Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Mystery of Mr. Character: II

Part II: Developing the Character

Developing the character can be one of the hardest things to do. Yet it is very necessary in order to let your reader know him. Your reader must relate to him or he will not like the story much.

I. The Three-Dimensional Character.
There are three ‘dimensions’ a character can have. They all add depth, and some are more important than others. They are;

1) External Traits
These are outer features such as the way he walks, his appearance, a habit he has, an accent, and so on. General peculiarities fall into this category.

2) Personality
This is the fun part of a person. It is what you see in a friend. He may be jolly, easy to please, angry, pettish, silly, insane, or whatever. These kinds of traits add spice and depth. There are so many different kinds of personalities, you really just have to watch people and see them. Of course, there are some that are more common, so try to find new and natural combinations.

3) Moral Fibre
This seems a strange term, but it is pretty accurate. This is kind of the spiritual and moral part of a character. He may be Christian or atheist, realist or idealist, Baptist or Anglican. He may have high morals and see black and white, or he may be careless and never think about morals. This is not just his personality; it is what he believes in, what influences him, and what he will die for. This is especially important in books where the main character or other accepts Christ.

Different types of characters are ranked in different dimensions. For example, the Catalyst may have only a one-dimensional character (perhaps his external traits), the Little Brother may have only a two-dimensional character (perhaps exterior traits and personality), and the hero has a three-dimensional character. This is not a set of rules. It only signifies that different types of people can be given different dimensions.

Another thing about these three proportions is that in a short story, you may have much less time to develop so much character. That is perfectly reasonable, and is a part of short story-ism.

II. Two Points of View

1) First Person
If you know something about grammar you know this is when the author uses the word ‘I’ and speaks as if he were present when the things occurred. Robert Louis Stevenson uses this point of view a lot. The author mainly tells you what happens without telling you what people are thinking, except the hero, or whatever character he happens to be. Sometimes he will say something like ‘I thought he looked angry at me for saying so.’ Jerome K. Jerome in Three Men in A Boat likes to add personal anecdotes, a special privilege given to users of the first person point of view.

2) Third Person or All-Knowing
The writer usually uses names and calls the characters by him and her and so forth. There are two types of all-knowing.

i. All-knowing subjective
This is generally someone who sees everything and can tell what people are thinking and so forth. For example; ‘The terrifying thought kept flashing through his head, Where was Ken?

ii. All-knowing objective
This is when the writer tells you what happens as if he were omnipresent, but only tells you what happens and not what the people are thinking.
There is a time for all points of view. Reading will probably help you most in deciding when each type should be used.
I hear there have been a few stories written in Second-Person point of view, but I personally haven’t read one. A while back I thought I had a wonderful idea of how to write one, but I haven’t gotten around to it. I was also disillusioned that someone thought of it first.

III. Six Ways to Develop Character

1) In Thoughts
See All-knowing subjective. Obviously, this way is not always an option. Some hints are,

i. Make the character think like he talks. Some of you may have noticed that you think differently than you talk (I think with a British accent) but your readers won’t generally understand that.

ii. Remember what you haven’t made your character find out yet (especially if it’s a mystery).

iii. Be realistic and original.

iv. When your character thinks about other people, don’t make him be able to read their minds. Only you’re allowed to do that. Don’t make him always know who the villain is. Even if the villain is quite obvious, the readers won’t mind if the hero doesn’t know who it is right away.

2) In Reactions
If something bad happens to an easily-angered person, obviously he’ll get angry. This is true with all sorts of people. For example, Anne Shirley hits Gilbert Blythe over the head with her slate in Anne of Green Gables. This seems like something she would do, for she has a temper. (By the way, don’t use angry people too much, especially if they have red hair.)

3) In Conversation
You can generally tell the most about people by the way they talk. Therefore, when Scrooge in A Christmas Carol says ‘Because you fell in love!’ as if it is the only thing in the world worse than a Merry Christmas, one sees he is very disagreeable.

Note: Make your character talk as if he was in the time period you have put him in. A lot of the slang and clichés we use now-a-days were not invented in, say, 1921.

4) In Reputation
In Pride and Prejudice, Mr. Bingley has a reputation for being very nice and good-natured, and Mr. Darcy has a reputation for being proud and haughty. Reputations are good for some things, but if your character appears incognito or is a stranger, it wouldn’t work very well, obviously.

5) In Appearance
See external traits. This is what a lot of people use for villains. Example; Rashleigh Osbaldistone in Rob Roy was very ugly, and most of the readers knew he was the villain. As I warned you in part one, you should not make all villains ugly or all heroes handsome, but often deformities, such as a lame foot, can represent a struggle or sorry circumstance in a character. Also, if someone is very fat, we know he likes to eat, and if she is pale, we think she might be sickly.

6) In Behaviour
This is a bit related to reactions. If in The Prisoner of Zenda Rupert Hentzau sulks at something the hero said but soon has ‘his temper restored’ and gives him ‘the sunniest of smiles’, we get the idea he does not stay angry for long but can be rather pettish. Behaviour is probably one of the best ways to develop a character, although I find it most difficult indeed.

IV. Getting to Know Your Character
You can never develop your character really well unless you know him really well. You want your reader to identify with him, and he won’t if you don’t.

Write all you know about him down. You may be surprised at how secretive he is. If he is the hero he should have all of the three dimensions. Write what he likes to do, what he looks like, everything you know, only refrain from making up new things just yet. Rack your brain and try to remember all you’ve made up about him.

Now let it sit for a day or two, and then go and fill in some of the gaps. Not all at once, but gradually. You may even want to make up where he was born, how old he is, and so forth. I will emphasise here that you do not have to use all of this information in your story. But just knowing it makes everything better.

After you’ve done these two things, you may want to try writing a scene of your story out, keeping all you know about your character in mind. You may not see any immediate results, but trust me, it helps.

Also, you may choose to look at #III. and create an example for each of the six points, using your character, of course. You may like it so much you will want to do more.

If you know of a good personality test, you can have your character take it (or take it for him). Once you find out what personality type he is, read about that type. You may find out some things about your character that you didn’t realise before. For instance, you may find out why he does certain things once you start to understand how he thinks. The Myers-Briggs personality test is our favourite and you can find it on-line. By the way, your character may fit into several different personality types, which is perfectly fine since some real people do as well.

Another option is to tell someone about him. If you’re into the imaginary friend kind of thing, you can tell your friend about it. Or tell your colleague, or your mother, or a fellow writer, or anyone. If he asks questions, try to answer them all. You could even tell about something Mr. Character did.
I think you can tell that you really know your character when he becomes one of your imaginary friends. All right, if you don’t have imaginary friends, when you start thinking of him almost as a real person.

V. Questions to Ask While Making a Character Act

*Is this something a real person would or could do?

*Is this something in line with his character?It is important to be aware that many people make the mistake of making the character do something out of line with his personality. To avoid this occurrence, make certain you know your character well. See #IV.

*What would I do if I were in his position?

*How does this action reveal what he is thinking?

*Why does he do what he does?

*How would I have felt in this situation?

*How does the character feel?

*What will the effects of this be?

*How does this reveal part of his character?

VI. Testing Your Character
Hard as I know it is, you should try him out on someone. I know it is difficult for some of us to show other people our work, but it can help. I am glad to have a colleague who will read any and every story I allow, only my colleague rarely says anything’s wrong. If you can bear it, try your character out on three people. Three is a nice, safe number. However, you could try him out on ten, if you wanted, depending on how determined you are. If the first three say they don’t like Mr. Character at all, there is probably something about him that needs improvement. I know what it feels like to have someone criticise your character, but sometimes it’s good for you. However, take most of what you hear with a grain of salt. You can’t please everybody, anyway.

By the way, copying a character off of a real-life person is a very good way to make him realistic, as long as you know your model well. I have done it several times, only be sure you change the names. Also, be careful who you let read it, because some people are very good at guessing...

If possible, let the fellow sit. I like doing that. (I have plenty opportunity to do it, too.) Let him sit in cold storage for a while, and then take him out and look him over. This always helps me because once you have forgotten about him for awhile, problems stand out more when you look at him again. Once more, you may not have the time, patience or heart to do this, and it doesn’t always work anyhow. But otherwise, you pretty much just have to make him to suit you. You never can tell exactly what other people think, but it’s better to make a book you like and have no one else like it, than a book everyone else likes when you don’t like it. It sounds selfish, but I’m sure it’s true.

Study people. You may want to keep a notebook and write down odd habits, accents, ways of talking, walking or whatever. Watch people and observe them closely. Think about how most people are alike and all people are different. If you get really fanatic, you can study anthropology, philology and psychology, but I myself wouldn’t go that far. I have far too much writing to do to waste time on that.

Last of all, practice, practice, practice. You can’t very well get worse, unless you go into the mass production thing. It may take you till you’re fifty-five, but I’m sure someday you’ll write a good book, even if it’s never published. And none of it will be a waste, you’ll see. It changes your whole view, it does. You look at the world through different eyes. I think you begin to like everybody with his faults, at least gradually. I myself have found that there are many people whom I have a sudden interest in because they are so very fascinating to study. It makes the world seem full of potential. Writing may just be your niche to change the world. Gentlemen, we may even have a future Walter Scott, Thomas Hardy, Howard Pyle or Jane Austen in our midst!
-R. P.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Mystery of Mr. Character

The character is one of the most important parts of a story. He can be a good character, and make the book epic, or he can be rotten, and ruin the book entirely. Here are just a few hints on the characters in a story or novel. As you know, there are no rules to writing, but here are just a few suggestions. You do not have to follow all of them; you may even break them all, if you like.

Part I: An Introduction to the Character

1) The Importance of the Character

i. First of all, if there is no personality character, there is not much to happen. If the hero in Waverly had not had a keen sense of honour and justice, he would never have joined with Prince Charles Edward, and there would never have been much of the action. This works the opposite way as well. Sometimes there is a character flaw; or a downright flawed character. This is generally a book where the subject reforms, or overcomes an issue such as pride, fear, envy, and so on.
* One should use a variety of characters. One does not want to read about 13 scientists who work in their laboratories from three in the morning to twelve at night and are always up in the clouds. Make someone different for a change! Why not a social butterfly scientist who just throws everything together and gets an invention? Or better yet, make him never invent anything at all, and do something else the reader never dreamed of?

iii. If you are in the mood for something new, make a change of pace by adding an off-the-wall character. However, if you add humour, please try it out on the three funniest people you know. (I have come across many authors trying to be funny who are only exasperating. Some writers are just gifted with humour, such as P.G. Wodehouse and Hergé. But don’t worry, it doesn’t take too much to make up a story that will make a ten-year-old laugh.) Be careful, also, not to make your odd-ball too out of place. A Cowboy in China is a little extreme, but done right, it could work, and be funny too. (What do you think about an Indian in Paris?)

2) Types of Characters

i. The Main Character (also known as the hero).
He is the one who makes the story. He must have something change by the end, either in his situation, his personality, his circumstances, or anything. He must not be perfect. That is the greatest flaw I have come across these days. Make your Main Character have at least one major fault. (if you want him to be really life-like, you can make him have more!) However, readers tend to get upset at perfect Main Characters. A reader cannot relate to a perfect person any more than a writer can, and if the writer can’t, the reader never will.
*Another thing, and I will repeat what my colleague once said. Do not always make the hero handsome—or beautiful. Although it is easy to do so, it isn’t necessary. No one really sees him anyway, unless your book is illustrated, and an artist could make him look however he wanted to. If you illustrate your own book, it is much more subtle to draw him handsome or her beautiful than it is to say so in writing. If some day a film is made of your book, leave it to the film-maker to make the actor who-ever he chooses.
*Also, don’t make him too stupid. Everyone likes someone who can think for himself and solve problems, but you shouldn’t make all of your main characters Sherlock Holmeses.
*Depending on the genre of your story, you may have many main characters. In children’s stories or stories about families, there are usually quite a few. (Five Children and It, Rainbow Valley) Even in more grown-up books there can be many main characters, especially in Dickens’. (Bleak House).
*I feel compelled to insert a note here on when to introduce your main character. He generally appears in the first chapter, but sometimes he appears later. Be careful about waiting to insert him, because you have to start with someone, and you generally don’t want people to think someone else is the hero. In fact, there is a story I am working on myself in which the main character does not appear in person until the end.

ii. The Villain
He is one of my personal favourites, because you can do so much with him. He is very important too, although he is not necessary in all stories. I feel it is easier to make up villains’ plots than heroes’. I believe that is a result of sin nature. He usually has many faults, obviously, but they go without being stated. (Or if you’re a good writer, implied.) My favourite kinds are the brilliant villains, but the duller ones are fine too, as long as they aren’t unbelievably stupid. They have to be smart enough to be interesting. The villain also has the special privilege of being allowed to be smarter than the hero.
*Another word from my colleague; don’t always make the villain ugly. Ugly villains are a stereotype, but handsome villains can be interesting, like Mr. Parker in Jack Ballister’s Fortunes. Just be sure you don’t overdo it. (One or Two ugly villains are acceptable generally, but better yet don’t mention the word ugly at all.)
*Don’t introduce the villain in the first chapter if the reader isn’t supposed to know he’s the villain. A good reader can tell a villain at first glance, so better not try to conceal him anyhow. (I actually made this mistake myself, because the character wasn’t going to be a villain when I introduced him, but I let him be anyway. Besides, I got too attached to that part.)
*Special Note: Be careful about getting too attached to anything. It happens to everybody, but it is hard to reverse.
*There are several types of villains. The villain who is bad because he hates the hero,( Messala from Ben Hur) the villain who is bad because he can get something out of it,(Long John Silver from Treasure Island) the villain who is bad for the sake of being bad (Rupert Hentzau from The Prisoner of Zenda), and the villain who is—well, just bad.
*There are many ways to dispose of a villain. Remember that he should always get his just deserts. Killing him off is useful, if you are into that sort of thing. Dickens is very ingenious when coming up with ways to kill people. However, I am always hesitant to get rid of the villain this way. Perhaps it is from my early training in the sixth commandment. Some of the other useful operations to get rid of villains are to
1. Send him to jail. This is probably the easiest thing to do with him. It spares the sharper pang of killing him, but dispenses with him properly.
2. Make him be injured. Bringing back the example of Messala in Ben Hur.
3. Be exiled. An easy way to get rid of him, but not always the best choice, as he suffers little from his wickedness.
4. Run away to return in the sequel. This is one of my particular favourites, although I have not yet used it myself. It adds flavour, only everyone knows who the villain is going to be in the sequel.
5. Have something else bad happen to him. This can include everything from falling into the pond to losing his fortune. It is the simplest form, but it is not always easy to have an original idea.
6. Reform. This is a nice thing to do, but try to be realistic. Not everyone reforms easily.

iii. The Sidekick
This is the chappie who runs around with the hero and helps him out. Sometimes he is just the hero’s friend. Sometimes the hero has multiple sidekicks, but there is generally one main one. The sidekick is useful too, but there are some precautions one must take. You should be cautious not to make the reader like him better than the hero, especially if you mean to kill him or have something bad happen to him. (By the way, I suggest you never kill your sidekick unless you are writing a war story or tragedy.) You should not like him too much yourself, because it generally causes complications later. However, it is fine if you make him just as good as the hero. Some uses for the sidekick are,
*To help the hero in general ways. He can be the extra pair of hands, the help when the hero needs an extra man.
*To save the hero when he gets in a tight spot. When he’s caught in the villain’s castle, who’s to get him out?
*Just to be around when you get bored of the hero. If you have romance in your book, it’s always a nice change of pace if you make the sidekick do something smart while the lovers are mooning.

iv. The Catalyst
This is the type of character who sets the plot spinning. Even though he may not be in the story so very much, he is generally very important. He stays the same but, by his actions, makes others of the characters change. Example: Cinderella’s fairy godmother is a catalyst. She sends Cinderella to the ball where she meets the prince and loses her slipper, etc. Nothing happens to the fairy godmother, but she changes the rest of the story for Cinderella.

v. The Foil
He is the one who is the hero’s opposite. He is generally the one who adds emphasis and colour to the hero’s character by having the opposite personality. For instance, if the hero is proud and talkative, the foil may be very quiet and meek. The foil can be almost anyone in the story, including the catalyst, sidekick or villain. He is often a lot of fun to create, and he adds a new tone to the story.

vi. The Other kinds of Characters
There are several other types of characters, including
*The Little Brother or Sister
Or else the person the hero or someone else in the story has to take care of. In books where the characters are mostly grown-ups, this character can be a new and fresh element.
*The Protector
He is the person who takes care of the hero.
*Girlfriend or Boyfriend
Or Beau. You may not like any of those words, but you know what I’m talking about. Some readers don’t like it if you end the book without them getting married or engaged, so if you don’t want to write a love story, don’t put one in.
*Unpleasant Personage
He is the person who complicates life for other people and makes everyone miserable. He is sometimes the villain, but sometimes he’s just a minor character.
*There are many other types of characters. These are just the most popular ones.
*Make a lot of different kinds of characters in your story. Characters add substance to your story, and different types add flavour. Think of your work as a salad. More isn’t always better, but variety is. You can have the most epic plot ever and ruin it with dull characters. They can be one of the hardest things to create, but one of the most satisfying, too.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Christmas Story

“Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that.”
Ask anyone what story is introduced by the above line, especially at Christmas time, and see what he says. The right answer is, of course, Charles Dickens’s "A Christmas Carol" and though perhaps not everyone would recognise the quoted line, most are familiar enough with the classic tale to know why it is important for the reader to understand at the outset that Marley is dead (as a “coffin-nail”)—in order to be certain that it is indeed his ghost that appears to his old partner Scrooge and not just a long-lost Marley.

I thought it best to begin an article about the Christmas story with one of the most well-known of fictional Christmas stories. Charles Dickens’s holiday tale has been so well-loved that ever since, the Christmas story has been a literary genre of its own.

In fact, Christmas is the only holiday that has its own literary genre. There is something in Christmas so universal that it lends itself to a variety of story types—humorous, sentimental, retrospective, satirical—and yet so particular that the story will only be brought out in December. I have made a tradition of writing a Christmas story of my own each year, and keep a list of possible story plots to use. I believe I have at present enough potential plots to last me until I am somewhere in my thirties if I continue writing them at the rate of one per year, and I am still adding to the list.

The real trouble of writing a Christmas story, I have found, is making it a Christmas story and not merely a story set at Christmastime. There seems to be a mysterious element in those stories that have managed to become Christmas classics—something that makes them belong to Christmas. I don’t pretend to know what that element is, but there are certain themes that appear again and again in Christmas stories like an echo, or the thread of a plot.

After all the plays, musicals, films, etc. based upon "A Christmas Carol," most people are familiar with the basic plot. A wicked old usurer is visited by four spirits on Christmas Eve which show him Christmas from three different perspectives. He is completely transformed by this ghostly experience and spends the rest of his life (especially at Christmas) in nobler pursuits. We have the enjoyment of watching Scrooge change gradually from miser to philanthropist under the spell of Dickens’s inimitable story-telling. The way it is told lends the tale most of its character and energy, but I think a great deal of its appeal comes from the redemption of old Scrooge—a creature most would have thought past redeeming. I have always been partial to stories where the villain is reformed at the end, and in this one, where the villain happens to be the main character as well, it is even more of a satisfaction than usual. We sympathise with a character whose thoughts and feelings we understand. Never mind that he is a bad man. We are all bad enough ourselves to fully appreciate the significance of his salvation, and I think that is the reason this tale has been loved so universally and for so long.

“One dollar and eighty-seven cents.” You may not find quite as many people who are familiar with this opening line as you would find familiar with the first one I quoted, but chances are, there are a few. That’s because O’Henry’s surprise-ending Christmas story, "The Gift of the Magi," is another best-loved and therefore best-known of the holiday stories. For my part, I used to be rather bothered by it because the two people in it gave their most prized possessions in exchange for things of much lesser value. I’ve since learnt to be very fond of this story which, like many of O’Henry’s, must be read “between the lines”. The paradox of it is that, although the story centres on the two gifts, it really isn’t about the gifts at all—it’s about an unseen gift manifested in rather an awkward way. It’s the unseen gift of Love that is the core of this story, and I find it interesting to note listeners’ reactions to it. There are some who “get it” and some (like me—at least for many years) who don’t.

I have always thought Christmas is a magical time, even though I never believed in Santa Claus. I suppose it is partly because even when it is looked forward to all year long it always seems to come rather unexpectedly. And then, there is something of the conjuror in Christmas: you put your hand in a stocking and pull out an orange. It isn’t very surprising that a great many fairy stories have been made up about Christmas—Saint Nicholas bringing gifts, animals talking at midnight, magical nutcrackers, and tailoring mice. It isn’t important to the story whether you believe in magic or not, the important thing is that for a few minutes you suspend your disbelief and wait in firm expectation for the impossible to occur. And it always does, in the best Christmas stories.

Of all queer Christmases, the queerest are those that come during war time. The two things are such opposites that to think of them both at once is a mental exercise. Yet, some of the best Christmas stories I’ve heard are set during a war, and of these my favourites are those that really happened. I’ve always liked the story "The Truce in the Forest." It tells of an instance that occurred during the “Battle of the Bulge” in 1944, where a handful of American and German soldiers hold an unofficial truce in honour of the season. I don’t know if the story is true or not, but it is very similar to many true instances. There is something in Christmas stronger than officers’ orders, stronger than patriotism, stronger even than hatred, sometimes.

This theme appears in nearly every Christmas story. I suppose it explains the many otherwise depressing tales of ill children, lonely people, and poverty-stricken families abounding among the more cheerful holiday stories. The idea that good is eternal and hardship only temporary is presented again and again. How else could we justify Christmas if it were only for those who had some good reason for being merry? No, Christmas is for everyone without condition and it brings its own cheer with it to even the poorest or unhappiest. That, at any rate, is what the Christmas stories tell us.

There is one thing that we can expect from a Christmas story beforehand and that is a happy ending. Christmas stories may be sad or humorous, cheerful or sentimental, but we know whatever happens that everything is going to end well. We may pity Tiny Tim, or our hair may stand on end at the appearance of Marley’s ghost, but the story will end with a smile and the comfortable satisfaction of knowing that it is, after all, “a wonderful life”.

* * *

Perhaps the reason that these characteristics appear so often in our favourite Christmas stories is because they are all a part of the first and true Christmas Story.

* It tells of One who came to save even the worst sinners.

* He came bringing the greatest gift.

* His coming was by magic.

* He came to bring peace, not among men (he brought a sword), but between God and mankind.

* His coming was looked and longed for almost since the world began.

*Ever since He came, those who follow Him have had (as He promised) trials and suffering, but we know, in the tradition of the Christmas story, that at the conclusion there will be a Happy Ending.

Thus, the tradition of the Christmas story continues the tradition of the True Christmas Story, and like small echoes, our favourite holiday tales remind us again each year of what is most important to Christmas.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Great Responsibility

If I have given you delight

By aught that I have done,

Let me lie quiet in that night

Which shall be yours anon:

And for the little, little, span

The dead are borne in mind,

Seek not to question other than

The books I leave behind.

-Rudyard Kipling

Recently, an interesting topic was broached in a writers’ circle. A member of the group stated that, in fiction, there are no rules: one can do pretty much just as one pleases. For instance, we know that in the real world every choice we make has consequences which are good or bad depending on whether the choice is good or bad. In fiction however a writer is able to make a character make a choice resulting in either good or bad consequences or, if he chose, without any consequences at all. Literature is a world with no laws, civil, moral, or otherwise.
He was quite right. Writing is one of the freest of professions. Even the laws of grammar may be broken in the name of art. There are almost no rules of the trade that a writer cannot break with impunity. Today there are far fewer restrictions placed on writers than was once the case. This is because many countries place a high value on freedom of speaking and writing since it allows new and useful ideas to spread.
Freedom is a very good thing, but just as we are “made free from sin” and become “the servants of righteousness”, so it is (with other things besides) that when there are no rules there is instead something far greater—a responsibility.
“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required:” This is true in writing perhaps more than in any other art or profession. The power of an author is greater than that of kings, because his power lies in his ideas. When an idea is preserved in written form it will last (generally) far longer than the author himself; it will spread as copies are made of it, and will go to more places than the author could have gone in one lifetime; and it will carry more weight and more readily convince people than the author would have been able to in person.
This is because, as the spider said in Charlotte’s Web, “people will believe almost anything they see in print,” and when the author’s ideas are presented in the appealing form of poetry or fiction, the reader will not tend to stop to consider the idea itself, but swallow the whole business like a spoonful of jam with a pill in the middle. This is a very useful strategy for the author, of course, provided that the pill is a good one. That is the author’s obligation—to put a good pill in.
The reason fiction has so much more sway over a reader’s beliefs and opinions is because, while a lecture or treatise appeals to the intellects of the audience, fiction bypasses that and appeals directly to their emotions. If the author can get the reader to sympathise with one of his characters, it generally follows that the reader will sympathise with the character’s beliefs and values. The author also has the power to engineer the fictional situations in order to support his case. He has the ability to make his audience feel excited or indifferent, defeated or exultant, pleased or indignant, just as he pleases by what he makes the characters in the story do, say, think, and feel. He can leave the reader satisfied or discontent by the way the story ends. His powers are almost limitless and, when used correctly, can change the reader’s opinion or make him feel strongly about a subject he felt indifferent about before.
For instance, an author might write a novel about war with the intent of turning his readers into pacifists. He might go about to gain this end by showing how sad and wasteful war is, how scores of innocent people are hurt by it, or how evil or stupid the statesmen who start wars are. He probably would not say that sometimes it is necessary to fight in order to gain peace or justice, or that some nations go to war in order to protect the weak and helpless, and the reader would be left with only one side of the argument. The author, if he knew what he was about, would also probably not make one of his characters make a speech denouncing war; he is more likely to convince his audience if he instead were to make a character with whom the readers sympathised be killed in war. Thus, he plays on their emotions and allows the emotions to influence the intellect.
This is a very subtle device and often the reader is unaware that his opinions are changing. Sometimes he realises it, but since only one side (the author’s favourite) of the argument is presented, naturally it seems the most plausible. Almost every book will present at least one of the author’s views of life, whether it be right or wrong, and that is the way it should be. If a book did not present any idea at all it would be very dull and useless.
The point of the book, therefore, is probably the most important part. However, it is possible to write a book that attempts to present good ideas, but in a bad way. Unfortunately, this is the case with many alleged Christian books today. Many Christian writers have fallen for the fallacy that a book will be more likely to influence unbelievers if it makes no pretence at being a good book. It must interest an unsaved person; therefore it must have in it all the sorts of things that such a person finds interesting. Some even feel that if a book lacks the “spicier” elements it is somehow lacking in artistic value. Life, they feel, must be presented exactly how it is, with all of its—shall I say—less than edifying particulars.
I firmly feel that such content is not only unnecessary, but downright wrong and hurtful. It may be possible to present the Gospel through a story of a wicked and licentious person, but it cannot be beneficial to anybody to fill his mind with such material. It may be a way to induce unbelievers to read the story, but the effect would be the same as that of a spoonful of poison with a vitamin in the middle: the poison will have more bad consequences than the vitamin will have good ones.
Psalm 12 could be titled The Writer’s Psalm. Some of its verses sound oddly similar to arguments heard in writing circles today. “They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and a double heart do they speak. The Lord shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things: Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail: our lips are our own: who is lord over us?” (vs. 2-4)
It is a very solemn thing then to put our thoughts, feelings, ideas, values, beliefs, &c. in print for the perusal of the world and future ages. If we are to be judged by every idle word, how much more by the words we used with the intent to influence others? Verse 6 of Psalm 12 sums up the whole of our responsibility and the Definitive Standard of all writing.
“The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.”