Not Mary Poppins

Let me set the scene for you.  It’s an elementary school classroom in Cedar Rapids, Iowa sometime in the mid-1960s. Young Steve Southard is a student in second, third, or fourth grade.  He has no idea that he will try his hand at writing stories someday.

The teacher asks if we have seen the movie “Mary Poppins,” and virtually all of us raise our hands.  Then she asks, “Who is the movie about?”

There was no word “duh” in those ancient times, otherwise we would have used it.  Every hand goes up.  When the teacher chooses someone, the obviously-right answer comes out: “Mary Poppins.”  (I mean, after all, they named the movie after her!)

“Wrong,” the teacher says.

That causes some puzzlement, and every hand goes down.  Raised hands are much more tentative after that, the answers are phrased as questioning guesses.  “The children?”  “No.” “The mother?”  “No.”  “Bert, the chimney-sweep?”  “No.”

In desperation, someone guesses “the father?”  “Yes, that’s right.”  The father?  Really?  The movie is about Mr. Banks?

What a wonderful teaching moment and an ideal vehicle to use!  The teacher explained that the father was the only character who learned and changed, the only character with a major personality flaw that needed correction. (Well, the mother also has a major flaw, but she is definitely a secondary character.)

Mary Poppins is merely the agent of change. She arrives because a change is required, and leaves (as the wind shifts) as soon as it happens.  It is the father who we see initially as being comfortable in his established world.  The change agent shows him a different way of acting and he reacts badly to it.  He blames the change agent (instead of himself) and tries correcting the problem in his own way.  Things go from bad to worse until he loses the thing he values most–in this case, the security of his job.  He comes to understand his problem and the likely consequences of continuing along an unchanging path.  In the end we see he has changed, and is happier for it.

I’ll leave other concerns (whether a father really should care so little about his job, whether the movie was a fair rendition of the books, other movie interpretations, etc.) to other analysts.  My purpose is to show that the protagonist in a story may not always be obvious.  Look for the character with a problem–internal or external–he or she is forced to confront, the character whose problem makes things worse and worse, and for whom the problem is resolved at the end in some way.  Find that character and you’ve found the protagonist.  In a novel or novella-length story, multiple characters can have flaws that get resolved, but it should be clear which character is entwined with the main plot, and which are secondary characters involved with subplots.

Funny how that incident in a long-ago classroom stands out in my mind!  Do you recall great learning moments from elementary school?  Do you know any other story examples where the protagonist isn’t obvious?  Send me a comment.  In the meantime, I’ll just sit here feeling rather supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Until the wind changes, I’m–

                                                             Poseidon’s Scribe

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When Things Mean Other Things

What do you think of symbolism in writing?  Most of us have been through English (Language Arts) classes where the teacher encouraged us to find symbols in some of the great works of literature.  This is a bit of a stretch for high school students, but school is all about stretching young minds, isn’t it?  Some of us had the unfortunate experience of guessing at a symbol and being told we were wrong.

This raises several questions.  Should writers use symbolism?  If they do, and readers detect and interpret the symbols correctly, does that enhance the reading experience?  If a reader picks up on a symbol the writer didn’t intend, is the reader wrong?

This site lists some of the more common symbols and what they often mean.  But almost anything tangible can serve as a symbol, as long as it relates to the plot, gives added meaning to the story, and is appropriate for the thing (usually something intangible) it’s symbolizing.

Here, writer John T. Reed makes the case that the exercise of looking for symbolism is silly, and no more than a parlor game.  The essay is persuasive, and he argues writers should strive for clarity, not make it a struggle for readers to decode hidden meanings.  Moreover, he says those who seek symbolism often find things unintended by the author.

In Isaac Asimov’s essay on symbolism, he wrote, “When I complained to someone who worked up a symbolic meaning of my story ‘Nightfall’ that made no sense to me at all, he said to me, haughtily, ‘What makes you think you understand the story just because you’ve written it?’… Sometimes it is quite demonstrable that an author inserts a deeper symbolism than he knows-or even understands.”

An intriguing exchange.  Authors have to remember that written storytelling is a curious form of human communication.  The purpose of communication is to convey information from one human mind to another.  But storytelling is one-way only:  writer to reader.  The writer need not even be alive any more, and often isn’t.  The reader’s enjoyment of a story is a personal, internal experience, without any possibility (usually) of asking for clarification or explanation.

Therefore, it seems to me readers get to decide what symbolism they discover in a story, and no one should say they’re wrong.  Not English teachers, and not even the author.

As to whether writers should intentionally use symbolism in their stories, that’s a question for each author to decide.  I’ve used symbolism purposefully in some of my stories, and not in others.  In “The Wind-Sphere Ship,” the human eye symbolizes the future, whether it’s the large eyes of Heron’s friend Praxiteles or the painted eyes on the Greek ships.  In “The Vessel,” the circle symbolizes the old unity of the previous Atlantean culture, but the ceramic drinking flagon symbolizes the attempt to preserve and spread that culture to other, more primitive societies.

One of my favorite uses of symbolism is in Jules Verne’s novel The Mighty Orinoco, which involves a mission to find the source of the river Orinoco.  Finding the sources of rivers was a major 19th century geographical pursuit.  One of the main characters on the mission is also seeking his father, lost somewhere along the river.  Note the symbolic parallel between the river’s source and the source of one’s own life.

In closing, I think it was Sigmund Freud who reminded us, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” but I suspect Groucho Marx would have replied, “Just?”  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the use of symbolism in fiction, so feel free to leave a comment for–

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

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How to Create Life (in fiction)

In what way are all fiction writers like Dr. Frankenstein?  Answer:  we’re all creating life.  Mary Shelley’s famous character is a better metaphor for my purposes than the phrase “playing God,” because, like the Transylvanian experimenter, we have models to copy from — all the people we see and meet.

The problem is, as Dr. Frankenstein found out, creating life is difficult.  Some writers are better at giving readers a vivid mental picture of their characters than others.  What are the factors involved in creating believable, memorable characters?

Linda Seger answers that question well in her book Creating Unforgettable Characters, which I recommend.  Her technique for coming up with great characters is to (1) research the character, (2) create a backstory, (3) understand the character’s psychology, (4) create character relationships, and (5) develop the character’s dialogue voice.  The book also contains great advice regarding the development of supporting characters, nonrealistic characters, the use of stereotype, and how to solve the character problems you may experience as a writer.

Back in the 1800s, authors could furnish long descriptions of their characters, giving readers all the necessary details for understanding them.  Readers stopped putting up with that many decades ago.  Writers had to learn to imbed snatches of character descriptions into the action and dialogue as seamlessly as possible.  No more “time-outs” from the plot to devote a few paragraphs to the heroine’s matching dress and parasol.

Then writers found a technique for describing their main character’s physical appearance while remaining in that character’s point of view.  Simply have the character stare at a mirror or other reflective surface.  Sorry, modern writers don’t get to do that either; it’s been way too overused.

Complicating matters more, short story writers just don’t have enough space in the story for complete, well-drawn character descriptions.  A short story writer must create a memorable, identifiable main character using very few words or details and not slow down the plot while doing so.  There just isn’t the leisure of space for full character development in short fiction.

That’s why many writers turn to stereotypical or “stock” characters.  Not much description is necessary for these characters, since the reader will fill in the rest.  The problems here are: modern readers are offended by negative stereotypes, and use of stereotypes marks the writer as lazy and uncreative.  It is okay to use a stock character if you give her at least one aspect running counter to the stereotype.  That makes her more human and interesting.

So far this blog post reads like a list of “don’t-do’s” without giving much positive advice.  Therefore, here’s a list of do’s:

  • Make your plot and main character fit together such that only that character could have starred in that story.  It doesn’t matter which you think of first–plot or character–just ensure they fit.  Your story’s plot will become your protagonist’s private hell, so ensure it’s the specific corner of Hell your character fears most.
  • Get to know your major characters.  Develop a brief biography.  Put more in the bio than you’ll ever write in the story.  The bio should include elements (2) through (5) in Linda Seger’s list above.
  • Ensure the main characters in your story are distinctive and obviously different from each other in as many ways as possible.  You don’t want to confuse your readers.
  • Ensure your protagonist has some measure of the Everyman about him, so readers will identify with him and care what happens to him.

I’ll have more to say on creating characters in future blog posts.  It’s a major aspect of writing, of course.  In the meantime, (Bwaaa-ha-haaa!) it’s back to the laboratory for–

Poseidon’s Scribe


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