Tag Archives: John Knowles

Old School Sundays: John Knowles’s “A Separate Peace”

I fell in love with this book my freshman year in high school. As far as I’m concerned, this novel is as close to perfect as any piece of literature will ever be. Why? Many reasons. Plot-wise, it’s flawlessly structured. The setting lives and breaths. The dialogue is precise and engaging. The narration, in a word, is superb. As a reader, you’ll go so deep inside the main character, Gene Forrester’s, mind that you’ll likely feel trapped. You’ll try to claw and scratch your way out, but you won’t be able to. At least not until the novel ends. And even then…well, good luck.

Merelize → in Plants & trees The “tree” is a very important symbol in “A Separate Peace”

I’ve used A Separate Peace on this blog many times over as an exemplary literary example of the topic I was discussing. This proves how far in-grained this story is in my mind.

The basic premise centers on two boys, Gene and Finny. They are complete opposites (Gene is studious, introverted, paranoid, and insecure while Finny is free-spirited, extroverted, dynamic, and charismatic), yet they are best friends. They balance each other out. They attend the Devon School–a prep school in New England during the early forties. All the Devon boys know that their time to serve in World War II is looming, and they are aching to live out their last days of freedom–or “peace”–accordingly.

Then Gene does something to his friend Finny that sets them both  back twofold, and thus begins Gene’s inner odyssey where he questions, mistrusts, and doubts his own motives for years to come.

As in most of my worn copies of literature, A Separate Peace is perpetually marked up. I’ll share this one line in particular that has always confused, yet intrigued me, because in essence, I was never sure whether or not I agreed with it.

During the early part of the novel, Gene has a “smart-ass” comeback to nearly everything the optimistic Finny has to say. Gene writes of himself:

“As I said, this was my sarcastic summer. It was only long after that I recognized sarcasm as the protest of people who are weak” (Knowles, 17).

It’s an interesting notion isn’t it? Personally, I’m rather sarcastic myself, which is why this line always stood out to me. Am I weak? I’d ask myself nearly every time I re-read the story.

My favorite television characters were always the sarcastic ones. I get a huge kick out of Eric Forman from That 70s Show and Chandler Bing from Friends. And I’m probably the only person ever to say that Jerry himself was my favorite character on Seinfeld.

What is it then, that suggests sarcasm is equivalent to weakness? Is it because sarcasm is essentially derision? Can sarcasm be used as a defense mechanism by someone who is say, pessimistic and cynical? Do the “weak” hide behind irony? Is sarcasm a disguise for anxiety, inferiority, and apprehension?

Throughout the novel, Gene proves himself to be suspicious and easily offended. His jealousy towards the exuberant Finny runs rampant. Is this what Knowles means? Was Gene simply covering his own insecurities by feigning humorous superiority? Is that the fundamental concept behind sarcasm?

See, I still don’t know! Gets me every time. Got to love literature.

From MemeCreator.org

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Points for the Protagonist: Our Unyielding Devotion to Character # 1

Ed Davad → in Toys “Gotta love Harry”

A devout fan of the television series Breaking Bad, I became disgusted with myself one evening while viewing an episode with my husband. At a commercial break I began ranting about ‘what a bitch’ Skyler White, main character Walter White’s wife, was for wishing her husband dead. How dare she deliberately smoke cigarettes in his presence in hopes of his cancer returning? How could cause her lifelong partner such intense bodily harm?

Then it hit me: Why wouldn’t she want him dead?

He became a crystal meth proprietor behind her back. He murdered people. He poisoned a child. Truth be told, Skyler’s husband inadvertently dragged her into serious and potential legal problems. He endangered the lives of their children…and yet, I’m calling her the bitch?

More like Walt himself is the son of one.

It’s an interesting notion to ponder, because I’m definitely not the first, nor will I be the last viewer to deem Skylar the enemy. The thing is though, the story is not centered on Skyler’s point-of-view, if it was, then we’d certainly be ragging on old “Heisenberg” a bit more. But since this tale belongs to Walter, and we as an audience are following his journey from lowly high school teacher to number one drug lord of the American Southwest, we’re simply always going to be on his side. End of story.

*Some other examples from the networks:

1. Nucky Thompson from Boardwalk Empire

2. Don Draper from Mad Men

3. Tony Soprano from The Sopranos

*Notice all these protagonists are of the male variety?

Ed Davad → in Toys

Why We Always Root for the Main Character

Outside of television and inside of literature, this is nothing new. We can argue to the death that Odysseus of Homer’s The Odyssey fits the ancient Greek profile of a hero, but in reality, he was a cocky, philandering, manipulative, and war mongering individual. Yet, we love him. For centuries now, we’ve been giving him importance. We discuss his adventures at length. We analyze his motives. Why? Because The Odyssey is a great story. And whose story is it? That’s right. It’s Odysseus’s story.

Have you ever truly hated a protagonist’s guts? I don’t think it’s possible. Yes, I have encountered some disappointing protagonists (see examples below), but otherwise it seems most character-loathing is saved for villains, antagonists, or other secondary characters.

The protagonist though, despite her many shortcomings is basically the person we’re hanging with as we read the story. She may do some wicked and selfish things, but as readers we’re so appreciative of the story she’s telling us that we’re willing to forgive and forget. Besides, if someone (whether it’s told from first or third person) is essentially spilling her guts, we’re likely to find at least some redeeming qualities.

Examples of characters we hate to love:

Rachel: Protagonist in Emily Giffin’s novel Something Borrowed. Rachel has slept with her best friend’s fiancé. Yet as readers we find ourselves rooting for Rachel to get the guy. She does a great job telling us how she’s always been second-rate next to her alluring friend, Darcy. Plus, we come to discover that Darcy’s done some evil deeds on her own. Rachel basically becomes your buddy. Wouldn’t you take your buddy’s side?

Edna Pontellier: Protagonist in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. She simply up and left her family behind (anyone can be forgiven for leaving an unsatisfying marriage, but to nix your parenting responsibilities?) simply because she was having inner-yearnings of something better out there. Yet she was bold, honest, and fearless. And since we’re hearing about her grief on such a deep level, we’re supportive of her decisions.

Ed Davad → in Toys

Examples of disappointing, but not hated protagonists:

Amir: Protagonist in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner. Amir watches Hassan, the son of his father’s longtime servant, go through a horrendous experience. Amir, however, does nothing to intervene and then proceeds to feel guilty about it the rest of his life. An underlying motive may be jealously as Amir’s powerful father, Baba, takes an unusual liking to Hassan. Amir is not to be despised, but he proves himself to be a weak character throughout most of the story. It is arguable at the end whether or not the amends he makes does proper justice.

Gene Forrester: Protagonist in John Knowles’s A Separate Peace. Gene is studious and introverted—which is fine in and of itself, but he’s also insecure. Very, very, insecure. So insecure in fact, that he sabotages the athletic abilities of his sprightly friend, Finny by basically pushing him off a tree limb. Gene spends the remainder of the novel contemplating in an obsessive, incessant way whether or not he intended to do his friend harm.

Both Amir and Gene act on jealous instincts, which are essentially, human. They aren’t evil-minded guys, just vulnerable to life’s natural hierarchy. Despite their actions or lack thereof, they are both phenomenal storytellers, and without their keen perspectives, the books would not be nearly as enjoyable to read.

The truth is we let our protagonists get away with quite a bit, but if we want to hear the story, if want to be entertained, enlightened, mystified and moved, well then, we’re just going to have to put up them.

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Birds of a Feather: Your Characters & Their Friends

It’s worth noting who your characters “hang out” with. One of my favorite sayings, and I’ll paraphrase, goes something like this: You are who you attract.

Your protagonist’s choice of buddies can—surprise!—aid in the characterization process.

Friends
Merelize → in People

Some questions to consider when creating your character’s “Bestie”:

  1. Is the friend a secondary character? If so, how should he or she be developed throughout the story?
  2. Does the story have more than one main character, and are the characters friends? In other words, is the friendship the focus of the story?
  3. Is the friendship already established at the beginning, or do the characters meet sometime during the course of the story?
  4. What purpose does the friend serve? A helpful hand? Comic relief? Is he/she a drinking buddy? Partner in crime?
  5. Here’s the big one: What’s the dynamic like? Do the two (or more) personalities mesh well? Is a realistic pairing? Do they connect on some level? A hardened biker and a self-involved metrosexual can be friends…so long as there is some common ground. It’s the writer’s job to make it work.

Here are some common story friendship dynamics that you can bend, blend, and harmonize:

1. The Colorful Sidekick:  The goof off. The king’s fool. Think Kimmy Gibbler from Full House. This is a friend who adds some ‘flavor.’ He is audacious, brazen, comical, and flamboyant.

Important: Never underestimate the colorful sidekick. I’ve found in my own writing as well as the writing of others, that despite the personal flaws, these types often prove to be extraordinary friends in the end.

Favorite literary example: Dominick Birdsey’s cheeky, foolhardy friend Leo Blood from Wally Lamb’s I know this Much is True.

 2. The Charismatic Crony: Your character both loves and hates her. Best friends, yes, but in most cases, the charismatic crony comes out on top. This is the prettier friend, the skinnier friend, the smarter friend, the more popular friend, etc. We all know the type. And we’re all jealous.

Important: It is possible for this friend to be innocent—she may not be fully aware of her prowess. In other cases, however, she is simply one backbiting buddy.

Favorite literary example: I have two. Gene Forrester’s larger-than-life friend Phineas from John Knowles’s A Separate Peace; Rachel’s alluring childhood chum Darcy from Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed.

3. The Caring Cohort: Quite simply, this is the friend who picks up your character when he or she falls. In fact, in some cases, this is the friend who sacrifices. Donates a kidney. Kills another. Gives up his own pleasure…all in the name of his friend.

Important: Any “friend” type that I’ve described here can lend a helping hand. The caring cohort goes a bit further.

Favorite literary example: George, who cares for mentally-handicapped Lennie Small during the Great Depression in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. (See my most recent “Old School Sunday” post). Also, although this isn’t literature, in West Side Story Tony kills the love of his life’s brother for stabbing his friend, Riff, to death. Now that’s the kind of friend I’m talking about here. Not to mention good old Romeo, who slain Juliet’s cousin, Tybalt for slaughtering his own friend, Mercutio.

4. The Best Friend: They say if you fall down, a good friend will help you up; your best friend will laugh at you. It’s true in life and it’s true in fiction. These are two characters who are practically one. Often, they will go through various life changes, and may struggle with their relationship; but in the end, they usually find their way back to each other.

Important: Generally speaking, this kind of friendship will require two main characters. They will have separate lives, but be forever tied to one another. Often the foundation of the story is the friendship itself.

Favorite literary example: Kate and Tully, whose lives (both separately and together) go through many transitions, and face many obstacles in Kristin Hannah’s Firefly Lane. Actually, the book reminded me a lot of the movie Beaches, starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey.

I’d like to leave you with some links from Writer’s Digest, particularly if your protagonist’s friend falls within the ‘minor character’ category:

What is a Minor Character: Understanding the Minor Characters’ Role

Questions to Ask (& Strengthen) Your Minor Characters

What are you favorite friendship dynamics in literature? Film?Television? How do your characters relate to each other? Can’t wait for the comments!

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Characters, Plot & Structure, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Writing Life, Writing Process, Writing Tips

In Memoriam: When a character dies

Merelize → in Church & Cemetery

In fiction, a character’s death is the ultimate spoiler. When I taught high school English one of my favorite books to read with students was A Separate Peace by John Knowles. It proved to be a popular one in my class, as we spent weeks on end discussing Gene Forrester’s motives for “jouncing” the infamous limb, and gravely injuring his spirited friend, Finny. The funny part was each time I covered the story, there’d be at least one student who’d read ahead (or perhaps log onto Sparknotes) and do the unthinkable: spread the ugly truth around the classroom in venomous whispers, Finny dies!

As writers, why do we kill our characters? Is death a good plot twist? Does it make a story better? More dramatic? Emotional? Symbolic? Does death effectively touch on the greater human experience?

I’ll admit it. I’m a convicted character killer. Lock me up. I’m not vicious about it though, I simply understand their fates. As sad as it can make a reader or writer, some characters just seem destined to die, and as far as I know there is no set of criteria to follow, except for this: it must reflect the larger web of the story.Otherwise, as my characters’ divine creator, I think it would be too difficult to do.

Some surface elements to consider:

Who: Which characters will be plucked from the page? This needs to be carefully considered. Usually it’s not the main character, particularly if he or she is also the narrator (unless you’re going for a Lovely Bones angle, which I just find unsettling). If you know who will perish in advance, you can characterize accordingly. If not, there’s always revision.

When: At what point will the unfortunate character(s) pass on? Those who die in the middle of the story might have a dynamite personality to make up for lost time. If a character goes early on, perhaps it’s to set a precedent, or to establish an important plot point.

How: Tragic death? Violent death?Peaceful death?Inevitable death? It all depends on the individual character(s).

Why: This is a big one. Does the death serve a purpose? It most likely should.

I’ll take this last point—the “why”—a bit further. Based on everything I’ve ever read, written, watched in films, or seen on television, I’ve come to find that characters almost always die for one of the five reasons below.

1. The Extraordinary Person Syndrome: This character has a spirit that’s too big for life (not unlike poor Mr. Finny). Think of rock stars—Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin—all robbed of life at a tender age. It’s as if their brilliance was meant to be solidified.

2. The Stigma of the Very Important Person: At least to the main character. In fact, maybe too important to the main character. It could be a friend, lover, relative, etc. of the protagonist. This person’s passing is often a lesson in love or guilt.

3. The Evil-Doer’s Demise: A nasty villain. A murderous creep. An abusive spouse, parent, or significant other. This is someone who has done no good throughout the story, and flat out deserves to die. Perhaps at the main character’s hands.

4. The Magnitude of the Martyr: This character’s death will quite literally shift ‘the sands of time.’ A mother of two estranged sisters dies of natural causes, and thus forces her daughters to reconnect. The passing of a woman’s controlling husband will influence her to take a spiritual journey. A former high school quarterback overdoses and brings countless alienated peers back home to pay respects. Get the picture?

5. The Reprieved: This one is for the disease-stricken, the ill-treated, and the less fortunate. They die because the suffering has become unbearable. In death they are in peace.

I believe there is room for some blending. Maybe one character’s end will fit into two of these categories, or three. Even those who die for political reasons, or while at war will likely touch on one or more of these elements. Our characters are our babies, and with time, we share them with the world. Losing one can no doubt be super sad. But sometimes, for the sake of the story, it must be done.

Have your characters gone on to a better place? For what reasons? I’d love to hear your comments, morbid as they may be.

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Filed under Characters, Why We Write, Writing Process, Writing Tips

Finding the right name for your character

Janaka Dharmasena → in Toys

I believe that it is human nature to want to ‘name’ things: our children, our pets, our homes, our cars, and for some enthusiasts—our body parts. But as writers we have that extra responsibility of naming of our characters, or in other words, the living, breathing, souls that infiltrate our stories. Believe it or not, it’s a tricky concept. It’s more than just picking a name off the top of our heads; in fact, the right name, in many ways, is fifty percent good characterization. Nondescript names (unless they are intentionally so) often do not fly. That’s not to say that common, everyday names don’t work in fiction, but they MUST suit the characters on many different levels.

See this link from Writer’s Digest before reading on.

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/the-7-rules-of-picking-names-for-fictional-characters?et_mid=576922&rid=3058805

Here are some famous examples from literature:

Guess the bookworm…Eugene (Gene) or Phineas (Finny)?
Guess the cunning tramp…Oliver or (Artful) Dodger?
Scout: A tomboy or a Miss Priss?

That being said, would Atticus Finch be as memorable if his name were Joe Jones? What if Holden Caufield’s name was Bob Green? Think of your favorite book. What do you remember most? The plot? The descriptive language? Or the characters? Now take that one step further…the character’s names, perhaps? I guarantee the characters you remember most were not just given the ‘best’ names, but were given the names that best suited the character.

I’ll give an example of my own. Some years back, I wrote a short story called “Prom Night.” Since the story was rejected many times over  and is basically going nowhere, I feel comfortable using it as my character-naming tutorial guinea pig. But first a brief summary to better understand the nature of the characters:

On the night of prom, two dateless high school juniors go to a local pool hall in hopes of finding some adventure. Girl # 1 is on a mission to make up for the fact that wasn’t invited to prom. She is abrasive, bossy, and insecure. Girl #2 is more subdued, level-headed, and actually was asked to the prom, but didn’t accept. It can be surmised by a discerning reader that Girl # 2 turned down her invitation to keep her best friend, Girl # 1, from being alone that night.

At the pool hall, the girls run into a young man (approximately aged 28) who they’ve clearly met a few times in the past. Girl # 1 and this guy have a mild flirtation going on. Girl # 2 disapproves, but generally keeps quiet, being that Girl # 1 will snap at her if she shares too many precautionary opinions.

Later in the night, the young man takes the two girls to a park. He and Girl # 1 go around a bend, and they begin to fool around. At first, Girl # 1 is a willing participant, but when she shows hesitation to go further, the young man becomes enraged at her deception of experience. He takes off, leaving both girls behind.

Girl # 1, humiliated and distraught, seeks solace in Girl #2 who has overheard part of the incident. Girl # 2 pretends like nothing happened, and miraculously Girl # 1 softens as they discuss plans for having a sleepover.

Oh chill out, I told you it got rejected about a zillion times. The plot is not the point…it’s the names. Despite the story’s flaws, I still say I picked good monikers for the characters. Here is my reasoning:

“Tina.” Otherwise known as Girl # 1. The name has sharp angles. It’s the name of a someone with extremes. The “T” sound conjures up words such as “tough,” “terrible,” and “touchy.” At the same time, it ends in an “a” giving it that eternal feminine ring. Not classically feminine per se, but certainly in spit-fire girly-girl kind of way. This attitude reflects the character to a (no pun intended) capital “Tee.”

“Carey.” Or, better yet, Girl # 2. This is an endearing, yet less remarkable name. It’s a name that’s easy to say and easy to like. It “carries” one along in a sense. It’s smooth sailing; it’s easygoing. Just like the character. It’s a good, solid name that can be easily overlooked for its wonderful simplicity. Hence, Tina doesn’t often appreciate her friend Carey’s efforts. The spelling is significant too. It says that this character is special, different…but you might have look a bit closer.

“Scott.” The young(ish) man. This is a name that’s easy for an infatuated young girl to repeat over and over again, to write in her notebooks inside giant red hearts. It’s a rather unassuming name, and in that sense, it’s essentially a clean slate. A writer could probably turn a “Scott” into any kind character she wants him to be. Here’s my thing though…it’s not exactly a little boy’s name (such as Tommy or Timmy, or in this case, Scotty) but it’s not really…a man’s name either. This is precisely this character’s agenda. He’s no kid. Twenty-eight years old with mature needs messing with a sixteen year old girl? And that being said, well, he’s no man either.

“Chompers.” He was not mentioned in the summary; mostly because he does not play a huge role in the story. In fact, I’d considered plucking him from the page, but I just couldn’t do it. He adds of touch of humor to the otherwise sad thematic premises. He is the owner of the pool hall. An older man who speaks in sentence fragments, is un-amused , yet undeterred by Tina’s nastiness that chews on toothpicks and absently reads magazines up at the counter. The girls name him for his giant, yellow veneers. It is the perfect “inside joke” for two teenage girls. They have no clue as to his actual name, so instead they name him for an unfortunate physical characteristic. FYI, it’s later revealed that his name is “Herb,” which of course Tina finds hilarious enough to make a marijuana reference  as in  ‘I bet he smokes a lot of Herb too’

Whatever method you use to name your characters, please note that it holds a lot more importance than you might think. In many ways, just like your children, you’re naming them for life. I’d love to hear your methods for choosing character names! Feel free to comment below.

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The Particulars

“As writers we live life twice, like a cow that eats its food once and then regurgitates it to chew and digest it again. We have a second chance at biting into our experience and examining it. … This is our life and it’s not going to last forever. There isn’t time to talk about someday writing that short story or poem or novel. Slow down now, touch what is around you, and out of care and compassion for each moment and detail, put pen to paper and begin to write.”
—Natalie Goldberg

As an intrinsic writer, in my daily life I pay attention to the ‘particulars,’ or the details surrounding me. This began as a concentrated effort, probably some time during my undergraduate years when I first became immersed in literature. I read a ton as a kid, of course, any intrinsic will tell that he or she did. But back then I read countless R.L. Stine books, and The Babysitter’s Club series, plus other child classics like the Polk Street School tales, and Ramona, etc. Back then I read for the stories, the images that showed up in my mind, the characters that toyed with my imagination.

As I got older, I discovered that literature could have a rippling effect. Freshman year in high school I read A Separate Peace, by John Knowles (still one of my all time favorite books–I don’t care what the feminists say about it having no female characters. I used to love teaching it, too.) and for the first time discovered that fiction went beyond my favorite childhood narratives. I saw the complexity, the raw emotion, the parallels to real life.

These days, as a writer myself, I’m convinced that the complicated mesh and intricate web that makes up the anatomy of a story is all in the particulars. Any good novel, short story, screenplay, or even poem should be difficult to summarize. Even my own novel, when someone asks me what it is about, there is no way to explain it in a linear fashion. I can describe the plot, but I’ll always have to stop, backtrack, lay down the foundation of who is who, and what is what. Eventually the person gets tired of listening. You have to read it, I’ll say. Two years ago, I wrote a short story in a fiction writing class as part of my graduate program. The story was about a man who was having an affair with his mother-in-law. Of course it’s not that simple, see? There’s a background story, there’s various threads that weave together to make the whole. A classmate told me that I had “built [the story] like a house.” In any good writing, there has to be a recipe. Main ingredients, lesser ingredients, and those ingredients that make it just right.

Then there is filler. I search for filler everyday. The one stark red cardinal among a cluster of sparrows amidst a snowy backdrop. The visible veins in my cat’s ear when she sits next to a lamp. In spring, when the cherry blossoms along the main avenue shed their petals in the wind, lining up collectively along the curb lines. The leftover stench of onions hiding the pore of my forefinger after a night of chopping and mincing. A story is both big and small. Life is both big and small. The details are there for everyone. It’s up to the intrinsic types to point them out.

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Filed under Characters, Description, Inspiration, Prompts & Writing Ideas, The Writing Life, Why We Write, Writer's Block, Writing Details, Writing Process, Writing Tips