Thursday, March 31, 2005

Making a Character into a "Character"

March 31, 2005 12:04:35 PM

I've been reflecting a lot recently on how to make characters stand out. My favorite books have vivid characters. This may seem like an obvious statement, but the truth is that a good book may not actually have vivid characters. Here's an example: The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton. It's a gripping story, but most of the characters don't stand out that much. Or how about 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke? No one would argue that this isn't a classic novel, but its humans take a decided back seat to the plot (and to Hal the computer for that matter).

For the most part, though, strong characters can elevate an otherwise weak story and propel an excellent story into the sublime. I really enjoy Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum novels. Stephanie, her Grandma Mazur, Joe Morelli, Ranger, Lulu and all the rest are the kind of characters you can happily follow into whatever mess they get themselves into. And the books are laugh-out-loud funny. (They're also more than a little risque.) But the truth is the plots mostly exist as a vehicle for Stephanie's mishaps and the inevitable blown-up car.

I think the ideal of strong characterization and strong story come together in The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin, and in To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Both of these books tell good stories, though in different ways, and both books have distinctive, complex characters. In LeGuin's book, the two main characters alternate in the narration, but it's not confusing because each comes from a different perspective. This is a masterful novel on all levels: she built a wonderfully complete society, her characters are vivid and interesting, the book makes you think about a lot of things, and it's a rousing good story. It won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 1969 or 1970.

Harper Lee tells her story differently; we see the events through the eyes of a little girl. The story seems to take its time, but from the opening lines, the events all move toward the conclusion. I've always loved the descriptions of the town and its inhabitants. Scout's is a distinctive voice and I love to hear it over and over. And of course, it won the Pulitzer Prize, I think in 1960.

Now, if only I could bring my characters to life the way my literary heroes have. I'll reflect more on this another day.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Whose life is it, anyway?

So I see in the news today that Terry Schiavo's parents are petitioning another judge to have Terry's feeding tube reinserted. More media circus, more rehashing of the sad circumstances of this story. Despite what my choice of title for this entry may indicate, I may be the only person in America who doesn't have a clear opinion on this case. And why not? Because I don't really know enough about it. And neither does anyone else, but that doesn't stop people from stating their opinions as if they were indisputable facts. Terry's family (both her husband and her parents) have let this case be played out on the national stage, where it's been co-opted by pundits from both ends of the political spectrum. It may have once been about Terry's life; now it's about politics and money and a family fight that should have been resolved years ago. What truly saddens me is, whatever the outcome, no one really wins.

After I posted this earlier today, I was browsing a couple of blogs I read and found a link to a good opinion piece. The blog is JCF Online - The Word Foundry and the opinion piece is by Peggy Noonan. I agree with JCF that Noonan is an excellent writer. She raises issues worth thinking about. I, too, believe that since life is from God, it is precious. If it was my child, would I want to give up? I don't know. I hope that I would be able to let God do his work, whether it be healing or not.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Easter thoughts

Last night at our Maundy Thursday service we revisited the events leading up to Easter. The communion table is draped as a reminder of the darkness of the next three days. But those days of darkness would soon be gone. He is risen indeed!

The following poem is by a pastor and poet. He's a regular contributor to The Partial Observer.

The Passion of the Christ (Revisited)

He was barely able to bear his own cross.
How he stumbled as if he were lame.
Still the passion of Jesus was more than his stripes.
It was seen in his undying aim.

His passionate love for an indifferent world
drove the Savior to shoulder our shame.
But the torture he felt by accepting our guilt
far exceeded his mere human pain.

Forsaken. Abandoned. Estranged and accursed.
Such agony never there’s been.
The Son was cut-off from the Father of Lights
and eclipsed by the weight of our sin.

But come Sunday morning, the darkness was gone.
The One covered up like a seed,
was buried no longer. He burst forth with life.
Christ is risen! He’s risen, indeed!

by Greg Asimakoupoulos

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

The joys of writing short

Last night I wrote a story. Really. A five-page short story. I've not been much of a short story person. I tend to think in larger chunks. I want to include lots of explanation. But obviously, if you want to enter a short story contest, and it requires a story that is 500 to 1,000 words long, you need to tighten it up a bit. So I wrote a story about characters I've had for a while. It's actually a scene from the backstory of one of my main characters in my book. It needs polishing and it's still a couple hundred words too long, but I was proud of myself for sitting down and writing it. It's called Chocolate Pudding.

I think one benefit of writing scenes like the one I wrote last night, is that I get a clearer idea of characters I'm working with. It's also good writing practice. And who knows, it may be useful in a longer story someday.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Discovered Gem

Right now I'm listening to "Toy Matinee," an album from a group by the same name that was released in 1991 (I think). The group consisted of Kevin Gilbert and Patrick Leonard.

If you read reviews of this album on Amazon, or look up Kevin Gilbert on the Internet, you will learn that Gilbert was a very talented musician who played a significant role in Sheryl Crow's early career. He played on her Tuesday Night Music Club album and he was her boyfriend. (Read the liner notes -- she gives him a little thank you and his name is listed as one of the composers of a number of the songs, including "All I Wanna Do.") Unfortunately, Gilbert died in 1996 and so this album is a promise of what might have been.

It's a cool album. Some of the songs sound a little too late 80s, but the best songs are pleasantly evocative of Steely Dan. Gilbert had a wonderful voice — warm, intimate. He had a knack for a good tune, too, and wrote interesting lyrics. My favorites are "Last Plane Out" (which is the song that led me to this album), "Things She Said" and "The Ballad of Jenny Ledge." But truthfully, all the songs are good.

How did I find this gem? I used to hear "Last Plane Out" on the radio back in the early 90s. I loved the song, but never knew who did it. A few months ago, by googling the song title, I found the lyrics and who wrote it, which led me to Web sites and articles. I finally found the CD at a used CD store.

Kevin Gilbert probably wasn't the next Paul McCartney (some reviews at Amazon hail him as the next great songwriter), but he was talented and this album displays those talents well. Is this the best album no one ever heard of? Maybe not, but it's worth seeking out.

Spring is here?

Spring in Kansas: cold, rain.
A good saying I found in the New York Times, quoting the clergyman and author Henry Van Dyke: "The first day of spring is one thing, and the first spring day is another."

Friday, March 18, 2005

What I've been listening to

Lately I've been listening to Phil Keaggy (always one of my favorites). He's an awesome musician and guitarist. One of my favorites is his CD "Blue." It came out around 1994 and is actually the version of "Crimson & Blue" released for the secular market. It's got a rockin' version of "John the Revelator." Keaggy has been lauded by guitar magazines for years and I think he's just a great guy. (And seems to be a truly authentic Christian.) Another favorite project of his is "Invention." His cohorts on that were Wes King and Scott Dente. It's mostly instrumental and has something for everyone. The acoustic pieces are wonderful, but the CD also includes 4 vocal pieces and I really like those, too. The last song on the CD is "Something, Somewhere." Not only does it rock, but it's got good lyrics:

I am neither this nor that, I'm not here or there;
I am in between something and somewhere.

It speaks to the fact that as Christians, it's a process. We're still a work in progress, but God is faithful to complete his work in us.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Is Kansas a violent place?

One might think so, what with the Wichita police capturing a man they suspect is the BTK serial killer. And today, former Kansas State University professor Thomas Murray was found guilty of murdering his ex-wife. (I can say he's a former professor because as soon as he was convicted, K-State terminated his contract.

So how about some good news? It's 62 and sunny here! Yay! Winter's almost over.

Severe weather awareness week

This is a test, this is only a test. Please disregard the tornado bearing down on you.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

So here goes

I'm always a little behind the times, technologically speaking, but I've decided some of my not-so-random thoughts are worth putting out there for people to see and comment on. So here's my first attempt at blogging. I'll probably put some of my writing up here, as well as invite family and friends to contribute to discussion from time to time.