Character-Building Challenge Day 3: Second Character Interview

Character by Maria L. Berg 2023

For the third day of the first Writer’s Digest Character-Building Challenge the prompt is to choose another of the character names from Day One and interview that character.

Today I’ll interview Davenna Dale Byron.

The Questions

I’m using the same questions from Day 2 that I adapted from Novel Writing: 10 Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters by Brenda Janowitz.

  1. How old are you? How old do you feel? I just turned forty, but I’m still twenty-five inside.
  2. Did you have a happy childhood? Why/why not? I think so. My parents both worked but my grandma took care of me. I always thought of her like the fairy god mother from Cinderella. I always had lots of friends. All the kids liked to come swim in the pool. So I was never neglected or lonely.
  3. Are you in a relationship? Tell me about your past relationships? How did they affect you? I’m married. Roger works too much, but he’s a great provider and he’s always bringing me neat gifts from his business trips. I don’t really have past relationships to speak of. Roger was my first serious relationship. I mean sometimes I fantasize about my first love, but that’s just day dreaming.
  4. What do you care about? Making the world a better place. All we need is love, right? I just want everyone to be happy. I send money to all sorts of charities.
  5. What are you obsessed with? Staying pretty and desirable. It’s a full time job looking like this.
  6. What is your biggest fear? Being alone.
  7. What is the best thing that ever happened to you? Getting married to Roger, of course. Our wedding was so romantic.
  8. What is the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you? I get embarrassed rather easily. A side-affect of being a wife and mother trying to be perfect, but I think the most embarrassing is still the time little Shelley walked in on Roger and me, um well in the heat of passion. I was mortified. She screamed and ran to her bedroom and slammed the door. I have no idea what she thought she saw. Excuse me, my face is getting hot just thinking about it. Can we be done now?
  9. Tell me your biggest secret. I’m thinking about having an affair. I think about it all the time. It started out as a little game of Who would it be? But now, I’m obsessed.
  10. What one word defines you? Romantic
Beneath the Surface by Maria L. Berg 2023

My Novel Draft

Today it’s my antagonist’s turn to answer some questions:

  • How old are you? How old do you feel? Twenty-five. Twenty-six? Twenty-seven. Okay, fine. I’m thirty-one but don’t you dare tell anyone.
  • Did you have a happy childhood? Why/why not? No. Not really. I had a really bad mom. She was a drug addict, had abusive boyfriends, the works. But it got better when I met Verity. Verity had a good mom. She took care of me. 
  • Are you in a relationship? Tell me about your past relationships. How did they affect you? How did they affect you? Oh, wow. How long do we have? Just kidding. I guess it depends what you mean by relationship. I like people. I like lots of people, and they like me.
  • What do you care about? Freedom. Nobody tells me what to do. And money. Freedom takes money.
  • What are you obsessed with? Getting what’s mine. People owe me.
  • What is your biggest fear? That people will stop thinking I’m beautiful. That they’ll stop paying attention to me. Abandonment. I’m sick of being abandoned.
  • What is the best thing that ever happened to you? Meeting Verity. My life changed the day she took me home after school and her mom treated me as if I was her daughter too. I finally had a family.
  • What is the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you? I don’t get embarrassed. I mean, there are plenty of sex-tapes out there. 
  • What is your biggest secret? I’m not who people think I am. They all think because I look like this, there’s nothing under the hood. But they are so wrong. I have plans in motion that will blow their minds.
  • What is the one word that defines you? Beauty

RNLN Attempt 8: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

Inside Their Heads by Maria L. Berg 2023

Overview: To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf is an intimate look at a philosopher’s wife, her husband, and eight children and their guests at a summer house. The young son wants to take the boat trip to the Lighthouse but the weather is not cooperating and he is very disappointed. The novel is told in stream of consciousness from a very close omniscient point of view, so the reader is inside all of the character’s minds almost simultaneously.

The novel has three sections. The second section is a distant point of view in which time has passed and the house has been left vacant but is now being cleaned for the family’s return. The final section shows how the characters (and the world) have changed due to World War I.

This novel is semi-autobiographical in that Virginia Woolf was the seventh of eight children whose father was a philosopher and scholar and her mother died suddenly.

Things I Learned

Introducing characters through their thoughts and then their physical appearance: From the very first page the reader is in the characters’ heads. Here is how we are introduced to the Ramsay’s young son, James: “Since he belonged, even at the age of six, to that great clan which cannot keep this feeling separate from that, but must let future prospects, with their joys and sorrows, cloud what is actually at hand, since to such people even in earliest childhood any turn in the wheel of sensation has the power to crystallise and transfix the moment upon which its gloom or radiance rests, James Ramsay, sitting on the floor cutting out pictures from the illustrated catalogue . . .”

So we start inside his head and heart where he can’t keep his contradictory emotions separated, and then we see what he’s doing. Then she gives a little setting as part of his emotion: ” It was fringed with joy. The wheelbarrow, the lawnmower, the sound of poplar trees, leaves whitening before rain, rooks cawing, brooms knocking, dresses rustling—all these were so coloured and distinguished in his mind that he had already his private code, his secret language, though he appeared the image of stark, and uncompromising severity . . .”

And after we know his feelings, and how they affect his actions and his surroundings, we get some physical description: “. . . with his high forehead, and his fierce blue eyes, impeccably candid and pure, frowning slightly at the sight of human frailty . . .” I love that description of his frown, a six year old “frowning slightly at the sight of human frailty.” Then, in the same sentence she moves into how his mother sees him in that moment: “so that his mother, watching him guide his scissors neatly round the refrigerator, imagined him all red and ermine on the Bench or directing a stern and momentous enterprise in some crisis of public affairs.”

So we’re even seeing his mother’s hopes for his future career. However, in the next paragraph we see another side of this little boy: “Had there been an axe handy, or a poker, any weapon that would have gashed a hole in his father’s breast and killed him, there and then, James would have seized it. Such were the extremes of emotion that Mr. Ramsay excited in his children’s breasts by his mere presence . . .”

What a turn. By saying what the boy would do, but didn’t, Woolf has shown a secret dark side to the child she’s been introducing, but also introduces the child’s father in a very interesting and mysterious way.

Let’s look at another character introduction: The next character introduced after Mr. Ramsay is Tansley. He speaks before anything is said about him: “It’s due west,” said the atheist Tansley, holding his bony fingers spread so that the wind blew through them, for he was sharing Mr. Ramsay’s evening walk up and down, up and down the terrace. That is to say, the wind blew from the worst possible direction for landing at the Lighthouse. Yes, he did say disagreeable things, Mrs. Ramsay admitted; it was odious of him to rub this in, and make James still more disappointed; but at the same time, she would not let them laugh at him. “

The narrator calls him “the atheist Tansley” and yet Mrs. Ramsay whose mind we end up in doesn’t like that her children tease him by calling him the atheist. They call him the atheist not specifically as a religious non-believer, but because he doesn’t believe in anything. And they are teasing him because he admires their father and is studying under him. The only physical characteristic given is that he has bony fingers. He is introduced in relation to Mr Ramsay, but from Mrs. Ramsay’s point of view that he says disagreeable things, and thus the first thing he does in the novel is say something she finds disagreeable.

And here’s a third way she describes a character: She let’s the reader in on how one character thinks of another. Here we have how Lily (an artist friend) sees William Bankes (an old friend of Mr. Ramsay): “Suddenly, as if the movement of his hand had released it, the load of her accumulated impressions of him tilted up, and down poured in a ponderous avalanche all she felt about him That was one sensation. Then up rose in a fume the essence of his being. That was another. She felt herself transfixed by the intensity of her perception; it was his severity; his goodness. I respect you (she addressed silently him in person) in every atom; you are not vain; you are entirely impersonal; you are finer than Mr. Ramsay; you are the finest human being that I know; you have neither wife nor child (without any sexual feeling, she longed to cherish that loneliness), you live for science (involuntarily, sections of potatoes rose before her eyes); praise would be an insult to you; generous, pure-hearted, heroic man! But simultaneously, she remembered how he had brought a valet all the way up here; objected to dogs on chairs; would prose for hours (until Mr. Ramsay slammed out of the room) about salt in vegetables and the iniquity of English cooks.
How then did it work out, all this? How did one judge people, think of them? How did one add up this and that and conclude that it was liking one felt, or disliking? And to those words, what meaning attached, after all?”

I love how Lily’s thoughts go from “you are the finest human being that I know” to “he objected to dogs on chairs” to what does liking and disliking mean anyway?

Describing setting through the emotions it evokes: The setting in this novel is mostly the gardens around the summer home which is near the ocean. As I mentioned in the description of James Ramsay, objects and setting are described through emotion. Here’s another example: ” They came there regularly every evening drawn by some need. It was as if the water floated off and set sailing thoughts which had grown stagnant on dry land, and gave to their bodies even some sort of physical relief. First, the pulse of colour flooded the bay with blue, and the heart expanded with it and the body swam, only the next instant to be checked and chilled by the prickly blackness on the ruffled waves. Then, up behind the great black rock, almost every evening spurted irregularly, so that one had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came, a fountain of white water; and then, while one waited for that, one watched, on the pale semicircular beach, wave after wave shedding again and again smoothly, a film of mother of pearl.”

Notice also how she used her sentence structure to delay “a fountain of white water,” building the mystery and tension throughout the sentence, so that the reader, along with the people on the beach, “had to watch for it and it was a delight when it came.”

Revolving: I noticed an interesting pattern of repetition through out the novel. An instantaneous repetition and then a later call back type of repetition that made me think of the cyclical nature of thought, memory, the seasons, years, life, etc.  For example: On page seventy-six in my paperback she writes, “Minta cried out that she had lost her grandmother’s brooch—her grandmother’s brooch, the sole ornament she possessed—a weeping willow, it was(they must remember it) set in pearls. They must have seen it, she said, with the tears running down her cheeks, the brooch which her grandmother had fastened her cap with till the last day of her life. Now she had lost it. She would rather have lost anything than that!” Then on page 77 she writes, “There was nothing more that could be done now. If the brooch was there, it would still be there in the morning, they assured her, but Minta still sobbed, all the way up to the top of the cliff. It was her grandmother’s brooch; she would rather have lost anything but that, and yet Nancy felt, it might be true that she minded losing her brooch, but she wasn’t crying only for that. She was crying for something else. We might all sit down and cry, she felt. But she did not know what for.

Another example:  On  the bottom of page thirteen to page fourteen she writes, “He heard her quick step above; heard her voice cheerful, then low; looked at the mats, tea-caddies, glass shades; waited quite impatiently; looked forward eagerly to the walk home; determined to carry her bag; then heard her come out; shut a door; say they must keep the windows open and the doors shut, ask at the house for anything they wanted (she must be talking to a child) when, suddenly, in she came, stood for a moment silent (as if she had been pretending up there, and for a moment let herself be now) . . .” Then, on page twenty-seven: “The mat was fading; the wall-paper was flapping. You couldn’t tell any more that those were roses on it. Still, if every door in a house is left perpetually open, and no lockmaker in the whole of Scotland can mend a bolt, things must spoil. Every door was left open. She listened. The drawing-room door was open; the hall door was open; it sounded as if the bedroom doors were open; and certainly the window on the landing was open, for that she had opened herself. That windows should be open, and doors shut—simple as it was, could none of them remember it?”

The first example of this repetition is only a page apart, this connection of the character Tansley hearing Mrs. Ramsay talk about windows and doors and then Mrs. Ramsay talking about windows and doors is fourteen pages apart, and yet they are part of a pattern of repetition and call-backs throughout the writing that stood out to me as part of the novel as a whole as a study of distance.

Near the end of the novel she seems to explain all of her circular repetition when she says, “For in the rough and tumble of daily life, with all those children about, all those visitors, one had constantly a sense of repetition—of one thing falling where another had fallen, and so setting up an echo which chimed in the air and made it full of vibrations.”

Distance and intimacy: The first section of the novel is so intimate that the reader is inside everyone’s heads almost at once. The second section is so distant that huge changes, life and death, are in brackets at the end of sections of exposition. The third section is back to intimacy, but a guarded intimacy that has changed too much over time. The premise being explored is at what distance is the correct distance for connection?

Near the end of the novel the character Lily makes this comparison of physical distance and emotional distance, “So much depends then, thought Lily Briscoe, looking at the sea which had scarcely a stain on it, which was so soft that the sails and the clouds seemed set in its blue, so much depends, she thought upon distance: whether people are near us or far from us; for her feeling for Mr. Ramsay changed as he sailed further and further across the bay. It seemed to be elongated, stretched out; he seemed to become more and more remote. He and his children seemed to be swallowed up in that blue, that distance;”

I really like this section talking about the Lighthouse from a distance compared to the lighthouse close-up: ” James looked at the Lighthouse. He could see the white-washed rocks; the tower, stark and straight; he could see that it was barred with black and white; he could see windows in it; he could even see washing spread on the rocks to dry. So that was the Lighthouse, was it?

No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too. It was sometimes hardly to be seen across the by. n the evening one looked up and saw the eye opening and shutting and light seemed to reach them in the airy sunny garden where they sat.”

From this passage one could conclude that relation includes both closeness and distance.

Contradictory Abstractions: Virginia Woolf liked to explore our contradictory natures and talked a lot about contradictory abstract nouns which I enjoyed. Here are some examples of how she explored contradictory abstract nouns: Truth / Deceit- “The extraordinary irrationality of her remark, the folly of women’s minds enraged him. He had ridden through the valley of death, been shattered and shivered; and now, she flew in the face of facts, made his children hope what was utterly out of the question, in effect, told lies. He stamped his foot on the stone step. “Damn you,” he said. But what had she said? Simply that it might be fine tomorrow. So it might.

Not with the barometer falling and the wind due west.

To pursue truth with such astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings, to rend the thin veils of civilisation so wantonly, so brutally, was to her so horrible an outrage of human decency that, without replying, dazed and blinded, she bent her head as if to let the pelt of jagged hail, the drench of dirty water, bespatter her unrebuked. There was nothing to be said.

He stood by her in silence. Very humbly, at length, he said that he would step over and ask he Coastguards if she liked.
There was nobody whom she reverenced as she reverenced him.”

Reality / Illusion – “This will celebrate the occasion—a curious sense rising in her, at once freakish and tender, of celebrating a festival, as if two emotions were called up in her, one profound—for what could be more serious than the love of man for woman, what more commanding, more impressive, bearing in its bosom the seeds of death; at the same time these lovers, these people entering into illusion glittering eyed, must be dance round with mockery, decorated with garlands.

Wisdom / Naivete – “And that’s the way I’d like my children to live—Cam was sure that her father was thinking that, for he stopped her throwing a sandwich into the sea and told her, as if he were thinking of the fishermen and how they lived, that if she did not want it she should put it back in the parcel. She should not waste it. He said it so wisely, as if he knew so well all the things that happened in the world that she put it back at once, and then he gave her, from his own parcel, a gingerbread nut, as if her were a great Spanish gentleman, she thought, handing a flower to a lady at a window (so courteous his manner was). He was shabby, and simple, eating bread and cheese; and yet he was leading them on a great expedition where, for all she knew, they would be drowned.”

Love Languages: Love languages is something that I read about and liked in Plot vs. Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction by Jeff Gerke. The idea that everyone expresses and understands love in different ways. Virginia Woolf gives a good example of individual love languages, “He wanted something—wanted the thing she always found it so difficult to give him; wanted her to tell him that she loved him. And that, no, she could not do. He found talking so much easier than she did. . . . Was there no crumb on his coat? Nothing she could do for him? . . .And as she looked at him she began to smile, for though she had not said a word, he knew, of course he knew, that she loved him. ” This passage shows two people with two different love languages, one wants to hear the words and say the words, the other shows love through deeds and actions and wants love through deeds and actions.

Dialectic Thinking: And speaking of love languages. Here’s a great passage where Lily demonstrates dialectic thinking on love: “Such was the complexity of things. For what happened to her, especially staying with the Ramsays, was to be made to feel violently two opposite things at the same time; that’s what you feel, was one; that’s what I feel, was the other, and then they fought together in her mind, as now. It is so beautiful, so exciting, this love, that I tremble on the verge of it, and offer, quite out of my own habit, to look for a brooch on a beach; also it is the stupidest, the most barbaric of human passions, and turns a nice young man with a profile like a gem’s (Paul’s was exquisite) into a bully with a crowbar (he was swaggering, he was insolent) in the Mile End Road. Yet, she said to herself, from the dawn of time odes have been sung to love; wreaths heaped and roses; and if you asked nine people out of ten they would say they wanted nothing but this—love;”

How Close is Too Close by Maria L. Berg 2023

Applying What I Learned

Character description: Since I’m writing in close third point of view, I can’t float around in all my character’s heads. The only way I have to describe my characters is through my main character’s point of view. However, to follow Woolf’s order of introduction from emotion, to action, to physical description, I can try introducing my characters through body language, and facial expression, then what they are doing and objects they are interacting with, then more specific details of what they look like. I can also be more aware of how my main character is feeling when other characters are introduced, and use that feeling as a filter for how she would see the other person.

Another thing I can learn from Woolf’s character descriptions is to surprise the reader by presenting the character’s dark side as part or their description. How can I do that without knowing the character’s thoughts? They can say something rude, or unpleasant. They can do something unexpectedly mean, or bad, or just icky. I’m excited to try this out.

Setting: I really liked how she combined setting with emotion. My main character’s house is an important setting in the novel. When the reader is first introduced to this house, my main character has just gone through a life and death battle. She’s slightly injured, and on a sedative, the adrenaline is running out, so she’s exhausted but her mind is spinning, replaying what just happened, trying to remember every detail, so what does the house look like when she walks up to it? She’s angry and frustrated, but happy to be alive. Is the neighborhood friendly and familiar, or menacing and full of strangers? Is the house inviting and safe, or old and in need of a frustrating amount of work? Is it the house full of happy memories, or the house of sad memories? When she goes inside, what are the things she notices? The smells, textures, sensations, are they comforting, or further traumatizing, reinforcing that somehow she deserved what just happened? All these things can be expressed in how I describe my MC going into her house.

Revolving: Though I won’t be using this in Virginia Woolf’s style, it could be a useful technique for showing my main character’s ideas changing over time. I could have her think something at the beginning and have that thought come up slightly changed in reaction to an event, and then again slightly changed in response to another event, until she’s thinking the opposite at the end. I could do the same thing with another character through dialogue. The character can make a statement of belief or feeling at the beginning of the novel that they repeat slightly changed through out until they are saying the compete opposite by the end. I like those ideas and can already think of how to use them in my novel.

Distance: How can I use Woolf’s study of distance and intimacy as a writing technique? I think my take away is how she states the premise to the reader. She has her characters thinking about it and drawing conclusions. Since my main character is the only character with thoughts the reader can read. She may have some thoughts about how distance and intimacy interplay. However, that is not my novel’s premise. Near the end of my novel she needs to be thinking about truth and deceit and how her views on issues of truth and deceit have changed.

Love Languages come up in my novel between my main character and her best friend. One sees love through actions and deeds, the other through gifts and objects. Both of them feel taken for granted and that the other doesn’t love equally because they have these different love languages. I can try to make this clearer through my MC’s thoughts when she does something she thinks is showing love to her friend but doesn’t get the reaction she expects or wants. And since my novel is in close third, not omniscient POV, I will have to clearly show her best friend’s feelings through body language and dialogue.

Character-Building Challenge Day 2: Ten Question Interview

Tip of the Iceberg by Maria L. Berg 2023

For the second day of the first Writer’s Digest Character-Building Challenge the prompt is to choose one of the character names from yesterday and ask that character ten questions.

It’s going to be hard to choose just one. I liked a lot of the names I came up with yesterday, and they are all somehow characters in my mind already, so I may only choose one to share today, but let them all participate in time.

The Questions

I took a look at the suggested questions from Novel Writing: 10 Questions You Need to Ask Your Characters by Brenda Janowitz and they are good, somewhat intense first questions to get to know a character. The questions in the article are written in third person. I changed them to second person / direct address, to ask the character the questions. I decided to start with Merle Atlantis Tremble. Here’s my interview:

Hello, Mr. Tremble. I only have a few questions this morning, but they’re a bit personal. I hope you don’t mind.
First off, it’s pronounced Trem-blay, Trem-BLAY, not Tremble, and I do mind, I need to get back to my studies, but it’s not like I have a choice, is it.
Okay, let’s make this quick. Just ten questions.

  1. How old are you? How old do you feel?  I’m twenty-six, but I feel like I’m a hundred and twelve.
  2. Did you have a happy childhood? Why/why not? No. Kids are mean. I was nice, I shared, I tried to play their games, I did everything I was told, but they excluded me. But I was happy with my books. None of the characters were mean to me. Not me personally, anyway.
  3. Are you in a relationship? Tell me about your past relationships? How did they affect you? The woman in the apartment down the hall seems to like me, but no. I don’t have time for that. I thought I was in love with my lab partner in college, but she hasn’t spoken to me since we graduated and she moved back home. Strangely, I don’t miss her. I have too much to think about without silly romanticizing. I guess I have a good relationship with my mom and my sister at least when we see each other on holidays. Dad always seems mad at me, like my existing somehow is a disappointment, but he’s pretty easy to avoid, and Mom always says he loves me “in his way.”
  4. What do you care about? Oh, everything. I like to read the great thinkers, philosophy, literature, physics, eastern religions, technology, political science. You name it, I’m reading it.
  5. What are you obsessed with? Right now? Um, I guess I’m super-obsessed with Grand Unified Theory, but I’m also obsessed with Hegelian dialectics . . . Oh, and the Idiocracy.
  6. What is your biggest fear? Home invasion . . . No, life having no purpose . . . No, snakes filling up my apartment . . . No, I’ll have to get back to you on that.
  7. What is the best thing that ever happened to you? Ever? I’d have to say um, making it to the national spelling bee. I didn’t win, but I made it to nationals. I was on TV and everything.  The worst? That’s easy, being born.
  8. What is the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you? I don’t get embarrassed easily. I don’t really care what people think. You have to care about other people and their opinions to get embarrassed. I guess, for me, missing the word at nationals was embarrassing.
  9. Tell me your biggest secret. My biggest secret, or the worlds biggest secret? Okay, are you ready? None of this is real. None of it. Not you. Not me. Not this room. Not that laptop you’re typing on. It’s all made up in my mind. And yours. I mean, we each make up our own reality, and what people say is real is a consensus of beliefs. It’s true. I mean as true as  unreal things can be.
  10. What one word defines you? You know, when I was a kid I hated my middle name, Atlantis—and my last name because everyone pronounced it wrong and kids are just mean—but now, I think my middle name defines me. I’m a lost advanced civilization. I exist in the unseen depths. I am a legend of mythical proportions. Am I real? No one knows.
Under the Surface by Maria L. Berg 2023

My Novel Draft

Here are my MCs answers to these questions:

  • How old are you? How old do you feel? I’m thirty-two but I feel older, maybe around forty-five?
  • Did you have a happy childhood? Why/why not? I had a great childhood, two loving parents that loved me and each other, until that day when I was nine. Dad was just gone. Mom tried her best to keep it together, to give me enough love for both of them, but we were never really happy again.
  • Are you in a relationship? Tell me about your past relationships. How did they affect you? I always said I was married to the job. I mean, No. I’m not in a relationship. And my past relationships were always casual. I was married to the job. But now, I don’t have that excuse, so  . . .
  • What do you care about? Solving Pauline’s murder. I can’t let it continue to go unsolved. I tried to let it go, but I can’t.
  • What are you obsessed with? Solving Pauline’s murder. And all the strange connections I keep seeing that no one else seems to get.
  • What is your biggest fear? That the killer will get away with it. I’m not as afraid that the killer will come after me, I’m afraid that they’ll live in the belief that they can kill without consequence and eventually do it again.
  • What is the best thing that ever happened to you? The worst? The best thing that ever happened to me was probably meeting Memphis. She’s been my best friend since elementary school. I don’t know who I’d be without her. Besides that, it was closing my first big case. I was on top of the world. The worst was my dad’s death.
  • What is the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you? Being served with that Restraining Order at work. At the time I thought it was so unfair, but now, it’s just embarrassing.
  • What is your biggest secret? I stole evidence and have it in my garage. But actually Memphis knows about that, so it’s not really my biggest secret.
  • What is the one word that defines you? To everyone else, it’s probably as simple as “tall.” But I think it should be “sharp.”

That was really fun, and a good start to interviewing my characters. I have another list of questions called the Proust Questionnaire that I’ll run them through as well, and hopefully I’ll know my characters better when I’m done.

Character-Building Challenge Day 1: Names

Creating a Character by Maria L. Berg 2023

Happy first of March. Today is the first day of the first Writer’s Digest Character-Building Challenge. The first prompt is to create ten character names.

New Character Names

For today’s names I used my Character Creation Spreadsheet and a random number generator. Middle names made a big difference to me this morning, and when a first and middle no longer fit with the chosen last name, I kept trying random numbers until I found one that I liked better. Then, when I looked at my list, I switched a couple of last names around.

  1. Raine William Black
  2. Sonia Havana Cashion
  3. Seok Birch Purkey
  4. Seneca Lynn Zimmer
  5. Davenna Dale Byron
  6. Annette Rochelle Pudlewski
  7. Merle Atlantis Tremble
  8. Kirsi Jean Roth
  9. Pheak Bree Lebbesmeyer
  10. Shusha Moon Nguyen

I can already see Sonia Havana Cashion with high fashion shopping bags, Davenna Dale Byron reading a romance in a bubble bath with candles, Annette Rochelle Pudlewski calling the cops on her neighbors, Merle Atlantis Tremble daydreaming with a book in his lap. Now I’m excited for the next prompt to see what these characters get up to.

My Novel Draft

I thought I would use the prompts to take a close look at my novel draft’s characters and develop them further. Each of the five main characters in my novel represent one of the big five contradictory abstract nouns: Truth/Deceit, Beauty/ Ugliness, Happiness/Despair, Love/Apathy, Wisdom/Naivete. When I created the first and last names for these characters, I used the first rule mentioned in The 7 Rules of Picking Names for Fictional Characters by Elizabeth Sims and looked for names with root meanings that aligned with the abstract nouns the characters represent.

Today’s prompt made me realize that I didn’t give my characters middle names. But those middle names never came up either. It’s not that often that our middle names come up in daily life, at least not in my experience. However, parents usually put some thought into those middle names, and the names often have family connection, so choosing middle names may give me a little more information about my characters. To find middle names, I continued to look at name meanings that went with the character’s abstract nouns, and imagined their frustrated mothers or fathers saying the two names together to express the seriousness of a situation.

Abstraction, Expression, and Sonification

Conflict by Maria L. Berg 2023

I looked at expression as an abstract noun back at the beginning of my study in April of 2022, and created a facial expression out of wire for my images. But today, I’m exploring “a manifestation of an emotion, feeling, etc., without words” and communication of emotion through art.

In Photography and the Art of Seeing by Freeman Patterson, he says, “Once you have abstracted the visual elements most essential to a scene or event, you have to select. Selecting is choosing those parts of the subject matter that will best express the character of the scene or the meaning of the event.”

If I’m trying to express happiness, I need to select lines, shapes, colors, tones, and textures, then combine them in a composition that is my expression of happiness. And then select the ones that most express happiness and despair together? So if I go with yellow, orange, in the brightest tones, and the most harmoniously balanced composition, is that happiness? It’s like my Ship of Theseus question about story. What are the elements that can’t be replaced for it to still express happiness?

Generation by Maria L. Berg 2023

Patterson thinks I should be looking at this the other way around. “Once we have determined what the subject matter expresses (that is, its subject or theme), we may notice how that expression was achieved—by means of particular shapes, textures, and colours. . . .When you make pictures, take advantage of the natural sequence in which your senses provide information. First, ask “What does the subject matter express?” (Possible answer: joy.) Then ask “How does the subject matter express it?” (Possible answer: the joy is expressed through soaring vertical and oblique lines, light tones, and bright colours.)”

So today, instead of having an intention and attempting to capture an image, I’m going to look at some of my images and take advantage of that natural sequence. When I look at “Conflict” (top of page), I see forward motion being blocked, opposing forces. I see disappointment, and frustration. How is that expressed? Through the direction of the shape, the change of color from cool to warm, the dominant size of the reversed shape on the right , the brightness of the reversed shape, and composition putting the shapes in opposition with a zig-zag space between them.

When I look at “Generation” (above) I see calm, happiness, the lightness of Spring. How is that expressed? Through the light pastel colors, the two forms connecting through their overlapping lines, the overall swoop of the design moving up and to the right, the pink haziness joining the two forms like a warm feeling.

Though “Interruption” (below) is similar to “Generation” (above) it expresses a very different emotion. When I look at “Interruption” I see irritation, ugliness in the beauty; the chain of connection is broken. How is that expressed? The pastel color is overpowered by the brighter intruding shape in the foreground. The flow of the lines is interrupted creating a jagged line just left of center. The overall direction is down to the right, but also horizontal across the center.

Through this exercise, I noticed a zig-zag line of space creates a break in flow in both of the images with more negative emotions. This may be something I try as an expressive technique in the future.

Interruption by Maria L. Berg 2023

“We respond with different emotions to different shapes, textures, lines, and colours on the basis of qualities we perceive in them,” said Patterson, and then quoted Rudolf Arnheim from Art and Visual Perception.

I put Art and Visual Perception in my kindle and searched for “expression” and then “abstract”. While reading the sixty-five matches for abstract, I found, “The surprisingly strong expression of geometrical figures in movement has been demonstrated in the more elaborate “abstract” films of Oskar Fischinger, Norman MacLaren, Walt Disney, and others.”

I had already watched Fischinger and Disney, so I looked up MacLaren and found this interesting film about drawing sounds on film.

Drawing sounds

This got me wondering if there were programs that would turn my images into sounds, and then I spent the rest of the morning playing with sonification.


PIXELSYNTH is an online program. It instantly turns your photos black and white when you upload them and then has knobs you can turn to adjust the brightness and contrast which will change the sounds. You can choose the key and types of scale used.

Photosounder has a free downloadable demo. At first it turned my image into fluctuating noise, but then I found “Group to Nearest Semitone” at the bottom of the Operations menu and it turned the noise into tones.

I’m just getting started experimenting with the possibilities, but I love how it brings music into my abstractions study in a new way.

RNLN Focus

This week I read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. It was our third novel in a row in omniscient POV, and yet it was very different from John Irving’s distant omniscient narrator of A Widow for One Year. Woolf’s narrator was so close inside the character’s heads and hearts, she was like a telepath with no control.

The novel was assigned as part of the online course “The Modern and the Postmodern (Part 2)” and in the lectures he talked about how the novel was the study of relational distance which I thought was interesting. And I’ll talk more about that on Thursday.

Today’s Surprising Connection

I got my copy of the poetry collection Waves by PJ Thomas to review for Library Thing Early Reviewers program, and started thinking about how I want to approach Reading Poetry Collections as a Poet. I looked at a great book on writing poetry In the Palm of Your Hand: A Poet’s Portable Workshop by Steve Kowit, and in the section “Getting Your Poems into the World” he said, “The best places to learn about publishers and book contests are in the bimonthly magazine Poets and Writers and the bimonthly Writers Chronicle.”

I hadn’t heard of The Writer’s Chronicle, so I looked it up. It turns out it is the magazine of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs and in the February issue there is an article called, “In Working Order, or Proxemics & the Poetry Book” by Anna Leahy. Sadly, I couldn’t read it without being a member or subscriber, but it got me curious about Proxemics.

Proxemics is the branch of knowledge that deals with the amount of space that people feel it necessary to set between themselves and others. It is the study of how people unconsciously structure the space around them. It also has a Linguistic definition which is the study of the symbolic and communicative role in a culture of spatial arrangements and variations in distance, as in how far apart individuals engaged in conversation stand depending on the degree of intimacy between them.

Though my professor didn’t mention it, it seems to me that Virginia Woolf’s novel is a study of proxemics.

Reading Novels Like a Novelist Attempt 7: A Widow For One Year by John Irving

Reading Irving Like a Novelist by Maria L. Berg 2023

Procedural Tips

I did it! I finally read A Widow for One Year by John Irving. I finally understand the title that’s been sitting on my shelf for what seems like forever. It took a half a day longer than I thought it would, and it felt like I had run a 10K when I finally finished the last page, but I did it!

This was the first time I made my notes directly in the book. This was an old paperback in bad shape, so I didn’t feel bad marking it up. I forgot to put a color code in place before I started, so my highlighting colors don’t mean a lot. I attempted to make orange consistently mark foreshadowing, and pink marked statements about abstract nouns. I still used some post its to mark sections I thought I would want to reference.

It felt pretty good to highlight in the book, but since I felt like I just wanted to get through this novel and finish it, I didn’t spend time writing any notes in the margins. I think if I enjoyed the book more, I might have really enjoyed the process, so now I think I want to try this process again with another old paperback. I have an old copy of a book I love that I’ve been wanting to re-read. For the moment, I’ll keep that as a possible future read.

Abstracting Irving by Maria L. Berg 2023

Things I Learned

A Widow for One Year was kind of all over the place. It reminded me of a clip show from an old TV series, when they would make an episode out of clips from other episodes. It contained aspects of all of the novels we have looked at so far: It used fictional books as part of the story like The Manual of Detection and The Madness of Crowds. It had the meta levels of a writer writing about a writer writing about writing like The Woman in the Library. It had the realism, sex, and adultery of Madame Bovary. It had the sexually obsessed parents of Unspeakable Things. It had the head-hopping omniscient narrator, and social commentary of Little Fires Everywhere. This vast tome had a bit of everything. And yet, it was completely different from all of those other novels in its emotional rawness and ability to surprise.

The thing that stood out for me the most in A Widow for One Year by John Irving was the excessive use of blatant foreshadowing. This is another reason the novel felt like a clip show, or like I wrote on Tuesday, ADHD as a novel. Irving starts a sentence in the present ant by the end of the paragraph you’re in the future or past and then he gets to the next sentence of the action in the present and then he’s off again. This created a strange constant pendulum swing of time. The distant omniscient narrator can see forever into the future and the past and will randomly let the reader in on this information. Such as, “In a year’s time, the police would crack down on the “illegals”; soon there would be empty window rooms around the red-light district.” This future knowledge doesn’t even affect the main characters, but there you go, future told.

Irving addresses this in a somewhat meta comment on his own writing, using a quote from Graham Greene. “On the subject of childhood, Ruth preferred what Greene had written in The Power and the Glory: “There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” Oh, yes—Ruth agreed. But sometimes, she would have argued, there is more than one moment, because there is more than one future.”

Tragedy’s influence: This novel starts years after a tragic accident in which two teen boys die. Their deaths tear their family apart and influence the actions of the family members and the people around them for their whole lives. He emphasizes the effect of this tragedy through giving special importance to photographs hung around the house, each with a story that the characters tell to one another to keep the dead boys alive in their thoughts.

One of the things that Irving does well in A Widow for One Year is to bring the reader into taboos: mostly sexual taboos. Keeping the reader focused on sex and taboo sexual behaviors so when the events of the plot happen they are real surprises. Like a magician’s slight of hand, Irving has the reader looking at sadism and statutory rape, while never suspecting the deaths on the horizon.

This reminded me of the Joyce Carol Oates Masterclass “The Art of the Short Story.” In Lesson 4. Ideas: Exploring Taboo and Darkness she says, “If one can face the darkest elements in oneself and things that are secret and buried, I think there’s a great deal of power.”

Her first example is Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray about homosexuality during a time that sodomy was illegal and a homosexual could be put to death. She used it as an example of a writer confronting taboo that could not be written about openly and said, “Being elliptical gives you a lot of power that being head on and direct would not have.”

But Irving’s use of taboos isn’t elliptical at all. It’s graphic and realistic and shoved in the reader’s face again and again. Oates goes on, however. She mentions memoirs about alcoholism, depression, and being a widower, and says they “hit a nerve of candor.” She also says that “tapping on secret audiences is the consequence of writing about taboos.”

Talking about the body: Irving’s focus on boobs and talking about penises is both casual as if people always openly talk about their bodies, and then repetitive to the point that I wondered about his odd boob obsession. This casual nakedness being normal and yet odd starts near the beginning of the novel when Ruth is four years old. “As usual, she took only a passing interest in his nakedness. “Your penis is funny,” she said.
“My penis is funny,” her father agreed. It was what he always said.

By the time I neared the end of the book I was pretty tired of reading about Ruth’s boobs and came across this exchange. “It may have been his anniversary, but he was looking at your breasts,” Hannah said.
“He was not!” Ruth protested.
“Everyone does, baby. You better get used to it.”

As a reader, I never got used to it. It looks like other readers didn’t either: there’s a thread about it on Reddit.

I think there’s definitely something to be learned from the vulnerability of nakedness, and the realism of humans as sexual beings, but I also think Irving got a little hung up on it in this novel.

Abstracting Like a Novelist by Maria L. Berg 2023

Applying What I Learned

At this early stage of my revision, I’m trying something I’ve never tried before. Starting at the end of my draft, I’m putting two scenes at a time into Scrivener and then brainstorming fifty other options. So I copied my final two scenes into a Scrivener file taking the time to write summaries and titles for the scenes and using the meta-data to color code the emotional arc and label the scene value. Then I brainstormed fifty other possible endings. Then I copied the two scenes before that and did the same. I’m really enjoying the brainstorming and near the end of fifty new ideas, the ideas are getting interesting. Going through this process is helping me really understand the infinite combinations of choices that make up every novel. I can also see how a first draft is like my mini-trampoline that I love, it’s a surface with springs, to bounce off of again and again.

Let’s look at how I can apply some of the big-picture elements of Irving’s A Widow for One Year to my novel revision.

Time: Though I was not a fan of how Irving used foreshadowing in this novel, is there a way of changing the chronology of my draft that would be a better way to tell the story? If I altered chapters between the present and five years ago leading up to and after the homicides, that could be very interesting.

It would show three different versions of my main character: 1. the recovered version in her new normal life  2. the confident rising star detective of the past and 3. the after homicide descending version, losing herself, not able to solve the case, crossing the line, getting fired, and hitting rock bottom. It’s a good idea. I might give it a try.

I could write all of the backstory about the homicides as scenes from my MCs  POV. She, of course, wouldn’t see that she was spiraling, or crossing the line, but the reader would see her becoming more obsessive, and making bad decisions. This technique would change a lot of dialogue and exposition to scene which is also more immersive for the reader.

Tragedy: Like the characters of A Widow for One Year, my MC had a tragedy in her life when she was young that affects her motivations and decisions. I can use photographs, objects, and memories, stories she tells, sayings she uses, and ways she responds to people to show how much this tragedy has shaped her life and the lives of those around her. Irving’s example can help me emphasize this effects of the tragedy more through out my novel.

Taboo: I like the taboo exploration-distraction technique idea. In my novel the taboos are: paganism, mysticism, sacrilege, bisexuality, random acts of violence, psychological manipulation, and corruption. I may need to zero in on some specific aspects of those taboos that make people really uncomfortable and aren’t written about very much. And brainstorm how I can really lean into the taboo to surprise with a plot event.

Talking about the body:

I don’t think I talked about bodily functions all that much in my novel. After reading Irving, I’m wondering if I don’t need to get into the body more—not the obsessive, creepy breast fixation—but each of my women may be at a different stage in her cycle and it would affect her in a different way.

One of my characters is pretending to be older, to be a woman that would have gone through menopause. Having a tampon or pad in her purse would give her away. Also having her period would give her away, so cramps, bloating, headache, taking Pamprin, or a similar drug; these would all be signs that she is a younger woman. Being on the pill, could also give her away.

My MCs best friend is sexually open and likes to shock her by being crass, so she would openly talk about having her period, having her period while having sex, embarrassing moments of bleeding in public, etc. These are taboos that people don’t write about that much, though it did come up in Little Fires Everywhere.

Maybe having her period came up in the victim’s wife’s defense. Maybe she couldn’t have committed a grizzly homicide because she had cramps and was tired physically and mentally from having her period. It made her sluggish and anemic. That could be an interesting societal issue. I wonder if there’s legal precedence. I’ll look in my women and the law book.

Though I found Irving’s obsession with breasts really obnoxious and annoying and his obsession with sex disturbing, I think that avoiding sex and bodily function is also wrong, so finding a balance is important. Humans have basic needs, food, water, shelter, elimination, sleep, exercise/physical labor (purpose) and sex (connection). So my characters need all these things too.

As you can see, though A Widow for One Year was not one of my favorite John Irving novel, reading it as a novelist was both informative and inspiring.

What’s Next?

This week I’m reading To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, in paperback from the library for The Modern and the Postmodern (Part 2) online course section called, “Intensity and the Ordinary: Art, Loss, Forgiveness.” While I’m still working on the big picture aspects of my developmental edit, I’m curious to see where this novel will take me.

On a blanket in the wildflowers counting shooting stars

First Kiss by Maria L. Berg 2023

Today’s Poetics prompt at dVerse Poets Pub is to write a poem about a kiss or kissing.

On a blanket in the wildflowers counting shooting stars

It’s a waiting game
once the thought begins
it grows and becomes all encompassing
a wish in the abyss
every look a question
every sigh a possible sign
every motion a suggestion
each inch an invitation

then the world-lens folds in
closed to this pin-point
all measurement abruptly halted waits
silence chews then swallows sound
as the pressure of anticipation—of heartbeats,
flushed cheeks, blood pumping irrationally
its uncomfortable commands — peaks to unbearable
there are only glistening pink curves, moving over
white, hard, blocking, teeth, trapping dreams
damming desires, making words of lost meaning
unspoken agreement, breaking codes of forgotten tongues
soon touched then entwined.

Abstract as a Verb

Abstracting by Maria L. Berg 2023

This last week my images were inspired by some things I read in Photography and the Art of Seeing by Freeman Patterson. He says, “The expressive quality of a photograph depends on the photographer’s ability to abstract, that is, to separate the parts from the whole. Abstracting is recognizing both the basic from of something and the elements that make up that form.”

“Abstracting is not something you have to learn; you do it all the time without being aware of it. . . . Improving your ability to abstract takes practice. . . .Once you have abstracted the visual elements most essential to a scene or event, you have to select. Selecting is choosing those parts of the subject matter that will best express the character of the scene or the meaning of the event.”

“Abstracting and selecting are important to all types of photography.”

This got me thinking about abstract as a verb, so I looked it up in the dictionary. abstract v 1. to make an abstract of; summarize 2. to draw or take away; remove 3. to divert or draw away the attention of 4. to steal 5. to consider as a general quality of characteristic apart from specific objects or instances: to abstract the notions of time, space, and matter.

The definition of abstract meaning to remove inspired my new filters removing shapes from the filter and slicing them then opening them to add space. In the first series I trimmed them, sliced them, and curved them open then put them back inside the opening. In the second series I cut out the shapes sliced them, removed every other section and wove them back in, waffling the shapes. I really enjoy how the light bends around the paper shapes and how the colors blend and move through the spaces.

Abstracting these basic shapes into line, shape, and color are creating more dimension and movement than the attempts at creating abstract designs within the filters themselves.

When speaking of exercising your imagination, Mr. Patterson wrote, “Indulging in fantasy helps us to discover new ideas. Try looking at things in crazy ways.” He talked about a student who took a picture of his dog. He said, “A student of mine made a photograph of my German shepherd by panning while the dog was running over very rough ground. The panning of the camera, along with both the forward and up-and-down movements of the dog’s legs, made her hind legs look like wheels in rapid motion.

This got me thinking about the panoramic function in my camera. I had never tried it with my light-forming photography and wondered if it would work at all. The camera’s programming definitely didn’t like it, and it took many attempts before it would recognize that I was moving slowly enough and moving in the direction of the arrow, but the results were very exciting.

The camera, not able to sew the multiple abstract images together smoothly, created vertical striped and off-sets in the images. This surprise glitch creates its own abstract dimension within the photograph. Since I got it to work outside with the reflection balls in the grass and leftover snow, the next step was to see if it would work in the mirrorwold. As I expected, the camera made me really work for it. It didn’t believe that I was moving in a smooth line across a panorama, but through some serious patience, I made some very interesting photos.

Abstracted by Maria L. Berg 2023

RNLN Focus

Reading a novel like a novelist is abstracting a novel while reading, breaking it down into its parts, recognizing both the basic from of something (the story) and the elements that make up that form (writing techniques).

I finally read all the way through A Widow for One Year by John Irving. I now understand why I had such a hard time getting into it: it has a distant omniscient narrator and if ADHD (attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder) was a novel, this was it. However, it also had elements of every novel I’ve talked about in this series which I look forward to talking about on Thursday.

A Widow for One Year is a lot like one of my panoramic abstract photographs, constantly looking forward, trying to stitch many pieces together, and yet showing the seams, the glitches, as part of the art.

Today’s Surprising Connection

Among the many stories told within A Widow for One Year was the story of the hangman Arthur Ellis. Arthur Ellis was the pseudonym for Arthur B. English who was the official hangman of Canada between 1912 and 1935. I knew I had heard the story recently, but wasn’t sure where. Turns out it was used in the Three Pines series based on Louise Penny novels, Episode 7 (about a half hour in) “The Hangman,” which I watched and talked about when I read The Madness of Crowds.

Reading Novels Like a Novelist Attempt 6: Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires by Maria L. Berg 2023

Now that I’ve explored my process of Reading Novels Like a Novelist (RNLN) for a while, I thought I would combine my RNLN focus post with my Contradictory Abstractions post on Tuesday, but then we had surprise snow and the sun came out, so I took a snow day. Then yesterday was the Heron Tree submission deadline and now it’s mid-day Thursday, so you’re getting one combined post this week.

As I had hoped, my studies of contradictory abstract nouns and reading novels like a novelist have combined and overlapped, so that I can study them at the same time. As I read Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee, this overlap became even more apparent. Today, I’ll lay out how novels are a study of contradictory abstract nouns at three different levels: the premise of the novel as a whole, the character arc of each character, and the change in value during each scene.


Every novel is a persuasive argument. The author comes up with a premise and uses characters, and inciting incident, conflict and resolution to prove that premise to the reader. In Dialogue, McKee puts it this way:

“A core value is irreplaceable because it determines the story’s fundamental nature. Change core value, change the genre. For example, if a writer were to extract love/hate from her characters’ lives and substitute morality/immorality, this switch in core values would pivot her genre from love story to redemption plot.”

Look at those contradictory abstract nouns he placed in there for “core value.”  Think of how many stories that revolve around Good vs. Evil. Every story, in a way, attempts to define these two abstractions and then pit them against each other.

Character Arc

Every novel is about change. The main character needs to change to achieve her desire though she may not want to, or know that she needs to until she is forced to make some difficult choices. McKee says:

“The impact of the inciting incident decisively changes the charge of the value at stake in the character’s life. Story values are binaries of positive/negative charge such as life/death, courage/cowardice, truth/lie, meaningfulness/meaninglessness, maturity/immaturity, hope/despair, justice/injustice, to name but a few. “

Look at all those contradictory abstract nouns I’ve been looking at since last summer.

Scene Value

Every scene of a novel from beginning to end works to prove the premise, but it also has its own change in value. McKee explains:

“The values in scenes can be very complex, but at minimum, every scene contains at least one story value at stake in the character’s life. This value either relates to or matches the story’s core value. Scenes dramatize change in the charge of this value.”

This reminded me of my posts in November when I organized different contradictory abstract nouns into the big five. For example if my overall premise is truth and deceit, then a scene may be trust/distrust, and another may be honesty/dishonesty.

RNLN Things I Learned

Now let’s look at these three aspects of a novel using Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. The novel is about a wealthy family in a planned community in Ohio, whose lives are changed when their mother rents to a single mom and her teenage daughter.

Premise: The main premise of the novel is stated just after the three-quarter point (pg. 258 in the hard-cover); “What made someone a mother? Was it biology alone, or was it love?”

The author explores this question through examples of a demanding “perfect” two parent wealthy family with four children, a poor single parent of one child, a surrogacy, and an adoption process gone wrong. She also shows two of the daughters wishing they had the other one’s mother.

The author’s premise turns motherhood into an abstract noun and its contradiction which she shows through couples who cannot conceive and abortion.

I looked back at the beginning of the novel to see if the premise was stated there as well and found this interesting line, “. . . they could see there was little inside to be saved.” And though this is talking about the house it could also be speaking to the character Elena as a mother and her relationships in her family.

Character Arc: The novel starts our in the wealthy mother’s point of view. Then I thought it was going to be multiple point of view by chapter, but it turned out it was written in omniscient which I figured out at the beginning of chapter five when she started head hopping from paragraph to paragraph. The character arcs seem to be looking at a combination of values of good/bad, rich/poor, and love/hate.

The novel opens with the house on fire, and a statement of who lit the fire, all that wealth and worldly possession up in flames, so the change is already known, the rest of the novel is the why, the explanation of how they got there.

Scene Value: Picking a random scene in the novel, I got the backstory section when Mia thinks she’s being followed on the subway by a mugger, but it turns out to be a person who offers her a proposal to make money. The scene’s value runs along fear of the unknown to fear of the known/possible. Along the main premise the scene moves from not a mother, to possibility of being a mother.

Phoenix Feathers by Maria L. Berg 2023

Ship of Theseus

After reading the novel Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, I watched the Hulu mini-series called “Little Fires Everywhere.” Remember when we looked at The Woman in the Library by Sulari Gentill and talked about interesting formats which led me to The Ship of Theseus? The Hulu series made me think of The Ship of Theseus as in, if you change, replace, and add to every piece of a story, is it the same story? What pieces have to stay the same for it to be recognized as the same story? The Ship of Theseus really is an interesting thought puzzle and there it was playing out right before my eyes. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on what has to stay the same in a story for it to be recognized as the same story.

Reading Novels Like a Novelist Attempt 5: Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey

Credibility Flaws by Maria L. Berg 2023

Procedural Tips

Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey is the first novel in this series that I read on my tablet. Using the Kindle functions were more difficult, even frustrating, on my tablet. When I attempted to highlight with my finger, the whole page moved. I had to place my finger, wait and then when the marker showed, try to select the words I wanted which was hard to do with precision. By the time I made my selection, I wasn’t very interested in bothering with colors and notes.

So here’s my tip (for myself and you if you have a cheap tablet): have the stylus and bluetooth keyboard handy when reading novels like a novelist on a tablet.

Other people’s highlighted selections showed up as dashed underlines. I did find it interesting to see what people underlined. They did not appear to be craft notes, but more like quotable sayings, or pleasant platitudes.

On my tablet I discovered a couple more Kindle features: when I highlighted a name (an 80’s pop-culture reference) Wikipedia opened and told me who it was. I then tested this by highlighting the name of a character and something call X-Ray opened showing me all of the places in the book where that character is mentioned.

Things I Learned

Like I said in this week’s focus post, I was reading Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee this week and saw examples of things he talked about while reading Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey, but before I get to that, here’s a quick overview.

Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey is a novel, published in 2020 set in 1980. The book description on Amazon says it was “Inspired by a terrifying true story from the author’s hometown” in Minnesota. It is told from the point of view of a twelve year old girl. The popular boy she has a crush on gets kidnapped.

Credibility Issues:

The Beginning: The beginning of this novel didn’t feel like it set up the tone or characters for the inciting incident. To explore this, let’s go through the questions about beginnings:

What do I think the book is about from the first page? A family that farms, or in a farming community, that has happy family game nights. The last line on the page mentions it’s nearly Summer, but it arrived early and “Was really going to mess with crops.”
Does the first page present characterization, energy/tone, mystery, and emotional bedrock? The characterization on the first page is from the point of view of one of the daughters, the energy and tone is content and happy, there isn’t any mystery and the emotional bedrock appears to be family bond, and belonging.
How would I rewrite it/improve it? I think this novel started in the wrong place. I would start around chapter six. The scene in the bar has the tone of the novel, the strange behavior of the father and the cop, the girls out of place in a bar but also doing something normal for kids their age, playing pac-man which brings in the 80’s connection without forcing the pop-culture reference.

How is the main character introduced? Playing cribbage with her family. She is paired with her mother, her sister is paired with her father. She and her mother win. She is laughing and eating popcorn.
How is the main character first described? Through an experience with her Aunt Jin. “She was the only one who didn’t pretend I was normal.” This could have been interesting, but she goes on to say that her Aunt had been at her birth and stayed for a few weeks after to help her mom, but then stared at the permanent red mark around her neck from difficulties in childbirth and said, “If you’d been born two hundred years ago, they’d have drowned you.” That’s the girl’s first memory of her favorite person. Then after telling the story of her birth, she comes back to the memory with her Aunt in which she goes on to say, “It would have been bad luck to keep a baby whose own mother tried to strangle it twice.” The twelve year old then says, “I decided on the spot that it was an okay joke because Mom was her sister, and they both loved me. ” So the introduction to the main character is that she has a red, ropy scar that circles where her neck meets her shoulders. And that her favorite aunt stares at it and says mean things.

I think this story really started in the bar in chapter six. The father taking his daughters to go day drinking with the local cop is much more representative of the feel of the novel than a game of family cribbage.

I think the author started with the cribbage game scene because she wants the reader to see what the family presents to the outside world: a normal, wholesome, loving family. But that’s supposedly a pretense. The main character says again and again that she’s not supposed to tell anyone what her home-life is really like, so the opening scene when no one else is looking from the point of view of a fearful pre-teen would be a very different scene. It wouldn’t be the fake happy family presented to the world. So this set-up which doesn’t include any interesting action or insight, or the inciting incident, gives a false impression and doesn’t bring the reader in. Later it makes it hard to suspend belief and I found myself wondering if the main character is supposed to be an unreliable narrator, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

The character of the aunt reminds me of the cook in the 1980 movie, The Shining. The character is built up as the savior, the rescue, is begged for help, finally arrives, and is axed instantly having done nothing. The whole character feels completely pointless. At least in The Shining the cook was a mentor, confidant for a moment at the hotel. In this novel, the aunt is only talked about and written to, she does nothing.

Credibility Flaws: The section of Dialogue: The Art of Verbal Action for the Page, Stage, and Screen by Robert McKee that I thought related to this novel was called “Credibility Flaws.” Here is McKee’s list of faults that damage credibility, and examples from the novel. Remember, this novel is written in first person POV of a twelve year old girl in a small farming town in Minnesota.

1. Empty Talk – when the reader can’t find a motivation in the subtext of what the character says, causing the dialogue to sound phony.

“I know,” Sephie said, wiping her face, eager to agree. “I made a mistake. Mrs. Tatar is impossible but I should have gotten tutoring.”
“You think I should help her, don’t you, Dad?” My liver felt yellow at this, joining in coddling Dad like he was a babyman, but it’s what worked.”

2. Overly Emotive Talk – The character uses language that seems far more emotional than how she actually feels, making the reader think the character is hyper-dramatic and false.

“I’d die if he ever came all the way up those stairs.”

“If I didn’t see Gabriel for the rest of the day and he didn’t ride the bus, I’d walk to his house after school. I would. I’d do it. I needed that necklace.”

3. Overly Knowing Talk – injects the author’s knowledge into the character’s awareness. The character looks at events with insight beyond her experience.

“A strip of sweat rolled down my back and was absorbed by my training bra. The cicadas were whirring, and the air smelled dusty purple from the lilacs tossing up their pollen like Mardi Gras floozies. I licked my lips and tasted salt.”

4. Overly Perceptive Talk – characters with excessive, unconvincing self-awareness. “When a character describes himself with a depth of insight more profound than Freud, Jung, and Socrates combined, readers and audiences not only recoil at the implausibility; they lose faith in the writer.”

“I’d been studying the lacy frost pattern on the inside of the bus window, thinking Rorschach could have saved a buttload on ink if only he’d moved to Minnesota. . . .This was a Life Event.”

5. Excuses Mistaken for Motivation – “In an effort to match a character’s over-the-top action with a cause, writers often backtrack to the character’s childhood, insert a trauma, and pass it off as motivation. Over recent decades, episodes of sexual abuse became an overused, all-purpose, mono-explanation for virtually any extreme behavior. Writers who resort to this kind of psychological shorthand do not understand the difference between excuse and motivation.” I talked about this above in answer to How is the main character first described?

6. Melodrama – The problem of melodrama is not over-expression but under-motivation.

“I couldn’t run past hiim. Trapeed, I made myself arger, hoping he couldn’t see my knees shaking. “You come one step closer and I’ll slap you.”
Now I was in Dynasty? But I still couldn’t make sense of what was happening. was in Lilydale Elementary and Middle School, standing in a lit room, Mr. Connelly wasn’t more that fifty feet away. I could even hear Charlie Kloss’s ragged notes splitting the air. But my stomach held a bag of ice suddenly, and I grew light-headed. I was afraid, really and truly, and I’d known Clam my whole life.”

Using the pop-reference of the show Dynasty is like the character saying “I know I’m being as melodramatic as a prime time soap opera,” and the author continuing the melodrama anyway.

Misuse of pop-culture references:

The novel is set in the eighties which quickly becomes clear through reference after reference. But these eighties references feel out of place and forced, taking me out of the story. Right away while talking about the plans she and her sister have for tanning that Summer the main character says, “Boys liked no tan lines. I’d learned that watching Little Darlings.” Little Darlings is a film from 1980. Since I’ve never seen it, it doesn’t add anything for me.

Then, on the same page she describes her mom and dad. She says, “Dad was handsome, too, with a Charles Bronson thing going on.” I’m guessing she means some aspect of the actor’s characters, but without any detail, this also means nothing. She describes her sister as “a dead ringer for Kristy McNichol.” Wikipedia informed me she was in Little Darlings.

Then when talking about her birth she says, “The whole fiasco wasn’t exactly a job well done. Plus, Rosemary’s Baby had hit theaters a couple years before, and everyone in that room must have been wondering what had propelled me out of the womb with such force.”

Later on, some of these references became problematic because they were too familiar. For instance, Remington Steele was mentioned four times, and I just happened to be watching Remington Steele on Amazon Prime Video. So when she says, “That’s why I liked Remington Steele, Laura Holt did all the work. She was the real deal. She didn’t waste time being romantic.” That was just wrong. That was the conflict of the show. Laura kept saying she didn’t mix business with pleasure, but they couldn’t help themselves, and almost every episode ends with them kissing. She wastes a lot of time being romantic.

Then when she brought up The Empire Strikes Back, I knew there would be trouble.  Even if she hadn’t seen The Empire Strikes Back she would have seen Star Wars by then, or at least know everything about it. So it again felt completely unbelievable when she said, “Every single kid in the world but me and Sephie had viewed it at the movie theater three years ago. I’d had to pretend I knew what they were referring to when they made pewpew noises and talked about the dark side.” I mean honestly, that’s just ridiculous. She would have seen a million commercials for the toys. Back then there were story records, and books. She didn’t have to see the movie to know the entire world and stories of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. 

These misuses of eighties references was yet another way the story lost credibility.

Empty foreshadowing: Only 38% of the way through the book, she ends chapter 16 with, “I look back at that day and wonder where we’d be now if I’d eaten those strawberries, too.
It wasn’t fair that only Sephie had to bear that.”

This bit of foreshadowing is never resolved, and adds nothing to the story. After finishing the book, I think the author means that if Cassie had eaten the strawberries, she would have seen Gabriel’s necklace, but if that is what she means, Sephie would have seen the necklace just as easily as Cassie. She wouldn’t have ignored it if it was there. Either way, it doesn’t make sense, and is just left dangling there doing nothing.

Underlying Motivations by Maria L. Berg 2023

Applying What I Learned

This week’s novel along with Mr. McKee’s craft book taught me a lot about making characters and their actions, including the act of speech, credible. It starts with the very first paragraph, setting the tone and introducing the character and dramatic question. If this doesn’t match the premise of the novel, the character and her story isn’t credible.

I also learned that pop-culture references, though specific and emotionally loaded details, can be problematic in different ways: some don’t add anything to the story because they aren’t understood, and others may be used incorrectly and be wrong to the reader. Either way they take the reader out of the story.

And a very important thing I learned is that if you use blatant foreshadowing, make sure that it actually means something, and isn’t just floating around out in the ether after the book is over.

To apply what I learned to my novel at this point in my developmental edit, I want to make sure that the motivations, and desires of my characters are clear and plausible. I also want to look for any characters that seem important but don’t really do anything. I have a character near the middle that might not really be doing anything. I think I was playing around with a possible love interest then dropped it. I’ve also already noticed some Overly Knowing Talk in my novel. My characters, whether a make-up artist or palm reader seem to like to talk about neurons and brain-function. I think I’ll be trimming out the neuroscience after I do the major structural edits. 😃