Friday, October 18, 2013

How to Choose the Right Narrator

I've been stuck on my novel VOODOO QUEEN for longer than I care to admit. Now, I am officially unstuck. Light the fireworks and open the sparkling cider, this is a cause for celebration!

My biggest challenge was finding the right narrator. It seemed like there were a million options and none of them fit just right.

Donald Maas says in his brilliant book Writing the Breakout Novel that the narrator should be the person who changes the most. Orson Scott Card says it should be the person who hurts the most. Problem is, all my characters do a lot of changing and hurting, so their advice isn't really helpful for me personally.

A friend of mine said I should flip a coin. By that time I was so fed up with my dilemma that I decided leaving it to chance was the only option.

I got a hat and wrote the options on pieces of paper. Right as I was about to pick one out, I looked through my notes one last time to see if I could glean any last-minute inspiration. I happened upon the Conflict/Tension section. 

This is what I read:

Main Conflict: Can Marie make a difference for good?
-          Mini-goals: help others
o   physically, emotionally, and spiritually
-          This entails:
o   Raising children
o   Caring for the sick
o   Bringing people to the Catholic Church
o   Being a voodoo leader/practitioner
o   Giving advice
-          Her children keep dying
-          She loses confidence because of her lost children and failed marriage
-          Racial and religious persecution (laws, treatment)
-          People fear and hate her
-          Her own mortality (needs to leave a queen in her place)
-          She’s fighting against death itself and doesn’t always win
-          Charlatans are hurting people with their false claims.

Public Stakes: Depict New Orleans African American culture at its most beautiful and ask, can Marie save all of this?

Notice anything interesting? All the conflict revolves around one person. Every other character has struggles, but they'll all subplots, and the conflict in those subplots all affect my main character: Marie Laveau.

It didn't make any sense for the narrator to be one of Marie's daughters, or her grandmother, or even for her to share the spotlight with any of those people. VOODOO QUEEN is her story, and no one else ought to tell it.

When Maass says the narrator should change the most and Card says the narrator should hurt the most, they're both saying the same thing in different ways; the action should revolve around your main character. He/she should be in the center or not just the story, but the purpose of the story. 

In the end, I chose my narrator by asking myself two questions:

  1. What is this story trying to accomplish?
  2. Which character can best accomplish this?
I had wanted to do something unprecedented with my book, but in the end, that wasn't the best way to tell it. Plain old third-person single POV will be the best thing for my story, and that's what I'm going to do.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Authors Who Don't Understand Their Characters

One of the greatest challenges to writing historical fiction is understanding your characters. People who lived in a different time and place had completely different morals, concerns, challenges, and goals. 

Many authors think they can read a list of facts, plug them in to an already designed plot, and that's all it takes to make an accurate story. It's not enough. We have to get down to the heart of why our characters did what they did and why they cared about the things they cared about.

This topic is on my mind because of a fictional book I'm reading about Marie Laveau, the main character of my WIP. (I won't name names.) It's clear the author did her research into 19th century New Orleans, Marie, and voodoo.

However, she doesn't seem to have an understanding of voodoo as a religion. Since voodoo was Marie's life, this means she does not have an understanding of her main character, and therefore couldn't write an accurate story.

For instance, there's a scene in the book when, during a ceremony, a priest rips a live chicken apart and Marie eats the heart raw, wiping the blood off her mouth afterwards. (Gross.)

I can see why she put that in the book. Voodoo ceremonies usually include blood sacrifices, and chickens are used in many of their rituals. Reports of ceremonies in 19th century New Orleans include details about the gruesome deaths of chickens. But there's a reason behind these actions, and if the author doesn't understand them, it seems that Marie and her followers are disgusting and barbaric.

First off, you can't trust anything written about voodoo during Marie's lifetime. Racial and religious persecution was so rife that you have to take everything they say with a grain of salt... or perhaps a cup of salt.

Here's what the author doesn't understand:

Voodoos use chickens as spiritual sponges. They're meant to soak up impurities. I saw a video from Africa of women rubbing chickens along an initiate's body to cleanse her as preparation to becoming a priestess. Afterwards, they break the neck of the chicken and then dispose of it; since the chicken is full of negative spiritual energy, it's considered unsafe to eat.

These chickens shouldn't be confused with blood sacrifices. Voodoos believe the spirits they worship need to be fed, and since blood is the source of life, it is the most nourishing of offerings. They might kill an animal such as a goat, drain the blood, and ceremoniously offer the blood to the spirits. Afterwards, they cook the animal and eat it. 

In another video I watched, a priestess explained that everyone drains blood from animals before they eat them. Most people just throw it away; voodoos offer it to altars. Why do people make such a big deal out of it?

Non-believers in 19th century New Orleans saw what seemed to them a violent, bloody ceremony and judged it to be barbaric and evil. The author I described earlier, who didn't want to depict her main character as barbaric, wrote that she hated the ceremony and even went so far as to say she hated most voodoo worship. You can't become the most renowned leader of a world-wide religion by hating your own belief system. 

Instead of writing how the author would have felt in Marie's situation, she should have dug deeper to find out how Marie would have felt. It's like the old saying; you can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes.

We cannot walk in our characters' shoes, unfortunately (how cool would that be?). We can only keep an open mind and do enough research to get past the who, what, when, and where, and come to understand the why.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

I Hate How Writers Treat Babies

I've been AFK for a long while now, but for a good reason. I had a baby! Here's a picture of me with my beautiful girl, Bella Rose, who was born August 24th and is now 5 weeks old.

It's true what they say; once you have a child, your life is never the same again.

This seems like an opportune time to discuss a huge pet peeve of mine. I hate how most writers treat babies in their books. They depict them as objects, a job for the FMC that she may or may not enjoy, or perhaps as a complication to the plot. Few make babies into characters with influence and personality. Writers usually don't even describe what the baby looks like (they do NOT all look the same).

No character should be dead weight, especially not one as integral to your character's life as a child.

It may seem difficult to make a baby more than an object -- after all, how much personality can a baby have? -- but you'd be surprised. Any mother will tell you that every baby is different. Some of them are beautiful bundles of joy, some of them make your life a living hell, and each one has its own characteristics.

Take my daughter, for instance. (It still feels weird to say "my daughter"!) She has the fiercest scowl I've ever seen. We even have a picture of her scowling in her ultrasound. But if you smooth out the wrinkles on her forehead, she often breaks out into an enormous, heart-warming grin. She was lifting her head at two weeks, and every time she does it, she has the most determined look on her face. When Bella eats, she gulps, growls, sighs, and grunts so loudly, you can hear her in the other room.

All these attributes make Bella unique. There is no human being on the planet exactly like her.

You could take a moment to describe a baby or child and then move on with your story, but I suggest you take it a step further. What if the children and babies in our novels were integral parts of our books, just like they are in our lives? They can influence our characters to make decisions, or even make decisions of their own that change the plot. 

It's a challenge, especially for those of you who aren't parents or haven't spent much time around young children, but I promise you, it will be worth the effort.

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