water; there were magnificent stands of ancient trees under which sheep and deer decoratively grazed. Add to all that the occasional architectural punctuation of graceful lengths of park railing and the prospect was, to the Dashwood family, gathered sombrely in their kitchen, gazing out, perfection.

I was hooked. No sooner had I read that paragraph then I checked out the book and proceeded to devour it. What was it that hooked me? The writing. I thought it was beautiful.

Which led me to wonder, what makes good writing good? By good writing, I don’t mean the plot, though having one helps, or the characters, though a book without at least one sympathetic, fleshed out character doesn’t hold my interest for long. What I mean by good writing is the ability to form a sequence of words that is pleasing to the reader.

Not having any formal training in writing, I’m afraid that I’m of the school that I simply know what I like. Expressing why I like it is challenging.

Consider J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, which grew thicker and thicker as the series progressed. People thought she was crazy, that kids would never read books that length. Well, they were wrong, weren’t they? In the later books, I found that essentially nothing happened for 100 pages or so, but I couldn’t stop turning the page.

Why was that? For one thing, there was a clarity to Rowling’s writing. The words practically read themselves.

Clarity is something I highly value in writing. To me, it is the ability to deliver knowledge to the reader in a succinct, unambiguous manner, whether the writing is descriptive, as in excerpt above, or a fragment of dialog. Even if you’re reading to yourself and not out loud, your internal tongue doesn’t trip anywhere. The meaning the author wishes to convey flows effortless from word to word.

Here’s another example of great writing from a book I loved, Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane:

ocean

The old house, the one I had lived in for seven years, from when I was five until I was twelve, that house had been knocked down and was lost for good. The new house, the one my parents had built at the bottom of the garden, between the azalea bushes and the green circle in the grass we called the fairy ring, that had been sold thirty years ago.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon gave us the lovely The Shadow of the Wind. Note how much the following paragraph conveys about the father and child, and how effortless it is to read:

shadow
As a child I learned to fall asleep talking to my mother in the darkness of my bedroom, telling her about the day’s events, my adventures at school, and the things I had been taught. I couldn’t hear her voice or feel her touch, but her radiance and her warmth haunted every corner of our home, and I believed, with the innocence of those who can still count their age on their ten fingers, that if I closed my eyes and spoke to her, she would be able to hear me wherever she was. Sometimes my father would listen to me from the dining room, crying in silence.

A favourite author since my teen years has been H. P. Lovecraft, who has the uncanny ability to consistently make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. My favourite work of his is the mesmerizing The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath:

kadathThree times Randolph Carter dreamed of the marvelous city, and three times was he snatched away while still he paused on on the high terrace above it. All golden and lovely it blazed in the sunset, with walls, temples, colonnades and arched bridges of veined marble, silver-basined fountains of prismatic spray in broad squares and perfumed gardens, and wide streets marching between delicate trees and blossom-laden urns and ivory statues in gleaming rows; while on steep northward slopes climbed tiers of red roofs and old peaked gables harboring little lanes of grassy cobbles.

If you want an example of great writing, pick up any book by Charles Dickens and flip to any random page. You won’t be disappointed. Here’s something from Great Expectations:

greatOurs was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dikes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.

As a writer, you improve your craft in a couple of ways: By reading and by writing. No surprise there. Whenever I write, I look at examples of writing that I love, such as those above, and try, not to emulate them, but to write in my own voice with comparable clarity and effect. Do I succeed? Here’s an excerpt from my short story, “The Right Time”:

Although a fast walker, Michael slowed his pace as he entered the Arboretum proper. It was beautiful. The path meandered past deep green grass and all manner of trees, each labelled with its common and Latin names. Wooden bridges took him across streams, and further along he came to large ponds with greenish water dotted with toadstools and bordered by tall grasses.

Oops. I shouldn’t have included the “It was beautiful” sentence. I should have let the description convey that for me. And mention of the “deep grass” and “tall grasses” are too close together. I should have eliminated one.

Here’s an excerpt from a fanfic of mine called “Walk the Plank”:

The two boys, propped up on elbows, lay sprawled in the pasture of tall, red grass at the foot of Mount Perdition. Just beyond the pasture stood a dwelling, not large by Gallifreyan standards, but quite comfortable, with a garden, hedges, and flowering trees. Well beyond the dwelling, in the distance, was the Citadel, its dome catching the rays of the setting sun. It was warm, the heat baking their faces and arms, and it was one of their rare days off from lessons at the Academy.

Any better? I think so. At any rate, one keeps trying to improve. Any and all feedback, as long as it’s the respectful kind, is welcome.

Why the Force is With Us

When Star Wars burst onto the scene in 1977, no one had seen the like. It reminded me of an old Errol Flynn movie, but with special effects that blew past the bar set by 2001: A Space Odyssey nearly a decade earlier.

There was the princess who’d been captured by an evil sorcerer; the young hero whose destiny lies beyond the farm on which he’s been raised; the wise old wizard; and there was the rogue, the mercenary, who, beneath the crusty exterior, was deeply human.

This is all fundamental stuff, elements as old as stories themselves. And yet the movie seemed breathtakingly fresh. Star Wars was all anyone talked about that summer. Then came The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Return of the Jedi in 1983, and we breathed a sigh of contentment. It was over, and it was brilliant. But along with contentment we felt regret that it was all over.

falconTime passes. Thirty plus years. And now we have two teaser trailers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In the first, we see some people we don’t know, some X-wings, a cloaked figure who is presumably a Sith lord, and then, there it is: the Millenium Falcon, looking as if it’s just burst from its cage, reveling in its freedom as it twists and turns in the air, only to level off to face incoming TIE fighters. Was there anyone not at least a little misty-eyed at the sight of the Falcon?

The second teaser ups its game. There’s the awesome shot of the Star Destroyer, crashed in the desert, then Luke Skywalker’s voice-over. People are starting to get excited. Then we have more action shots, and finally, there they are, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Commence total freak out.

But why did the trailers have this effect on us? What makes Star Wars so good? Why do we care?

To answer that question, it helps to look at The Phantom Menace, painful as that might be. In particular, it’s well worth looking at the series of seven YouTube videos in which RedLetterMedia deconstructs that movie. It does so while making you alternately laugh out loud and cringe with horror, as a LucasFilm employee seemingly did at an early screening of the movie. The most telling part, and it’s been a while so I’ll try to get this right, was while interviewing Star Wars fans about the original series characters. They were able to describe Han Solo etc. and ascribe to each a unique personality. They were then asked to describe Qui-Gon Jinn. The interviewer was met with a blank face. Upon being reminded that he was Obi-Wan’s mentor there was an “Oh”. And they were stuck. They couldn’t say a thing about him. “Stoic” said one.

The reason we love Star Wars is that we love the characters. We know who they are and we care about what happens to them. What does happen to them is on one hand a simple adventure, but on the other a multi-level story of good versus evil, the capacity for both within us, and in the end, the possibility of redemption and forgiveness even if you have fallen to the dark side.

And let’s not forget one of the most beloved characters of the series: the Millenium Falcon, the flawed and faltering ship (“Would it help if I got out and pushed?” Leia asked. “It might,” said Han.) that nonetheless digs deep and always brings our heroes home. The Falcon has a most definite personality, and we rooted for her as much as for Han, Leia and Luke.

In another blog, while reviewing the rebooted Star Trek, I reported that it was like seeing an old friend you thought you’d never see again. After early showings of Trek, people were reportedly weeping as they left the theatre. They were tears of joy. Watching the Star Wars trailers had a similar effect, because honestly, most of us thought we’d never see these characters again. Now we can see them and hear their voices, and suddenly the world seems a brighter place. We walk around with smiles on our faces. And in this world where darkness seems to creep closer to us every day, something, even a movie trailer, that casts a warm ray of light is most welcome.

He Was Spock

Leonard Nimoy was many things, actor, director, photographer, author, even singer. But above all, for those of us who knew him only by his work, he was Spock.

SpockThe genius of Nimoy was that, when he played Spock, the actor seemed to disappear. There was only Spock. And we loved Spock. Spock was supremely logical, but let the mask of logic slip just enough to let us know when he was angry, bemused or exasperated. He, Kirk, and McCoy formed the perfect trinity of logic, intuition and emotion.

Nimoy made an appearance via Skype at last summer’s Ottawa Comiccon, an appearance that Karl Urban (McCoy in the new movies) crashed, to Nimoy’s amusement. I wish I could have been there. I recently visited Los Angeles, and saw the handprints left by the cast of the original Star Trek. Nimoy’s of course, formed a Vulcan greeting. Though at one time he wrote I am not TOS SidewalkSpock, he came to embrace the role for which he was so loved, and later wrote a  book called I am Spock.

My favourite Spock episode? The Menagerie, in which Spock, still loyal to his former Captain, risks his career to help return Pike to a planet declared off-limits by the Federation. Another favourite was his fabulous return to the role in Star Trek, the 2009 movie. Then there’s the the famous Audi commercial he filmed with Zachary Quinto. What a great sport he was.

What else is there to say except

LLAP