Tag: Jack Bickham

Passive Heroine

 

     Recently on Writer Unboxed there was a discussion about passive characters. Now, 99% of writing coaches tell us to avoid passive characters like COVID-19. Thus, I was flummoxed by the suggestion that passive characters could be the protagonists in a story.

I’m now reading a book with a passive heroine. Despite threats to her home, her livelihood, and her beloved village,  she refuses to act. Why? She’s shy.

I can’t imagine how that premise got by an acquiring editor, but it did. The book is published by Random House.

The plot, setting and secondary characters are all appealing enough that I’m still turning the page. But, for all that there have been some laugh-out-loud moments, I’m still annoyed by the heroine. Surely she’ll have to break out of her shell sometime, but I’m half-way through the book and it hasn’t happened yet.

Perhaps the author hoped to provoke empathy in the reader by showing the heroine incapacitated by her extreme shyness, but in this reader, she only provokes irritation. Not a great way to promote sales.

In his book, Writing the Break-Out Novel, Donald Maass has a whole chapter on characters. The first requirement he lists is “larger than life.”  When your main character hides in a corner, it is hard to think of her as larger than life. In The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, Jack Bickham says, “don’t write about wimps when you can build strong, active characters.” Dwight Swain says the character “must care about something, feel that some aspect of his world is important — important enough to fight for.”

If all these giants of the writing business urge authors to create active characters, how did I end up reading a book about a crybaby? I well remember one of my many rejection letters saying that the heroine, whom I loved for her strength in the face of catastrophe, was too reactive. This editor wanted the lead character to “drive the story,” to be the agent of change, not to merely respond to situations beyond her control. 

The reviews for this passive heroine novel are mostly favourable, with many middle-of-the-road ratings. I ordered the book from my local library on the recommendation of some other authors. Despite my annoyance with the protagonist, I do find the writing engaging and the secondary characters are a world of fun.

What have I learned from all this?

Even the best advice in the world, is imperfect. An author can use that wisdom to improve her craft, but the story she writes must resonate with the writer if it is to resonate with the reader. I’m grateful for all the coaches and teachers and authors who have shared their knowledge and advice. I’m also grateful to this annoying heroine for showing me that adherence to “they say” is not the only route to publication.

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Writing Tips from Calico Cats

Now that the calico cats have taken over my life, I thought I’d pass on a few writerly hints I’ve learned from them.

  1. Anything is a toy —  a crunched up piece of tissue paper, a string, a dust bunny, your human’s fingers… That expensive invention from the pet store  will have a short life.        For writers this brings back the old adage of “write what you know.” It is tempting to think that travel to exotic places or rubbing shoulders with glamorous people would solve all our writing woes, but stories come from our imaginations. Exotic locales are only embellishments. Use the people and places around you to pepper your stories with “real life.” Even if you live in the dullest neighbourhood of the dullest city in the dullest country in the world, you know stuff. How about your busybody uncle? Take certain aspects of his character, exaggerate them and weave them into the mentor character in your story. Do you have a neighbour who obsesses over his lawn? That’s a gift to the story-teller
  2. Be curious. The world is an exciting place, observe, ask questions, reflect, rework, read widely. Spend an afternoon with a master quilter or a farrier or a dog walker.  Recall some of your childhood dreams. Did you want to be a ballerina? Volunteer at your local dance school and learn the behind-the-scenes reality.  You never know when those tidbits of information you pick up can add depth and interest to your stories.
  3. Pace yourself.  Play hard then nap.              For writers this is “Scene and Sequel.” Jack Bickham wrote a whole book on the topic but the essence of the concept is that scenes are full of action — stuff happens. Scenes are exciting, they move the plot they put the characters in dangerous places. Sequels happen after the scene. They are a time to catch your breath, think about what just happened and plan your response.
  4. Purr. Even a naughty cat can melt an owner’s heart with a full-throated purr.                                                                                For writers this equates to playing well with other writers. Be kind. Be generous. Post a review when you can. Send your favourite author a fan letter or comment on her blog. Offer a critique. Sometimes it seems we labour in a vacuum. Offering encouragement makes you a nicer person. Readers want to know nice people.
  5. If you’re cute enough, It is a very cold heart indeed that can resist a cute kitten .              For writers this means packing your work with sparkling prose, memorable characters and unexpected twists. Good grammar alone won’t save a poor story, but if your words are engaging readers will be more willing to suspend disbelief and accept the, perhaps, preposterous scenario you’ve presented. I know I’ve thought, “that can’t ever happen,” yet read to the end of the book because I enjoyed the conversation I was having with the author.
  6. Life’s an adventure — enjoy the ride.

Now, the calico cat just hid my pen. I’m off to discover the world under my desk.

 

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