Archive for December, 2010

Dimensionality

As a new writer with little publication credit, I’ve been told the characters in my book must be fully three-dimensional in order for the reader to identify with them.  And identify with them they must.  Characters have to get inside the reader, inside his/her head and bounce around in there like old friends coming over for a Christmas visit.  Trouble is, that’s a big task for the beginner, not used to developing human beings from the ground up.  How does one make a truly “three-dimensional” character?

Like many terms in writing (and life in general) the term “three-dimensional” has been taken from another–and totally different–aspect of our existence, and seems, in my opinion, to be used rather willy-nilly to refer to characters for whom a large part of their life, their actions, their wants and likes, their dislikes and prejudices, and so forth, are revealed.  They are presented in such a way that we as readers get to know them, to understand their motivation in every situation, and to make up our minds as to whether we like him/her or not.

For example, suppose I have two main characters in my story.  Call them Mike and Sally.  They go to a restaurant.  The waiter who serves them may say a few words while he takes their order and serves the food, but is largely silent.  That waiter could be described best as one-dimensional.  He’s basically an adjunct to the story, of little consequence to the action, and not at all important.

But suppose that waiter confides to the couple, “I know where I can get you a great Rolex knock-off.  Looks just like the original, for $45.”  Now we’re alerted to the fact that the waiter is not just a waiter anymore.  He has a life well outside taking orders and delivering food.  He’s become more than one-dimensional, the author has added a second dimension to his life.  It even suggests that later in the story, Mike or Sally might indulge in a little bit of speculation in the knock-off watch market.

Let’s take this further.  Suppose we follow the waiter home after the restaurant closes.  He pays off a policeman to look the other way during his dealings with his supplier of spurious Rolexes.  After he arrives home, he beats his wife and kicks the dog.  Quite a different personality from the smiling, cordial guy who took Mike and Sally’s order back at the restaurant.  Now he’s become much more multi-dimensional.  (Whether he’s actually three-dimensional or not is more a matter of opinion, but you get the idea.)  We’re interested in this guy.  We want to see more.  Will Mike buy a knock-off?  Will “the waiter” sell to him?  Or will he beat the crap out of him?

What motivates this waiter?  Why the anger?  What’s going on here?

Every human is flawed.  Every last piddly one of them.  We all have our blemishes, our imperfections.  We have our inconsistencies, our conflicts, our temperaments, and our characters in fiction should, too.  Even an infant can go from a happy, smiling child to regurgitating all over your brand new silk damask gown.  I’ve heard from members of critique groups about my characters, that “this is inconsistent with him/her.  I don’t understand why he/she did that.”  Now, partly this is due to my poor writing skills that have given that critiquer the wrong impression, but I suspect that to a certain extent this criticism is based on the idea that a character in a novel should (indeed must, according to some people) be totally consistent in everything he/she does, and can’t be expected to do something the reader doesn’t expect or doesn’t like.

Does art imitate life?  Certainly it does, though it goes beyond that, too.  Fiction is the art of bringing us a story about people we can care about, and only a fully developed character, flaws and all, can do that.

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The Character’s the Thing

As a writer of fiction, I have yet to be published.  I’m still learning how to write believable fiction, feeling my way along the pathway to publication.  I’ve read books and many, many articles in writing magazines.  I’ve gone to writing and science fiction conventions, and talked to published writers and listened to them as they discussed what got them to publication.  I’ve heard agents and editors, and I’ve queried same.  Having been a scientist all my life and written many scientific papers, I’ve had to unlearn all I knew about writing in order to take up the fiction style.  I’ve learned a lot.

There are a lot of rules about writing.  An almost overwhelming number.  No wonder some people go to college and get a master’s degree just to do creative fiction or nonfiction.  I’ve learned a lot of those rules (and blogged about some of them), but I’ve run across a rule (actually not so much a rule as a suggestion) which deserves passing on to others.  This rather loose rule is about the characters in a story.

When I began my first science fiction novel, I made a few notes about the characters, around a paragraph each.  Seemed sufficient at the time.  Then I wrote the novel, making up details about each character’s life as I went along.  That worked well enough to get the novel written, and get it through several revisions as suggested by a number of readers (friends, critique groups, other experts in the field).  But the novel stalled.  I could revise and revise, but the revisions were little better than the original.  I needed some other serious change to bring the novel up to publication quality.

Novels are invariably about people.  (An exception might be Jack London’s The Call of the Wild, whose main character is a dog, but humans play a role in the book, too.)  Every human (or space alien) has a history: a birth, childhood, adulthood, etc., all of which contribute to the totality of what we call a person.  The characters in a story deserve the same consideration.  That’s what was missing from my novel, and that was what kept it from coming alive with real character.

The short paragraphs I wrote about the characters in my novel weren’t sufficient in most cases.  The main characters, especially, deserved more.  I’d read about making detailed life histories for main characters several times, and several people had suggested it over and over (thanks, Carrie).  But I resisted, figuring I could work it out as I wrote.  Didn’t work.  I finally relented.

Now I have detailed life histories for at least three characters in my novel, and somewhat less detailed histories for several others, and the plot is beginning to gel.  The tension and conflict necessary for a good novel are emerging, and a serious revision of the novel seems much easier now.  Novels are tension-driven (not character-driven or plot-driven) and now that I’ve given the characters a history and lifestyle that provides potential for that tension, the revision should result in a novel I can be proud of, and will provide the reader with an entertaining story.  After all, that’s what novels are all about, aren’t they?  But that’s another blog.

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Book Review: The Grand Design

I picked up a copy of “The Grand Design” by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow several weeks ago and read it in a few days.  It’s not a big book as far as size goes (198 pages), though it does have some heavy philosophy in it.  It stuck with me and I thought I’d attempt a short review.  As a biological scientist I don’t have the background necessary to critique the book fully.  I can’t comment on all the heavy physics that rambles through the book.  I’m just an armchair physicist who reads a little to gain a foothold in the subject, sufficient knowledge to write believable science fiction.  But still the book did make an impression on me, an impression which others might find interesting.  Or might not.

One of the most interesting things the authors say, and right up front, too, (page 5) is that traditional philosophy is dead.  Philosophy, by their accounting, “has not kept up with modern developments in science,” and “[s]cientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery…”  This will probably come as a shock to traditional philosophers, and actually doesn’t sit fully with what Hawking and Mlodinow have to say in the rest of the book, relying somewhat on such classic philosophers as Aristotle and Thomas Aquinus.

Most of the book is taken up by a review of modern-day physics, going back as far as Aristarchus and Archimedes (did you know that Pythagoras did not discover the theorem that bears his name?) through Ptolemy, Copernicus, Newton, and into the present with Einstein and a few others.  They put a tremendous amount of emphasis on the works of Richard Feynman whose most significant discovery was that every system (including, especially, the universe) has not one history but every possible history.  It’s as though everything that could happen, did happen.  If this sounds counter-intuitive, it’s supposed to.  Hawking and Mlodinow argue that the universe doesn’t follow the rules of common sense, especially when we delve into the structure of the atom or the early universe.

After the review of physics, the authors run head on into Intelligent Design, the current euphemism for creationism.  And that is the real reason for the book, to counter the argument that the world, the solar system,  indeed the entire universe was created by God (according to Archbishop Ussher, on October 27, 4004 BC).  There is no need to invoke a creator, they argue, the universe came into being by its own accord, through the laws of nature, laws we are coming close to understanding in full.  It had too, they say, there was no other course.

I’m not sure I agree.  I moderately understand all the laws and rules that the universe follows, though not all the physics and math behind them, and I understand that it’s meaningless to wonder about what existed before the universe came into being through the inflation that followed the Big Bang.  I understand the principle that the universe seems to be made for us, that we developed in this universe because conditions were just right for our development.  Had things been even slightly different, like, for example, the earth was slightly farther or closer to the sun, or the mass of the proton was different by only 10%, things would be so radically different we wouldn’t be here.  Life wouldn’t exist.  We are the life that developed on this planet.  Nothing else could come about.

But I’m not convinced that Hawking and Mlodinow have made their case.  I am not a creationist by any stretch of imagination, and I have always been willing to put my money on scientific principles, but don’t think this book will put to rest the argument about creationism vs. scientific verification.  No matter what a scientist says, a creationist can always argue that “God did it,” or “God did it first,” or some other proclamation.  The final results are not in; the argument is not closed.

That, however, is not a sufficient reason to drop the argument.  More research is needed, and I’m 100% certain we will eventually be able to describe how the universe came into being by scientific principles alone.  But if you want to argue that God is behind it, be my guest.

As an aside, the authors had an annoying tendency to not set off their adverbial phrases with commas.  (Example, “Until the advent of modern physics it was generally thought…”)

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Redundancies

Do you use redundancies in your writing?  I do.

A redundancy is defined (in my dictionary, at least) as “superfluous repetition,” or “the part of a message that can be eliminated without loss of essential information” (Merriam-Webster).  Also, “the use of surplus words.”  (Same dictionary, different edition.)  I’ve noticed in my writing I have a tendency to use redundancies.  They seem to creep in when I’m not looking hard enough, and rushing through just to get words on paper.  If I read over what I’ve written and look at it carefully and dispassionately, I can usually spot them.  It can be tricky, though, because some redundancies are ingrained in our language, and we’re used to them in speaking all the time.  I’ve seen them in the writing of others, too, so I’m not alone.  Here’s ten I’ve seen over the past year or so:

     “Thousands protest against Quran burning.”   A headline on the Yahoo news page.  Isn’t a protest usually against something anyway?
     “Two identical twins.”   I don’t remember where I saw this, but it begs the question, how many twins does it take to be identical?
     “Kills bugs dead.”  From the Raid commercials.  No comment.
     “May have a chance to win a prize.”   I heard this one on the radio.  Either you have a chance, or you may win a prize.  No need for both.
     “About five or six years old.”  This is one I’m guilty of.  Better is:  “About six years old,” or “Five or six years old.”
     “A small group of eight musicians.”  Another of my goofs.  A group of eight musicians is usually considered a small group, compared to, say, a symphony orchestra.  No need to emphasize it.
     “Infinitesimally tiny.”  I’ve seen this around and written it myself, but “infinitesimal” means immeasurably or incalculably small (same dictionary), so the “tiny” isn’t needed.
     “Staring intently.”  Again, another of my faux pas.  To stare is to look at intently.  No need for the adverb.
     “Swinging back and forth.”  If something, like a pendulum, is swinging, it’s going back and forth.
     “Alien planet.”  No planet anywhere in outer space is going to be exactly like Earth, so wouldn’t another planet roaming around out there be alien almost by definition?  Why emphasize it?

There are a lot more redundancies floating around, like planets in the ether, and we use them because they’ve become a part of our lexicon.  The only defense is careful reading and re-reading of what has been written and a solid knowledge of the definitions of the words used.  A good dictionary and thesaurus are essential.  Enough said.

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