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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Things to Consider on Violence in Literature

Picture Credit: http://www.consumerinstinct.com/consumer-behavior/
Violence in literature. It's a touchy topic because people have different standards and very real concerns.

In this posting I'm going to discuss things to consider in determining the appropriate amount and type of violence for your book.

Before I dive into that, though, let me first say what this is NOT. I am not going to dictate how much violence belongs in literature. I believe that is a matter of opinion. I'm only trying to give tips on evaluating how much you deem appropriate.

Second, before anyone announces that no violence should be found in literature, stop to consider that most conflicts and all threats constitute some level of violence. You do not have to like gore, horror, or torture to acknowledge violence in literature.

What Needs to be Accomplished?

Before you start writing violence for the sake of violence, ask yourself why you are using it. Violence in literature can accomplish important tasks, but you should be aware of what you want it to accomplish. 

Some of the tasks violence can accomplish are:
  • Therapeutic connection with the reader- some books are written with the intention of helping victims of violence find healing 
  • Raising the stakes- give the character an increased level of problems to deal with
  • Push the characters- in this way readers find out just how far a character is willing to go; many times the character also learns this about himself or herself at the same time as the reader
  • Grow the characters- violence forces change or growth much faster than it will happen in a safe setting
  • Reach raw emotion- violence will bring forward emotions in their raw state; it is one thing for a character to love his child and it's another to show a scene where his child gets hit by a car; violence also reaches the emotions of the readers

How Far Should You Go?

The more aware you are of why you are using violence, the better you will be able to judge how far it is appropriate for you to go. For example, let's look at the therapeutic connection need. If you are writing a book to reach out to rape victims, then you will need to introduce rape. Or we can look at the need to push characters to show how far they are willing to go. If a threat is enough to turn your characters around, then stop at the threat, but if you are trying to show that they are able to risk their lives then you should make the violence great enough to portray that.

As a basic rule, if a paper cut will fill your need for violence in a scene, then don't introduce a hit man. If you are now frustrated with me because you want a hit man, go back to the question of why. A hit man isn't necessarily wrong, but he should fill a need in your story. If you find that the violence in a part of your book is a purposeless filler because you didn't know what else to put there, you may want to reconsider. As with any plot device, violence should give the reader information and develop characters in addition to furthering the plot.

Consider the Audience

In every part of writing you should consider your audience. Who will want to buy your book? Why? What are their expectations?

Violence can change greatly depending on how descriptive you get. The level of description you choose to use should be based on what you believe to be right and what you believe to be acceptable for your audience. Just as you would not market the "Saw" movies to pre-school aged children, you would not want to market the literary equivalent to the same children. 

Readers who know they are picking up a graphic horror book will have greatly different expectations than readers who pick up a YA action novel. The best way to know what your readers' expectations are is to read books in the section where yours will be found when it is published.

In turn, I am an advocate for readers (and their parents if they're minors) to set their own standards for the type of literature they will and will not read.  

Set up Violence

Now it's time to set up the violence you have decided to use. Before you jump in, there are a few more things to consider:
  • Understand how your characters will react/fight- people should react differently to violence based on their experiences and personalities
  • Bad guys will try to win- if your main character is an average citizen and she needs to fight ninjas, you must figure out a logical way for things to work out, because the ninjas will not suddenly forget how to fight just to help her out
  • Keep in mind the environment- people use objects around them; know what and where the objects are
  • Choreograph action- in high-action situations there is a lot happening at once; it can be too easy to lose track of where your characters are if you don't take the time to map it out
  • Evaluate motivation- this will affect the level of aggression and determination expected from any character
  • Long-term effects- violence always takes a physical and emotional toll on everyone involved; don't forget about a gunshot wound from last chapter, but it is just as important to not forget about how the violence affected them emotionally.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Who Am I? -Writing from a Character's Point of View-

Picture Credit: http://actortips.com
Writing is about creating characters who almost breathe. To get characters of this depth, you will want to make sure they are driven to do the things they do in the story.

Take a good look at your main character and her background. Put yourself in her place with her beliefs and passions.

  • How does she think and feel different than you do? 
  • What does she think about when she is alone? 
  • Who is she when she's around other people? 
  • Whose opinion matters the most to her? 
  • How does she feel about the way others see her? 
  • What does she think about her body?

Now move on to your first secondary character and put yourself in his place. Ask yourself the same questions about him. You should go through this process with each of your characters in turn.

Are there any times in your story that any single character is acting a certain way strictly because it is required to advance the plot? If so, re-think the plot or change the character (or possibly both). Think of it as casting, but you don't want your characters acting. You want to pick the "people" who are going to fulfill the parts you need them to fulfill. If you do not feel that any logical reason exists for a character (even after changing who the character is) to do the things that he or she does, then you must change the plot because readers will resent unrealistic character motives.

This is reminiscent of my posting about villains. Only in slapstick comedy is it acceptable for an antagonist (bad guy) to do evil deeds just because he or she needs to fulfill the assigned role. The same is true for the protagonist (good guy). All of your characters should have realistic feelings and goals that propel them into the conflict of your plot.

When you are writing, just take a minute to look at the scene from each character's point of view. Even though you will only use one point of view at a time, your scenes and your characters will come alive when clear motives exist for everything that happens. The conflict and plot should feel inevitable after you throw your group of characters into the mixing bowl of setting.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Characterization Through Setting and Plot

Picture Credit: http://www.despair.com/hope.html
I really struggled to find a picture that would capture the idea of using plot and setting to build characterization. I finally decided to use this humorous one because generally characterization is best accomplished by raising the stakes until the situation starts to feel out of control.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's start with a definition here.

What is Characterization?

Characterization is a portrayal or description of a given character. This portrayal can be regarding physical traits. But the more important characterization is generally regarding emotional, intellectual, spiritual, or psychological traits. A bland statement of fact that a character has a certain trait will never be as effective as portraying that fact through the setting and the plot.

How Does Setting Assist Characterization?

The setting involves the place, culture, society, religion, and every other aspect of what surrounds the character. Setting can push the character into making decisions he or she wouldn't have otherwise made. It can confront the character and force him or her to take sides or to determine what he or she thinks is right and wrong. For example, a character who grows up in a gang culture will have very different beliefs and thoughts about life than one who grows up in a small farming community. Both characters can decide that they are not satisfied to follow in their parents' footsteps--but their different backgrounds will make them different.

If you want to show your reader that a character values a certain thing--say upholding the law--above all else, stick that character in a setting that challenges that value--maybe a law is passed that he or she strongly disagrees with. 

The best settings will make the main character confront his or her own ideas so that the character gets to know himself or herself better.

How Does Plot Assist Characterization?

The plot is the overall storyline. Working with the setting, use the plot to push the character. For example, in the first Hunger Games book, the setting is a dystopian society where the hunger games are held. The plot gets started when Prim's name is drawn. This starts the chain that gets Katniss into the games.

As with the setting, the plot is an effective way to show who your characters really are. In The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson, the main character prides himself on his strict honesty. But the plot progresses to put him in a position where he has to choose between selling illegal drugs just once or letting his best friend (who previously saved him from poverty) lose his business and become impoverished.

Some new authors have a tendency to want to be nice to their characters. Their main character is such a nice person that they can't stand to let bad things happen. Guess what--no one wants to read a book about how happy and perfect someone's life is. If there is nothing to overcome, then the characterization and the plot will both be bland.

In Summary

To conclude this discussion, I want to re-emphasize the importance of raising the character's stakes. When times get hard, people find out more about themselves. And the readers get an amazing view of your character that a list of personality traits will never duplicate.

Monday, September 2, 2013

The Art of Foreshadowing

Picture Credit: http://kiplimochemirmir.wordpress.com/
Foreshadowing is a suggestion of what is coming later in the book. The best foreshadowing does this in a way that the reader doesn't notice at the time.

Why does it matter?

You may be thinking to yourself that the only one you can think of who raves about foreshadowing is your literature teacher. The truth is, stories are not as fulfilling without it--especially stories with surprise endings.

Without foreshadowing, the ending will not necessarily feel inevitable. Even--and maybe especially--when there are surprise endings, you need them to feel inevitable. That way the reader may not have guessed what will happen in the end, but it will flow and they will understand how it happened.

Picture Credit: http://pekoeblaze.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/

How do you do it?

Present the ending of the book as a possibility by giving glimpses of pieces of the ending. Brandon Sanderson is a master at foreshadowing. If you haven't read his Mistborn trilogy, I highly recommend it. The ending absolutely blew my mind because it was the very last thing I would have guessed as a possibility. Yet, if you look back at his series, all the pieces are there. Without spoiling anything, I can say that small objects that he treats as insignificant all through the series turn out to have great significance. Things that seem to be minor subplots turn out to be essential pieces that bring about the ending. Because of the thick foreshadowing (that never feels like foreshadowing) the surprise ending fits naturally into place.

For anyone who hasn't read Sanderson's books, let's take a look at a couple movies that I think most everyone has seen by now. Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't seen them yet!

The Sixth Sense
Even if you haven't seen this movie, I think you've already heard that child psychologist Dr. Crowe (Bruce Willis) is dead almost from the beginning--he just doesn't know it. Think of how well it's set up. At the beginning of the movie you see him get shot. Then he begins working with a boy who sees dead people, most of whom don't realize that they are dead. During the whole movie no one but the boy talks to or even looks at Dr. Crowe. His wife is in the process of moving on with her life after his death.

The first time you watched the movie (assuming you hadn't already had the ending spoiled for you) the signs are there but seem to have other explanations. Not everyone who gets shot dies, the boy is obviously troubled and it would make sense for the parents to hire a psychologist for him, Dr. Crowe's marriage seems to be very troubled, and so on. If you're like me, when you found out he was dead you were shocked but at the same time it made sense. The second time I watched it, I saw the foreshadowing so glaring that it amazed me that I didn't put it together sooner.

The Prestige
This movie has multiple mysteries you try to put together the first time you watch it. You question how Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) is able to pull off his trick and how he is so certain he will be leaving jail again to see his daughter when he has been sentenced to death. You also question what is happening with Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and his trick. The whole movie seems to be moving in a way you can't quite put together. Yet, there are signs that are unmistakable if you'd only paid pay attention to them. Alfred catches on to the other magician's trick at the beginning of the movie because he understands the idea of living a life around the magic act, you see the unusual relationship Alfred has with his stage manager, you see the fact that Alfred's wife understands that he doesn't love her sometimes, you see that when his hand is injured it acts like a fresh injury longer than it should. Robert is blatant about his obsession and it shows you straight-out that his machine is replicating himself every night. Then, of course, you have one of the characters at the beginning of the movie saying, "Now you're looking for the secret...but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know."

Somehow, despite all the blatant foreshadowing, you don't put everything together until it's spelled out in the end. It's not until the second time you watch the movie that you recognize that you should have known.

What Does This Mean to You?

Find a way to break up clues of what is coming later in your book. Stick those clues into the middle of your story in a way that they don't draw attention to themselves. Then the progression of your story--and especially your ending--will feel natural and inevitable. Readers like it when they guess wrong about what will happen next, but they don't like it when a surprise feels too abrupt and unnatural.