Tag Archives: Wally Lamb

Straight from the Gene Pool: How Sibling Relationships Mold Your Characters.

tom vogt → in People “Lollipops”

I want you all to take a minute and imagine life without your siblings. Would you be the same person? For better or worse, I’m guessing that no, you wouldn’t. What if your birth order were reversed?

Whether we want to admit it or not, our relationships with our siblings shape our personalities, goals, desires, and motivations. Don’t believe me? Read this article from Psychology Today

Still don’t believe me? Watch this video from TED Talks. It’s fascinating: Jeffrey Kluger: The Sibling Bond

I apologize to all my “only children” readers out there, because I’m about to get real about sisterly (and brotherly) love—that is, in both life and in literature.

I’ve written posts in the past that detail rather unconventional methods of characterization. Sibling relationships are my latest illustration.

I can think of many examples where these kinds of dynamics are the basis of the story. Other times they are simply part of the backdrop. As a writer there some methods you can use to establish the sibling bond. The following, I think, are among the most typical. Of course being the talented scribes you are, you can fill in all the unique details later on.

1. Sister Spiteful: The classic case of the jealous sibling. I believe it works better when the protagonist him or herself is the spiteful one. That way, as readers, we see the larger-than-life genealogical specimen from the underdog’s eyes. Often in these cases we find that the protagonist is struggling with her own identity. Her perceived perception of her perfect sibling only worsens this. Generally these relationships work out, as the envious sibling discovers her sister or brother has insecurities of his/her own.

My favorite literary examples: The Opposite of Me by Sarah Pekkenan & True Colors by Kristin Hannah
My favorite non-literary examples: A League of Their Own & Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

2. Brother Burden: This is a sibling bond that often carries sad undertones. In these cases we see a brother or sister who must care for his/her sibling. Perhaps the sibling is sick, mentally ill, addicted to drugs, etc. The caretaker is burdened by his brother or sister. His own life is greatly affected. He deals with such debilitating emotions as guilt, blame, remorse, and responsibility. But despite the drain, he can’t leave his sibling behind. If the writer is merciful, he relieves this character at the end.

My favorite literary examples: I Know This Much is True by Wally Lamb
My favorite non-literary examples: Love Actually

3. Pals of Progeny: Maybe they bit each other’s heads off when they were kids. Fought to the death over who got more ice cream, or who was next in line to take a shower. But now they’re grown up and they appreciate each other. In fact, they’re pals, friends, buddies. Brothers who take fishing trips together. Sisters who borrow each other’s clothes. Brothers who protect their sisters, and vice versa. It’s a bond that’s tough to break. In literature these types of sibling dynamics can go both ways—horribly right or horribly wrong depending on the nature of the story.

My favorite literary example: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott & Ramona and Beezus by Beverly Cleary
My favorite non-literary example: Friends (Monica and Ross) & The Parent Trap

4. Opposing Offspring: These are competitive types. Or perhaps distant types. In these relationships there was always something that wasn’t quite right. It could be based on jealously, but often in the ‘opposing offspring’ dynamo the culprits consider themselves equals. Maybe they’re simply too different from one another. Perhaps at one time, one backstabbed the other. Either way, the conflict is deep and rich; the path to finding solace in one another is an arduous journey.

My favorite literary example: In Her Shoes by Jennifer Weiner & Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
My favorite non-literary example: Practical Magic

A word on birth order:

To take this further, I’ve compiled a list of commonly accepted characteristics based on birth order. This knowledge may further aid your characterization:

Oldest child-people pleasing, bossy, organized, punctual, natural leader, controlling, ambitious, expected to uphold family values, caretakers, financially intelligent, responsible

Middle child-flexible, easy going, independent, sometimes feels like life is unfair, sometimes will engage in attention-seeking behavior, competitive.

Youngest child-silly or funny, risk-taking, creative, sometimes feels inferior, easily bores, friendly, outgoing, idealistic

Only child-close to parents, demanding, leaders, spoiled, self-absorbed, private in nature, may relate better to adults to kids their own age, independent, responsible

Where do you fit in with your siblings? How about your characters? Who is your favorite sibling pair in either literature or pop culture? As usual—looking forward to your responses!

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Filed under Characters, Inspiration, Writing Process, Writing Tips

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

Tell me about your mother: A character’s psychological make up

I believe all writers should have a solid understanding of psychology. Nothing too detailed, just your standard knowledge from any given Psych 101 text. This planet sustains over six billion people, yet it’s impossible to find any two who are exactly the same in genetic structure, upbringing, and individual experiences (and yes, this includes identical twins). Humans are complex; your characters should be too.

Character motives run deep. They have to come from somewhere. A general, even rudimentary comprehension of psychology can do wonders for character development. For example, a spoiled, pampered-upon princess type will not likely have confidence issues. However, she may struggle with superficiality. An unyielding, turned-criminal heroin addict may have suffered through child abuse, or been raised by a broken family. It doesn’t have to be this simple; in fact, it probably shouldn’t be. But like us, our characters are products of their environment. If done correctly, every choice they make will have its roots.

“We all have our layers”
Shi Yali → in Food & Drink

 

Character Psychology 101: My own personal breakdown:

1. So, tell me about your mother: Mommy/Daddy issues. Classic. It all starts and ends here. I’ve read so many stories where characters have unresolved conflicts with their parents. My own novel (unconsciously, of course) portrays one of these very predicaments. If applicable, think about your characters’ relationships with their parents. Are they solid? Irreparable? And more importantly, do the characters reflect these dilemmas? Are there manifestations of insecurity? Hopelessness? Do they choose partners on account of who their mothers and fathers were? Perhaps a man who was raised by his overbearing mother has issues sustaining relationships. After all, no one’s as good as mommy. This can be expanded into issues with the family—siblings, other relatives, etc. A broad understanding of how it all works will help put your character intentions into perspective.

2. It’s understandable; you were a victim of trauma: War, rape, assault, accident, or abuse. These characters will likely have matters to sort out. It’s likely their lives will not follow a straight line. They will encounter difficulty with day-to-day matters, and their willpower will constantly be tested. What types of activity will they fall into? Drug or alcohol abuse? Sex addiction? Homelessness? Theft, murder, or other illegal pursuits? Maybe it won’t even be that drastic, and of course they can overcome their burdens, but the characters must be shaped by the traumas. It’s simple psychology after all.

3. See, you’re using what we call a defense mechanism: Is your sarcastic character trying to cover up his insecurities? Is your anger-ridden protagonist hiding pain? Is the macho-monster truck-driving alpha male perhaps…compensating for something? Do any of your characters repress feelings? Act out? In other words, certain outer behaviors should likely reflect a tortured inner world.

4. Well, to me, that sounds like a self-fulfilling prophecy: Say you have a character who’s certain that no matter what he does, he will fail. Then, not surprisingly, he does fail. Over and over again. It’s a state of mind, almost like a prediction. In some ways, this character is controlling the outcome of his life with his negative thoughts. We do it in real life all the time. Characters instantly become identifiable when they do it too.

5. No, it’s not just in your head; it’s an illness, an actual illness: One my favorite books of all time, Wally Lamb’s I know This Much is True, is about a man who has a schizophrenic twin brother. These characters with mental illnesses cannot be blamed for their actions, and often, extensive research must be done to realistically capture the causes, symptoms, characteristics, and treatments of the disease.

There are spider webs in our unconscious minds. Every person alive today has his/her share of unrealized desires, fears, and latent projections. Since we all strive to create characters that make our readers tick, it doesn’t hurt to understand what makes us tick first.

How about you? Does fundamental psychology influence your characters, whether it’s deliberate or not? As always, excited to hear what you have to say!

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Far Out: Writing fiction set in different decades

I’ve always been fascinated by decades past, particularly those before my birth.  My novel spans the ‘70s and ‘80s, and I’ve written short stories set in similar periods. It’s not easy to capture the ‘vibe’ of another decade, because it goes beyond saying, “My story is set in the seventies so I’ll have my characters watch The Brady Bunch.”  Dropping popular celebrity names, fashion styles, or any peppering of timely—and obvious—pop culture references will not do the setting’s vibe justice.

When I first began to research my novel’s era, I was biting off more than I could chew. Countless hours were spent memorizing hairdos, current events, slang terms, and more. None of which, might I add, turned out to be successful in creating my story’s (totally far out) vibe. In movies and television shows these elements may be important due to their visual natures, but it doesn’t work the same way in literature. Though some well-placed epoch-relevant allusions work well, there is no need to constantly remind the reader what decade it is. The groove should take care of itself.

Nicolas Raymond → in Objects

So taking a step back and re-analyzing the situation, I found that taking a broad, academic approach to researching a different decade works wonders. Take any ten year period and think about the big picture. What were people’s hopes and fears at the time? What philosophies surrounded the era? This is what I mean by vibe.

Two great books have aided my process:

Decade of Nightmares: The End of the Sixties and The Making of Eighties America  by Phillip Jenkins

Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain the World We Live in Now–Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything by David Sirota

Both books gave a comprehensive overview of the 1970’s and 1980’s, respectively. Just having a sense of the overall climate of the two decades gave me tremendous insight.

In the meantime, I’ve developed some strategies to live by when researching the glory days:

  1. Peruse books, magazines, and newspapers from the era. I got lucky when my father-in-law came across boxes of old Newsweek compilation books in his garage. The books were categorized by year.  From obscure cigarette brands to long-forgotten car models, vintage kitchen equipment, and not to mention, the big stories of the day, these books greatly contributed to my setting’s ‘vibe.’
  2. Watch television shows, movies, and music videos (if applicable, otherwise, listen to the music) of the era. Also, read books written during the era. Particularly with film and television, this helps with the visuals. The semi-faded backgrounds, the slower day-to-day pace, the humor, and of course, the ‘look and feel’ of the decade. Translate this into the writer’s mind, and somehow, magically, it ends up on the page. I’ve made a point to watch movies like Saturday Night Fever, The Breakfast Club, and other pop culture classics circa…well, fill in the blank. Nick at Nite can be helpful, as can old episodes of Saturday Night Live.
  3. Watch television shows, movies, music videos, and read books that portray a different era. Get some ideas on how it’s been done. Which ones are believable? That 70s show, Happy Days, Mad Men, and The Wonder Years come to mind. As do films such as Dazed and Confused, Rock Star, The Sandlot, Forrest Gump and A League of Their Own.Some great fiction that depict the days of yore? Try Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, Jodi Picoult’s Second Glance (Told in parts during the 1930s—what a feat!), and of course, many more.

My main point in this: the details do matter, but so does the bigger backdrop. Establishing setting (either time or place) on details alone just won’t do the trick. The vibe is crucial, even in its most subtle forms. Without the vibe, the story’s just stuck in some timeless purgatory.

Have you ever written in an era other than this one? Did you go back even further (in other words, a ‘real’ historical novel)? What was your experience like? How do you capture ‘the vibe?’

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Breaking Through, The Setting, The Writing Life, Writing Tips

In Defense of Flashbacks

Rachel Towne in Wood Textures http://www.stockvault.net/c/wood-textures

I’m not sure when I first realized it, but I’m obsessed with “the past.” I’m not talking about my own past per se, although in some ways I am. I have the occasional—OK, frequent—bouts of nostalgia.

It’s not just my life though. It’s my characters’ lives. Their pasts. Their struggles. Their transformations. That’s why I’m such a fan of the coming-of-age novel; by the time the story reaches the end, the protagonist already has a past.

I once had a writing professor who railroaded one of my short stories because it had too many “flashbacks.” Great professor, great class, learned a lot…but the man DESPISED flashbacks! In fact, he discouraged it, saying something along the lines of, “There’s nothing worse than the middle aged-man-on-the-front-porch-reflection story.” Gasp! How about the woman-in-the-bathtub-with-glass-of-red-reflection story? No? Oh…

In hindsight, I see what he was doing. He was encouraging us to write forward-moving stories. Page turners. Narrative arcs that built up conflict, climbed to their pinnacles without interruption. And in some ways, it’s true—particularly in short stories—that a story’s action must constantly be accelerating, driving towards something. And certainly meaningless, random, and miscellaneous flashbacks that do nothing to advance the plot have no place in literature.

But the well-crafted breed? To me, there’s nothing better in fiction. Alice LaPlante’s book Method and Madness: The Making of a Story says this of flashbacks:

“…one very rich source of characterization-driven plotting can found in flashbacks, giving the reader information about what is traditionally called “backstory,” or the past of the story. Flashbacks are very important to plot—which, you may remember, is those events arranged in the proper order the writer thinks best, not necessarily chronological order” (334).

Not only are flashbacks important to plot, but they’re critical to characterization. Take the show Lost for instance. A plane crashes on an island, and its new inhabitants are forced to forge a new lifestyle. What I love about that show…drum roll, please…are the character flashbacks. In every episode, we see glimpses of the characters’ life pre-freaky island adventure. Each ‘back story’ gives the audience insight into why the character took the dreaded flight from Australia to LA, and what he or she went through before taking the voyage. It helps put each character’s motivations, actions, and personalities into perspective. Without the flashbacks, it would just be the singular setting of the island, and thus, the characters would be strangers—to both the audience and each other.

Some of the best books I’ve ever read contain flashbacks. In Kristin Hannah’s novel Winter Garden, the prologue itself is a flashback that sets the tone—an incident that causes a lifelong riff between a mother and her two daughters—for the remainder of the story. In Sue Miller’s While I Was Gone, a chance encounter with an old roommate delves the protagonist into memories of the late 1960s that lasts nearly one-third of the book, and of course, serves the foundation for the overall plot. In Wally Lamb’s I Know This Much is True, the narrator, who is dealing with a schizophrenic twin brother, goes back and forth from present day (the early 1990s in the story) to the late ‘60s when his brother was first showing signs of the disease, as well as deeply developed family histories of the characters.

Luckily, there is no one recipe for flashbacks. They come in all shapes and sizes. They can be a substantial portion of the book, they can come and go like musical riffs, they can be stretched out over the length of novel, building on each other as they go along. They can be scenes, blurbs or simply a quick, character reflection (such as on the front porch or in the bathtub).

In any event, flashbacks, when done correctly, breathe more life onto the page. They should be used as an opportunity to develop characters, expand the plot, heighten readers’ awareness, and most importantly, make the story unforgettable.

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I am what I am

You have to follow your own voice. You have to be yourself when you write. In effect, you have to announce, ‘This is me, this is what I stand for, this is what you get when you read me. I’m doing the best I can—buy me or not—but this is who I am as a writer.”
—David Morrell

This is an incredibly important point to consider. Often, we intrinsic writers feel that we have to sound a certain way, or write a certain way to be considered something of significance. I read many short stories, novels, and memoirs and admittedly, sometimes in the throes of reading the words of the others, I’ve questioned not my ability, not my talent, but my voice.

I truly believe that in my writing, the only element that ever truly came naturally–or, intrinsically–was voice. I’ve had to work ceaselessly on characters, setting, plot, description, diction, word choice, etc. but voice, that was always there. It was always distinctive.

I remember once, back when I was teaching high school, during a creative writing unit in my honors English class, I typed up a paragraph to demonstrate to the students the multidimensional qualities a character can and should have. I distributed the paragraph, saying nothing about who the author was; I simply wanted them to analyze the text. I had them read the sample silently, and then asked a volunteer to read aloud. As we discussed the piece, a student raised her hand and asked, “did you write this?” I was stunned, taken aback. How did she know? I asked her just that. “Oh I don’t know,” she said, “it just sounded like you.” It was then I became aware of my ‘voice’ in writing. I pondered this notion; do I have a unique flow?

Think of authors or characters who have discernible narrations–Holden Caufield of course, Jack Kerouac, who once said: “Oftentimes an originator of new language forms is called ‘pretentious’ by jealous talents. But it ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it.” A personal favorite of mine–Wally Lamb–also harbors that refined quality that makes readers say, “Oh…this is soooo (fill in the blank). It’s like music. When you hear Elvis sing, you immediately know it’s him. Likewise, The Beatles, Queen, Led Zep, you get the idea.

I want to honor that voice that is my writing. Because, like Popeye said, “I yam what I yam.” In life, and in writing.

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Filed under Inspiration, The Writing Life, Why We Write, Writing Details, Writing Fears, Writing Process, Writing Tips