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How I Wrestle with Red Herrings or, The Herring Stratagem January 30, 2011

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in Characters, Plot.
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Cover of "Clue"

Cover of Clue

I have decided, rather foolishly, to try to learn how to write mysteries. Old fashioned mysteries with, you know, suspense, thrills, intellectual puzzles and all that. NOT to be confused with “mysteries” following such clichés as “the man against the system”, “the D.A./attorney/doctor with a vendetta”, or “follow the ancient clues to a conspiracy theory”…not naming any names (Dan Brown).

What I’m thinking about is something more along the lines of a Wilkie Collins/Agatha Christie sort of mystery. Which brings us to the question of the red herring. I find, at least, that red herrings are always the key to a good mystery. (If anyone is familiar with Clue! it’s also the key to a good spoof). But whenever I attempt to write a mystery, it always ends up being blazingly obvious “who dunnit” or so obscure that the motive is obliterated, never to return to any semblance of believability.

Writing a good mystery is no easy feat! And writing a thriller/mystery is even more of a challenge because you have to set the tone and mood with a wide, varied, and brilliantly descriptive vocabulary in your arsenal. Reading Mary Stewart novels, for instance, has been like seeing so many old friends  I’ve been out of touch with. I’ve stumbled across some very good, descriptive words that I haven’t heard for ages…especially in the real world, and perhaps in America. And, of course, you need to be descriptive about what your hero/heroine is feeling–“blood racing”, “heart pounding”–things like that. A good way to do this is to take particular notice of how YOU feel in terrifying situations (or, if you can’t think of anything particularly terrifying and have been incredibly happy-go-lucky, you should go watch some horror/thriller movies at the cinema). 

As I see it right now, the formula for a red-herring mystery is to set up your hero/heroine who necessarily (according to the rules) is above suspicion and perhaps a trustworthy sidekick/victim (unless you are Wilkie Collins and even the main character is not eliminated from the list of suspects). Then, you should plant at least two to three more characters with varying personal histories/motives. Either your protagonist or reader should, at this time, begin to suspect one character in particular, putting more trust in the other characters until… *Bam!* It turned out that the planted character that you trusted the most was the culprit!

I still, obviously, have more tweaking to do on the formula, more mystery novels to read and movies to watch (Hitchcock is particularly good for this sort of research).

If anyone has suggestions for good red herring stratagems, I would love to hear them!

Wild, Wacky, and Woolly Character Arcs January 23, 2011

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in Characters.
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While plot arcs are somewhat important in the novel structure, I find that without believable characters, they are like a car with no gas. Characters are the soul/fuel of the novel. Take Exhibit A,(*shudder*) Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. Or (the more pleasant shudder), Exhibit B, Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. Even their titles suggest that these are character-centered novels. And even novels that don’t profess to be character centered ARE, in fact, character centered.

If you take out all of the characters from a novel, you have (aside from a very creepy Ray Bradbury short story) absolutely nothing. You have no “whodunnits”, no love interests, no angsty teenager worrying over something, no running around the moors, no quest. In fact, you never even get out the front door. And, if you’re like me, a book captures your interest more if it starts with “Marcy decided one day to meet a loan shark” than “It was a bright, sunny day and the bees buzzed on their way to collect pollen” (no offense, Steinbeck…)

If characters are important to the novel, character arcs should be focused on even more than plot arcs (unless you are a TV sitcom). The most popular of these (and mythical) is: the character is fed up and leaves home, the character learns something about him/herself, and the character matures (coming of age-style).

Perhaps you want to try something a bit different: the character is arrogant, the character decides to save someone (or the world), and the character changes for the better, perhaps becoming humbler.

But what if you really wanted to go WILD? What if you just wanted to keep your readers guessing as to who or what your characters really were? Maybe you write about a thief who tries to go straight only to fall into prison again and then has a revelation. Or maybe you’re making your readers guess WHO the character is: a character tries to mask their identity or gets amnesia (this latter example is the premise of a very good series by Anne Perry).

This can also decide, in a large part, your plot. If your main character is a gorilla who has just escaped from a zoo, for instance, you can’t create a plot around white-collar crime (unless, of course, you add some other characters).

But never, NEVER write an atavistic character arc! This would be the character who changes for the better and then goes back to his/her life before without learning anything. A very depressing and anti-novel indeed. Even anti-heroes change a little bit–a small insight into their situation or a bit more wisdom.

Anything with a plotline–be it a drama, a movie, a play, a novel–has some sort of character arc if you’d care to find it. In fact, it’s usually staring you in the face. And if you are concious of it, who knows? Maybe your next party trick will be acurately predicting what will happen next in a movie based on what you know about the characters.

To Mary Sue or Not to Mary Sue (that is the question) September 6, 2010

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in Characters.
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I learned about this term from one of my friends who knows more about the world of fan fiction than I do. And as soon as she explained what it was, I knew that I had heard about it before (albeit not referred to as a “Mary Sue“). New writers are often accused of putting in Mary Sues into their new fiction. And a “new writer” can either be an adult who is publishing their first book, or a young adult writer who is taking a creative writing class or publishing their fiction. And even when they’re not accused of it directly, a reader or critic can always tell. Take Lauren Willig for example. Her books are wonderful, but of course there were the to-be-expected questions from the critics: “So, did you base your main character on yourself?” And when she protested that there was no connection, they pressed her and said something along the lines of “You have to admit, it’s a huge coincidence, isn’t it. You were a grad student at Harvard, your character is a grad student at Harvard…you do the math.” (On that note, Harvard seems to be a tenuous and overly publicized place to begin your creative writing career).

Putting yourself into your fiction is only natural to the beginning writer. With all those people and books telling you to “write what you know” who better do you know than yourself with all of your dreams, ambitions, quirks, and experiences? And the main criticisms of Mary Sue characters is that it is yourself, only a better you. It is a braver, prettier, smarter, more courageous you having all the adventures that you would want for this alpha-version of you. But there are problems with the alpha-you character:

  1.  the wish-fulfillment controversy
  2. the 2D character quandary
  3. the darling-of-the-characters stereotype
  4. and the invincibility paradox

 These are the obvious downfalls that a Mary Sue character can exhibit. However, a very clever writer (or a very normal writer) can avoid these traps. Some people do a splendid job of the Mary Sue. Take Elizabeth Kostova, for example. Her first novel, The Historian, had a main character who is a citizen without a country. Her father was a professor and they would travel from country to country. This has obvious parallels to Kostova’s own life. However, this doesn’t at all detract from the depth of her characters and the parallel, though present, does not dominate the novel. This is an example of someone writing fiction based on what they know, rather than writing their lives into their novels.

Many good writers of young adult fiction do this admirably. Of course, a writer of teen fiction wants to really identify with their audience which often means channeling their experiences as a teenager. However, when channeling, authors need to remember both their faults and their virtues in order to create a likable character. In The Princess Diaries series, Meg Cabot (who looked through her own diary to channel her character) portrays a teenage girl who is clumsy, unpopular, imperfect, and, as a result, utterly likable. The more problems they encounter and the more imperfect your character is, the more readers won’t try to accuse you of Mary Sue-ing. And no one likes a character who faints every other page but still manages to somehow attract every male character in the book (and I’m referring to Evelina here), or even Evelina‘s modern equivalent in terms of character–Twilight.

And although Mary Sues are most commonly attributed to and criticized of women/girls writing novels, no one has really noticed the trend in “Male” novels that is rampant even on today’s New York Times Bestseller List. The 40-something man who is either unattached or has a loving wife, a high sense of the moral/ethical, the courage to speak up against the “system”, and almost superhuman survival powers when the “system” tries to take revenge. I’m particularly referring to Tom Clancy, Ian Flemming, Robert Ludlum, and yes, even Dan Brown. I’m not saying that these books do not have value, but I am simply pointing out that male Mary Sues are ever-present in today’s literary world as well. Everyone can fall into this trap.

So, if you do Mary Sue, do it responsibly:

Surgeon General’s Warning: Mary Sue-ing may lead to two-dimensional characters and bad publicity.

As a general rule, a good writer should be able to create characters that are inherently interesting. And interesting people make mistakes, and are imperfect. I like to think about it in these terms: would you want to meet your characters, even the baddies? Would they make interesting dinner conversations? Or would they drive you up a wall?

Spot the Villain! September 2, 2010

Posted by laurenrobbins6 in Characters.
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Warehouse 13

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So, you may be wondering what place TV shows have on a writing blog? Well, because, as I learned one cold January at Hampshire College, screenwriting takes just as much creativity and skill as novel-writing. And, quite frankly, uses the same techniques (which Jasper Fforde takes rather literally). So, in the latest episodes of one of my favorite shows–Warehouse 13–they have presented a plot-based quandary. They got rid of the “bad guy” from the last season and have now introduced a new villain–H.G. Wells. This H.G. Wells is portrayed a bit differently in that he’s a she and has been in “hibernation” in bronze until the 21st century when the old Warehouse 13 villain ceremoniously passed the torch off to her. However, these past couple of episodes, she’s become helpful and decent and the past episode seemed a bit transparent…

In fact, there was such a lack of a conflict that they had to put in a temporary villain who, I must say, was a bit of a cliché. The conflict was that the son of a Russian cold war contact went after a character’s whole extended family in Russia. He really looked like he was in the Russian mob and, actually, that would have been an interesting twist. It was what they seemed to imply in the previews–that the Russian mob had magical artifacts (a terrifying thought). However, it was only one quintessential made-for-movies Russian mob member with slicked back hair and no identifiable personality. And Artie’s family was in no real danger. The whole episode seemed like more of a plot device to kill off the nosy, inquisitive CIA characters.

And they brought back this kid who I thought they were going to bump off after two episodes. Well, apparently, they decided to have him back on one last episode as really being (drumroll please) in the witness protection program. Since the screenwriter so far has not let me down, I’m inclined to wait it out and see what the next episode brings. And for now, it will be fun to try to spot the villain!

If I were to predict what might happen, I would say that H.G. Wells would still act as the villan and slowly betray the organization from the inside out. And maybe the kid hacker who’s in the witness protection agency will be chased by a mob with magical artifacts and be forced to stay in the Warehouse, or at least pass through again. And there might also be trouble coming from higher up authorities as well. Really, this is a great excercise to test your plotting skills. Just take your favorite tv show and think up what plot twists you would put in.

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