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Malcolm R. Campbell's World

Archive for the tag “characters”

How ‘Peter and the Wolf’ can help your writing

Written by Prokofiev in 1936, “Peter and the Wolf” has been called a symphonic fairy tale for children. What fascinated me when I first heard this as a child was the fact that every character has a musical theme. In time, I could recognize these themes and know who was on the scene without having to puzzle it out.

Wikipedia graphic

Bird is represented by a flute, Duck by an oboe, Cat by a clarinet, Grandfather by a bassoon, the Wolf by french horns, the hunters by woodwinds and trumpets and percussion rimshots, and Peter by string instruments. I haven’t listened to this music for years, but if anyone were to play the theme from any of these characters today, I would know who it was.

In a sense, we are “programmed” by the symphony to place the characters’ themes into our subconscious so that when we hear them later, we know without having to think about it who is who. In the same way, good writing with three-dimensional characters is hypnotic in this way. We come to know what character is talking or moving about in the scene because the author has taken care to create a deft, memorable “theme” that signifies each major person in the story or novel.

As always, I think the better character themes–ways of speaking, clothes, facial expressions, references to the past, etc.–are the most realistic when they are created as the author tells the story rather than constructed by lists of traits in a story outline. Either way, when the character’s theme really fits, it gives the reader another way of “seeing” and understanding the character.

You can see this process at work in a great novel or in a series of novels where you–the reader–know what the character is likely to say or think or react to in any given situation–just as you would know that about a good friend. When reviewers and critics say a novel has three-dimensional characters, you can be fairly certain those characters have themes of one kind or another.

First novelists tend to make all their characters sound the same (other than giving them different physical characteristics). Put yourself in their shoes. How do they see the world? Why do they see it that way (parents, upbringing, key experiences)? How do they move around (clumsy, athletic, graceful)? Do they use the same expressions all the time? Do they have motives that some of the other characters know and others do not?

All of this coalesces into a real person on the page. Sometimes these real people on the page seem to be on the verge of escaping from the page and running loose in our consensus reality. That’s what you want as an author. When you create it, it makes for a much better story with a more believable plot.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman.

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Keep your research within your character’s knowledge base

When you write in the third person, your characters’ thoughts and actions are not only stated from the person’s point of view, but are also constrained by what that character can possibly know.

sixthjupiterbrassUnlike an omniscient narrator who can show what others are thinking, in third person, you can’t place your protagonist, let’s call him Jim, in a conversation with, say, Bob and in the middle of it show what Bob is thinking. Jim doesn’t know that. And in third person, you–as the author–can’t come in out of nowhere and tell the readers what Bob is thinking.

Likewise, main characters are a product of their time, their education, their skills, and their attitudes. If a character suddenly knows something outside of their realm of experience, it’s disconcerting. Sometimes when this happens, critics and reviewers will say that the author is letting his or her research show. That could be showing off or maybe it took time to gather the research and so the author adds it to the book.

Here’s a short paragraph from my novel “Eulalie and Washerwoman.” In this 1950s story, Eulalie is a conjure woman who lives in the piney woods and who uses folk magic and herbs based on what her mother taught her. However, her cat is the one telling the story. Here’s the snippet: “We didn’t have long to wait. Eulalie brought the deacon’s chair out on the porch, aligned it carefully at the top of the steps and sat down in it with her hands in her lap. She was dressed for church, a dark floral pattern dress with a wide-brimmed hat perching at a jaunty tilt on top of her granny knot. She wore a brass pendant, the sixth pentacle of Jupiter, highly polished and drawing down the light that conjured the cross within circle into the sun.”

 

Pentacle of Jupiter Talisman

Diagram from Mathers' book

Diagram from Mathers’ book

Like many hoodoo practitioners, Eulalie believed strongly in talismans. Strange as it might seem, these talismans contained a lot of renaissance-era magic that one might not expect a backwoods conjure woman to know. However, curio catalogues and mail order houses did a brisk trade in ancient wisdom. They sold inexpensive tracts that basically told the benefits of old spells, Bible verses, and magic ascribed to Moses and Solomon. A lot of what was known came from materials that originated and/or were translated and edited by the well-known Hermetic organization The Golden Dawn.

While Eulalie could have easily sent off for a pewter or brass pendant such as the one shown in this post, she probably wouldn’t have had a copy of the Golden Dawn leader S. Liddell MacGregor Mathers’ The Key of Solomon. So here are the decisions I made about that paragraph–just as a sample of one writer’s way of looking at the information.

  1. I could have said “a mail order brass pendant,” but I think that would have cheapened the thing and made it less mysterious.
  2. While it’s likely Eulalie would know that the Hebrew names on the cross are the angels who govern the four elements (Seraph, Cherub, Tharsis, and Ariel), saying that would have made the paragraph longer and slowed down getting to the action that came after it. The same can be said about the verse in Hebrew around the edge from Psalm 22. Plus, mentioning it might give readers the idea she spoke Hebrew which, of course, she wouldn’t have.
  3. I definitely think having a statement in the scene about Mathers or the Golden Dawn or ritual magic from the renaissance could push on the readers’ notions about what an ancient 1950s conjure woman would know. Plus, if she had known it, she wouldn’t have said it here because she didn’t need to say it. That is, she believed the talisman would work without having to cite references for it.

This paragraph could have been handled many ways. However it was done, it needed to fit what Eulalie knew and would be likely to say or think during the scene. (For those who have read the book, Eulalie’s cat tells the story, but in general the readers see that when it comes to magic, the cat more or less knows what Eulalie knows, but would be even less likely than Eulalie to cite reference books.)

–Malcolm

ewbookcover“Eulalie and Washerwoman,” published by Thomas-Jacob of Florida, is available in e-book, paperback and audiobook editions.

 

 

Book Bits: New Writing Tips Blog

TSSmuseIn January, I decided to take most of the random writing tips that I’d been posting on this blog and on Malcolm’s Round Table, and move them to a re-activated blog called The Sun Singer’s Muse. The tips on The Sun Singer’s Muse will focus on the writing itself. I’ll leave the marketing, formatting and promotional tips to others.

If you’re just starting out as a writer, you may find a helpful idea there from time to time. If you’re a published writer, I hope you’ll stop by and add your own tips on the posts that strike your fancy.

Here’s a sampling of the posts on The Sun Singer’s Muse so far:

I hope you enjoy the blog.

Malcolm

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