Sunday, December 26, 2010

Character Lessons

Christmas brought to mind one of the messages of the person the holiday commemorates. It’s probably the one he stressed the most, both in words and actions, yet it seems to be the one most often overlooked by those who claim to follow him. How this relates to writing is as a character study in belief, ignorance, and stupidity.

Jesus stressed, after the obvious duty to God, that we are to love our neighbor. And not just in any way, but to the same degree that we love ourselves. And come on, we all know it is human nature to be self centered. While I think there are a handful of people since Jesus who have been able to put this in practice, (Mother Theresa is the only name that comes to mind as I write this), in general this very stressed and basic tenant of the Christian Faith is rarely practiced to the extent that it was intended.

First, I’d like to examine what this phrase means. Jesus did not just say these words, he lived them. When Jesus said love your neighbor, he meant everyone. While the religious leaders of the day kept themselves apart from the poor, the diseased, the criminal, Jesus was right there with them. He went to dinner or a party at Matthew’s house, who was then a tax collector. Today we don’t like the IRS. Back then a tax collector was a mix of an IRS agent and a mob stooge, collecting for his boss. He ministered to the poor, the lepers, the blind, women, and even to a few non-Jews. Who didn’t he minister to, the religious leaders.

Now we come to today. In place of this great love for the people of the world that Jesus showed, a love that is recorded in each of the four gospels and preached on occasion in pulpits all over the world, we have had a Christian world full of racism, oppression, divine right of kings, (and the list could go on and on) etc. So why do fo few Christians fail to hear these words and truly take them to heart? The answer to that lies in human nature. While we can be taught many things, we cannot be forced to believe in anything. Christians today should be supporting gay rights, supporting President Obama, striving for peace in the Middle East, and loving everyone in the world, especially and specifically including homosexuals and Muslims. Instead we get the harshest hatred of those two groups from the one group who is supposed to be loving them.

Jesus really didn’t give Christians much choice in the mater. First, God. Second, your neighbor. The implication was not your Christian neighbor, or you Jewish neighbor, but everyone, no matter who they are. Actually, when we look back, even the disciples could not agree on this. Some went out to minister to the gentiles, while some maintained Jesus’ message should only be for the Jews.

Human nature being what it is, people don’t listen to their teachers or parents. While sometimes you can point the finger at some little voice that gets to people instilling doubt, fear, etc. We have to accept that sometimes that little voice is one of our own. We hate to think that someone raised in a good environment could turn out bad, but they can. A hatred instilled in childhood, whether it be from parents, teachers, friends, bad experiences, or some strange not-yet-understood thought process, some people just turn out with that hatred in their hearts. And once it is there, there is no getting rid of it. That is why we like the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his redemption. We like to hope that it can happen, and in rare cases it does. Usually not, but once in a great while.

It has been my experience that something held as a belief cannot be shaken. While occasionally a person may find a new belief and change their ways, typically a person never changes. Often, beliefs grow in ignorance of the source of societies teachings - what is learned is some interpretation and it unfortunately sticks. While to many of us this stubborn refusal to see the correct interpretation seems stupid, it really isn’t. It lies in the deep seated beliefs. This can hold true in any area, not just religion. Just get two physicist started on opposing theories and you will see that same level of heated debated you would between a Mormon and a Baptist. It is an unfortunate but true statement of human nature that belief trumps reason.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

How to Begin a Story

The conventional wisdom does not always hold true. We writers, when we are starting out, are told, in no uncertain terms, to get right to the story. But what is the story. To some, it is the action. That is not really the story. Stories are about people. That’s all. Just about people.

So where does this wisdom come form? I don’t know, but I’m guessing that it is from bored readers who need to be enticed into reading a book. I’m not sure that it does any good. It has not always been the case. I’ve read enough pre-twentieth century literature to know that a lot of the older writing does spend time getting to the meat of the story.

What brought this up is that I have noticed that a great many movies that I have watched in the last couple of years do NOT start with some action. The story starts with the characters. We get to know them, the setting, their joys and/or their sorrows, before the story really gets going. Now, not all movies start off this way, but a surprising number of them do. What is true for these movies, is that you get involved with the characters almost immediately. The characters are what draw you into the fictional tale.

Now to apply this to writing, it is not easy to craft interesting character interactions and to instantly make the characters breathe and come off the page and into the imagination of the reader. An action scene is much easier and gets right to the conflict. Of course a written story can take the time to go back and fill in the gaps as you go, but I think it relates back to writing ability.

When do you start your story? When you can draw the reader in, either through action or characterization. You have to have something that will catch the reader and make them turn the page. It does not have to start at that crucial moment when the heart of the story start, but when you have agents asking to read the first five to ten pages in the submission process, it does not enhance the craft of writing. It makes it very mechanical.

That’s not to say I have not succumbed to the trend to start with the beginning of the action. I have. I probably will continue. But that does not always have to be the case. If you have the skill to craft believable, likable, and three-dimensional characters and can catch the readers on page one when the meat of your story may start a chapter or two later, then trust the reader.