Books I Read This Month - May 2012

Her Fearful Symmetry – Audrey Niffenegger
By the author of one of my favourite books, The Traveller’s Wife, this novel takes place in a flat in England, a place that two young twin girls inherited from their aunt when she passed away, who was also a twin, to the girls’ mother. The twins had grown up in America, and this flat in England is the first place they’ve lived away from home. Their aunt’s past quickly intrigues them, as do their neighbours, two men who have a connection with their family’s history. A beautifully written gothic fairy-tale, this story sucks you in so you can’t stop reading. Elegant and mysterious, readers of Niffenegger’s previous work will enjoy this story, as well as those who like the gothic genre.

Quo Vadis – Henryk Sienkiewicz
This is the book I read to fill in the gap of the A to Z Challenge for the letter Q. You can find the post here. 

A Briefer History of Time – Stephen Hawking
Because A Brief History of Time was already checked out of the library. Here’s something you perhaps did not know about me: I am fascinated by cosmology. Yeah, I’m sure everyone gets curious about the universe when looking up at the stars, but I am a serious cosmological hobbyist. I read books like this. The Big Bang, The Big Crunch, the concepts of both infinity and of nothing, the prospect of time travel, I am almost as obsessed with this stuff as I am with British comedy. Perhaps I will post something about this fascination of mine sometime in the future, but for now I will just suggest reading this book and tell you that Stephen Hawking is one of my personal heroes.

Astrid & Veronika – Linda Olsson
A young writer, Veronika, moves to Sweden from New Zealand so she can finish writing her novel, but when she meets an old woman, Astrid, her sorrowful past begins to catch up with her. This novel illustrates a moving cross-generational friendship between two women dealing with troubled pasts. Some aspects may distress readers, but even when the writing gets a bit sentimental, it is never pretentious, and it is inspiring throughout.

Sonata for Miriam – Linda Olsson
The second novel of the author above, Sonata for Miriam also delves into the idea of one’s troubled past preventing one from moving on. A composer who recently lost his teenage daughter discovers that his parents had a dark secret in Poland in the years leading up to WWII. Olsson effectively weaves the journey of searching for the answers to his parents’ mystery with the conflicts that the character is dealing with in the present with the death of his daughter and the prospect of confronting his ex-wife. These two main plot lines meld together to form a detailed picture of the character, bringing past and present together in order to reveal the future. Like Olsson’s previous novel, it can be overly sentimental at times, but that does not detract from the moving relationships between the characters. 

Aspects of Character Part 5: Showing Versus Telling (as usual)

In the four previous posts, I described how to develop a character through how they look, what they fear, what they like and dislike, how they feel, what they believe, the way they treat others, and through change. But when it comes right down to it, the nitty-gritty of a short story or novel is the plot, which goes from one point to another through the things a character does and says. The doing and saying of a story essentially is the story. You can have doing and saying all over the place, and it would be a story, even if the characters were hardly developed at all. Obviously, though, this would not be a very good story, and this is why we as writers must bring to life a character on the page. The doing and saying of a story is provided by the deepest aspects of the characters participating in the story.

The old adage “show, don’t tell” has been the go-to rule for writers, as it should be. Telling is describing the character, describing the setting, narrating the plot development as if the reader needs to have their hand held as they plow through a novel. Obviously some telling is required, or else the story may be a bit difficult to follow, but here’s something all writer’s need to know: readers are smarter than you think. Telling is not doing and saying, it is describing. Showing is doing and saying. Readers do not what to be told what is happening, they want to see it before their eyes.

The way a reader reads is completely the opposite of how a writer writes, but a writer must know how a reader reads in order to write the thing that will make the most sense to them. How a reader reads is like this: the doing and saying of the plot reveals what the character is like on a deeper level. Therefore, a writer must write like this: what the character is like on a deeper level dictates the doing and saying of the plot.

Most readers don’t read for an analysis of a character, they read to be entertained by the plot, by the doing and saying; it is while they are enjoying the story that they can decipher the words and discover the intricacies of human nature  through the character. They don’t want to be told that people are selfish; they want to see what happens in a situation where people act in selfish ways and say selfish things. A writer must know that a character is selfish in order to write the doing and saying of selfishness, but to a reader, the doing and saying will reveal the selfishness of the character.

To sum up: a writer must show the actions of a character so that a reader can be both entertained by the plot and be sneakily revealed the innards of the character. If a writer knows the character down to the deepest, basest emotions, desires, and fears, then they can portray the character in such a way that the reader can see what they are like without being told that that’s what they’re like. “Show, don’t tell” is the most important guideline for writers to follow.

Peace, Aimee

Aspects of Character Part 4: Emotional Depth and Relationships

Knowing who a character is in their own right (appearance, tastes, preferences, and attitude) is not enough to constitute a personality. Creating one person is not enough to create a novel or short story.

If there is only one character present in the story, there are things happening to the character that are beyond their control, which can make for a good story, as long as the character’s reaction to the events say something profound about the character or about human nature. Their emotional depth comes into play here. The extent to which the character feels and how they express their emotions will reveal aspects of their personality such as attitude toward life or even simple things like habits. And to make the story character-driven, the character’s personality is what drives their reactions to the events with which they are presented. Character and plot must reinforce one another.

For example, if the character I created in the previous posts, the extroverted, optimistic, yet arrogant little boy, is the only character in a scene and is presented with an important decision, let’s say he’s lost in the woods and must decide to either walk toward where he thinks he came from or to stand still and call out for help, his personality will dictate his actions. As an optimist and extrovert, he may feel as though people will come to his rescue, and he is comfortable with shouting loudly for attention; therefore, he will stand in one spot and yell for help, though he will probably not break down and cry, even though he is a child. His arrogance will also lead him to believe that someone will come for him when he calls. 

In addition his reaction to being lost, the result of his reaction will also create external, plot-driven tension tension, as well as internal tension. If no one comes when he calls, his personality may either become exacerbated, or it may change when he realizes some profound truth. Dynamic characters must change for a reason, and a good one at that; stubborn characters are more effective than passive ones. They must resist change, and when they do change, the theme of the story will be revealed.

Obviously, there is usually not just a single character present in all scenes of a novel. There are other characters for the main character to interact with to create a plot. The way one character acts toward another and reacts toward what the other has said or done will reveal aspects of both characters just as much as their actions are dictated by their individual personalities. Once again, they should reinforce one another.

The extent to which a character feels comfortable revealing themselves is an important aspect of a story, as well as the extent to which they feel about another character. Because this little boy is an optimistic extrovert, he would be more comfortable expressing his deeper emotions with people than others would. If he is speaking to a highly introverted person, he may feel as though he is not getting much back, and his arrogance may cause him to get angry. If the introvert is sensitive, his anger may cause the introvert to withdraw even more and perhaps cause dislike toward or fear of the extroverted boy. These interactions will both reinforce each character’s individual identity by revealing the way they react to opposition from others, as well as developing relationships with other characters to move the plot along and to give the characters either support or addition opposition.

To sum up, character and plot must reinforce one another, and the characters’ interaction must develop each individual’s presentation to the reader. Relationships and emotional intimacy are just as important to the story, if not more, than an individual character’s identity and desires.Stubborn or resistant characters are more effective than passive ones because if their personality changes over the course of the story, they will say something profound about human nature.

Peace, Aimee

Quo Vadis

When I arrived at the letter Q during the A to Z Challenge in April, I realized I had never read a book what started with the letter Q, unless I cheat and count Don Quixote. (Note: I did cheat in this way for other book posts, but I promise I'd read books that started with those letters; I just had to pick a different one so as not to duplicate authors, which was one of my self-inflicted stipulations.) So as promised, here is my book for the letter Q! Quo Vadis by Henryk Sienkiewicz.

When Christianity first breached Roman society in roughly 50 AD, there was a lot of conflict and tension as Romans resisted transforming their gluttonous, pleasure-driven culture. In Quo Vadis, a Roman centurion falls in love with a Christian girl during the time of Cesar and Nero. This historical novel illustrates the changing society of the time. I would highly recommend this book to those interested in the history of Christianity, as well as Roman and Greek history and mythology. The characters are very well developed and passionate. Though it is quite long, as well as translated from Polish in the late 1800s, it is a surprisingly easy read, not dense as many novels from that era are, and especially for the genre.

The book that starts with the letter X is soon(ish) to come!

Peace, Aimee

Aspects of Character Part 3: Tastes, Preferences, Habits, and Other Things that Make Your Character Come to Life

In the two previous posts on the aspects of character, I discussed archetypes and stereotypes and attitude. Today, I will talk about how tastes, preferences, and habits can bring life to your characters.

A character’s personality is extremely important, but even with a distinct attitude toward life with deep-seated fears and ambitions, a character may not appear to be fully developed. They can act like a character in a novel that moves along the plot, but the goal of many writers is to make their characters feel like real people. To make a character come to life on the page, they must exhibit traits and behaviors that real people do.

The small details of a character’s favorite foods and music, style of clothing, morning and evening routines, and even their favorite color are certainly not as important to the plot of your novel as their deepest motivations and fears, but once those required aspects of character have been established, a writer can use specific tastes, preferences, and habits to exacerbate the personality of a character. How a character takes their coffee can reveal many things: Do they have a sweet tooth? Are they a caffeine addict? Do they like those little leaf designs in the froth?

A writer can layer the symbolism of a character’s preferences to reveal deeper aspects of their personality. For example, let’s take the extroverted, optimistic young boy I created in the first post and expanded upon in the second. Let’s make him a vegetarian. His reasons for this decision can vary widely, but without knowing his reasoning, the reader can already assume certain things about him. Perhaps he simply doesn’t like the taste of meat; what would that say about him as compared to being concerned about the emotions or pain of the animal? If someone asks him if he cares about animal rights and he says no, he just hates the taste or texture of chicken, then the reader can see that he is a bit self-centered or arrogant.

Tastes, preferences, and habits can do more than reveal the personality of a character. They can also be used as plot devices. Yes, this little boy is a vegetarian, but what if he were allergic to nuts? Where does he get his protein? Does this make his musculature weak? He probably is not very strong, maybe even has a protein deficiency. This would cause some health problems for sure. It also reveals that he is even more arrogant than we previously thought; he is allergic to nuts but refuses to eat meat because he hates the taste; he is motivated by external pleasures and sensations rather than internal emotions and concerns. This could add a lot to the plot, what he does or does not do in order to satisfy his motivation. And it is also an extension of his extroversion, seeking out external pleasures rather than internal.

To sum up, a character’s tastes, preferences, and habits can add depth to their personality and motivations, making them seem more like a real person rather than a character from a book, which is what many writers aim to do. These aspects of a character can also move the plot along, tying a character’s personality to the advancement of the plot and making your novel much more character driven.

Peace, Aimee

The Versatile Blogger

Hektor Karl from After Troy has given my the Versatile Blogger award. Thanks Hektor! But now I have to tell you seven things about myself, which is a bit difficult.

1. I am a serious chocoholic. Never offer me chocolate, because I will never turn it down.

2. Sometimes I think I was born in the wrong country. I am obsessed with British comedy, music, writers, tea, and practically every other aspect of England's culture. It is my dream to one day live there. I have had multiple people mistake me as an English tourist; I think that's because I've unconsciously picked up a slight accent from watching too much British television.

3. I am ridiculously French and ridiculously Irish, which is an odd combination for someone ridiculously English at heart. As a matter of fact, my grandmother traced back our family tree, and it turns out I'm related to King Louis 16. You know, the one that got beheaded. One of his cousins saw the revolution coming and escaped France to Ireland.

4. I was a ballet dancer for 10 years, from ages 8 to 18. 

5. The show Grey's Anatomy is my guilty pleasure. And I may only be revealing this because the season finale is on as I am writing this, and I'm having trouble deciding what else to say about myself that doesn't have to do with writing or books. Also America's Next Top Model.

6. I played the french horn in middle school, which was quite damaging to my social life. I now play a bit the guitar and the ukulele, which is much cooler and more fun.

7. I am a vegetarian and do yoga.

I am now supposed to award some other bloggers with this award, but I have no idea who to give it to because you are all so awesome! :)

Peace, Aimee

Shakespeare, the Ultimate Nihilist: An Analysis of Hamlet’s Story-within-a-story

Note: This is an essay I wrote for a class on Shakespeare, which is now over. 

If one is to look closely at that infamous sketch of Shakespeare, it is easy to see that his face is in fact a mask. While this may be a hint that Shakespeare wanted to hide his true identity, it also accentuates the theme of appearance versus reality that transcends every one of his works. The play Hamlet offers up numerous instances of this trickster theme, but there is also something much deeper in this story-within-a-story, told and manipulated by the supposedly all-around good-guy Horatio; as Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “There is no truth; there is only perspective.” In addition to the evidence in the play, many critics assert that the putting up of appearances penetrates the human psyche portrayed in Hamlet much deeper than it seems at a quick glance.

As an example of the overriding theme of appearance versus reality, the authenticity of Hamlet’s madness has been disputed for centuries. Hamlet tells Horatio and Marcellus that he plans “to put on an antic disposition,” but there are many instances in the play where his soliloquized motivations do not seem to come from a sane mind (Act I.5, line 175). In many of Hamlet’s speeches “the emotional and intellectual sources of speeches are not self-evident, and to understand these [one is] forced to hypothesize a continuous inner life for the characters of which [one sees] only the phenomenal outgrowths. In sequences of this sort, [one assumes] that the characters themselves are speaking out of some part of their beings that [one does] not see” (Schell). To Polonius, Hamlet’s insanity seems to be very real, and he interprets it quite wrongly to be caused by an obsession with his daughter Ophelia; but Hamlet intended his insanity to be an appearance, to put on a show in order to trick the King Claudius so as to avenge the death of his father. Polonius and Claudius put up their own appearances as well, hiding their true malicious intentions from their family and the court. Hamlet’s Mousetrap, in addition to his ambiguous mental health, is a play-within-a-play, an appearance in itself that dramatizes the truth.

This theme of appearance versus reality resonates throughout the play, but upon further analysis it is revealed that the characters of Horatio and Fortinbras are the only two left alive at the end of the play, meaning that Hamlet is in actuality a story-within-a-story. Hamlet’s last words are to Horatio: “So tell him [Fortinbras], with th’ occurents, more and less, which have solicited — the rest is silence” (Act V.2, lines 340-341). These lines reveal that the entire play that had just been performed upon the stage had been told from the perspective of Horatio, told to the character Fortinbras, and that “it is not always clear who the speaker of certain lines may be presumed to be” (Schell).

While it appears that the character of Horatio is an unbiased narrator, loved by all other characters and best friend to Hamlet, who suspects that he will tell Hamlet’s story as honestly as he can, Horatio is in truth the most infamously unreliable narrator in fiction. Hamlet’s last words in the play have been analyzed under scrutiny by many a critic, and John Russell Brown even offers five distinct interpretations of Hamlet’s final words. His final analysis is that “the rest is silence” is in fact Shakespeare speaking to the audience through the character Hamlet, saying “he, the dramatist, would not, or could not, go a word further in the presentation of this, his most verbally brilliant and baffling hero. The author is going to hide like a fox, leaving all of us standing at a cold scent” (Brown). If one is to read this interpretation under the assumption that it is Horatio telling Hamlet’s story, not Shakespeare, who is in actuality telling Horatio’s story rather than Hamlet’s, then perhaps one can see that Shakespeare is saying “he… could not go a word further in the presentation” of Horatio rather than Hamlet.

Because Hamlet is told from the perspective of Horatio, it is probable that Horatio skewed the events of Hamlet’s story for his own benefit. The events of the play are not what actually happened; Horatio has manipulated the story to cover up his own crime. While this contrived manner of storytelling may boggle the minds of readers, viewers, and critics, it only goes to reassert the theme of appearance versus reality in the play. It sheds a new light on Schell’s claim of the characters revealing their “inner lives” through their speech: that these “inner lives” are principally Horatio’s doing in order to give his manipulated story more credibility. One could go even further and claim that it is in fact Fortinbras who is telling this story, told to him by Horatio, making Hamlet an even more nested and manipulated account of one man’s attempt to uncover and avenge his father’s death, Shakespeare’s trickiest game of medieval telephone.

The critic Alfred Barkov argues that there are more instances in the play that indicate a presence of a narrator besides Hamlet. He analyzes the age of Hamlet throughout the play, as well as the family ties between King Hamlet, King Claudius, and King Fortinbras, claiming that these discrepancies in plot can be attributed to the mind of the manipulative narrator. This narrator is “the main object at whom Shakespeare’s satire is aimed. The hidden intention of that character is the most important composition of Hamlet” (Barkov). This “hidden intention” could perhaps be a crime that Horatio committed, one which he attempts to cover up utilizing Hamlet’s story.

Barkov’s assertion that Hamlet is a satire is entirely plausible, though it is not a satire aimed at exposing and mocking the “hidden intentions” of storytellers; but it is aimed at exposing the fact that storytellers do in fact have “hidden intentions.” For instance, Hamlet conducted the play-within-a-play The Mousetrap with the intention of exposing King Claudius’ crime, and though his manipulation was much more transparent and obvious to the audience and the characters in the play than Horatio’s and Shakespeare’s intentions, it accentuates the theme of appearance versus reality in the play.

The intention of a storyteller differs from one to another, obviously, as each individual has a different story to tell, and in exposing the unnamed intention of Horatio, Shakespeare is in turn explicitly telling his audience that he the author has his own intention by writing this play, as well as all of his other works. However, besides exposing the trickster nature of storytellers, Shakespeare’s own objective remains hidden; though, perhaps his intention was not to portray a message about the human psyche but instead to put on a show of genius that would puzzle audiences for centuries: one enormously complex “Look what I can do!”

To play the character Hamlet is considered the greatest honor, the peak of an actor’s career, and countless interpretations of the character have been performed, from manipulative misogynist to Oedipal manifestation to whiny, depressive teen; however, Horatio still remains in the front row of an audience, laughing at the hidden meaning in his story; and then there is Shakespeare, standing behind him, wearing his goofy, knowing mask. The fact that Shakespeare’s identity continues to remain a mystery goes to show the true genius of the individual who wrote these plays; the trickster saw beneath the facades that people put up to attempt to hide their true selves and wove intricate stories to peel away the layers of human motivation until he could reveal that deep reality is either incredibly inexplicable, or just a big joke. Even if the identity of the Shakespeare beneath the mask is ever revealed, there are sure to be more layers to the genius, and to life, that appear impossible to peel away. 

Works Cited

Barkov, Alfred. “Hamlet: A Tragedy of Errors or the Tragical Fate of Shakespeare?”

Brown, John Russell. “Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet.” Connotations 2.1 
     (1992): 16-33.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. The Pelican Shakespeare, Penguin Books Inc. New York, NY: 2001.

Schell, E. T. “Who Said That: Hamlet or Hamlet?” Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 2 (Spring, 
     1973) pp. 135-146.

Aspects of Character Part 2: Attitude

In Part 1 of the Aspectsof Character series, I discussed archetypes and stereotypes in writing that are ingrained in readers’ minds and aid them in unconsciously developing first impressions of the characters. Writers can use these character prototypes as a foundation for a character, but in order to bring the character to life on the page, they are going to need more depth. The next important aspect of character is personality, outlook, temperament, or (and I think this is the best word to describe it) attitude.

The way a character approaches the world defines their motivations, actions, and reactions to their surroundings. It determines how they interact with other characters, how they deal with stress (or tension in the plot), and how they view themselves. When building a character it is very important to know which of the following traits they lean toward:


…and many more.

These traits are obviously not all-or-nothing; it is a continuum, a spectrum. For example, to build upon the character I created in my first post (the archetypical child, African-American, Christian) I will make him extremely extroverted. Now that we have assigned this trait to the character, the reader can begin to develop a better picture of him. As an extrovert, his attitude toward himself is much more confident, and he is much more comfortable in large groups of people than on his own.

Obviously one trait like this is not nearly enough to constitute a personality. To give the character more depth, the writer should know where on the spectrum of bravery, logic, optimism, and so on that this character stands. For the sake of the example, I will keep the character simple, giving him only one other trait: optimism. The optimist/pessimist scale is one of the most important means of giving personality, in my opinion. Knowing how hopeful a character is in a situation will help determine their willingness to persevere, the way they react to stress, and what emotions they may feel in any given situation. Because this child is an optimist, he is hopeful that good things will happen in the future, he responds positively when faced with negative situations, and he has faith in the kindness of humanity. He is outgoing and has a generally positive attitude.

Once you have given a trait to a character, the next step is deciding where on the spectrum they fall; in other words, you must know the extent of their optimism, the extent of their extroversion. The writing of the story, putting the character into difficult situations, will help the writer learn how far the trait will go. If this extroverted, optimistic child is in a group of people older than him, let’s say a group of six teenagers, he will probably feel fairly comfortable talking to them. But what if the group is solely made up of males, no females? Let's say, the child is faced with a group of six buff teenage male football players (Warrior archetype, anyone?). Perhaps he will become a bit nervous and begin to withdraw. In this situation, we learn not only the extent of his positive attitude, but we also learn a bit about the things he fears. Knowing how deep a character trait extends in the personality develops the character even further than simply labeling them as optimistic or extroverted. A writer must know in which situations the character no longer feels at ease or comfortable with their identity. When we see that an extremely extroverted character begins to withdraw, we can see the obstacles blocking them from achieving their main objective. If an outrageously ambitious character begins to have doubts about the project that has been the center of her life for the duration of the novel so far, we learn about the things she fears, and we see what is at stake. 

As a writer, it is important to know the deeper motivations of the character, the reasons why an optimistic character begins to doubt the pleasantness of his surroundings or his future. This is where a back story can begin to develop. When and why did these traits manifest?

The stronger a character’s attitude (whether positive or negative), the more the reader feels for them (whether positively or negatively). However, it is also possible for a writer to go too far. A character that absolutely never gives up on anything, no matter what, is not believable, and a reader will not sympathize with them. This is also as detrimental as a prototype character with hardly any personality.

To sum up: A character’s outlook on life and where they fall on the spectrum of various personality traits can be used to either subvert or support a reader’s first impression and to develop the reader’s perspective of the character. Revealing the extent a trait dominates the character’s personality reveals the things they feel confident about and the things that make them uncomfortable. The attitude of a character defines the relationships they have with others, both the way they perceive others and the way others perceive them.

Peace, Aimee