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Find Your Character’s Secret Power: Turn a Weakness into a Strength

superhero kids
superhero kids
From photographer John Rossi’s “Real-Life Superheroes are among Us” video.

Like the apple that fell on Isaac Newton, a new insight smacked me over the head last week. It happened after I watched a Facebook video, “Real-Life Superheroes are among Us,” by photographer John Rossi. In it, Rossi and his team of professionals took six kids living with serious disabilities and dressed them up as superheroes for an epic photoshoot. “The whole idea,” Rossi explained, “was to take the things that are weaknesses for kids such as cancer and other diseases and turn them into strengths.”

Instantly, I saw the connection. A writer’s ability to turn a weakness into a strength is like discovering a character’s secret power. When a handicap becomes a hidden talent, it’s empowering. Transformation that’s not just about change, but also about acceptance, reassures us. It gives readers hope. If we’re able to see our faults as potential advantages, aren’t we more likely to accept and embrace who we are?

There are two kinds of character weaknesses. The first is a physical or emotional trait that the hero is born with, something that’s hardwired or hereditary. The second is a kind of coping mechanism that’s developed to compensate for a vulnerability or a wound inflicted in the hero’s backstory. Whatever the origin, this deficiency, which has become part of the character’s belief system, is what’s preventing him from achieving what he wants.

Or is it? Marcelo in the Real World

In Francisco X. Stork’s Marcelo in the Real World, the protagonist, Marcelo, struggles with an autism-like condition. He hears music that nobody else can hear, has trouble interpreting people’s words and behavior, and struggles to make sense of a world he sometimes fears and doesn’t understand. And yet it’s his so-called disabilities that enable Marcelo to right a terrible wrong, fight injustice more courageously and effectively than others, and win the love of a smart and beautiful co-worker. Marcelo’s cognitive impairment is what makes it possible for him to succeed.

Marcelo understands this. “The term ‘cognitive disorder’ implies that there is something wrong with the way I think or the way I perceive reality,” he says. “I perceive reality just fine.  Sometimes I perceive more of reality than others.”

Learning to think differently about how we see our shortcomings helps us release negative emotions and assumptions. The process of revising one’s belief system can free characters from the power their backstory wound holds over them.

 

Turning flaws into assets also makes for great plot twists and satisfying endings. In the fable of the lion and the mouse, when the mouse is caught by the lion, his small size and lack of strength makes him easy prey. But the mouse begs for his life, promising to repay the lion, and the king of the jungle, amused, sets him free. Later, when the lion is netted by hunters, the tiny mouse is able to free him by inconspicuously gnawing through the ropes that bind the giant beast. Suddenly, the mouse’s tiny size has become a strength, not a weakness.

It’s important to remember, however, that fictional faults are a double-edged sword. They result in both good and bad consequences. So, writers shouldn’t let their characters disregard or excuse their worst traits. The hero still needs to strive to be better.

In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel, The Secret Garden, protagonist Mary Lennox does try to better herself. But not until the book is well under way. Sickly, bad-tempered, and unsightly, she’s an orphaned child who’s never been loved, raised and kowtowed to by servants. But when she’s sent from India to England to live with a reclusive, hunchbacked uncle, her life undergoes a radical change.The Secret Garden

It’s Mary’s shortcomings that cause her to act in unorthodox ways. For example, one night when Mary hears mysterious cries, she gets up, angry and unafraid, and wanders around the manor house. Eventually she discovers Colin, her uncle’s crippled son, and yells at him in a way no one else has ever dared to. Miraculously, her outburst intrigues her cousin and stops his temper tantrum! Here again, it’s the protagonist’s faults—like her impatience, impulsivity, and temper—that enable her to achieve her goals. Goals that include healing herself, reviving the mystical, “secret” garden, and helping Colin to walk again.

Movie characters exemplify this paradox too. Just look at Forrest Gump. Bullied as a child because of his marginal intelligence and physical disability (his curved spine required him to wear leg braces that made it hard to walk), Forrest had the deck stacked against him. But thanks to the bullies who taunted and chased him, he learned how to run fast, becoming a world-class runner and athlete. Thanks to his low I.Q. and naivety, he did things no one else believed possible, simply because he didn’t know he couldn’t. Football star, war hero, and recipient of the Medal of Honor, Gump has been called “the greatest movie character of all time.” I believe he struck a nerve because so many people know what it’s like to feel as if they’re not “good enough.” Fortunately, the stories we write can help convince readers that despite their flaws—and maybe even because of them—they are deserving. They do matter. And they’re good enough just as they are.

In real life, I have a sister who’s very different from me. We were hiking together the other day, and I was in a hurry, as usual, to get to the top of the trail and down again. But my laid-back sister was content with a slower pace—a pace I sometimes find annoying. Because of this, she noticed many things I did not—including two snakes that I might have stepped on had she not pointed them out to me! In a story, my sister would be the character who looks down and finds the magic key or the missing item in the road. She would be the one who sees what’s important.

The process of transforming character faults from undesirable elements into something valuable is a kind of fictional alchemy. Pure story gold. If writers can stop thinking of limitations as liabilities and reframe how these traits are viewed, we’ll be rewarded with more innovative plot twists and satisfying endings. Personally, I like the idea that I don’t have to be someone different than I am to succeed. Don’t we all want to be loved and accepted for who we are? So, examine your characters’ weaknesses and put a different spin on these traits. If you need motivation, just look at Rossi’s video.


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.

 

 


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

How to Finish a Novel

The End

I was stuck. I’d been trying for months to finish my novel, but my output had dwindled from a torrent to a trickle. Even though I knew what happened in the end, I couldn’t find the words to write the last few chapters. Other writers complain about the muddle in the middle. Not me. My challenge was figuring out how to bring the story to a close. So last month, I attended the VCFA alumni mini residency in an effort to seek wisdom from the source. While all the lectures and workshops were outstanding, talks by two inspirational writers in particular, Francisco X. Stork, and VCFA faculty member, Amanda Jenkins, sparked an epiphany for me.

The End

Finishing a novel, I learned, has less to do with forcing yourself to work than it does with easing up and listening to your intuition. If the muse stops speaking to you, the solution isn’t to grip your pencil more tightly and push down even harder. That only results in sore fingers and a broken lead. Instead, try what Jenkins suggests: “Notice your heart and trust it more than your head.”

When writers lose sight of the emotional story, that’s when things can get off track. “I’m not feeling it,” Jenkins would say again and again when commenting on manuscripts in our workshop. No matter what we thought we’d written, if readers weren’t feeling the emotion, then the truth was, it didn’t exist. And you can’t create a satisfying conclusion if you’re not “writing deeply… from the heart.”

Trust Your IntuitionStork’s message was fortuitously similar. “You must learn to trust your intuition if you want to write characters with heart and soul who live forever in the minds of readers.” Stork defined intuition as “a way of seeing a truth that is not dependent on words.” As the creator of one of my favorite fictional characters, Marcelo Sandoval from Marcelo in the Real World, the author clearly practices what he preaches. The truth of Marcelo, his “soul,” came to Stork in a flash of intuition. Later he tweaked and revised his protagonist, but because he trusted his gut instinct and embraced the “sudden illumination,” an extraordinary character was revealed to him.

Marcelo in the Real WorldWhile writers cannot force this kind of insight, Stork claimed that “we can create circumstances that are favorable for its arising.” He cited three writerly disciplines—mindfulness, a sense of play, and honesty—that make it “more likely for the lightning of intuition to strike.”

Mindfulness, “awareness without judgment,” is important, because it trains writers to keenly observe both the external and internal worlds. It’s hard, however, to watch thoughts go by in the conveyor belt of your mind if you can’t let go of judgment and self-censoring. I’d never finish my novel, I realized, if all I did was revise what I wrote the day before. But I’ll choose revising over drafting every time, because once the words (however bad) are written, I have a roadmap to follow. If I have something to tinker with and fix, the analytical part of my brain kicks in, and I can enter my flow state.

We all need our inner editor when polishing and perfecting our work. But if you allow her voice to take over too soon, she can derail your writing. “Leave that editor mindset behind, especially when you’re drafting,” Jenkins said. “Listen to your gut more than your head.” In other words, embrace the ambiguity of drafting. Don’t get so mired in micro-level scrutiny that you miss out on the big picture.

Shelf of craft books
Just a few of my many craft books

Swapping out head logic for heart logic isn’t easy. I like to refer to checklists, tip sheets, craft books and the work of other authors when I write. I want so badly for my work to be perfect that I’m hyper aware of the pitfalls. Does my setting feel real, did I show more than tell, did I remember to use the five senses? As manuscripts grow longer and more complex, the pressure writers can feel to tie up loose ends, bring character arcs to a close, and resolve the themes they’ve been exploring can kill creativity. The antidote? Stop trying so hard. Be willing to experiment and play.

When we become too obsessed with getting it right, we can lose sight of other things. Have you ever written something that didn’t sound quite right? But when you set it aside and came back to it later, the solution was suddenly clear? “Recognize the value of sometimes not doing anything,” Stork said, “the need to wait for the missing spark of life to appear, or for the insight that will untie the knot where you’re stuck.” Instead of forcing the story to go where you think it should, listen to your “wordless inner guide.”

So after the AMR, I went home and tried something new. Instead of tightening, I loosened. Instead of focusing on craft techniques, I thought about spiritual truths—and emotions. And I thought about why I started writing this novel in the first place. In my fiction and in my life, I tend to ask difficult questions. But I don’t need the answers to all those questions to write the end of my book. All I need is to keep asking the questions. That’s how the story will emerge. That’s how the ending of my novel will find me.

So, go deeper and stay there, as Jenkins says. Find your writing heart and hold onto it!


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.