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Finding Inspiration

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As a child, I loved reading books about the Borrowers, a fictional family of tiny people who live secretly in the walls of an English house. To survive, they “borrow” items from the big people living there, who assume their things have been lost. Recently I’ve been wondering if the Borrowers have taken up residence with me too, because something I need has gone missing.

Inspiration.

Create!Inspiration is not like mislaid socks or lost buttons. You can’t see, hear or hold it, but you know when it’s gone. Because it’s the New Year, a hopeful time, when people are focused on fresh starts, I thought blogging about the problem might help me get back on track. After all, I’m starting something too—the ending of my novel. But the challenge of tying story elements together and weaving in concepts like crisis, climax and character arc into a brilliant conclusion has temporarily overwhelmed me. I need a creativity reboot!

So I did what I always do when I’m stumped: I made a list. I also turned to authors I respect for advice. “Where do you find inspiration? Stimulation and motivation?” I asked them. “What do you do when you hit a rough patch? And if you’re stuck, fading or afraid of failing, how do you convince yourself that you’ll succeed?”

  1. phoebe and the ghost of chagallWalk in nature. Writer Jill Koenigsdorf, author of Phoebe and the Ghost of Chagall, swears by going on long hikes in nature with her dogs. “I find that during my walks, all my senses are more attuned and I tend to slow down and mull ideas over. I will see a raven on a barbed wire fence or a slit-open bag of sand on the side of the road or a piece of torn fabric on a rose bush, and it will trigger a story,” she explains. “I also find if I am stuck writing a certain scene or character in a piece I have already started, that walking outdoors helps me see what the problem is.
  2. TEDTalksWatch a TED Talk. The extraordinary range of TED topics makes for a smorgasbord of thought-provoking talks. Best of all, you can watch them for free. Subjects range from understanding quantum physics to curing Alzheimer’s to discovering life on other planets, so whatever you need for your writing, you may be able to find right here. I gained valuable insights into one of my POV characters (a gamer), when I watched Silicon Valley entrepreneur Jane McGonigal’s talk on how “Gaming Can Make a Better World.” Highly recommended.
  3. Listen to audiobooks. My son gave me a subscription to Audible.com for Christmas, and it’s changed my life. It’s also made me late to a lot of appointments, because I’m constantly pulling off the road to park so I can take notes on what I’m listening to. From a craft standpoint, however, I’ve become a convert. When I listen to books read aloud, I hear things I didn’t notice when I read in my head, like how the author uses rhythm, cadence, syntax, tone and vocabulary to create an authentic voice.
  4. Seek out other peoples' storiesSeek out other people’s stories in whatever forms they take. Consider using unconventional materials. Stories can be found wherever we are, so be open about where to look. Sources like stand-up comedy routines, church sermons, obituaries, maps, yearbooks, brochures, games, restaurant menus, journals and even junk mail can be chock-a-block full of anecdotes and ideas. Recently, my husband and I discovered a stash of his mother’s old diaries. The yellowing pages, antiquated language, and old-fashioned perspective from a different era is a treasure chest of data— charming and sweet and a little bit sad. Reading the words my mother-in-law wrote as a 16-year-old in 1939 has been eye-opening. Bonus materials crammed into her diaries included postcards, dance cards, sketches, and even notes from summer camp friends. My favorite one was addressed to “a girl who can keep her temper well.”
  5. Change Your Location. Change Your Perspective. A writer’s job is to look at the world from different points of view. Kathy Wilson, writer, teacher, digital media specialist and founder of the film collective Rikaroo thinks changing locations can help. Writing in a coffee shop in Harlem, for instance, will give you a different perspective than hanging out on Madison Avenue. Switching it up, she says, can be as simple as taking “a ride on the subway, intersecting with different lives, exploring new neighborhoods, eating different food, talking with my students, spending time with my father and his friends [who] are in their eighties and nineties [and] hearing their stories.”” Kathy’s also inspired by the courage and loyalty of animals. “Spending time with my dog inspires me,” she adds. “She seems to have drawn the short straw in life, yet never gives up.”
  6. Teach. Volunteer. I tutor at a school for disadvantaged kids where 100% of the students are on scholarship. Despite significant and often heartbreaking hardships, every senior graduates to attend a four-year college. Most are the first in their families to do so. Every time I set foot on campus, I’m awed by the courage, determination, and resiliency of these teens—often in the face of unspeakable odds. Talk about putting things into perspective…
  7. Take a class. Want to learn to Salsa dance, speak Swahili, sew, sing, sail, or practice Pilates? Go for it. It’s all grist for the mill. Having interests and hobbies is good for character creation, so writers should be lifelong learners. In order to prepare for a lecture I’m giving, I’ll be polishing my public speaking skills next month by working with stage and screen actor Andrew Hurteau, who helps people “tell a more compelling story” as a coach with Butterfield Speaks. Hollywood here I come.
  8. Give Yourself a Deadline: Inspiration is more likely to show up if you have a deadline. If you don’t, make one up and ask a friend (or your writer’s group) to enforce. Procrastination is one of the seven deadly writer’s sins.
  9. Think of writing as a job. Stacy Nyikos, author of numerous picture books and the middle grade novel, Dragon Wishes, says she’s a drill sergeant when it comes to her writing routine. “I write every day, rain or shine, no matter if inspiration comes to the table or not. Writing is my job. Isn’t that how one treats any other job?”

Most importantly, don’t forget the words of Jack London. “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

So, come on. Find your club and have at it. Let me know how it goes.


This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.

Creating Unlikable Protagonists Readers Can Love

Please Like Me

Please Like MeC’mon, admit it. Don’t we all wonder sometimes about how well we’re liked and if people really listen to what we say? In real life, we may never know the answer. But in fiction, when it comes to creating characters, popularity is measurable and important. Writers must make readers care about their protagonist right from the opening scene.  If we fail to do that, we risk losing readers before we’ve had a chance to win them over. The trouble is, a protagonist is more likely to be “unlikable” at the beginning of a novel when she’s only just figuring things out. Character transformation is a gradual process; it takes time to mature and change. That means she needs to make mistakes before achieving success. Be a coward before becoming courageous or cruel before learning to be kind.

Unlikeable is, of course, a subjective term and also a matter of degree. But what does the word really mean? A trait that turns off one person may be something another admires. Don’t we all have friends who don’t like some of our other friends? Admirable attributes can tip toward the negative when taken to extremes: conscientious may turn into obsessive, confident into arrogant or worse. We also dislike people who embody qualities we hate or fear in ourselves. So, characters who reflect the weaknesses we’re ashamed of can be particularly off-putting to readers. Finally, many of us feel contempt for other humans simply because they’re different from ourselves. Look at all the people on our planet who are at war with each other just because their skin color, religion, diet, etc., is different. We tend to abhor what we don’t understand. And yet, this leaves writers with a unique opportunity to use unlikable characters to open readers’ hearts and minds. Many authors have done a brilliant job of showing us how to love unlovable people. A few of my favorites are featured below:

In middle grade novels, check out Gilly in Katherine Paterson’s The Great Gilly Hopkins; Jackie in Lindsey Stoddard’s Just Like Jackie; and Julian in Palacio’s Wonder.  Julian’s chapter wasn’t written until after the first novel in the series was published. Up until that point, Julian was just another loathsome bully who didn’t seem to have any redeeming traits. When Palacio got into his character’s head, however, I was stunned and moved by what she taught me.

Wonder

In YA, there’s Andi Alpers in Jennifer Donnelly’s Revolution, who’s popping pills and acting out because she’s weighed down by a guilty secret; Summer Barnes, alcoholic and suicidal, in Ann Jacobus’ Romancing the Dark in the City of Light;  Devon Davenport, accused of her baby’s attempted murder, in Amy Efaw’s After; and Keir Sarafian, charged with date rape, in Chris Lynch’s Inexcusable. And yet these characters, despite self-destructive tendencies and reprehensible deeds, all inspire empathy.

But first, a caveat. Although stereotypical gender roles are changing, I feel it’s still harder to write unlikable females in literature than it is to write unlikable males. Another writer and I were talking about this as we brainstormed how to portray her novel’s strong-willed, do-gooder female protagonist. I felt the character came across as too off-putting and combative, but the author wasn’t so sure. “Difficult female characters often get a [more] virulent response than those who are male,” my friend pointed out. “Women who live outside the boundaries and act impulsively scare us more than men do, because everyone expects men to be flawed like this, while we still hold out that women [should be] dependable and not erratic, kind and not cranky.”

If we want to create real, complex, multi-dimensional characters who get under our skin and evoke strong emotions, we can’t minimize a protagonist’s unattractiveness or whitewash her inner demons. Fortunately, there are ways to portray characters truthfully AND help readers see the good in the bad. Writers just need to keep these three basic strategies in mind:

First, soften a protagonist’s harsh words and bad behavior by flipping from exterior actions and events to interior thoughts and memories. Allow your character to say and do anything horrid thing she wants, but immediately afterwards jump inside her head and show us her vulnerability by contrasting her angry words and actions with the hurt, fearful, insecure person she is inside. Tell us what she really thinks. This helps us see why the character behaved this way and, most importantly, who she really is.

Second, use backstory and personal history to shed light on your unlikable character. Maybe her parents are divorcing, a sibling has cancer or a cousin is a sadistic bully. After’s protagonist, Devon, endures poverty and neglect. Although Devon’s smart and a soccer superstar, the brick wall she eventually runs into is the deep psychological damage caused by the actions of her single, sleazy mom who brings men home late and night and the absent father she’s never known. Author Amy Efaw uses this to explain how her character could commit a horrific crime. In another instance, when a writer friend added an anecdote to her novel that showed a nasty character rescuing a puppy when he was young, it helped me see that he wasn’t always a jerk. When she made the boy’s father even more of a monster than the son, I understood how the character’s ugly attitude had been shaped. Backstory gives us a reason, even if it’s not an excuse.

Third, examine your protagonist’s relationships. If she’s the youngest child in a family of epic overachievers, maybe this character is insecure, feels less than, or doesn’t believe she can ever measure up. Figuring out how family dynamics and relationships factor in to your character’s behavior is a terrific tool for deepening understanding. In Romancing the Dark, the father that Summer Barnes loved is dead, and her unloving, too-busy-for-her-daughter mother ships her off to various boarding schools, all of which Summer gets expelled from. This lack of love, stability, and parent role models causes her character to become depressed and self-destructive. She drinks too much, thinks about killing herself, and keeps everyone—even the people she cares about—at arm’s length.

Some characters, of course, can’t be redeemed. Like Darth Vader, they choose the dark side, but if we can see them waver and get a glimpse of their vulnerability, it’s an exercise in compassion and tolerance.

Palacio summed it up best when she said, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I believe our job as writers is to show that battle—especially when we’re depicting a jerk. And creating a story where readers can have empathy for people who are difficult or just different from ourselves, might just be one of the greatest gifts we can give.

Wonder

 


This post originally appeared in VCFA’s Through the Toll Booth blog. You can read other alumni articles by visiting the archived blog.