Defining Characters

At the suggestion of a friend, I recently purchased a copy of Before Ever AfterThe Lost Lectures of Walt Disney’s Animation Studio. The book details Walt Disney’s efforts to acquire and train his animators. When the process started, animation was a new concept uniquely tied to motion pictures. Drawing animated cartoon characters became a new genre of artwork. Disney recruited raw artistic talent, then trained his artists to create the desired animation. The book contains many of the lectures used in Disney’s classes. Imbedded in this process (in my opinion) was Disney’s desire to create memorable characters with human-like traits who would endure over time in the cartoon world.

The book is of particular interest to me because my writing has been criticized with regard to my  character development. While I didn’t buy this book as a writing text, I realized, as I read it, that the concepts of drawing animated characters apply to fiction writing as well.

To illustrate my point, I have quoted below some excerpts from Art Babbitt’s lecture entitled “Character Analysis of the Goof.”[1] We know this character today as “Goofy.”

Mr. Babbitt says: “In my opinion the Goof, hitherto, has been a weak cartoon character because both his physical and mental make-up were indefinite and intangible. His figure was a distortion – not a caricature, and if he was supposed to have a mind or personality, he was never given sufficient opportunity to display it.”

Babbitt then details some of Goof’s character traits:  “Think of the Goof as a composite of an everlasting optimist, a gullible Good Samaritan, a half-wit, a shiftless good natured boy and a hick….Yet the Goof is not the type of half-wit that is to be pitied. He doesn’t dribble, drool or shriek. He is a good natured dumb-bell who thinks he is pretty smart….He talks to himself because it is easier for him to know what he is thinking if he hears it first.”

Clearly, the Goof is a multi-dimensional character who can not only carry his weight, but interacts well with his fellow characters, even if he often gets mixed up or lacks understanding of the situations around him. His good nature makes his bumbling palatable and humorous.

Ted Sears, another Disney instructor, says of the Goof: “The best rule for handling the Goof should be: always have him go about an action in his own, particularly goofy way. He does practically everything backwards, and is amused with the result, even though he suffers from it.”

My take from all of this is that characters should have primary defining qualities, but their personas should be multifaceted. Even the worst villain may be capable of kindness or some other humane quality. It’s up to the author to make characters whose traits can surprise the reader with unexpected actions.

While we’re on the subject, I admit that I prefer my character’s traits to come out through their actions or dialogue, not through lengthy descriptions. In this regard, I tend to follow Elmore Leonard’s Writing Rule No. 8: “Avoid Detailed Descriptions of Character.”[2]

 

[1] Hahn, Miller-Zarnecki, Before Ever After, Disney Enterprises, Inc, 2015, p36

[2] Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing, HarperCollins e-books, 2010

How I Came to Write

I have compiled a list for my heirs, to be revealed at my death, of things I consider important. It’s not a profound list. The big things, faith, family and country are at the top, but the lower part of the list mentions lesser items, things that work and make life enjoyable or productive. In a way, a list is silly and exclusionary, because each day always brings observations or events which make the day worthwhile. Nevertheless, my list includes things on which I’ve always relied: a sharp ax, a Stihl chainsaw, my wife’s homemade bread, a gold Rapala Shallow Diver fishing lure, short meetings and reading to children.

I mention reading because ultimately the survival of our culture will depend upon the education of our children. I’m not speaking just of formal education, but also those times when a kid hears a story told by an adult. The process is an ancient one – begun when everyone sat by the campfire to hear the oral histories – and continues refined by all of the modern media of which our civilization is capable. As a child, the best part of reading, for me, was sitting next to an adult listening. Despite all of the fancy media available today, I believe that kids still respond best to time with adults to hear stories. Give me a good book and a room full of chattering kids, and within a brief time, they will be gathered around. Kids won’t abandon their electronics, but they will put them aside to hear a good story.

Recently, at the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, I found some of N.C. Wyeth’s illustrations of children’s literature. My mind immediately flashed back to the days when I sat next to a parent, listening. The illustrations, whether the clever drawings in Beatrix Potter’s classics or Wyeth’s swashbuckling scenes in adventure books, always enhanced the story line.

By high school, I was inspired to respect literature by my junior year AP English teacher, a recent graduate of Denison University. At the beginning of the year, she asked each of us to pick an author and to write a paper about that author. I chose Ernest Hemingway because I had read and liked The Old Man and the Sea. That year, in addition to all my other assignments, I read Hemingway’s entire body of work. (That was a time before electronic distractions or playing sports required organized practices 365 days of the year.) When I went to college (Denison of course) I took several English Lit courses; but my favorite, outside my major, was Creative Writing, taught by Paul Bennett. He described my work as “interesting” but not good enough for the college literary journal. At the conclusion of the semester, after reading my short story assignment, he encouraged me to keep writing. He assured me that, someday, I would “get published.” He didn’t tell me that I’d have to pay for it myself.

During my career, I wrote a lot, but mostly nonfiction stuff related to my occupation. A few years before retirement I resolved to write fiction more regularly. A professor at Denison suggested I seek out some on-line courses to get started.

If you are like me and want to write, but have no formal training, you will soon learn that it is virtually impossible for someone without credentials to get published, or even noticed in the literary world. I’ve collected a nice array of rejection slips from literary journals and have watched some of my friends (who have credentials and are very good writers) fight their way through the slush piles. One writer, Marcy Campbell – see her blog at www.marcycampbell.blogspot.com  - has actually finally connected with an agent after some ten years of trying. I hope the doors blow wide open for her because she is a great writer who is dedicated to her craft.

At my age, I have neither the inclination nor the time to crack the publishing cabal. Enter CreateSpace. I have been impressed and pleased with their service and now we’ll see how it comes out in the end. Like all things, characterization is important. “Self-Publishing” is a curse in the literary world, but “Indy Publishing” seems to be okay, even though I haven’t found much difference in the process. I recognize that some Indy Publishers are picky about what they publish, but most want the business and will take on any decent work that comes their way.

CreateSpace is a self-publishing vehicle, but it seems poised to crack the walls of the publishing realm. It offers several advantages over other publishers: (1) the price is right; (2) the company uses electronic media to operate efficiently; (3) you can publish virtually anything, without editorial comment; but if an author wants editorial comment, their editors are experts; (4) the work gets to press quickly; and (5) they hook you up with their cabal smashing partner, Amazon.

I’m confident that, unless my book is a best seller, I’ll never have an agent, even if I continue to produce other work. However, my first major project is finished. There is some satisfaction in that completion, although it will be even better if I sell enough books to pay for my investment.

There are a couple more important steps one should follow along the way. Now that CreateSpace provides a quick and easy vehicle to achieve publication, one should still worry about the quality of the work. I suggest several things:

(1)   Find some friends (including other writers) who will read and critique your work. Some of my best critical comments came from avid readers. A writer cannot skip this step. If you’re working with other writers, you must also be willing to respond in kind by reviewing their work.

(2)   Hire a professional editor. In my case, I used Kevin Anderson and Associates -  see http://ka-writing.com/.  Margaret Wright, of their staff, pulled no punches with me. Her critical comments helped me make huge strides in the completion of my book.

(3)   When I thought I was ready to go to print, I also engaged the editorial service at CreateSpace for a second look. My editor there, Victoria Wright, also provided some extremely valuable analysis and comment.

My final advice: (1) Get a day job to support your writing habit: and (2) Go to your local elementary school and volunteer to read to some kids. As the rejection slips flow in, you can still pay the rent while leading young minds to appreciate a good story. 

My debut novel – Hawk’s Flight

This is the first blog of my life. At age 73, I guess it’s about time. So, bear with me as I dip my toe into the electronic age.

I’m writing about my debut novel, Hawk’s Flight, a book I’ve worked on for more than forty years. I don’t mean that I’ve been writing it for that length of time (it’s actually been only about 5 years off and on); rather I’ve been reading and thinking about the subject matter since the days of my military service.

People encounter stress in a variety of circumstances. In my law practice, I’ve seen it arise out of physical abuse, drug and alcohol addiction and, for some, military service. While we typically think of stress as an adult issue, the experts are also beginning to identify stress related issues among children.

Over the years, I have listened to veterans and their families and watched how they responded to the stress caused by wartime. When World War II ended, soldiers returned to their homes. Combat was finished (in some cases the soldiers had even stayed to occupy the lands of the defeated enemy) and soldiers were welcomed home as heroes, their dead and wounded honored. Soldiers were anxious to start families, get to college, build their businesses and generally cash in on the promises of freedom for which they fought. There was so much future ahead that it was, perhaps, easier to live with their days at war.

When the Vietnam War interrupted our comfortable lives, the politicians who sent the nation’s youth off to another conflict never anticipated the backlash of protest. As the war turned into a slog, they wanted out at any price. For Vietnam’s soldiers, life was the same but different. As technology advanced (along with our military prowess), soldiers could be on the battlefield in a backwater rice field one day and, in some cases, back with their families the next. Pilots often lived with their families on bases away from the combat area. This was made possible by long range aircraft and in-air refueling.  Hence, pilots could go to work (i.e. fly combat missions) with the expectation that they would return home the same day. Of course, some didn’t return and were either killed or captured during their missions. Soldiers stationed in-country could leave Vietnam for a few civilized days of R&R, only to be returned to their dire circumstances. From that war, returning veterans came home to public derision and excoriation. For many years, their combat experiences were discounted and there was little public recognition of their service.

The soldier’s environment has even been further confused in our most recent conflicts. Now a soldier can call home and/or Skype to his family after experiencing, on the same day, the most horrific battle conditions. No wonder, then, that our modern soldiers experience post traumatic stress. Separating the ravages of war from the comfort of one’s home (and living in both places simultaneously) has become impossible for many to bear.

Some things have remained constant, however. Soldiers and their families who have endured together, will always bond with each other or at least share an attitude of common respect. Friendship and loyalty are imbedded with patience and healing.  

Hawk’s Flight is a fictional account of the effects of war on soldiers and their families. I hope you enjoy it and, if you do, that you recommend it to your friends. If you hate it, then the book will die, a withered vine of the free market. That’s ok  - and as it should be.

Either way, writing the book has been an interesting experience. In a future blog, I’ll talk about the process of publishing independently.