Category Archives: Blue-Eyed Wolf

Desire . . . Fiction’s Secret Power

6_17Why do we read stories?

It’s an important question for any fiction writer—or any teacher of fiction—to ask.

The Puritans forbad novels. Stories were thought to be immoral, composed of lies. And there was a time, much nearer at hand, when teachers who wanted to read a story to their students had to close their classroom doors lest the principal come by and overhear them “wasting time.” I suppose that may still be true in some schools.

I have thought about this question often over the years, as any fiction writer should. What gives these worlds I fabricate value? What are readers seeking when they immerse themselves in a story of mine, in any story at all?

I’ve come to be convinced that we turn to fiction, at least in part, to be empowered, however vicariously. We all struggle, even if our lives are blessed. And the reality is that most mornings when we get up we shoulder exactly the same load we carried the day before. We do the same the day after that. And the day after that. Change comes hard, if it comes at all, and usually if it does come it does so only incrementally.

So I believe one of the reasons we turn to story is to see someone else do what we aren’t much inclined to do ourselves. To see that person take hold of her life and give it a good shake . . . and come out on the other side having changed herself or her circumstances or both. The truth is, of course, it’s easier to do in fiction than in life.

But every story begins with a core question, “What does my character want?” Because it is the wanting that draws our readers in with echoes of their own desires. And it is the wanting that energizes and propels the story toward the empowering resolution.

Often, when a story is stalled, we can get it moving again by repeating that simple question. What does my main character want? And sometimes it’s surprising to realize how many pages we may have written without yet having understood the answer.

As anyone who has been dipping into this blog from time to time knows, I have been working on a young-adult novel called Blue-Eyed Wolf for a couple of years now. Well, working on it and setting it aside and then working on it again. At the moment it is resting. Other manuscripts—even this blog—keep pulling me away.

There is, however, something besides the pull of other work that is making it easy to step away. I have a profound question about this story I haven’t yet answered. My characters—I now have three perceiving characters—all want something. They want their brother/boyfriend/son to come back from Vietnam whole. Or, actually, what they really want, each one, is for him not to have gone in the first place. And they are all helpless to do anything about that fiercely held desire. They can only get up every morning and shoulder it again.

Just the way we do in real life.

I know where I’m going with this story. I know what will be resolved . . . and what will not. And much won’t be resolved. I know how each of my characters will change by the end of my tale. But sometimes I run out of energy for getting them there. I suspect it’s the amorphous quality of my characters’ wanting that keeps draining the passion—my passion—from my story.

And will it drain my readers’ passion, too? A crucial question.

I have to figure out how to keep my characters moving when there is no place for them to go. How to keep them energized when there is little hope. How to keep my readers caring and connected even if the characters aren’t taking charge of much . . . and how to keep my readers committed, right to the end, even when no one is being empowered.

What I count on—what I have to count on—is the deep curiosity we all carry for other people’s interior lives. It’s a curiosity about ourselves, really. Am I alone out here? Am I the only one who ever thought that, felt that, wanted that?

What does it mean to be human?

Taking our characters through struggle to a victory that empowers is time-tested way to satisfy our readers. But sometimes the simple journey into a soul’s struggle is all a story has to offer.

Can it be enough?

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Smoke Screen or Window

truckLast week I talked about writing stories out of our questions, not as a vehicle for imposing our answers on the world. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about a lot recently.

I began writing Blue-Eyed Wolf, the young-adult novel I’m working on now, to explore topics about which I hold firm convictions: war, religion, the desecration of our natural world, family loyalty, sexuality. The convictions with which I began, in fact, were so firm and so clear that I had to work hard not to dump them in the early pages in order to leave room to build to a truly meaningful climax. (A meaningful climax, of course, would be one that would communicate all my best-dressed certainties.)

Now and then, though, even as I worked, my ideas gave me pause. What is the point, after all, of saying war is bad, that we are destroying our natural world, that family loyalty is important? Who doesn’t know such “truths,” though the knowing changes little. Still, I kept writing.

As I moved forward through the story, though, something began to happen that was both disruptive and real. In the first draft, my profoundly held convictions walked me smack into a wall. I was on page 300 and nowhere near the end of the story when I found I couldn’t take another step.

I set Blue-Eyed Wolf aside and worked on other manuscripts. While I was doing that, I rethought the character who had pressed my nose to the wall, recast her situation, changed some basic facts about her, and gave her a very different role in the story. I also made a decision to enlarge the story’s perspective beyond that of the young sister of the Vietnam War enlistee. The story is still told through my original character but also through the enlistee’s girlfriend and through the character who brought the first draft to such an inglorious end.

And as I began again through these multiple perspectives something odd began to happen. I’ve heard writers say that a character took over a story, and that’s an experience I’ve wondered about but never quite experienced. In this case, though, the story itself began to signal the inevitability of its own conclusion, a conclusion I had not chosen, would not have chosen, but a conclusion every element of the story I had so painstakingly built insisted upon.

The fascinating thing about this new conclusion—which is, at this point, only in my head, nowhere near the page—is that it is not at all what I meant to say. In fact, much of the “wisdom” I began the story with has fallen away leaving me with uncertainties, ambivalences . . . questions. And very few answers.

And to my not-quite-surprise, I find it’s going to be a better story.

So here I am telling a story that reveals little more than the messiness at the core of my own life—of most lives, perhaps—and strangely enough that feels like quite enough “truth” for the moment.

Stories, all stories, however they are manufactured, can be a smoke screen to keep us from seeing ourselves clearly, as any Buddhist teacher will tell you. Or they can be windows to our souls.

Once more, it all depends on whether we begin with answers or with questions.

Creating Characters

11_5I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to what it takes to create characters. How do we writers manufacture the illusion of living human beings through words on the page? And I use that word, illusion, advisedly. It’s vital to remember that what we are doing when we write fiction is creating illusion, all of it, from the stories we make up—even if bits are borrowed from life—to the people who populate them. It’s not life; it’s an imitation of life.

I’m caught in this internal monologue right now because I find myself questioning the characters in Blue-Eyed Wolf, the young adult novel I’m tiptoeing so cautiously back inside. There are two key characters who are young men, 18 years old. And while I have reared a son and have a gaggle of grandsons, the 18-year-old male is not my forte. I can admire their physical prowess. I can sympathize with their inevitable confusions. I can see how utterly beautiful they are. But how do I make one—not to mention three—come alive on the page and be both believable and distinct from one another? Of course, on one level I tell myself I already know. I’ve been doing it for many years.

Haven’t I?

A review I read recently commented that this particular story had strong characters, and I found myself asking What does that mean? I examined the book in question and decided that what the reviewer was referring to as “strong” were characters defined by a single trait. Examples we all know would be Eeyore by his depressive view of the world. Charlotte the spider by her maternal wisdom. Pippi Longstocking by her irrepressible independence. All of them unquestionably strong characters . . . or at least they all have a single, strong characteristic.

But then I asked myself, How many real people do I know who could be hung on a single peg that way? And the answer came back swiftly. Not a single one.

Now, I’ve already acknowledged that when we create characters we are dealing with illusion, not life. So perhaps there is nothing wrong with the single-peg technique. It works, after all. But I find that when I try to do it with my characters something rings false for me. I want my characters—even the side ones—to hang from more than one peg!

And yet more than one peg gives us a less identifiable, believable, perhaps less strong creation. If your character is Eeyore you know that, however kind his friends might be, he will find a way to feel bad about himself and the world. He is absolutely reliable at every turn of the page. If you present too many sides to your characters they may be more “real,” but they won’t be seen as “strong.”

I have come to realize in this exploration that I am not good at creating characters with a clear single identity. What I can do is climb inside and give the reader a glimpse into a complex, interesting, human mental process. I often receive letters from young readers that say something like, “When I read On My Honor I always knew what Joel was thinking and feeling.” And that’s what I do well. I inhabit my perceiving character and invite my readers in.

The characters I don’t inhabit? They can still reveal their inner worlds by what they say and do, of course, but I’m not sure I’ve ever created one that lives on in my readers’ minds. They would certainly never be called strong.

The single peg works. I know it works. After all, I’ve just cited characters from beloved classics, stories that will live far longer than anything I have ever written.

And, of course, I understand the technique of starting off with a single characteristic, even a stereotype, and then giving the illusion of complexity by introducing a contradiction. The soft-hearted bully. The courageous coward. The passionate prude.

But for this story I want more . . . perhaps I want more than I can deliver.

Today, when I was walking the dogs, I came up with an idea for a new easy reader. Why not, I suggested kindly to myself, return to something you know you can do?

Why not?

But Do You Love Her?

hateI’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to make a main character likable. If readers don’t care what happens to the person who carries the story, there is little reason to keep reading. And yet a main character owns her spot in the narrative because she has a problem, not because she is appealing. In fact, there will inevitably be something negative in her struggle. That’s the nature of problems. How do you make a character, consumed by such negatives, sympathetic?

When I examine this question against whatever story I’m immersed in at the moment, I always come back to thinking about a novel manuscript in a workshop I led long ago. The story was about a thirteen-year-old girl whose parents announced that she must take care of her two much-younger brothers through her summer vacation. The main character was authentically thirteen. That means, in the face of this very real affront to her plans, she was self-involved, whiney, furious. She was totally believable as a character, and the story moved forward in good order, but the response in the workshop was consistent. Folks had few complaints about the story itself, but everyone, to a person, hated the main character.

I listened to this discussion without a lot of comment, trying to sort it all myself. As I’ve already said, the girl was recognizably thirteen. Her problem was one most girls her age would find difficult. Why couldn’t these women—as far as I can recall this ongoing workshop was entirely composed of women at the time—care about her? Was it because most of us were mothers ourselves and our empathy lay with the parents’ need rather than with the girl’s self-centered fury over protecting her summer? Would young readers have had the same response?

I never answered those questions with any certainty, but I learned something entirely different the evening this writer returned to the group and, though she had been deep into her novel, announced at the beginning of her reading, “Chapter 1.”

She had gone back to the beginning, and she had made one change. Now the girl who didn’t want to take care of her little brothers had something going on besides simply wanting her summer freedom in a self-obsessed, thirteen-year-old way. She was an avid photographer. She had been planning to enter a photography contest that summer. The winner would receive a prize that would advance her opportunities as a photographer. And, of course, taking care of her brothers would make it almost impossible to do the work the girl needed to do for the contest.

The story was off and running, and I never heard a word about anyone hating the main character again.

So here’s what I learned: Setting a character up with a problem—which is, of course, what a story, any story, demands above all else—isn’t enough. Problems carry a negative load. And as negative as we ourselves can be at times, we have a hard time caring about others who are only negative. But if our characters care about something in a deep, passionate and positive way, that caring will draw us to care about them. And then we’ll care about their problems, too.

It’s that simple. And that profound.

Blue-eyesAs I’m preparing to return to Blue-Eyed Wolf, I’ve been growing concerned that Angie, my main character, might be coming off as whiney and unappealing. She is grieving the loss of her much-older brother, who has enlisted to fight in Vietnam. And worse, in terms of her appeal as a character, there is no action she can take to bring him back. All she can do is grieve. So how do I make this passive, grieving girl appealing?

When I reenter the story, I’m going to experiment with a small change. Angie will be a passionate birder. Seeing her love something in a clear, positive way, a way that isn’t tangled with her anger and grief, will, I hope, give my readers a different perspective on her, a more reliable affection for her. And her birding will also fit seamlessly into the natural world that is her home and the base for the story.

Now . . . to see what happens.

Kids Saving the Rain Forest

kstrfWhoever it was who said “Ninety percent of the pleasure of travel is in anticipation and the other ten percent is in recollection” had hold of a disheartening truth.

I’m just back from a week in beautiful Costa Rica and the deepest discovery I made is that I’m allergic to the entire place.

I’ve long known I have a slight allergic reaction to mold.  In Minnesota my head gets a bits stuffy when the fallen leaves begin to rot in the autumn and again when the snow melts in the spring.  A nuisance, nothing more.  I never once stopped to think when my partner and I were making plans for a glorious week in the rain forest of Costa Rica that the entire place would be made of mold. 

The trip was sponsored through a wildlife rehab center here where my partner volunteers, and we would be visiting another wildlife rehab center there, Kids Saving the Rainforest.  What could be better?  Mountains!  Ocean!  Rainforest!  Monkeys, sloths, birds, crocodiles!  A whole new world of experience and information.  Surely I would find much that would be fresh to write about.  And it wasn’t incidental, of course, that we’d be escaping the Minnesota winter for tropical sun.

Within an hour of stepping off the plane, my bronchial tubes tightened.  Interesting, I thought.  By the second day, I had a constant, deep, rattling cough.  By the third, my head was congested, too.  And yet the vacation my partner and I had planned with such enthusiasm still lay before us, jolting bus rides, long treks under a blazing sun, swinging bridges to be navigated while my head seemed to float free of my body, constant conversations with fellow travelers though my voice was merely a croak.

When we arrived back home, snow has never looked so good!

Was it a lost experience?  Money spent merely on misery?

No, because I’m a writer, and every experience, comfortable and uncomfortable, exotic and ordinary, is fodder for a writer. 

I came home with a head full of nonfiction possibilities drawn from the generous caretaking I saw dedicated people giving that fecund and fragile world.  The three young women who work day and night to save the endangered macaws.  (In addition to all else they do, for six months out of the year they feed the babies every two hours twenty-four hours a day.)  The care taken at Kids Saving the Rain Forest for monkeys and birds injured or once kept as pets that can no longer fend for themselves in the wild.  The hurt sloths they take in, treat and return to their forest canopy.  Our guide who turns down opportunities for work if he doesn’t believe what the clients want help with would be good for his beloved land.

And beyond all that was new and fascinating, I carried my old work with me as I always do, not in a computer, but in my head.  As the plane thrust itself through the sky, as we bounced down rutted roads, as I climbed and trudged and gazed overhead, I was constantly sorting through everything I’m working on:  Blue-Eyed Wolf, the young-adult novel; Patches, a new verse novella I’d almost completed a draft of before we left, and a ditty set off by a friend’s sending me an article on the phrase “Higgledy-piggledy.” 

It was time outside of time, which gave me a rich opportunity to let everything I’m working on turn over inside my head, slowly and steadily.  I read some of the new ALA-award novels on the flights and decided to try first person for the new points of view I’ll be introducing to Blue-Eyed Wolf.  I gazed at the unfamiliar world all around me and realized that Patches needs to have a more distinct reaction to the unfamiliar world she is thrust into.  And I played endlessly, not a scrap of paper in sight, with the phrase higgledy-piggledy.  By the time I got home I had half a dozen lines ready for the page.

I also arrived home more than ready to see Minnesota snow and a doctor.

It’s a strange world we writers live in, this world that grows inside our heads.  Wherever you take us, however our bodies betray us, those stories just keep jogging along inside us.

But isn’t it fun?