Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

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.

Advertisements

He’s Dead, Jim

The thing that most shocks people out of their skulls when they read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series is the abandon with which he kills off major characters. Characters so major that you’ve assumed all along that the series is about them.

Ask any writer, and I think they’ll tell you that their characters become a kind of family. After all, you come to know them so well that you hear their voices in your head. So killing them is not something done lightly. The question is, why kill off major characters at all?

One reason might be to reflect the times in which the characters live. If you read Charles Dickens, you’ll find it entirely possible in some books to lose count of the number of deaths. But consider: in the 1800’s, one in five children were dead by age five, and those who survived childhood could expect to be dead by forty. Death in those times was very much a part of life.

serenityAnother reason is what I call the Joss Whedon effect. Fans of the TV series Firefly were, to put it mildly, shocked that two major characters were killed in the follow-up movie, Serenity. The reason for this, as Joss Whedon explained in the movie commentary, was to place some doubt in the minds of the audience as to whether or not the remaining characters would survive. After all, in most stories, no matter how harrowing the action, the major characters generally pull through. The only real question is, how will they pull through? By killing two characters, Whedon shook us out of our complacency and really made us wonder not just how, but if our beloved characters would survive.

This line of thinking was prompted by a comment I received regarding one of my fanfic stories. “Western Castle” is an alternate universe version of Castle set in the wild west. In that story, I killed off one of the major characters. Why? Partly to achieve the Joss Whedon effect, so that the reader would wonder who would survive, and partly to resolve a minor plotting problem that would arise later on if the character didn’t die. The comment I received was to the effect that killing that character was painful to that reader. For a writer, that’s a nice compliment, tempered by the fact that I didn’t create the character in the first place, but still.

Regarding the death of major characters, the worst thing you can do is what is so commonly done in comic books: bringing supposedly dead characters back to life. This, of course, completely obliterates any drama around death. Rather, the reader will likely yawn and ask herself how long this time before the character comes back.

In The Avengers, Joss Whedon did it again, killing off a major character to better motivate the remaining heroes to come together. Painful, but forgivable. Less forgivable was bringing that character back to life in the TV series, Agents of Shield. From now on, any death in any Marvel Universe movie will be greeted by yawns, not tears.

If you use death, make it matter. Use the death to achieve a plot goal or to shake up readers’ expectations. And keep your characters dead once they’re dead. After all, you can only toy with your readers so long before they decide they don’t want to play any more.

Confessions of a Serial Writer

While writing the latest installment of my serialized FanFiction novelette, a crossover of Firefly and Castle, it seemed a good time to ruminate on serial writing in general.

By all accounts, it was Charles Dickens who popularized the notion of serial writing. His first novel, The Pickwick Papers, was published in monthly installments from April 1936 to November 1937. Installments of most of his other novels were also published monthly; some were published weekly.

At the time, it was advantageous to publish serially for economic reasons. Books were expensive; by breaking a novel into installments, readers could effectively amortize the cost over time. Dicken’s experiment was a success as Pickwick proved wildly popular, and numerous other Victorian authors followed suit.

Times change, and although paperbacks seem expensive these days, they provide good value; at roughly the same price as a movie ticket, they provide many more hours of entertainment.

So, if pickwickmoney is no longer a factor (and there are readily accessible public libraries if it is), are there other reasons to serialize a story? Here’s one: to get early feedback from readers before the entire story is cast in concrete. Suppose, for example, a given supporting character excites a lot of comments. You might be inclined to expand that character’s role in later installments. In the case of Pickwick, Dickens did just that after the introduction of Sam Weller. In the case of non-commercial fiction, you can simply abandon the project if it appears to be a dud. Life is too short, and there are too many stories to be told.

We are already used to many forms of serial media. Television shows may have season-long (or longer) story arcs. It may take two, three, or more movies (pick your franchise) to tell a complete story. Then consider the numerous online comic strips with long story arcs. For example, followers of the Writing Excuses podcast will be familiar with Schlock Mercenary. With all that in mind, a serialized novel doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. And after all, people are busy; a serialized novel can seem more palatable in that it provides smaller chunks that are easier to digest.

Serialized commercial novels are relatively rare these days, but they’re not dead. The latest novel in John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe, The Human Division, was published in weekly installments in ebook form. The complete novel was later published in book form along with original material that was not previously published. Naturally, Scalzi’s ebook readers weren’t pleased that the novel contained new material. Would they have to pay all over again for the book? It turns out not. The two “new” chapters were made available online. In fact, one of them had been available online for some time.

In the non-commercial world of FanFiction, I would guess that most stories are published in installments of a few hundred words or more. FanFic authors have day jobs. Or day classes, depending. Still, writing FanFiction in installments has its pluses and minuses. Among the pluses, as discussed earlier, is the possibility of early feedback. If you lack confidence in your writing, early, positive reviews can be very encouraging. You also get a sense of accomplishment as you see the posted chapters pile up. At fanfiction.net, you can receive an email each time a new chapter is posted, making it easy for readers to follow the story.

Another plus, this one specific to fanfiction.net, is that every time you add a new chapter, your story bubbles up to the top of the list. So really, it is a very effective way to attract new readers that may not have noticed an earlier chapter.

On the down side, serialized stories may be less effective if you’re a slow writer. That’s me. When I’m writing a story in installments, I’ve aimed for roughly a chapter a week in the past. This time around, it seems to be taking a couple of weeks. Hopefully my readers won’t forget what’s come before. In Peter Ackroyd’s mammoth biography of Charles Dickens, he recounts a scene in which Dickens, while in a bookshop, hears someone enquire of the shopkeeper whether the next installment of Dicken’s novel is available yet. Dickens gulped. He hadn’t started writing it. So, while your story is in progress, you do feel some pressure to release your installments on schedule.

Another danger of serial writing is the potential need to summon Captain Jack Harkness to retcon your readers if you discover a hole that can only be filled by adding or changing material in an earlier chapter. This hasn’t happened to me, at least not yet. You can reduce this risk by outlining before you start, but you can’t eliminate it.

As with many other things, serial writing is a tool. You can either experiment with it, or keep it safely tucked away just in case. I don’t know about you, but I find it hard to forever neglect the shiny tools in my toolbox.

Coincidence? I think not!

When I was a kid, it was a real treat to go to Coles in Yorkdale Shopping Centre in Toronto and scour the shelves for Edgar Rice Burroughs. I devoured his books. The Barsoom series, the Venus series, Tarzan, of course, and all those thin, miscellaneous adventures stories. Back in those days, books didn’t tend to be as thick as they are today, and you could find books that were on the order of 120 pages. I prefer smaller books, stories distilled to their essence.

F-234Much has been written about Edgar Rice Burroughs. Most acknowledge his gift for creating characters and situations that appealed to the inner Indiana Jones in every boy. One thing he’s criticized for, though, is his over-reliance on coincidence as a plot device. Fair enough. There’s a reason stories of that ilk from Borrough’s era are referred to as ‘pulps’.

Imagine my surprise, then, on re-reading Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, to discover that coincidence is used as a major plot device. A MAJOR plot device. As I read the book, I attempted to keep track of the number of significant coincidences. I lost count.

Let’s just step back for a moment. Dickens is considered in some circles to be the finest writer of English language novels. He’s certainly my favourite. Not only did he create classic characters, he was a champion for social justice. For example, his portrayal of the abusive Yorkshire schoolmaster, Wackford Squeers, was sufficiently spot-on that multiple lawsuits ensued from schoolmasters claiming they were the inspiration for the character. Odd, when you think about it, that people would actually step forward and claim that they were the basis for one of the most despised characters in fiction. At any rate, by coincidence or not, that breed of abusive boarding school soon began to disappear.

In other books, Dickens weaves a huge web of plot and character and theme that somehow all come together into a unified whole. I suppose plot wasn’t something he had a knack for in his first handful of books. Here is Nicholas Nickleby, our favourite protagonist, wandering aimlessly about London, only to walk into the very coffee room in the very hotel where his nemesis is speaking of Nicholas’ sister in an untoward manner. Here is poor Smike, the ill begotten friend of Nicholas, walking home, when who should see him on a street corner but Wackford Squeers. Smike is taken. Nicholas rings Squeers on his mobile and says, “I will track you down. And I will kill you.” Wait, sorry, I’m getting my stories mixed up. But you get the idea.

Does it make it better to admit your use of coincidence with a wink?

‘That Mr Frank and Mr Nickleby should have met last night,’ said Tim Linkinwater, getting slowly off his stool, and looking around the counting-house with his back planted against the desk, as was his custom when he had anything very particular to say: ‘that those two young men should have met last night in that manner is, I say, a coincidence, a remarkable coincidence. Why, I don’t believe now,’ added Tim, taking off his spectacles and smiling as with gentle pride, ‘that there’s such a place in all the world for coincidences as London is!’

I don’t think so.

All of this isn’t to say that coincidence has no place in plotting. One of my favourite movies uses a big, whopping coincidence to set up the key conflict, and it works beautifully:

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.”

How you use coincidence to advance your plot is ultimately a matter of taste and style. My suggestion is that coincidence is a spice best used sparingly.

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Have you heard it said that it’s all about character? Stories, that is. If your readers don’t care about the characters, then all the plot twists, surprise endings and literary gymnastics in the world won’t amount to a hill of beans, sweetheart.

paul_pipchinI know I’ve loved a book when I can’t bear to say goodbye to the characters. The first time this happened was when I read Charles Dickens’ Dombey and Son. Not his best or best known, but a sentimental favourite because it was my first. Dickens that is. And as I put the book down at the end, I did so slowly. I didn’t want it to be over. I wanted more time with those characters with whom I had fallen in love.

It happened again this morning (at the time of writing) as I put down Stephen King’s It. (Was there ever a more simply named book? Could there be?) Even though the book was over a thousand pages, it wasn’t enough. Mind you, after what those poor characters had been through, they deserved some time off. Still, for a time they had become part of my life and I know I’m going to miss them.

As I start to write more original fiction, that’s what I’m going to shoot for. I know that in genre fiction in particular it seems to be all about the Really Neat Idea, but for me, regardless of the genre, it’s all about character, and I’ll know I’ve done it right when someone tells me they didn’t want to say goodbye.