I wrote this five years ago, trying to suss out what made for riveting characters.
Tim and I channel our inner archetypes, although it looks like Tim is merely succeeding in putting me to sleep.
My novel is done, and my editor, who read the whole trilogy twice, said she cried both times at the end.
She says it's because she hates to say goodbye to my characters. Deep down, my inner critic wonders, maybe she's crying tears of relief to have it over with. My goal though, is to simply give people a wonderful time, and maybe accidentally pick up good philosophical and environmental messages along the way.
Tuesday, November 28, 2017
No, I'm not referring to a new JK Rowling novel. It’s a recent insight I’ve had trying to understand why some fictional characters immediately trigger my empathy, while others leave me apathetic. Have you ever asked yourself why you struggle to continue one book, yet can't put down another? Was it the characters?
This question has led me down a tangential yet intriguing road exploring what education researchers call learning mindsets. My thesis here is that exciting characters have what researchers call a growth mindset, while the boring ones have a fixed mindset. I’ll describe these in a bit. But first, let’s talk about writing fiction and creating boring characters.
I am trying to write fiction, after spending spent most of my life writing scientific nonfiction.
I find that fiction is harder. Much. It's also more fun.
Learning to tell lies that are true
I have no problem blathering on about acids and bases, inspired by the notion that I might benefit any budding chemists out there. But dialogue, emotion, and plot led me way out of my comfort zone. Fiction writing has been a steep learning curve, but a fun one.
At first, I was terrified simply to put my toe in the water and make something, anything, up. I would be afraid of being seen as silly, and being judged, and just had a general sense of squeamishness about story-telling, otherwise known as lying.
Scientists are supposed to stick ardently to the truth, even though that beast is constantly galloping off leaving us clutching a single hair from its tail. When science writers aren’t certain about the truth, we simply wave our one hair, saying, hey, looky here at this thing that we aren’t sure about, we should grab more hairs. Further research. Simple.
How could I break my obsessive habit of writing truth-as we-know-it? Fortunately for me, my husband Tim created a feature-length science fiction movie, and I collaborated a great deal on his project. Tim is far more courageous than me in the story-telling department. With his enthusiastic encouragement, I suggested a couple scenes that I felt were needed for foreshadowing and character development. It’s gratifying to see my scenes in his completed movie. I love fiction, but didn't think I was capable of writing it. It's funny how we tell ourselves that we can do on thing but not another. That's also related to growth/fixed mindsets.
The idea struck me like a lightning bolt. I would use Tim's story for my first foray into fiction.
If you have trouble easing your way into writing fiction as I did, it isn't a bad way to start. Some learning prompts that writing teachers give their students include the instruction to take a known plot from TV or film, and turn it into an outline for a story. This eases the pressure in the lying department.
Now I am using his movie for the outline of my first novel. Tim continues to be tremendously enthusiastic in letting me go off on my own. I'm gratified that he really loves what I have written, too. (Phew!) Tim's outline is a comfy set of training wheels as I skid out into the scary, slippery streets of making stuff up.
Edging out of my comfort zone was thrilling, once I got rolling along. I can now proudly say I can make stuff up all by myself. I find myself adding all sorts of new subplots to his original story. It’s fun to see all the story elements, some his, some mine, weaving together.
Many of my new subplots are taken from real-life examples: Pascal the farmhand is devoted to his beloved cows and stresses about how the building of a CAFO (concentrated animal feeding operation) will disturb them. Molly is having trouble getting funding for a green energy device due to absurd political pressures around the wording of her grant application. Characters have anxiety and try to learn how to be relax or be grateful in the moment even while the clock of doom ticks. These are all real-life problems.
I bear in mind my grandmother’s words. A literature professor and lover of Shakespeare, she often said that all great works of fiction contain “lies that are true”. When universal human truths resonate within a story, the pattern it makes will echo for hundreds of years.
Let's not go there.
Why are some fictional characters boring? Now that I can make stuff up all by myself, I puzzle over how to ensure readers actually care about my characters. I find myself re-analyzing novels I loved and novels I hated. Boring books are especially informative.
I want to understand why they are boring, so I don’t make the same mistakes. The prime reason why I give up reading a book is because the main character is boring. Boring characters tend to be static, unchanging. More importantly, nothing challenges a boring character.
We continue turning pages if we care about characters. We love the good, yet imperfect characters. But it isn’t bad to hate a character, either. Some of my most memorable fictional characters are hateful. The first one that comes to mind is Delores Umbridge from the Harry Potter series. She is vividly despicable. The pink-sweatered, fussy, prim, sadistically punitive authority figure is a lie that is true. There are real-life Delores Umbridges out there. A hateful character will not stop me from reading. A boring character will stop me from reading.
I’d love to know what boring characters you have come across in fiction or film. Why did you think they were boring?
Are you a good witch or a boring witch? I have friends who love zombies and friends that love vampires. Me, I got a thing for witches. I learned early on that I wanted powerful, wise, female characters, whose power arises from a connection to nature.
These are the good witches. I saw the Wizard of Oz when I was a tot and Glinda the Good formed a striking first example of the archetype in my young mind. Witches could be good? I could not stop pondering this idea. I turned to the L. Frank Baum Oz books, which were even better than the movie. Baum’s books also feature what I call the Curiosity Shop Effect in literature: fantastic, out-of-the-box, dreamlike details that rivet the reader’s attention.
Tim tells me that he ate up all the James Bond books primarily because of his fascination for Ian Fleming’s detailed attention for plush, antiquated luxuries. Again, I suspect this is my Curiosity Shop Effect at work. A good Curiosity Shop Effect can even override a boring character and keep a reader's attention riveted, but ideally, you want both exciting characters and interesting, external details.
I found good witches, bad witches, and boring witches. The better-informed witch literature might speak of the witches’ Threefold Law; whatever a witch does returns threefold on her, so only a dumb, crazy, or especially cruel (is there a difference?) witch would deliberately cause harm. My first grade-school book that I remember proudly reading all the way through, What the Witch Left, was another example that witches could be good and helpful. I decided that that theme was my favorite! As soon as my mom introduced me to Los Angeles’ Whittier Public Library, I marched off to the card catalog–a big wooden box of index cards organized by key word, author, and title, long before the days of personal computers–to find more examples of these good witches.
I loved this book when I was a kid.
I learned that some witch books were deadly dull. How could that be? I thought it was my favorite kind of story! These boring books were all had one thing in common. The good witch was already born with fixed powers, not unlike a superhero. I also discovered that I not a fan of most superheroes. I'll admit a wee bit of sympathy for Spider Man, because he is a scientist and insecure. I can relate. And Cat Woman, although she isn't exactly good, and she steals things, and I find thieves gross and icky. But she has cats, so she can't be that bad. Obviously. But I reflexively cringe when confronted with the Super Person genre.
Superheroes bore the hell out of me. I know, I adore science fiction and fantasy. Superheroes are lumped into those genres. I’m supposed to like them too.
But in my mind, superheroes are a separate genre. They are too perfect. There are ancient superheroes too. Just try to read Beowulf. Yawn. A superhero’s Almighty Boredom Field will warp their fictional universe around them.
I cringe when friends ask me to go to the latest blockbuster superhero or super-heroine movie. I anticipate boredom. There will be a lot of jumping around and fighting which, sure, involuntarily rivets my lizard-like limbic system, but my intellect, my prefrontal cortex, cries with ennui. The rapid sleight of hand leaves me feeling tricked. Where is the story in all of this jumping around and special effects? What cup was it hiding under? I suspect there wasn’t a story at all. I can’t remember it after I leave the theater. Like a gyroscope that must keep spinning in order to keep falling, the story must be filled with frantic action to in order to keep people from noticing that there isn’t much of a story.
Am I the only person to slip away to the bathroom during tedious fight scenes, wondering how long the fighting will go on? I don’t think so. Sometimes I just surreptitiously wear earplugs in the theater, to keep the volume down, at least. I leave the theater feeling more abused than uplifted. To my mind, a superhero’s talent is fixed, not earned, and not likely to grow, either. Contrast this with growing characters, like Harry Potter. Harry and his friends struggle in school to take tests and learn and read books and take essays, and it is hard for them. They are flawed, but try to be good. He and his companions are immediately likable.
I hesitate to expose you to the black hole that is the topic of Mary Sues. Heads up: if you have not yet waded into Mary Sue waters, you can drown in the ample volume of discussions of this topic online. Here’s a brief guide.
Originally Mary Sue was used to condemn cringeworthy author inserts, wish-fulfillment characters in fan fiction. There is nothing really wrong with wish-fulfillment characters as long as we all know what they are. An author insert is just the author’s own fictional avatar, a better-than-life self. The author transparently places an idealized version of themselves in a fantasy universe where they save the day with their genius, Kung Fu, generosity, and wisdom, and they and are universally loved. Perhaps their only flaw is that they are clumsy, but they are clumsy in an endearing sort of way that everyone finds charming. Perhaps their amazing, color-changing eyes are too huge, or they are too thin, they are too pale, or too muscular. What tragedy. They never know how beautiful or handsome they truly are.
The Mary Sue is also known as a Gary, Larry, or Marty Stu, but Mary Sue is often used for either gender. I agree that genderizing the term with a Mary instead of a Gary inhibits authors from creating strong female characters. So it's not the best term.
There is nothing wrong with having the author insert himself into a character, as long as the character is interesting, changeable and challengeable. George Lucas freely admitted to using Luke Skywalker (Luke-S) in Star Wars as a representation of himself. I think we can all agree that worked out really well.
Every superhero needs to possess a flaw.
The term Mary Sue evolved away from author-insert to condemn a character who is too perfect. Mary Sues are so perfect they are boring. This is the problem I have with most superheroes. It’s all too easy for me to see the author behind the scenes, twisting themselves into knots to fashion some form of Kryptonite to temporarily but not very convincingly make their perfect character vulnerable.
There is a lot of discourse on who are Actual Mary Sues. Examples people argue over are Bella Swan and her boyfriend Edward Cullen from Twilight, Nancy Drew, Wesley Crusher, Superman, John Galt, James Bond (sorry, Tim!), most Elves, Tom Swift, Barbie, Beowulf...perhaps you can think of your own. It’s a prickly topic because everyone will defend their favorite characters. I did, in fact, read every single Nancy Drew book that was available and gushed over them with my friends. When I was ten.
Mary Sues are not all goody-two-shoes. Ever run across a world-weary character who is the bad-assiest badass that ever had a bad, bad, ass? They always have the perfectly-timed snarky retort, and their bad, bad, attitude never wavers in its coolness? This, too, is boring. The Perfectly Bad Badass is another form of Mary Sue.
Fixed mindsets and growth mindsets exist in both fiction and reality. Researchers who study learning contrast what they call the fixed mindset with a growth mindset. Like the Mary Sue, this is another gigantic topic, but I will try to whittle it down to basics.
It’s interesting for me to relate these contrasting mindsets to sympathetic or boring characters in fiction. Characters with a growth mindset like Harry Potter are exciting. The reader knows that Harry can change and be challenged continuously. Characters who have a fixed mindset are deadly dull and can kill a good story. The author has to work pretty hard to challenge a character who is fixed and already good at everything they do.
1. avoids challenges
2. gives up easily
3. sees effort as fruitless
4. ignores feedback
5. feels threatened by other’s success
6. learning is a means to an end
7. lacks curiosity
1. embraces challenges
2. practices regularly
3. believes effort leads to mastery
4. listens and responds to feedback
5. feels inspired by other’s success
6. the process of learning is a reward in itself
7. stays curious about everything
Stanford psychology professor Carol Dweck was one of the original researchers in the learning mindset arena. I have not read her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, but its message obviously inspired a generation of educators, business leaders, and parents to re-think how to best encourage a continuous capacity for learning in students, employees, and children.
Dr. Dweck’s early research which got so much attention gave students an easy ten-question test. Four-hundred 5th grade students from New York State were all praised in one of two ways. One group was praised for their intelligence. The second group was praised for their effort on the test. Both groups were then given the option of taking one of two additional tests. One test was described as hard, but a great opportunity to learn and grow. The other test was described as easy, and one one they would surely score well on.
The interesting thing is that 67% of the group praised for intelligence decided to take the easy test. 92% of the kids praised for effort chose the hard test. It was as if the kids praised for intelligence heard that they were valued for being smart, and didn’t want to risk losing what they felt they were valued for.
Reconsider praising for fixed traits, like being good, smart, or talented. Imagine you tell a little boy that he is “a good boy!” The problem is that “being good” sounds to him like a fixed quality. Eventually, he will mess up and do something bad. He is then forced to consider that you have bad judgement and mistrust your opinion in the future. He might worry that he is secretly bad and that you don’t know that about him. He avoids taking on any challenges that contradict your assumption that he is good, or smart, or talented. Yet it is important for him to learn to fail in life, and to learn from his failures.
Instead, praise him for a specific action that he took and its outcome, or the effort he took in reaching a specific goal. If you say, “You solved that problem quickly, I am impressed!” What they hear is, If I don’t solve a problem quickly, you won’t be impressed. Instead, you can say, “You worked hard, and you solved that problem. I am impressed that you so worked hard on that problem!”
"The wrong kind of praise creates self-defeating behavior. The right kind motivates students to learn."–Carol Dweck
Beware Consolation Prize/Participation Point praising. Dweck is quick to point out that her research has been misusedby some who reward kids for simply showing up. She says repeatedly that it is vital to tie effort to outcome. Hollow praise conveys that we hold low expectations.
Intelligence is not fixed. Let your fictional character learn, too. An obvious problem with telling someone that they are smart or talented is that intelligence or talent is something that can always be improved on. It isn’t a fixed quantity. Even Binet, the developer of the IQ test, believed that intelligence was not a fixed quantity. He was dismayed to see his test used to label people with a fixed value.
Growth mindsets value process over solutions. Correct solutions are of course vital. I’d joke with my med students when they did not get the answers correct, “your patient just died”. I knew that many of them would eventually have real patients, possibly even me or my loved ones, some day. Yet I also wanted them to know how to play in approaching problems in different ways. It was all too easy to show them a formula, have them plug in numbers, to crank out another number. That’s for robots.
That’s why, whenever it came to studying gas laws, instead of having my students memorize a lot of equations (which I knew they would quickly forget) I showed them how these equations were derived, and more importantly, how they could derive them for themselves. It's actually surprisingly simple to derive linear scientific equations from scratch once you learn some tricks.
Before you knew it, my students would start cranking out their own equations, not just for pressure and temperature and volume, but for other variables as well. Grades and mood? Were they directly proportional? Or possibly exponentially related? Can you write an equation for that?
Equations were no longer sacred formulae mysteriously derived and handed down by untouchable Wise Ones. My students delighted knowing how equations were derived, and from then on, could dissect strange equations from unrelated fields, like economics, teasing out what the equation was trying to describe as a model of reality.
Likewise, it's always more fun to have a character figure out a problem step by step, rather than have a solution land in their lap from out of nowhere, Deus ex machina.
Do you know how to fail spectacularly? Does your character? A fixed mindset avoids mistakes, because they feel that making a mistake will cause them to be valued less. A growth mindset studies their mistakes, using them as an opportunity to learn.
Once I learned to embrace the humiliation of making mistakes before an audience, teaching became a lot easier. When I first started teaching college, I viewed my own mistakes at the blackboard as horrible, terrifying things to be avoided at all costs. It was miserable teaching that way, because it was impossible.
I really had a breakthrough when I somehow learned to love making mistakes in front of my students. I’d like to say it happened all at once but I think it slowly evolved. It can make all the difference in class enthusiasm and participation. I became more interesting. Just like we want our fictional characters to be. Real, flawed, but able to correct myself.
Eventually I got to the point that when I made an error, I’d always have the brief sting of humiliation, sure, but instantly a sense of excitement would come over me. I think they could see how excited I got whenever I made a mistake. If I didn’t catch my own mistakes, they were pretty darn good at pointing them out for me. I enthusiastically encouraged them to do this. I don’t enjoy calculating in my head, for example, so my estimates in calculating were a frequent source of errors.
“Look at the mistake I made!” I would stand back beaming. I would let them try to figure it out for themselves instead of pointing it out. “This is a really common mistake! Can you tell me what I did wrong here? Can you tell me why it doesn’t work? What should I have done, instead?”
Well, I can’t tell you how much my students enjoyed dissecting my mistakes. If an authority figure could make mistakes, it helped free them up to experiment in problem-solving. If it were not a final exam, the day would not be ruined if they made a mistake attempting to solve a problem, as long as they learned why it didn’t work, and how to fix it.
I found, to my delight, that they were not ashamed by their own mistakes as long as they developed an eagerness to find out why it didn’t solve a problem. Problem solving became more like a fun puzzle to them. We worked as a team, to figure out the best routes to an answer.
I tried to serve as an example as someone who was not afraid to make mistakes. Paradoxically, I think they trusted my judgement more because I was so willing to own up when I did something incorrectly. It’s vitally important to develop a nose for one’s own errors in science. I would rather be teaching doctors who admit readily to their mistakes than ones that hide them.
After all, no one is perfct.
Now I am trying to make my fictional characters evolve as I did as a teacher. I hope it makes them more interesting.