Sunday, March 29, 2009

good news and mentor characters!

Hello everyone out there in blog world! For those of you just signing on, this is a writing blog outlining my thoughts on the art of writing seen through some of my own. I don’t pretend to be an expert by any means. This is more of a journey, which I encourage others to take with me, as I discover and learn and hone my skills. Hopefully you can learn from my mistakes and be encouraged by my successes.

First of all, good news! I just had an article published in two newspapers, with a total readership of approximately 10,000 people! (That's people who actually read them, not just subscribe to them.) I don't think I've ever had one that high before! Second, I just won first place in a local short story contest! That's $75 baby! Wohoo!

So, without further ado, let’s dive into this week’s topic: the mentor character!

We’ve all had them in our lives, usually in the form of a parent, older sibling, teacher, professor, pastor, and many others. Many of us never “outgrow” our mentors; they’ll always be that someone in our lives we run to for advice or encouragement. But in all fantasy writing, and nearly all good story telling in general, I believe there has to be a time when the main character moves beyond their mentor by stepping out on their own. Sometimes they openly oppose their mentor, other times they’re forced to leave the wise sage behind, or, worst of all (and my personal favorite), the mentor dies! Mwahaha…I mean, so sad…

There’s plenty of famous examples of this, Star Wars probably being the most obvious. Obi Won Kinobe (or however the heck you spell his name) must die in order for Luke to reach his full potential. Gandalf must (supposedly) die for Frodo to gain the courage and independence he needs to penetrate the gates of Mordor and destroy the Ring. (We’ll get into the whole resurrection thing in a later entry.)

Sound familiar? This whole moving beyond the mentor thing should be familiar for anyone who’s read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces or similar works of literary criticism. But anyway, I found myself thinking about these things as I killed off my main character’s mentor on Thursday. Not bad for a Thursday. I realized that it’s something I do for nearly every book I write, which some people might find predictable, but it sure is a lot of fun thinking of new and interesting ways to do it. After doing it about a dozen times now, I’ve realized some practical dos and don’ts:

DO carefully establish the mentor and his/her relationship with the main character. The mentor needs to have all the traits of a well-rounded character: strengths, weaknesses, likes, dislikes etc. If they’re someone obscure from the main character’s past without a face or personality, the reader can’t mourn with the main character when the mentor dies.

DO include at least some description of the death. If the main character receives a letter or message about the death, a sentence or two outlining the cause (or mysterious lack-thereof) and the conditions (honorable, dishonorable, etc) will help the reader feel stronger about it. I get really annoyed with books in which the characters I care about just randomly die with no explanation. It feels too convenient or arbitrary. Even if there’s a delayed explanation, there needs to be one eventually.

DON’T go overboard. Nothing is more annoying than a ten-minute death scene filled with tears, goodbyes, regrets, etc. They’re unrealistic and sap the emotion.

Deaths with twists are great (and in murder mysteries often a necessity) but DON’T make them obvious. There’s nothing more annoying than an “I saw that one coming.” The easiest way to avoid this mistake is to throw away any immediate ideas that came to you. If you thought of them in five seconds, so will your reader. Personally, I avoid this by letting the reader in on the secret pretty early on, while the character, who can’t have all the pieces that the objective reader has, remains in the dark. That creates suspense, causing the reader to shout, “No, don’t trust him!” as the main character unwittingly steps into a trap.

DO your research. Read other books in your genre to figure out what’s been done and what hasn’t (we’ve all seen the “it wasn’t him; it was his twin!” trick a million times). There’s nothing wrong with repeating a good idea as long as you add your own twist to it. Sometimes the best way of making something fresh and unique is to include elements from your own life (we’ve all heard the phrase “write what you know”). If someone close to you has died, it’s not cruel or a sin to include some of those extremely powerful last moments in your writing. If anything, it’s an excellent way of honoring them and often cathartic for yourself.

Also along the lines of do your research, DO make sure the death is actually plausible. I read a book once where the character took a high dosage of cyanide and died a week later. Or in another the mentor was completely healthy, came down with tuberculosis and died within hours.

DO NOT foreshadow the death so much that by the time it comes the reader is moaning “get it over with already!” I once wrote a line in which the character said “this food is spicy enough to kill a man!” In that case, I wanted to alert the reader that he’d been poisoned, but if I didn’t want them to know, I’d definitely cut it. It sounds kind of corny out of context; I need to edit it to some degree or cut it anyway.

So, those are my two cents on getting rid of the mentor character. I always cry, but it feels oh so good. Thank goodness the murder of imaginary people isn’t a crime or I’d have been sentenced for life!

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