Showing posts from 2010

Back to basics: characters in writing

Now that the holidays are winding down, it's time to go back to our original task: to define the 6 major elements of a work of fiction:

1. Setting
2. Mood/tone
3. Characters
4. Plot
5. Imagery & symbolism
6. Theme

Characters are central to any work of fiction, or story. They can be human, animal, or imaginary. Nature is often a character, as is history, religion, a place or the future.

1. Human: Jane Austen's creation, Emma
2. Animal: Black Beauty (a wonderful horse)
3. Imaginary: R2D2 or Jabba the Hut

4. Nature: the tornado in The Wizard of Oz
5. History: the Black Plague in The Doomsday Book

6. Religion: Buddhism in Siddhartha
7. A place: Narnia

8. The future: 2001

The Black Plague in medieval England, updated

I just finished a fantastic (literally!) book, a science fiction novel called "Doomsday Book" by Connie Willis. The title is a play on the "Domesday Book," a medieval record of daily life in the age when every Christian belonged to the One True Church and the average life expectancy was 37 years.

The premise: A young woman from Oxford time travels from 2052 back to 1328, but the time machine messes up and she ends up in 1348, the year when the Black Death laid waste to England. How will she survive? How will she return to Oxford? Will she find true love?

The book has it all:

1. Broad and deep plot, full of twists and turns, with a satisfying conclusion that pulls it all together.

2. Vivid, idiosyncratic characters, not cardboard-flat stereotypes.

3. Evocative descriptions of the terrain, the villages, the hovels and the manor house (not so much better than a hovel), the animals, the church, and the cow (really!).

4. Great pacing, like a well-made movie. Just when …

Judging a book by its cover.

I buy books to read myself based on several highly-questionable characteristics:

1. The cover. I figure if the cover doesn't appeal to me, the whole book is not for me. The cover should reflect at least some aspects of the publisher, the author and the story inside. I hate shiny, plasticized covers. I also dislike hard-cover books--they won't stay open when I knit. And I cannot stand the dust jackets that are on some hard-cover books--I take them off right away.

2. The font. I can't stand fonts that are too small, or too large or that have too much white space, or too little white space. I prefer serif fonts to sans-serif fonts. I don't like huge page margins, or tiny scrimped page margins. I don't like shiny paper.

3. The length. If I'm going to the trouble of getting involved with a book, it needs to be at least 275-300 pp. long. Otherwise it's not worth the effort. 500--700 pp is a good length, and anything up to 1200 pp is fine with me, if the book is in…


Dialogue is a written account of a conversation, either between characters or in a character's head (inner dialogue). Strictly speaking, a dialogue is between 2 characters (di=two), but usually any conversation is refrred to as dialogue in contemporary literature. Incidentally, when one character speaks, it's a monologue. Dialogue and monologue are terms taken from classical Greek drama.

Most plays are, of course, composed of dialogue, with some stage directions and tips on design. Short stories are usually heavy on dailogue, as there isn't enough "time" in a short story to develop the inner lives of characters or go into detail as to setting,backstory, etc. A novel, however, has the luxury of sufficient "time" to lavish on such frivolities as flashbacks, foreshadowing, character development (through the musings of characters), finely-detailed description of the setting's geographical and historic situation, meandering plot lines, sub-plots and aut…


Mood is, to say it simply, the emotional response of the reader to the text (piece of writing). Setting is a huge contributor to mood: contrast a text set in deep winter, in a mountain fortress inhabited by vampires, with a text set in a Tahitian coral reef. Before the writer even begins to explicate the plot or introduce the characters, the reader's mood is being created.

In the picture above of the Vltava River on an Indian summer day, the misty light sets a nostalgic mood of peace and tranquility. The reader's emotions are already active, without knowing what he or she will read.

more on setting

The Glass Room by Simon Mawer also uses setting as a character. In fact, the glass room of the title is the protagonist (character around which the action circles) of the novel. I bought the book because it's set in Brno, Czechoslovakia, prior to WWII. Brno is slightly disguised, as is the glass house, but most readers will know that the house is based on one designed by Mies van der Rohe, famed German architect, in 1930: the Tugendhat house. In it'sday, it was shockingly modern.

Some of the lit crit I read about this book is, I think, quite superficial, looking at the glass room as a symbol of coldness and of lack of space for hiding the truth. My opinion is that the glass room represents the optimism and internationalism of the First Republic of Czechoslovakia, where newly-free and newly-wealthy Czechs reached out into the world around them for ideas and to develop relationships. The architect in the novel is Viennese, not German, to show the rapprochement between the old em…

Setting in a work of fiction

In Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez uses setting as a character. He so thoroughly interweaves the setting (time and place) into the fabric of the story that they become inseparable. Before we discuss Marquez, though, first let me define setting.

Setting refers to time and place:
1. Time is the context of the story in terms of days, weeks, months, years, centuries, millenia. In Ulysses by James Joyce, the story spans one day; James Michener's novel Hawaii covers millenia. Often a story moves backward or forward in time, to fill in plot details or foreshadow future events. A common device, called framing, begins and ends at one point in time, while the main story is in a different time. The movie Titanic used framing to begin and end the story.

It can confuse readers if the author jumps around in time.Traditional narratives are usually chronological (events happen consecutively, as in our normal concept of time) to imitate "real life" or increase ease of…

an aside on writing and publishing

I promised to write about settings in narratives next, but first I want to make an aside.


No one who wants "to write" has an excuse anymore not to write AND get published.

"Published" simply means "made public." In the past, you had to write a novel, let's say, and then find an agent to sell it to a publisher, who then sold it to the public. This was a 2-3 year process, with no guarantee of success. Publishing involved making and distributing a physical book, with ink on paper and bound by covers.
If you sell it to a publisher, you no longer own it. That's a poor choice, in my opinion, unless you're confident that the publisher will sell enough copies to make it worth your while (remember, the author only gets a royalty on each book--maybe 10% of the cover price per book sold. Do the math.)

If you want a physical book, you can either sell your book to a publisher, who assembles it and sends it to a printer (the 2-3 year process, see ab…

narratives are stories: narrators

The most enduring form of writing (except perhaps graffiti) is the narrative. A narrative is a story that's told by someone (the narrator). But--pozor! (Czech for "be careful"--my Czech teacher says this frequently when we answer a question in class). The narrator is not necessarily the author, who is the person(s) who writes down the story, although in fact, the author may not be the person who first told the story (as in the case of a fable or legend) or even the first person to write it down (as in fairy tales and children's Bible stories). In any event, the narrator needs to be identified and distinguished from the other characters by the writer.

So your first task as a writer when writing a narrative is to delineate the narrator. Is the narrator yourself? Very rarely is the author the narrator, except in autobiography (written in 1st person--"I"). A book written in third person ("he, she, it, or a person's name") may not seem to have a na…

Five blogs, six newsletters and a website are not enough

All my life I've been a reader. If I got paid for all the books I've read...well you know the rest. Now that I'm in the prime of life, all the reading has bubbled up to the surface as knowledge about writing.
Hence this blog.
It also gives me a good excuse not to work on my novel.