Thursday, April 12, 2007

Empathy , rooting for the Hero

Before ,I write about the hook , which is important to a story , I just want to touch upon the making of a protagonist. How does one like their Hero or Heroine ? My personal choice is a quirky character in the mold of Charlie Chaplin. But hey , he went out of fashion a long while ago. No one laughs at Laurel & Hardy anymore. Maybe the world has become too serious for words? Moved on ,I suppose. The character of the Hero is ,I suspect , changing with the times. They are no longer straight ( by way of being simple and straightforward ).

Whatever , the writing schools ,conferences and other money making machines may teach a budding novelist ,along with how to suck up to an agent and drool all over his publishing contacts , one thing they sure must have mentioned in passing. Your protagonist better be a nice guy. He may be a bad guy to begin with , but the reader should know right away that he is a good guy after all. Confusing, but that's the way writers write.

Look at Harry Potter . Though I consider Harry Potter novels to be amateurish or at best for the nine year olds or for those who have still to grow up , the background of harry potter is what we are on right now. Right?

He is an orphan .......oooh, what a pity? My heart goes out to the poor nine year old. And made to sleep under the stairs? And given leftovers to eat? I want to kill them now for sure . Touches of Cinderella out here. That's how all nice stories begin. With howls of pity for the small chap and anger at the bad guys. Does Huckleberry Finn sound familiar? Even the great Charles Dickens couldn't do away with this prop. What the Dickens, you may say. My Hero is different. But then you won’t be writing a novel, at least not the kind which will be read anyway.

Writing Harry Potter stuff is easy. (Then why isn’t everyone writing one, I can hear you say. But that’s a story I will keep for a rainy day.) The problem here is this. The good guy should not be all that good. He may become boring. Need not have muscles like schwarzenegger or whatever (I never can get his name right. Had to Google), but he has to have some special quality. There are so many instances where in an attempt to make the writing humorous , the hero is made to look like a cartoon character. There is a thin line separating a real Hero and a caricature.

The reader is a funny guy. He wants to laugh at the Hero, poke fun at him, cry bucket loads of tears, shout himself hoarse, yet wants the Hero to remain a Hero. Get the Hero right. Make him do the right things and you are on your way to writing a blockbuster. Rest of everything is only a prop to keep the story moving. The heart of the story lies in the characters. They better hit the heart running or your story will drop dead.
I will pick up the thread in my next post. Till then mull over the matter.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The story Plot

Does a story require a plot?

My daughter, who is eight , knows most of the popular stories and tales . A year back she insisted I make up some stories because the usual ones had become repetitive and boring. She had already made up her mind who the hero would be. She had decided on ‘Supandi’, who is a comic strip hero. Over the year, we went through all the roles, Supandi the policeman, Supandi the plumber, Supandi the pilot ………… The story inevitably started with a problem. Supandi in the thick of trouble would create situations from which it was difficult to extricate himself. Let me say that it always began with a conflict. The story continued with Supandi creating more and more problems for himself. Let me put it as escalation of his problems. In this case, since Supandi is a comic character, he always required some bit of luck and divine intervention. For example in the story, Supandi the Plumber , Supandi by mistake opens a master valve and the sudden gush of water hits the robbers and they are swept away and caught by the police. Supandi is hailed as a hero and honored with a gallantry medal. A satisfying end to a thrilling story!

If you look back, you will see all the signs of a standard plot. Situation, problem, conflict, escalation and finally resolution. Added to it the character of Supandi is such that you root for him right from the beginning. The empathy created by character is carried forward by the plot. This gets the reader involved with the story. Next, Supandi is thrown into a conflict situation. Good show ……..Can he cope up or will he succumb? The situation is almost unbearable when finally at the peak of suspense, there is resolution.

I suppose by now it is clear what a plot is about. All stories have to go through the stages. Even if you miss a single step, the story would remain incomplete.

Plot. Plot. Plot. And more. Your story hinges on it. Let the reader start wondering right from the first page and the momentum should carry him through till he finishes the book. Hopefully in a single sitting . This brings us to the question of a’HOOK’ . Do you requires a hook?

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Pankaj Mishra 'The Romantics'

What do you make of an auther who has THE NEW YORK POST to THE WASHINGTON POST eating out of his hands. Well almost . Pankaj Mishra is a well known figure among the Literary circles in US and UK. His fame is still a mystery to me. I suppose the Western press looks at him as an expert on Indian English writing.
I read Pankaj Mishra's 'The Romantics' and let me be frank , I was not much impressed. I would have bypassed him altogether but for a friend who pestered me into reading this book.
The story is about an Indian who meets some foreigners while living in the holy town of Banares , his fascination with the white skin and ultimate disillusionment . As I commented to my friend
"From a first book perspective , 'The Romantics' is more like an autobiography with elements of fantasy thrown in. Of course , 'butter chicken' doesn't count. But each one to his own. You are fascinated by romantics because you see some part of it reflecting yourself and your experiences. We all read the same thing but come away with our own interpretation of the experience . The issue here is empathy. You could connect with the 'Hero' at a deeper level , whereas I could not. I was kinda observer while reading while you were a participant. After all , the success of a novel depends on how many people it can touch base with. More the merrier."

The ending is rather facile and left me dissatisfied . It was as if the author had suddenly decided that enough was enough and put an end to a rather sordid drama. Though I must confess that the narrative in first person is haunting whith some deft touches to the background and setting.
The plot was also weak. Is plot important to a story? I will throw my views on it later.
Here is a free site with all the Literary agents and publishers . It is the best site for writers looking for agents. And Gerard Jones is hilarious and a great time pass. I am adding a link to the site .

Friday, April 6, 2007

About Gabriel García Márquez

Gabriel García Márquez is a writer I greatly admire. Some call him a master of ‘magic realism’. Maybe what they mean is that there seems to be an ethereal quality to his writing , where the fantastic mingles with the absurd and produces an alchemic wonder.

But what differentiates him from others is the memorable characters , places and situations he creates. His masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude , was written while he lived in Mexico City. The Autumn of the Patriarch , a novel about the life of a Latin American dictator, and the best-seller Love in the Time of Cholera about an unrequited love , followed . In 1982 he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

Sadly all his original works are penned in Spanish and translated in English and other languages. I am sure the essence of his thoughts would have got significantly diluted and lost in translation.

I don’t know if some of you have noticed or not. The protagonists of his novels seem to hover around an age nearer to his own . As he has aged, so have his central characters. In the Love in the Time of Cholera’ , his evocative narration of the lives of the characters seems to stem from his own experience , though highly exaggerated . Maybe even great writers need some superficial experience about the characters and situations they so artfully depict. This brings me to the question. Can a writer truly create a story without any experience of his own?

Fantasy Genre in Fiction

Wonder what fantasy is all about ? I dug out some facts for the laymen.

‘Fantasy’ as a genre may be the most ancient and common form of writing. Folklore and fairy tales are filled with ghosts , demons and wizards , inhabiting imaginary worlds .Which of us has not been fed during our childhood by our grandmothers , with a daily dose of magic and fantasy . I vividly remember sitting wide eyed listening to the stories of giants, drinking emerald green potions from gigantic goblets, of mysterious evil dwarfs scurrying into the darkness. A magical universe, where frogs turn into princes and beautiful girls into old raven with a wave of the magic wand. Though not all, many children stories fall under the genre of fantasy. Closely linked or associated with the science fiction and horror fiction genres, fantasy can be distinguished from other genre by a simple test. If the plot or the central theme of the story pivots on a magical or supernatural phenomenon, it is a fantasy.

‘Cinderella’,a typical example of the ‘Fantasy’ genre

The first example which leaps to my mind is the fairytale ‘Cinderella’ . Though it may be argued that Cinderella is not a full fledged novel but a short tale , nonetheless I consider it as the finest example of not only fantasy but the very essence of story telling itself. Multiple conflict situations resolved by a series of magical events……. eventually leading to a happy ending. Quite the Prince meets a maid, falls in love, gets married and they live happily ever after.

Cinderella is living with her step mother and two step sisters. She is treated badly and insulted by them. The reader is slowly steered towards a position of sympathy for poor Cinderella. When the step sisters leave to attend a ball at the palace , a crying Cindrella is left behind . Her deep desire to be at the ball is fulfilled when a fairy godmother appears from thin air. With a wave of her magic wand, she transforms Cinderella into a beautiful princess. The stage at which the fairy godmother waves her magic wand , the story of Cinderella gravitates towards the genre of fantasy. One may call this the defining moment of the story. The point at which, a real life drama transforms into a fantasy.

Low Fantasy

This term is usually used to contrast with the accepted and established sub-genre of ‘High Fantasy’ In the fairytale Cinderella , the real world i.e. the world which Cinderella and her step family co-habit and the magical world into which she is transported run parallel to each other. The beauty of the story is that both the worlds are utterly believable. We relate to the real world because of our experiences. At the same time we also relate to the magical world because of our deep desire to see Cinderella win and succeed. The story is therefore grounded in reality with magical elements incorporated. Cinderella herself, the protagonist, is a normal girl.

High Fantasy

Contrast this with the following scenario:

“As soon as her sisters left for the ball, Cinderella felt completely dejected. She fervently wished to participate in the ball. She knew it was a futile and hopeless wish. She gave a deep sigh as she hauled the handful of clothes into the wardrobe. But hey……something was not right. The wardrobe had a deep hole at the back. Then an amazing thing happened. She was drawn into the hole …….a complete new world. A world she had never seen before, not even imagined. It was beautiful……………”

Cinderella is in a new universe. A universe with its own laws and creatures which are not seen in the real world. She is free from the shackles of objectivity, from rules which are framed by the existential world. This would be classified ‘High Fantasy’. The interesting part in this sub-genre is that the author can defy all established norms. Ie norms that belong to the real world. This gives him an opportunity to give his thoughts a flight of fantasy defying the inhibiting gravitational pull of the real world. These worlds which are created may have absolutely no connection with the real world and they usually don’t. In high fantasy, the author generally takes recourse to a trick wherein the main characters leave the real world to enter into other parallel, magical worlds. Lost keys to a puzzle, a secret passage through an unused wardrobe or an unexplored tunnel ……..all these techniques have been used to reach other universes.

The Chronicles of Narnia

A prime example of this sub-genre would be ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ , a series of seven novels authored by C.S. Lewis . The story has all the elements of High Fantasy. Elves ,dwarves, magic, wizards , mutated human/animal forms all are integral to the story. The protagonists enter the make believe world of Narnia through an magical wardrobe. The transformation from the real world is instantaneous . when they walk out of other end of wardrobe.

The Lord of the Rings

The works of J. R. R. Tolkien in the realm of Fantasy are legendary. The genre of Fantasy would be incomplete without mention of his phenomenal works. ‘The Lord of the Rings’, is a path breaking work which has been remorselessly plagiarized , copied and revered by generations of fantasy writers with millions of devoted followers and ardent readers.

And what about the phenomenon of ‘Harry Potter ‘? This deserves a separate blog post of its own . I promise to take it up sooner than later.

Anatomy of a story

What makes a story ?

Story telling or writing is a craft. The author has to manipulate the characters in such a way that they forward the predetermined plot to a plausible and satisfying ending. What happens in between is the story. The story is based on a premise which is challenged by a conflict which needs a resolution. As the story develops, the conflicts escalate making the resolution more and more difficult. Finally a stage is reached when the protagonist is positioned in a life and death situation from which he usually emerges victorious. Even if the hero dies which happens in a tragedy, the story has to provide a final resolution, all loose ends have to be tied and the story should eventually close. If this doesn’t happen, there is no story.