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Ann Kathleen Otto


Character and Craft

I just finished reading Characters and Viewpoint (2010) by Orson Scott Card, one of many books on writing I’ve read the past few years while developing my writing skills. This is one of the best, not just because it deals with character building and emotions, but because Card is an author and teacher, and he uses books and films to highlight points on effective writing. The art of writing fiction includes being able to create the visual on paper for the reader, and Card caused me to think about some works I haven’t thought about in a long time.

Transferring Thoughts to Paper      

Card’s impressions of the complex plot structure and characters in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, both in the novel and film, led me to finally read the book. Some of those elements are successful by using the ploy of a “story within a story” and a comedian’s device of “doing a take”—stepping out of the story and speaking directly to the audience. Think: TV’s Dobbie Gillis; Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop; and Jack Benny or Woody Allen—anytime. If these aren’t familiar to you, visit your local library and borrow some examples. The trick is, how can a writer capture these great types of action on paper?

Characters are Key to the Action

Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings creates a world of Middle Earth and populates it with a social stratum of memorable representative characters. For instance, the character Sauron appears only once, but readers remember him because of how Tolkien depicts him. We may not like certain characters, but as Card notes, the author needs them to be memorable. One of Card’s favorite films is Far from the Madding Crowd, and I love the latest version. It’s the characters, their personalities, and the choices they make that are riveting.

Stories can have a strong effect on us. Card mentions Stephen King often. In King’s stories, such as The Dead Zone and Misery, the main character usually experiences both physical and mental pain, often unbearable to the point that we suffer with them. Sexual tension—with positive (as in the 1939 film It Happened One Night) or negative outcomes (unrequited, as in The Elephant Man)—affects us, too. The same occurs when characters experience moods, as when the ark of the covenant opens in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or when storms rumble across the moors in Wuthering Heights.

In John le Carre’s spy thrillers, the characters aren’t heroes, just ordinary people. But George Smiley becomes more interesting than much of his literary competition. The same with Agatha Christie’s protagonists.

Creating Believable Characters

Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Thomas Gavin’s The Last Film of Emile Vico are offered as strong examples of fictional memoir. Walker tells her story, in part, through letters from one person to another. Gavin’s 1930’s mystery involves a cameraman writing a memoir about the disappearance of a friend—whom he may have killed. How the authors pace the story and develop the characters is key.

What book you’ve read or film you’ve seen has really moved you, made you think about the book or screenplay, thinking “Wow, this is great writing!”?

                                                         Orson Scott Card is also the author of Ender’s Game (1985), which was made into a film in 2013, and numerous other best-selling novels .     


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