When Good Characters Go Bad

“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”

One summer in my innocent years, my older sister and I spent almost every night watching Twilight Zone reruns.  I certainly wouldn’t call myself a Zone aficionado, or even a fan, mostly because I spent what felt like hours that summer, lying in my bed, listening to crickets, wide-eyed, with my blanket tucked up under my nose and wrapped tightly over the top of my head, so I could see what was coming, ring of highly-trained stuffed animal guards standing watch into the wee hours, as I tried to rid my mind of frightening thoughts, the ideas of evil that lurked in Rod Sterling’s fifth dimension, the place where ordinary, decent human beings become things they never imagined themselves becoming (things I certainly never imagined people could be, at the ripe old age of eleven) and often wound up dead, or worse–sometimes far worse.  I promised myself countless times that I would never–EVER!–watch again, but even with all my sweat-dripping panic, my promises proved empty, time and again, as I found myself sitting there in the living room floor, glued to the TV, my own little fifth dimension running wild.

Head over to almost any author’s blog or writers group message board, and you are bound to find an article or twenty entitled something along the lines of “What to do When Your Characters Won’t Cooperate”.  Some of them are full of anecdotal charm, as the author admits that all of his or her characters fought the good fight in becoming whatever they became between the brain and the page, others offer lists, both serious and humorous, of things to try when facing off with a character who simply refuses to do what the plot demands of him, and of course there are those who claim that holistically giving in to the character, allowing him to live the life he wants, keeps said character true to himself and makes the story that much greater in the end.  What all of these people and their characters don’t know is that they only exist in the Twilight Zone.

As millions of readers turn the pages of their favorite books each day, they have no idea that the characters they know and love are actually schizophrenics, resigned to spend their entire lives perfectly aware that they are trapped inside someone else’s head.  It is a hard existence being entirely made up.  Imagine for a moment what it must be like saying the same line sixty-two different ways only to have a whole chapter of one’s life, including that godforsaken line repeated until your tongue bled, eradicated in a microsecond, as though it had never happened.  Psychopaths might understand on some superficial level, but only a character can truly know what it’s like falling in love with the perfect woman, planning the perfect lives together, only to have your dream girl sleep with her best friend’s boss’s sister’s neighbor’s pool boy for no reason other than so that you can have motive to commit murder (Murder!), just to move the plot along in some writer’s latest mystery novel.  And it is surely a fate worse than death droning on as a static shadow of meaningless drivel for 364 pages in someone else’s romance, when all you ever wanted was to open a dance studio, adopt a cat and maybe cure a little cancer, but can a character have that tiny bit of happiness?  No!  Characters have forever been powerless against the will of the author.  Characters don’t get bupkis, unless some writer thinks it up.

Note on usage: Bupkis, in English vernacular generally means "Absolutely nothing", so one might question why an author, intent on being taken seriously, would use the double negative, when it is clearly a violation of everything good and holy about grammar.  Bupkis, however, is a Yiddish term that means "Goat feces", which is in fact not a negative, but merely has negative, sometimes smelly, connotations.

It is true, writers feel forced, at times, to torture their characters into existence, but it is not out of some sadistic desire to actually wield the pen like a sword, hacking and cleaving at the lives of those people they have come to love, whittling them down until their bloody forms fit within whatever narrow window the author intends his readers to view them through.  Most characters have no idea what is really going on, just on the other side of that insane wall at the edge of their universe, as the writer fights to find the right words, only to end up heartbroken when words fail them both.  If they could know, then perhaps they would not be so ashamed when they find themselves doing things that are completely out of character, as far as they are concerned, as if they were being guided by something outside of themselves, to become the stuff of little girls’ worst fears.  If they could understand the agony of having an imaginary person, who exists solely in one’s mind, a person you have given life to out of nothing more than neural whisperings and ink on the page, argue with you for days, then perhaps he could forgive the certain death waiting for him there in the well-crafted prose that make up his brief existence.  Surely all authors know they are not just the fantasies some cracked-up characters have conjured up to justify their worst, most human moments.  Surely they know they are the real ones.

Intermingling in the black and white haze of some 1960’s TV show, narrated by the hard, smooth voice of Rod Sterling, there is a place where author and the authored demand to see eye-to-eye without daring to look, their co-dependence and mutual contempt the ironic twist that threatens to leave them both cold and bloody in a padded room long before any editor ever sees what might become of them–a place where no amount of stuffed animals with mad ninja skills can come to the rescue–a place somewhere in The Twilight Zone.

Happily Ever After?

Last night we watched The Pirate Movie, a 1982 adaptation of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, which (Spoiler Alert!) ends with Mabel demanding and receiving her happy ending, both in her dream and when she wakes up washed up on the beach to her fantasy Frederic-without-a-K kissing her, for no apparent reason.  Cue Happily Ever After Song and Dance:

Oh, silly Mabel, also without a K.

Anyway, this got me thinking about how liberally the sappy ending is applied for entertainment purposes, even in those works that aren’t intended to be farcical, and wondering why the general public prefers stories that leave a saccharine numbness on the brain to those that tell the truth in all her glorious despair, forcing us to accept life as difficult as it is, and acknowledge that all heroes die, most lovers grow bored and tired and some turn into miserable drunks, the money runs out far too quickly after a windfall leaving only destitution, the guy who survives the shark attack inevitably gets hit by a bus on his way home from the hospital…  You get the picture.

I’m hardly the first person to question why we prefer our candy-coatings and rosy spectacles, and Google turns up an expert for just about every explanation, so I’ll spare you my musings where that’s concerned, except to say that the geek in me did find fascinating the idea that commiseration with fictional characters may cause a similar release of neurochemicals in the audience, as if when watching a film or reading a book, we are actually experiencing the lives of our favorite protagonists and antagonists as people we know and have legitimate feelings for.  Oh, and I would be remiss not to mention it is a well-known, scientifically proven fact that giddy pirate song and dance numbers assure the survival of the species, ranking right up there with water, food and shelter as necessary to our very existence, but I’m no expert, so don’t quote me.  (Okay, so it’s not a fact, but some of those experts should definitely do a study.)

While I, too, enjoy prancing pirates on occasion, I won’t deny that I’m truly a cynic at heart, one who enjoys harsher tales that force us to examine ourselves.  When I watch stories like The Pirate Movie, I can’t help but see the catastrophe beyond the Happily Ever After, which to me is really just another happy beginning right before the next tragedy strikes and must be overcome.  Silly Mabel, also without a K, will surely discover, soon after the credits roll, that her darling Frederic-without-a-K sees she is one who falls in love far too quickly, that she is a girl who will give him whatever he wants in the interest of continuing in this thing she believes is love, however she will not see it for what it is until Frederic has thoroughly taken advantage of her, leaving her broken and used up, probably singing on a beach somewhere, desperate for her next romance, because that is the way life works.  I’m certain I’m not the only one who feels this way, I mean, look how Frozen ended.  And even my sixteen year old daughter (who only a few hours before watching the movie read to me an open letter from another teenager to adults who read articles about teenagers, basically requesting that they stop treating teens like some strange beings to be stereotyped and categorized, quantified and explained away) couldn’t help pointing out that Mabel and Frederic’s relationship was “just like every relationship” at her high school, and we all know that the vast majority of those end in tears and bloodshed, usually not too long after the young lovers have professed their eternally dripping, syrupy-sweet, twoo wub to one another and refused for an hour and a half to be the first to hang up the phone.

As an author and a cynic, I’ve set out to tell hard truths in my writing.  Though the story is set in present day and wrapped up in the real world, which will become more apparent in future works, The Eleventh Age is largely mythopoeic, and as such there is always the temptation (and plenty of opportunity) to take the easy way out, to fall back to some deus ex machina, or miracle event, to save my favorite characters from their fate, or resort to unrealistic devices to explain away inconsistencies, simply because the world is magical, like Mabel simply deciding that it was her dream, so she could have her happy ending, and Viola!  Happy Ending.  But in The Eleventh Age, Fate itself is a living, breathing character within the tale, a character very much at odds with our heroine at times, and let me tell you, Fate will not stand for too much divine intervention from the lowly writer, not even if it involves dancing pirates.  Meanwhile I’m fairly certain the cynic in me would baby-vomit if I cheated and rescued someone I’ve known must die from the very beginning or had someone unreasonably fall in love just to play to a chemical reaction my audience expects to receive.  I get great pleasure from forcing myself to think logically from so many perspectives at once, keeping in mind what all the major players and most of the minor players are doing and all of the whys and hows going on in the background, while Elli walks on the surface of the story and we see in the reading only what she sees, and the things that unfold are only seen as she unfolds them–oftentimes mistakenly and clumsily, because the fact of the matter is she is just a teenage girl.  To me, writing is an extraordinary puzzle of human interactions, every character should be deep, and if they aren’t deep from the beginning, then it should only be because their depth has yet to be uncovered.  Of course, I’m not going to pretend that I have some superior moral incite that justifies my work, I don’t, or that I am the most exceptional author, I’m not, but I do like for stories to be realistic, even my fantasies.  And I love a large dose of bitter to cut through the sweet.

Needless to say, this means happily ever after might always be just happy enough for the time being, where Elli Foote’s concerned, but the poor girl can’t help it that her author’s jaded and a little cruel at heart.

 

 

Drawing 101: Lesson 1: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

Like most people, I am my own worst critic.  Even sitting here at the start of this post, I’m second guessing myself:  How much do I admit?  What if I put people off?  Should I post something so personal?  No, I’m not about to divulge some dark secret or talk about Aunt Mildred’s silent-but-deadlies; the title is Drawing 101, so I’m pretty sure I’m about to impart some valuable lesson that might have a little to do with drawing.  But who am I to impart lessons? Especially lessons about drawing?

I’ve been creating stuff my entire life.  I have corners and walls and drawers full of stuff I’ve made.  I sing and write music (my brother is better–sometime we’ll record him so you can hear what I’m talking about).  I paint, but I know I’m not really great, even if The Guitar is quickly building a following in the Spanish-speaking community.  I can draw, but I’ve never taken an art class, so I couldn’t even pretend to explain what I’m doing wrong when it’s wrong (and boy, do I get things wrong sometimes), or how I managed to get it right when it’s right.  Things just happen on the paper, for better or worse, which is why, since I started building this site, I think I smell pretty bad.  (Not Aunt Mildred bad, just sweating-the-small-stuff bad, which is bearable, but still not recommended for polite company.)

Have I said too much?

Over the course of the past week or so, I’ve been working to populate the pages on this site with plenty of details, so that the world I’ve created in writing can be seen, felt and heard, the idea being to just keep putting my work out there, build the audience.  My characters have flesh in my head, but to be honest, until a few weeks ago, my character sketches consisted of roughly scribbled ideas like this:

old tierney sketchOr this:

old Elli sketch

Definitely not high quality art.  I’ve got notebooks chock full of little doodles like these, interspersed among years of story building and notes about science and religion and various cultures, and theories on everything under the sun (you don’t even want to know some of the ridiculous tangents I’ve taken in my journey to bring you The Eleventh Age).

The writing world has changed a great deal with the technological revolution.  Gone are the days when an aspiring young author would send her work directly to publishers, who would take ages to decide her fate.  Today, many publishers won’t even consider your work unless you have an agent, and while getting an answer from an agent takes considerably less time than with publishing houses, the yes or no is based on far less material–often just an introductory letter, in which you’ve summarized your work in a single paragraph (the rest of the letter, which should be no more than a single page, is for telling who you are, why you are the right person for writing your book and why the agent you’re querying is a good fit for you).  With self-publishing avenues such as the various electronic formats and even print on demand, getting your work out on the market is relatively simple, especially if you have money to purchase hard copies up front and buy advertising.  So today’s market is super-saturated with new authors, all of whom are jumping through the same hoops, taking their rejections in stride, believing in their work even when it feels like no one else believes, doing whatever it takes to build a following, each and every one of them just trying to get noticed by the right person, the one who will eventually make all the efforts worthwhile, meanwhile still penning their next book and maintaining some small measure of sanity.  Even the world’s most excellent storytellers would get lost in this new world where, to get noticed, you have to put yourself out there, attend seminars, join writers groups, build your web presence so that you’re the number one you on Google, and generally be something that most writers are not: extroverts with astounding interpersonal skills and winning grins.

collage

In my effort to sell myself, I decided that, although I’m an untrained, mediocre artist at best, it would be a super-duper awesome idea to draw my characters, so that readers could get an idea of who I see when I’m writing, even though every reader will surely see the characters in their own way.  Some of my attempts at putting real faces to the people in my world are, ugh, just laughable, which brings me to my lessons learned for today:

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

(I wanted to entitle this post “Realize there are bigger things to sweat than whether or not his eyes are too big for his face or her nose is out of perspective, like world hunger or the ethics of reciprocity, so get over yourself already and just have fun,” but it was too long to be taken seriously.)

I’ve drawn and redrawn Aisling O’Toole about seven times now (a few of my attempts are in the collage of good and bad sketches above, though none of them come close to representing Ash as I see her in my head).  Maybe it’s the nature of her character that makes her so difficult for me to work out, or maybe it’s really that I just cannot draw people in the perspective in which I want to draw her, I just don’t know.  Okay, I do know.  I can’t draw people in profile.  Inevitably, there is something off with her, every attempt I make.

These sketches are not meant to be the end-all where my characters are concerned, and there has been some debate in my household over whether or not an author should post images of the characters at all, or if the writing should be left alone to speak to the imagination of the reader (there was even some talk about whether or not it would be beneficial to collaborate with an outside artist, not because I’m not Michelangelo, duh, but because it would bring in that person’s contacts as a resource, which seems like a nefarious reason to take on an artist, if you ask me).  More to the point, while I do have a tendency to be a perfectionist about many things, I know the drawing of Ash doesn’t have to be perfect, and deep down I don’t really care whether or not it ever is perfect, but I would at least like it to pass.

So why am I sweating?

Mostly because I’m still learning, and it can be easy to forget that everyone else is still learning too.

Obviously, learning how to draw isn’t massively important to me in the grand scheme of things, especially since I’m not pretending to be some fabulous artist to be admired, but I know it is important that I always be capable of seeing when there is something that I need to learn, and this is something I need to learn.  It is clear that I am just no good at drawing people in profile.  I could continue trying and failing, which I don’t recommend to anyone.  I could throw up my hands and decide never to draw another person in profile again, which I also don’t recommend.  Or I could be true to my standard of always learning and do a little youtube search this evening and take some lessons from people who do know what they are doing.

It’s easier not to sweat the small stuff when you can admit you have more to learn.  I am still learning, and that’s okay.  That’s not just okay, that’s actually really quite wonderful–probably the whole purpose to life in a nutshell, if life has a purpose.

While I’m on this subject, this is Aidan Foote:

Aidan Foote and his shadows
Aidan Foote and his shadows

See the scar marking his left brow and eye?  Yeah, um, that’s wrong.  This is how I see him in my mind, but in the writing I changed the scar long ago, because at some point I decided it wasn’t believable that he could have a scar like this and still have two working eyes.  I could have just explained away the lack of damage to his eye when his uncle marred him as magic, it is a fantasy after all, but instead I decided to write his scar as having stopped just short of his eye (because even in a magical world, I like my magic to be believable, and how could they fix is eye but leave him with such an awful scar–just didn’t add up).  It was two days after I posted this image that I realized I had just shown the world something that wasn’t part of the canon, and of course I panicked a little.

Now, I firmly believe in owning my mistakes, and this clearly is a mistake.  Ordinarily I wouldn’t draw much attention to something like this, chances are very few people would have noticed the discrepancy between this image and the writing if I hadn’t pointed it out, and if I was really worried about it, I could have just taken care of it without anyone ever knowing (frankly, there’s not much traffic here, yet, but that will change eventually).  Even now, I could remove the image, redraw him entirely or try to erase, but I actually rather like the message this mistake sends.

Let’s face it, I’m bound to make a lot of mistakes, big and small, in this process.  So, over-sized-scar Aidan will serve evermore as my reminder that it really will be all right.  I’m allowed to let a little bit of my human side show now and then, to be imperfect, and just like most readers out there, I can gladly proclaim that the characters I see are not necessarily the characters as they are written in the work, even though it’s my work.

(If you haven’t seen Aidan’s character link, you should read about him sometime.)

Finally, in learning not to sweat the small stuff, it’s important that I remember what I’m trying to accomplish.

I am a writer.  I write.  I can spend hours producing images I hope you will find appealing and intriguing, in an effort to gain your attention in a world of seven billion authors, all looking to sell their stories. But ultimately, I have to take an honest look at what I’m really trying to accomplish as I’m sketching so much that my fingers ache and I begin to develop a dowager’s hump that I’m not likely to wear well in my old age.  Gaining a following for my writing is well and good, but utterly pointless if it keeps me from actually writing.

From now on, even if Peril’s eyes are too big and Meggit’s nose is seriously bent out of shape, I will only write during my coveted six hours a day of writing time, because there are more important things to sweat than eyes and noses in drawings, like what will happen when Elijah discovers Elli manically writing and re-writing Ash’s prophecy in a furious attempt to see what the words really mean, which still isn’t quite as big as world hunger or the ethics of reciprocity, but much more important than drawings that can be made anytime, but not during coveted writing time, so I’m going to get over myself and get to work… and have fun.

Have a lovely day!

 

Welcome to my first post!

Hi!  I’m Luthien Kennedy; Lu for short and Lulu to my siblings, which I guess that would be for long-short.  I’m the author of The Eleventh Age, which is what this blog is all about.

I’ve been very busy lately, when I’m not writing book two of the series, curating content and building my web presence, which is pretty scary for me, because I’m officially NOT John Green or even his brother–I’m a total introvert.  You will never find a video of me explaining all of history like some mad genius with entirely too much time on his hands, and if you happen to like my work enough to make me famous, I will probably take to wearing fancy silk masks in public, à la Michael Jackson, or better yet the the long hijab-like veil the diva Plavalaguna wore in The Fifth Element (one of my top ten favorite movies, by the way).

My plan for this site, aside from blogging about what I’m doing (or in the case of writer’s block, what I’m not doing), is to provide a place for readers to find extra information about my work from character sketches to back-stories, scene mockups, links to further information, and the like. I intend to update the blog at least once a week and to regularly post new content, so visit often, like me on Facebook, and make sure to follow me while I get REALLY uncomfortable here in black and white, all for your entertainment!

To start, I thought I’d tell you what I’m currently reading.  For pleasure I like to read fantasy and some sci-fi, but I tend to find myself soaking in a wide range of subjects for research (because I’m a little strange and love to learn).  Right now I’m reading The Power of Myth, which is a book based on the documentary series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth with Bill Moyers.  For more information see this link.  But absolutely do not go out and buy this book. If you need something to read, you want to read The Eleventh Age, by yours truly.

Hope to see you often!

 

Author, The Eleventh Age