There are lots of ways to determine how a fictional character will react in any given situation. Generally, an author has some idea of how the main characters will behave during the major plot points. However, one of the keys to making a story believable is writing actions and reactions that make sense.
To get details of a very different system of understanding motivations, I talked with Angela Johns, BCBA, LBA, about her work as a Behavior Analyst.
Four Primary Functions
When a person (or animal) performs an action, that action fulfills one of four basic functions. A behavioral analysis therapist works to change behavior patterns by identifying the function and substituting the unwanted behavior with a more acceptable behavior that meets the same function.
When the Bennets attend the Netherfield Ball, Mary Bennet wants attention and praise, so she takes over the piano and embarrasses her family by playing and singing rather obnoxiously. Mary gets negative attention and lukewarm praise, but her original need for attention has still been met. (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen)
Access to Tangible Rewards
Santiago, having finally caught a fish, would quite like to keep that fish. The story is filled with metaphor and lovely language, but Santiago ultimately holds on to the fishing line because he wants to reel in and keep the marlin that he caught. (The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway)
Sensory or Automatic
Dr. Polyakov initially takes morphine to relieve pain in his stomach. Later, he takes morphine to alleviate the despair and heartache of his life. As the addiction becomes worse, he takes morphine because he becomes unable to function without it. (“Morphine” by Mikhail Bulgakov)
Escape or Avoidance
While waiting for Odysseus to return to Ithaca, Penelope delayed giving in to any of the suitors badgering her by claiming she had to weave a burial shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes. Every night, she unwove the portion she’d woven during the day. She managed to avoid either giving in to any of the suitors or giving any of them a pretense for starting a war. (The Odyssey by Homer)
“We Work Ourselves Out of a Job”
A behavioral analysis expert will work with a patient (and caregivers) to adjust behaviors by identifying which function an unwanted behavior fulfills and substituting another behavior that meets the same function. For example, raising a hand for attention from a teacher rather than shouting in class.
As Johns put it, “The whole point of us [behavioral analysts] is to work ourselves out of a job.”
They do this by observing the behavior (often in a patient’s home), looking at the antecedents, defining the consequences, and determining the function. Experts work with patients to reduce harmful behaviors, establish beneficial habits, focus at school, improve communications, and a variety of other goals.
Behavioral analysis experts primarily work with autistic patients, but applied behavioral analysis also serves a role in everything from fitness training to consumer spending research.
Fictional Behavioral Analysis
An author can use a similar technique to create believable motivations for a character’s actions. Identify which behavior is needed to advance the plot or set up a situation, then create circumstances that will trigger that behavior. Rather than identifying antecedents, an author has the luxury of creating antecedents.
If the clue to identifying a murderer is in the kitchen, make the character hungry so they’ll go in search of food.
If a character needs to go to jail for theft, that character first needs a reason for the theft, even if that reason is kleptomania or greed.
Perhaps a character spills their soul to a new acquaintance because they are looking for attention.
Maybe someone lights a cigarette so they don’t have to answer uncomfortable questions.
Stories don’t make much sense (and aren’t much fun to read) if characters do things for no reason.
Among other services, WordPress offers SEO (Search Engine Optimization) analysis and optimization. These are, essentially, writing guidelines to draw readers to a webpage and then to make that webpage easier to read.
When every website bristles with ads (or is itself an ad), the primary goal of any author must be to drive traffic to a website, whatever that traffic may be. Disseminating information, discussing ideas, arguing viewpoints, and every other method of communication becomes monetized. Some might argue that this is why so much of online content today looks the same.
When a reader types a question or phrase into the search bar of Google, Bing, Duckduckgo, or any other search engine, the algorithms of that search engine sort possible results based on how likely they are to provide the answer.
Search Engine Optimization begins with the title of a webpage. Ideally, the title of a website should be six to ten words, with 10% uncommon words and at least one “power word.”
Emotionally triggering headlines drive more traffic to a website. The more strongly emotional a headline is, the more effectively it brings readers to a page.
Even within the headline, word percentages come into play. Analysts have sat down and worked out the figures for how many uncommon words, how many common words, how many positive and negative and neutral words are most likely to convince a web searcher to click on a link.
Titles By the Numbers
First 3 words are most important
10-15% emotional words
20-30% common words
10-15% uncommon words
At least one power word
Sentiment positive or negative, never neutral
Lists and how-to articles are the most effective
The other method search engines use to determine how well a webpage fits a query is to look for keywords. In order to reach the most viewers, writers are encouraged to create and use particular key words and phrases throughout the text.
This is similar to an essay’s thesis or an operatic motif. Of course, there are numbers for optimization of keywords.
Humans process information differently when reading on a screen than when reading on a page. Scrolling text creates different memory maps than turning pages. Serif fonts register more easily in print; sans serif fonts register more easily on a screen.
Beyond the physical, readability optimization focuses on how easily a reader can absorb the information presented on a website. Online, readers tend to skim information and look for particular words or phrases rather than reading thoroughly.
Very easy to read. Easily understood by an average 11-year-old student.
Easy to read. Conversational English for consumers.
Fairly easy to read.
8th & 9th grade
Plain English. Easily understood by 13- to 15-year-old students.
10th to 12th grade
Fairly difficult to read.
Difficult to read.
Very difficult to read. Best understood by university graduates.
Extremely difficult to read. Best understood by university graduates.
They based the scores on a formula derived from the number of words in a sentence and the number of syllables in each word.
Once again, everything is reduced to numerical value. Breaking up blocks of text into smaller paragraphs or adding pictures makes it easier for a person reading a screen to glance through a text and pick out information. However, none of this information actually measures the quality of writing.
Text By the Numbers
Breaking text up with sub-headings, calculated per 300 words
Readability score, calculated by average number of words per sentence and syllables per word, recommended between 60-70
Once a reader has ventured beyond the title and the keywords, they must confront the actual writing on the page. Again, SEO has all the answers! Some of this is common writing advice, such as varying sentence structure and avoiding passive voice.
When everyone writes by the numbers, driven by selling, I have to wonder how much the actual writing quality and style suffer. News outlets and health information present information formulated to drive in visitors rather than to educate. Bloggers deliberately trigger emotional responses for the sake of increasing ad revenue. How much real skill and work goes into crafting articles, stories, arguments, or any other accumulation of words when everything can be decided by formula and reduced to the lowest common denominator (or at least to 13-15 year olds)?
Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, writer, editor, ESL teacher, luthier, favorite auntie, turtle lover, canine servant, and rapidly developing curmudgeon.
Just for the sake of playing with this page’s readability score, I present to you the beginning of “In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust. This sentence has a Fleisch-Kincaide readability score of -515.1.
“But I had seen first one and then another of the rooms in which I had slept during my life, and in the end I would revisit them all in the long course of my waking dream: rooms in winter, where on going to bed I would at once bury my head in a nest, built up out of the most diverse materials, the corner of my pillow, the top of my blankets, a piece of a shawl, the edge of my bed, and a copy of an evening paper, all of which things I would contrive, with the infinite patience of birds building their nests, to cement into one whole; rooms where, in a keen frost, I would feel the satisfaction of being shut in from the outer world (like the sea-swallow which builds at the end of a dark tunnel and is kept warm by the surrounding earth), and where, the fire keeping in all night, I would sleep wrapped up, as it were, in a great cloak of snug and savoury air, shot with the glow of the logs which would break out again in flame: in a sort of alcove without walls, a cave of warmth dug out of the heart of the room itself, a zone of heat whose boundaries were constantly shifting and altering in temperature as gusts of air ran across them to strike freshly upon my face, from the corners of the room, or from parts near the window or far from the fireplace which had therefore remained cold—or rooms in summer, where I would delight to feel myself a part of the warm evening, where the moonlight striking upon the half-opened shutters would throw down to the foot of my bed its enchanted ladder; where I would fall asleep, as it might be in the open air, like a titmouse which the breeze keeps poised in the focus of a sunbeam—or sometimes the Louis XVI room, so cheerful that I could never feel really unhappy, even on my first night in it: that room where the slender columns which lightly supported its ceiling would part, ever so gracefully, to indicate where the bed was and to keep it separate; sometimes again that little room with the high ceiling, hollowed in the form of a pyramid out of two separate storeys, and partly walled with mahogany, in which from the first moment my mind was drugged by the unfamiliar scent of flowering grasses, convinced of the hostility of the violet curtains and of the insolent indifference of a clock that chattered on at the top of its voice as though I were not there; while a strange and pitiless mirror with square feet, which stood across one corner of the room, cleared for itself a site I had not looked to find tenanted in the quiet surroundings of my normal field of vision: that room in which my mind, forcing itself for hours on end to leave its moorings, to elongate itself upwards so as to take on the exact shape of the room, and to reach to the summit of that monstrous funnel, had passed so many anxious nights while my body lay stretched out in bed, my eyes staring upwards, my ears straining, my nostrils sniffing uneasily, and my heart beating; until custom had changed the colour of the curtains, made the clock keep quiet, brought an expression of pity to the cruel, slanting face of the glass, disguised or even completely dispelled the scent of flowering grasses, and distinctly reduced the apparent loftiness of the ceiling.”
Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, writer, editor, ESL teacher, luthier, favorite auntie, turtle lover, canine servant, and cinephile.
If you’re like me, reading a book is like watching a film inside your head. Casting is entirely up to your imagination, there’s no need for stunt doubles, and the special effects budget is unlimited. It even comes in Smell-O-Vision, which is not always fun.
To learn more about how a writer’s mental movie is translated into a box office hit, I spoke with Sean Williams, a film producer, director, actor, and writer. Williams recently graduated George Mason University, where he directed No Endings, winner of the 2022 Mason Film Festival award for Best Horror/Thriller Film.
Sight and Sound
Alfred Hitchcock said, “A lot of writers think they’re filling the page with words, but they’re filling the screen with images.”
Every writing teacher’s favorite bit of advice seems to be “Show, Don’t Tell.” That is even more true on film than in prose. A film writer must convey everything to the audience entirely through visual or audio input. The sense of dread, nauseating smells, motion sickness, feeling hungry, nostalgia, and every other part of the story must be either seen or heard.
Screenwriters have lots of techniques they can use to provide background information. Voice-over narration, overheard radio or television broadcasts, shots of newspaper headlines, letters, text messages all provide exposition.
Here are some great examples of exposition written into the screen play:
The audience learns about flying broomsticks and magical racing by overhearing a group of children exclaiming about “the new Nimbus 2000; it’s the fastest broom ever!” in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
The narrator’s voiceover in A Christmas Story explains why he hates his gift of fuzzy rabbit pajamas so much: “I knew that for at least two years, I would have to wear them every time Aunt Clara visited us. I just hoped that Flick would never spot them, as word of this humiliation could easily make life at Warren G Harding School a veritable hell.”
Characters in The Office and Deadpool frequently “break the fourth wall” by directly addressing the audience to explain their motivations or provide further information.
Writers for the screen use a variety of techniques give the audience necessary information without background essays. Writers of short stories, novels, memoirs, etc. can make use of some of these techniques to “show, not tell” the story.
When moving from page to screen (or stage). writers must keep in mind the attention span of the viewer. A reader who forgets the details of military supply trains in War and Peace can just flip back a few pages, but it’s a bit more difficult for a film or TV audience.
There are lots of reasons to cut subplots from a film adaptation. The running time might not allow for it. Corporate or government sponsors might require controversial themes to be removed. It might just be a case of special effects or budget constraints.
Many film adaptations don’t include all the characters in the source material. They might clutter the screen, they might be too difficult to film, they might simply be another name and face that the audience would have to remember.
Screen writers might shift a cut character’s dialogue to another character, or they might remove it altogether.
Often, screen writers will combine similar characters for the sake of clarity. Michael Green’s adaptation of Death on the Nile has many such changes. Apart from the murderers, the murdered, and Hercules Poirot, nearly every character from the original Agatha Christie novel is combined with another character or removed altogether.
One could argue that the same principles apply when writing any sort of fiction. Short stories certainly have a finite number of characters and sub-plots they can include before they are no longer “short.” At what point does including or omitting details in a non-fiction work change it to a work of fiction? The question of whether to include or cut, develop or combine characters and themes is ultimately down to the writer.
Film editors, CGI artists, composers, costume designers, set designers, directors, actors, and hosts of others contribute to the final creation of a film that an audience sees. The screenplay is only one component of the finished product.
Consider the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy first arrives in Munchkinland. There is no dialogue. The editor created a transition shot showing the change from the sepia-toned farmhouse to the full-color world of Oz.
Amy Westcott, costume designer for the 2010 film Black Swan, dressed the main character all in white and pink during choreography and classroom scenes. This illustrates the character’s naivety as well as drawing the audience’s immediate focus. Character development is reflected in the gradual darkening of the costume, demonstrating internal conflict without a single word being spoken.
The score composer(s) are responsible for a huge part of an audience’s emotional involvement in a film. The ominous Jaws theme by John Williams (no relation), the Moonlight score that “splits the difference between classical and codeine” by Nicholas Britell, the iconic music establishing time periods in Forrest Gump all tell a huge part of the story beyond the visual.
Other unspoken storytelling devices Sean Williams suggests
The camera panning along a series of family photographs with fewer and fewer people, showing a character’s increasing isolation
Focus on a clock face, burned down candle stubs, or an overflowing ashtray to demonstrate the passage of time
Camera angles above or below eye level to demonstrate the relative importance, ego, or intimidation of a character
Distorting and muffling background sounds to reflect a character’s disorientation
Changing color palettes to take advantage of humans’ hard-wired responses to red (danger), blue (calm), etc.
Adjusting camera focus to draw audience attention to foreground, background, or in between
Ultimately, this must come from the directors, editors, actors, composers, lighting specialists, sound editors, etc., etc., etc…. The screenplay is really just the beginning.
Prose writers may not be able to include fantastic music or ambient colors, but there are other tools available. Point of view shifts, chapter divisions, physical descriptions, and sensory details (beyond sight and sound) can all be used to direct a reader’s attention.
Sean Williams gave me a lot more information about writing for the screen, but I’m afraid I’d need about four years to learn what he covered over the course of his degree. For more details, check out George Mason University or The Los Angeles Film School.
Part of this is because such lists are often curated or sponsored by publishers. Part of this is because search algorithms almost inevitably lead to echo chambers. (For a bizarre and frightening illustration of this, check out this article on how fake social media accounts “learn” to push misinformation and conspiracy theories.)
So how to bump yourself out of your reading rut? Take a reading challenge! There are all kinds of reading challenges you can join, not to mention the book clubs, library groups, and reading forums online or in person. I’ve included a few here, but these are just the very tiniest tips of the iceberg available. And, of course, nothing can compare to the miraculous powers of a curious librarian!
Backlist Reading Challenges – Ease yourself into the world of challenges by joining Austin Decker‘s challenge to clear out some of that pile of books you keep meaning to read but never quite get around to it.
One of the great things about challenging yourself is that you can read what you like. No teachers grading you or tests you don’t want to take. The Story Graph has a pretty amazing database of reading challenges, which you can search by genre, author, awards, or even geographic location.
As I mentioned earlier, once of the most fun things to do with a reading challenge is to challenge yourself. Read something you don’t normally read. Pick up a book from the opposite end of the Dewey Decimal System. Find an author with a different point of view. Hear someone else’s story in their OwnVoice.
Books in Translation – I’m a language nerd, so this one speaks to my nerdy soul. The idea is to read a book that’s been translated from any language into a language you can read. (This is extra helpful for those trying to learn another language.)
Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge – The Book Riot community has 24 prompts to nudge readers out of comfortable ruts they may have fallen into. Some of these prompts are purely for fun, and some might be more of a challenge.
Diversify Your Reading Challenge – There are prompts in twelve genres, one for each month, encouraging readers to look beyond those “more of what you love” ads.
Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors – Though not a specific reading challenge, this essay from Rudine Sims Bishop gives very helpful suggestions for expanding your worldview and reading empathetically.
And if that’s still not enough to break you out of a rut (or at least widen the rut a bit), try this 52 Weekly Challenge list from BookRiot. It includes suggestions like dusting and cleaning your real-life bookshelves, making a recipe from a cookbook, going to a community theater production, and asking a librarian a question – fun ways to remind yourself of how vast the world of books is.
My good friend Vivian Lawry has challenged herself to add a Nobel Prize winner’s work to her genre reading every month this year. So what are you going to read in 2022?
Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, writer, editor, ESL teacher, luthier, favorite auntie, cookie maker, canine servant, and fortunate daughter of multiple mothers.
Tomorrow is my mom’s birthday, and she won’t be here to celebrate. Like many people, I was raised by a crowd of mother figures. My siblings and I only called two of them “mom.” One of them died last year.
Mom Cheryl and my biological mom were best friends since before I was born. Though they looked nothing alike, they called each other sister.
If anyone was fool enough to question their biology, my moms would reply, “She looks like momma; I take after daddy.”
They met when Mom Cheryl was directing a summer day program at the playground near my house. Biological Mom was a health and PE teacher at a local girls’ high school. As extremely intelligent, exceptionally tall women more interested in sports than makeup, they sort of inevitably became friends.
One played field hockey and watched football; the other played rugby and watched basketball. Both were the loudest cheerleaders for whatever activity my siblings and I did.
My two moms did everything together. They cooked together, handing spoons and spices back and forth without looking, like relay racers with a baton. They maintained order on a field of fifty excited kids with their finely-tuned gym teacher voices.
They were always together for holidays, birthdays, vacations, and funerals. My biological mother’s extended family eventually included Mom Cheryl automatically when planning weddings or baptisms.
Whenever Mom Cheryl was cooking, we all knew to be careful. Instead of following a recipe, Mom Cheryl added whatever looked good at the time. Her end results were always very tasty, but she liked things hot!
My siblings were not the only beneficiaries of Mom Cheryl’s bottomless well of love. Everyone in the neighborhood knew that “Miz Cheryl” could always help with science homework, jump shots, sewing, giving insulin shots, and haircuts.
It was universally agreed that Miz Cheryl’s hugs were the best hugs.
During a hurricane, she climbed out the window of a flooded bus to rescue a nearby driver. Mom Cheryl pulled the lady out the window of her car and lifted her up into the bus just before the woman’s car was swept away.
One of the things I miss the most about Mom Cheryl is the way we could sit and be quiet together. When a chaotic family dinner or crowded wedding party was too overwhelming, Mom Cheryl would step out for a smoke break. Eventually, I noticed that she never actually lit her cigarettes, just held one in her hand so no one would question her. She was a bad influence: I started joining her to “smoke” when I was about twelve.
But then the whole world stopped making sense and Mom Cheryl was gone. This wonderful lady, this pioneer for women’s sports, this unstoppable Amazon of hugs and quiet spaces won’t be here to celebrate her birthday tomorrow.
When Mom Cheryl died, her dog Ladybug came to live with me. Maybe tomorrow we’ll have a beer and a steak in our absent mom’s memory.
Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, writer, editor, ESL teacher, luthier, favorite auntie, turtle lover, canine servant, and female of the species.
In honor of Women’s History Month, I’d like to tell you a story of how one woman sparked a series of interactions that led to rock stars! And none of these interactions would have been possible without women pioneers making history.
Alice Chalifoux, the “godmother to the Harp World” was the principle harpist with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra from 1931 to 1974. For decades, she was the only woman in the Orchestra. Because she couldn’t share the dressing room with her male colleagues, she used to shut herself in her harp’s traveling case to change into concert dress.
Way back in the 1990s, there was a little girl who took harp lessons at her local middle school. She rented a small harp over the summer and brought it home to practice.
Deborah Hansen-Conant, “the Jimi Hendrix of the harp,” is an amazingly unorthodox harpist, the only person I’ve ever seen able to sing, dance, and play her harp all at the same time. She worked with the CAMAC Harp Company to design and create her signature 11lb, carbon-fiber, electric harp.
That little girl was my neighbor and a few years older than me. She was the absolute coolest person I knew (as all the Big Girls were). Not only did she let me listen to her practice, she let me play a few notes!
Mary Jane D’Arville, in addition to teaching harp in public schools, founded the Virginia Harp Center. With locations up and down the East Coast now, the Harp Centers provide rental harps for students who could not otherwise afford them. Not content with being a superhero to every harpist with a bent stand or broken string from Boston to Miami, she also composes and arranges music for harp and harp ensembles, teaches privately, performs, and organizes music festivals.
Obviously, the best way to be as cool as The Big Girls is to copy what they do. As soon as I was able, I joined the same harp program through our school system.
Playing the harp was so much fun that I decided to keep it up in college. The only problem with the college I’d chosen was that there was no harp program and no harp teacher.
In addition to chairing the School of Music and conducting the orchestra where I studied, Dr. Oeida Hatcher is a leading researcher in methods of joining computer science and music education. She is a guest conductor and lecturer, presenting her findings all over the world.
Fortunately, the Chair of School of Music where I studied liked the idea of a harp program at school. She found a qualified harp teacher in the area, convinced her to drive an hour to the college to teach me, and then informed me that I would be declaring my major as Music Performance.
Edna Philips was the first female principal musician in a major American Symphony, specifically the Philadelphia Philharmonic. You may recognize her silhouette from Disney’s Fantasia.
I was the best student in the harp program! I was also the worst student in the harp program. As far as I know, I am still the only student to have been in the harp program! My new teacher was from Los Angeles, and her style was unlike anything I’d ever played. She taught me to play whole new genres of music as well as the business of being a musician. (For example, if you’re driving down the LA Freeway with your harp in the passenger seat of your convertible, make sure to buckle it in securely.)
Dorothy Ashby was one of the first musicians to see the potential of the harp as more than a background, classical instrument. She was possibly the most influential jazz harpists of all time, establishing the possibilities of the harp in bebop, jazz, jazz improv, and blues.
My glamorous Hollywood harp teacher had lots of glamorous Hollywood friends, one of whom worked for a sound engineering firm. Her job was to connect filmmakers with people who create music for films. Without music, movies are surprisingly boring. Without that 2 note foreboding theme in the background, “Jaws” is just a big fish with extra pointy bits.
Ruth Brown earned the titles “Miss Rhythm” and “Queen of R&B” as one of the best-selling singers and songwriters of the century. She leveraged her fame to force the recording industry to acknowledge the rights of musicians in negotiating royalties. She created the Rhythm and Blues Foundation to assist other musicians who were in need of assistance in negotiations.
This woman who knew everyone involved in making music in Hollywood came to visit my harp teacher one day. The woman in charge of all music at my college invited her to present a lecture on the business of music in film.
Germaine Tailleferre, a French musician, is believed to be the first woman to compose a score for film. In 1931, she wrote “Chiens” a piano piece to accompany the silent documentary film Pastorale Inca. Ninety years later, 94 percent of composers for major films are men.
It was a fascinating lecture. The presenter talked about how directors and producers choose the composer for a film, how music is played and recorded for films, how editors match musical timing to visual timing, and how sound engineers adjust the soundtrack, dialogue, sound effects, and background noise so that each scene creates the desired aural effect.
After the lecture, a student hung around to talk to the presenter. She was a computer science student, and she was interested in the possibilities of sound engineering, particularly for live shows. They exchanged business cards and contact information.
Rozenn Nicol is a sound research engineer specializing in spatial audio. She has been instrumental in developing the technology used in binaural recordings, WFS, and ambisonics. And she plays the harp!
My glamorous Hollywood harp teacher later told me that the computer science student who came to that lecture had gone to Los Angeles. She was interning with a sound design company, learning how to create the perfect sound in huge concert venues for rock stars.
Virginia Schweninger has been instrumental in the field of music therapy, researching the physical effects of harp string and soundboard vibration on the human body. She is also the creator of Harp Camp Virginia, a sleep-away summer camp for harpists that I can’t wait to attend!
Bottom Line: An amazing chain of events can be set in motion by the simplest things, such as a little girl practicing on a rented harp.
Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, writer, editor, favorite auntie, turtle lover, canine servant, and English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teacher.
Believe it or not, not everyone speaks English as a native language. To strain credulity further, consider that not every character learned English as a native language. Shocking, I know!
But how to convey through written words that a speaker has an accent?
One method is to transcribe phonetically the way a character speaks, as the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett demonstrated so well. A vampire in his fantasy universe of Discworld, deliberately emphasizes his accent when he wants to appear odd rather than threatening.
“Vell, I’m not official,” said Otto. “I do not haf zer sword and zer badge. I do not threaten. I am just a vorking stiff. And I make zem laff.” from Thud!by Terry Pratchett
But what about a subtler signifier of a character’s foreign origins? There could be a million reasons to let your audience know that a character was originally not a member of the “in” group.
Signal that a character will have a different cultural perspective when reacting to events.
Sign that a character, by virtue of a different upbringing, has insight or expertise others may need.
Foreshadowing of any kind of discrimination practiced against a group designated as “others.”
Mockery of any slight difference shows the character of the people mocking as well as those standing by and those reacting.
Very subtle differences can clue in a reader that something is off, for example a spy or an imposter.
Fortunately for our purposes as writers, English is weird. So many rules have exceptions or no reasonable guidelines of when to apply them…. it’s enough to drive any ESL student mad. If any of these rules (that you probably follow without noticing) are broken, that’s enough to make a reader notice that something is off.
Should a noun have a definite or indefinite article? Or no article at all? Go ahead and try to explain the rules without looking it up. I’ve been an EFL teacher for years (and occasionally an ESL teacher), and I still mix things up. Like most native English speakers, I tend to rely on what sounds right.
If your non-native English speaker hails from a real country on Earth (as opposed to another planet or a fantasy realm), you can simply have the character follow the rules of their native language. A native French speaker would be likely to overuse articles. A native Russian speaker might skip articles altogether.
Consider these examples:
Quick brown fox jumping over lazy dog.
The dog, she is lazy. A fox jumps over the dog, no problem.
Of course, if the character learned a language you’ve made up, the rules are entirely up to you.
English, like Bulgarian and Swahili, is a SVO language; Subject Verb Object is the typical sentence structure. The meaning of a sentence can be changed simply by changing the word order. The most common word order is SOV– the verb comes at the end of the sentence, after the object. Qartuli and Mongolian are SOV languages.
Just to be contrary, Latin word order makes no difference to the meaning of a sentence and is often jumbled deliberately for poetic effect. (I’m looking at you, Virgil!)
Yoda is one of the most widely known characters who speaks English with inverted word order. Although he has no obvious accent, his speech immediately lets the audience know that he is alien.
Some languages have declensions and conjugations and all sorts of ways in which words change form to indicate specifics. Others have separate words to indicate number, tense, intention, etc., though the word itself stays the same. English has both.
Sometimes verbs change when they’re in the past tense (walk-walked); sometimes they don’t (put-put). Just for fun, some verbs change into entirely different words when they change tense (bear-bore).
Nouns are just as bizarre. In kindergarten, the teacher told me I just had to put an S at the end of the word. Then there were geese, children, moose, alumni, crises, and vortices. I still haven’t figured out the rule for the cello.
Naturally, this is an area of difficulty for many people who did not learn English as children. It’s also an area of difficulty for people who have been speaking English since infancy.
Idioms and Connotations
Even if a character speaks English absolutely fluently, there are still a million linguistic tripwires. A native English speaker from Minnesota will still have trouble understanding casual speech in Scotland.
I once watched a Scottish man and a South African man argue about something (I think it was Australian immigration policy, but that’s just a guess). They were mutually unintelligible. As they grew more excited, each slipped further into his native accent and became less understandable by the other. Theoretically, all three of us spoke the same language. In practice, I felt like I was watching a verbal tennis match that gradually turned into frantic hand gestures and facial expressions. It was both surreal and hilarious!
Translators are very useful sources for learning the grammar of a language you don’t know. If you want to have a character be newly arrived in Australia from Siberia, try looking at the translator’s notes in a new edition of War and Peace.
Mobi Warren, a translator of Hermitage Among the Clouds by Thích Nhất Hạnh, explained some of the difficulties in translating Vietnamese into English. He wrote, “All this moving between past and present is more easily expressed in Vietnamese, a language in which none of the words have tenses.”
Ancient writers can be particularly difficult to translate to modern English, but understanding those difficulties is a great way to highlight changes over time. If you’re trying to invent a language for a fantasy or science fiction setting, try basing the grammar on ancient Egyptian or Shang dynasty Chinese.
Another very useful source for finding ways to indicate non-native English speakers in dialogue is to look at resources for teaching English as a Second Language or English as a Foreign Language. If other teachers point out an area that’s particularly difficult, odds are that a character you write would have trouble with that same area.
Bottom Line: Lack of fluency is not the same as lack of intelligence. Odd speech patterns imply accents without needing to use odd spelling.
Today’s blog entry was written by Kathleen Corcoran, a local harpist, teacher, writer, editor, favorite auntie, and lover of candy, costumes, horror films, and shenanigans.
Amid the daily terrors of 2020, it’s only natural to celebrate additional terror by adding candy and costumes. Halloween in 2020 will (hopefully) be different than other years, but I’m sure that won’t stop the rational, thoughtful, and calm citizens of the USA from marking the occasion in a restrained fashion.
There have always been rules about Halloween, enforced to a greater or lesser extent depending on time and place.
Puritans in early North American colony towns outlawed Halloween altogether, claiming it was witchcraft and Satanic.
The state of Alabama forbids anyone to dress up like a nun, rabbi, priest, monk, or any other religious figure, on threat of spending a year in jail.
The French town of Vendargues prohibits people over age 13 dressing like a clown on Halloween or at any time in November (a very sensible rule, in my opinion).
Silly string is outlawed in Hollywood on Halloween; mischief makers can be fined simply for carrying silly string.
Before 2020, many areas had laws governing masks on Halloween. Banks and retail clerks got tired of not knowing whether the masked person coming up to the counter was on the way to a party or in the middle of a robbery.
Things are a little different this year. Instead of forbidding masks, many places are requiring them! Fortunately, many Halloween costumes are perfect for masks.
The CDC does not recommend using regular Halloween masks in place of a medical face covering. Plastic Halloween masks are less likely to prevent the spread of infectious droplets. Masked superheroes, ninjas, fuzzy animals, nurses, doctors, and fire fighters will probably be very popular this year.
Trick or treating will be different as well. Gone are the hordes of tiny monsters dressed as children running from house to house as fast as possible to get the maximum sugar haul.
Social distanced trick or treating may require a bit of creativity.
The insanity of 2020 has certainly inspired some interestingly creative displays and work-arounds. Several costume companies have been called out for selling particularly tasteless get-ups. Customers are no longer able to purchase the means to disguise themselves as rolls of toilet paper, Corona-19 beer bottles, or the corpses of celebrities and politicians. If Halloween revelers are truly determined to be offensive, they’ll have to create those costumes themselves.
For more details about Halloween safety, look at the CDC holidays website, the WHO website about the pandemic, or your local community or news website. Curfews, gathering limitations, costume regulations, trick-or-treat restrictions, etc. vary from place to place.
Coverage of the pandemic is all over the media. Every day we get the latest tallies. Local and national news feature the tragedies that are all too common. A family of 6 all of whom have tested positive, and only two survive. Sometimes someone being discharged from the hospital after weeks on a ventilator. So why this blog? Because people suffer the virus in ways that never catch the attention of the media. Writers need to be aware of these variations.
Many of you are familiar with the name of Kathleen Corcoran, my friend and colleague and occasional guest blogger. She has graciously agreed to share her experience with us all.
It started with a headache, a pretty bad one, like something was sitting on my head. Or maybe it was the insomnia first. Or maybe the headache was caused by the insomnia. Or maybe I couldn’t sleep because my head was hurting. Or maybe I was just doomed to be caught in this chicken and egg loop of which came first for all eternity or at least until the sun came up.
But I didn’t think anything was wrong. I’ve had trouble sleeping since I was a kid. My posture is terrible, which causes headaches sometimes. I took a couple of painkillers and eventually was lulled to sleep by the dulcet tones of Stephen Fry reading Harry Potter.*
(Neither Vivian Lawry nor I are affiliated with or Stephen Fry or with J. K. Rowling. But if anyone knows how to get in touch with Stephen Fry, let me know, and I’ll do my darndest to become affiliated!)
In the morning, my husband went off to work, I drank about ten cups of tea, and everything was normal. Perfectly normal.
I was pretty tired, but that was to be expected after being up all night.
Joints aching? Must be a storm coming. Stupid arthritis.
Skin hurts like I’m wrapped in sandpaper? Probably just didn’t rinse all the soap out of my clothes last time I washed them.
Too hot and too cold and too hot and too cold again? Eh, it’s July. The air conditioner is weird.
Can’t stop coughing? Gee, I must need to sweep under the bed. It’s obviously really dusty down there.
Sore throat? Well, duh. That’s what happens when you cough a lot.
Eventually, the combined efforts of my husband, my sister, and my mother convinced me that I was probably sick, it might be the COVID-19, and I definitely needed to do something about it. The first thing I did about it was to consult Our Lord and Master, The Great Google. My husband left work early, and we tried to find a testing site.
And that’s when things got really… boring. Following the instructions laid out by The Great Google, I didn’t bother going to a doctor. I answered a bunch of questions online to determine if I was worthy of receiving testing and then to determine if I was worthy of receiving fast testing. The pharmacy told me I could stop by the drive-thru the following afternoon to poke a stick up my nose, and that was it.
Labs are really backed up, so I could expect my test results in about two weeks. Maybe longer. Probably longer. In the meantime, I should assume I had The ‘Rona (as my brother insists on calling it) and behave accordingly. Oh, and don’t bother going to a doctor or a hospital unless I turn blue or have a seizure. And it better be a pretty big seizure.
Contact tracing was easy. Two phone calls. I warned my parents that I was (allegedly) highly contagious with (allegedly) an infection of (allegedly) COVID-19 and thus I may have (allegedly) contaminated my mother and she may have (allegedly) passed on the deadly (allegedly) infection to my father. Allegedly.
Thus, I am now in quarantine. I can’t leave the bedroom except for bathroom breaks. My husband can’t leave the house, just in case I’ve contaminated him. He has to sleep on the sofa, keeping an eye on the turtle. We both have to wear masks anytime I open the bedroom door, but my husband covers his face just about any time time he’s not sleeping. Pippin the Wonder Dog has gone to stay with my parents until we’re all allowed out of the house again. Fourteen days of staring at the bedroom walls, unless I’m still sick or my test results come back negative.
My husband put food and tea next to the bed for the first few days, carefully not touching anything and showering immediately after leaving the room. When I could get out of bed, he left the food and tea on the floor outside the door and picked up empty dishes with gloves. For about a week, I couldn’t keep anything down except tea. It’s a good thing I like tea.
But then I started feeling better. I could sit up, the cough subsided, and I managed to stay awake for more than two hours at a time. My fever hung around for a bit, but it eventually went down. At one point, the thermometer informed me that I had a temperature of 107.3F. As I was staring at the read-out, wondering why all my internal organs hadn’t shut down yet, my husband reminded me to wait until after I drank the hot tea before sticking the thermometer in my mouth. Smart man.
Now, I wait. There’s not a whole lot to do in here. I can video chat with the guy on the other side of the door. My goddaughter sometimes reads me stories or demonstrates her spectacular spinning skills over the phone. I spend way more time than I will ever admit on sites like BoredPanda and BuzzFeed. Occasionally, I try to get up and walk around, but it’s only a step and a half from the bed to the door and only half a step from the bed to the wall. Not very conducive to calisthenics.
The neighbors lead fascinating lives, as I have discovered by not being creepy at all. I spend a lot of time staring out the window, and I’ve gotten to know everyone’s habits. If the dog next door isn’t out for his morning yard time by 7:30, I worry. Where’s Roscoe? Is he stuck inside? Is he still asleep? When the kids down the street start their evening basketball skirmishes, I keep score. Darren cheats, but Michael is taller and older… I haven’t decided if that evens things out, but Keisha always wins anyway. Yesterday, the recycling truck came by. It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen. It’s like Rear Window, but without the murder!
In the meantime, my husband has missed two weeks of work and pay. His boss isn’t sure about letting him back in the shop until all his colleagues are comfortable that he isn’t poisonous. My parents have had to isolate in their house, missing my father’s birthday dinner. All the careful planning my sister did to set up a safe birthday celebration for my father is down the drain (along with all the ingredients I’d just bought to make Beef Wellington for them). My other sister has been stuck watching five kids by herself because I can’t help out. And I had to reschedule an appointment with the DMV. Their next opening isn’t until September.
Don’t get me wrong: I am thrilled beyond belief not to be in the ICU, hooked to a ventilator in a medically-induced coma. But I don’t even know if I have COVID-19. Barring some catastrophic development, I will be free to leave quarantine and resume my normal activities tomorrow. If I did have it, I’m no longer carrying anything that could infect people. If I didn’t, I just put a bunch of people through a bunch of disruption and financial hassle for a sniffle.
Oh hey! An email just popped up with my test results….
Finding the right message…
If I tested positive, does that mean I passed or failed? Also, is this going to be on the final exam?
Thanks to Kathleen for sharing her experience. Writers take note: She is living, breathing (thank goodness) proof that the worst case scenario isn’t necessary for one’s life to be turned upside-down.
Surprise, surprise: the answer isn’t as straightforward as it might first seem. I’m pleased to share with you Douglas S. Jones’ thoughts on the matter.
Doug Jones is well known in local writing groups and has taught dozens of students in the Richmond area. Full disclosure: Doug taught and mentored me for years! I especially appreciate Doug sharing his thoughts on what makes writing poetic because, as many of you know, I don’t “do” poetry.
Is it poetic?
When asked to define poetry, I thought: This is my punishment for not writing a dissertation.
Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionarydefines poem as “1) a composition in verse, especially one that is characterized by a highly developed artistic form and by the use of heightened language and rhythm to express an intensely imaginative interpretation of the subject.” This sounds like what my high school English teachers probably taught me. But then–rather like graduate school–the second and third definitions contradict and deconstruct the first: “2) a composition that, though not in verse, is characterized by great beauty or expression; 3) something having qualities that are suggestive of or likened to those of poetry: Marcel, that chicken cacciatore was an absolute poem.” So a poem is a composition in verse; a poem is a composition not in verse; chicken cacciatore is a poem (when Marcel makes it).
The same dictionary defines poetry as “1) the art of rhythmical composition, written or spoken, for exciting pleasure by beautiful, imaginative, or elevated thoughts; 2) literary work in metrical form, verse; 3) prose with poetic qualities; 4) poetic qualities however manifested; 5) poetic spirit or feeling; 6) something suggestive of or likened to poetry: the pure poetry of a beautiful view on a clear day.” So poetry is different from prose, except when it is prose; it is written in verse, except when it is not; it is qualities or spirit or feeling or a beautiful view on a clear day.
I won’t bother listing the eighteen definitions of composition, or the fifteen definitions of verse. But I do think it’s worth noting that the word “verse” can be stretched in service of both “poetry” and “metrical composition distinguished from poetry because of its inferior quality [my emphasis].” It may be “one of the lines of a poem” or (rarely) “a line of prose.” And verse and composition are both related to structure and music–elements which I suspect have more to do with what poetry is than beauty or elevated thought.
I turned from definitions to word origins. A poem is “something created,” John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins. “The word comes via Old French poeme and Latin poema from Greek poema”–which comes from poiesis, “making.” Writers may enjoy poetic license, bring characters to poetic justice, and aspire to become poet laureate. The latter also comes to us from Greece: when Apollo fell in love with Daphne (the daughter of a river) and tried to seize her, she escaped by turning into a laurel tree–which thereafter was sacred to Apollo. “The god ordered that laurel be the prize for poets and victors,” Robert Hendrickson writes in his Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins, “this leading to the belief that laurel leaves communicated the spirit of poetry (the ancients put laurel leaves under their pillows to acquire inspiration while they slept).”
The notion of a “spirit” of poetry raises questions. Among them: Does a poem possess or suggest spirit more or other than that of the poet? Is poetry–as Samuel Coleridge famously suggested–“the best words in the best order”? If so, why should this apply only to poetry? Shouldn’t the same be equally true of good prose?
Lyric poetry is a form of verbal materialism, an art of language, but it is much more than “the best words in the best order.” It is language fulfilling itself, language compressed and raised to its highest power. Language in action against time, against death. There are times when I am awestruck by the way that poems incarnate the spirit–the spirits–and strike the bedrock of being.
Other times I am struck by how little the poem has to go on, how inadequate its means. For what does the writer have but some black markings on a blank page to imagine a world? Hence these lines from the splendid Florentine poet Cuido Cavalanti–
Noi sian triste penne isbigottite le cesoiuzze e’l coltellin dolente.
We are the poor, bewildered quills, the little scissors, and the grieving penknife.
In his preface to Obra poetica, Jorge Luis Borges writes “the taste of the apple … lies in the contact of the fruit with the palate, not in the fruit itself; in a similar way (I would say) poetry lies in the meeting of the poem and reader, not in the lines of symbols printed on the pages of a book.” Poetry is interactive. Reading a poem completes it, like closing an electrical circuit. Although we can return and refer to it on the page, I think of poetry as fugitive. While you are reading it (or hearing it read) it travels through time and space. Consider the following:
I was watching a robin fly after a finch–the smaller bird chirping with excitement, the bigger, its breast blazing, silent in light-winged earnest chase–when, out of nowhere over the chimneys and the shivering front gardens, flashes a sparrowhawk headlong, a light brown burn scorching the air from which it simply plucks like a ripe fruit the stopped robin, whose two or three cheeps of terminal surprise twinkle in the silence closing over the empty street when the birds have gone about their own business, and I began to understand how a poem can happen: you have your eye on a small elusive detail, pursuing its music, when a terrible truth strikes and your heart cries out, being carried off.
The poem flies: we follow it from bird to bird to “terminal surprise.” It begins not with the abstract, but the specific–and the accumulation of specific details is what makes the poem ring true. There is movement in every line: watching, chirping, blazing, shivering, scorching. Even nouns and adjectives move: “a light brown burn/ scorching the air,” “the stopped robin” (my emphasis). The “I” observing the bird becomes the “you” with “your eye on a small elusive detail.” Then the reader becomes both poet and bird, observing and observed: “a terrible truth/ strikes, and your heart cries out, being carried off” (my emphasis). In the end we have not only read or heard the poem: we have in a sense experienced it, flown with and been snatched away by it. The poet meanwhile is self-effacing, claiming only to have begun “to understand/ how a poem can happen.” The poem happens–it is an event, shared between speaker and listener. As Robert Frost notes: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”
Poetry alerts us to what is deepest in ourselves–it arouses a spiritual desire which it also gratifies. It attains what it avows. But it can only do so with the reader’s imaginative collaboration and even complicity. The writer creates through words a felt world which only the reader can vivify and internalize. Writing is embodiment. Reading is contact.
We can teach poetry by reading poems, reading poets, and reading what they write about what they do: from Aristotle’s Poetics and Horace’s Ars Poetica to Alexander Pope’s “Essay on Criticism”; from Wordsworth’s Prelude to Kenneth Koch’s “The Art of Poetry.”
And of course we can also teach poetry by encouraging students to write poetry of their own, to experiment with form, to write poems “in the style of”–and by helping them to find their subjects. Towards this last goal, consider the following from Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, authors of The Poet’s Companion:
We’ve been told again and again to write about what we know, but we don’t trust that advice…. John Keats wrote to a nightingale, an urn, a season. Simple, everyday things he knew. Walt Whitman described the stars, a live oak, a field. Elizabeth Bishop wrote about catching a fish, Wallace Stevens about a Sunday morning, William Carlos Williams about a young housewife and a red wheelbarrow. They began with what they knew, what was at hand, what shimmered around them in the ordinary world….
The trick is to find out what we know, challenge what we know, own what we know, and then give it away in language: I love my brother, I hate winter, I always lose my keys. You have to know and describe your brother so well he becomes everybody’s brother, to evoke the hatred of winter so passionately that we all begin to feel the chill, to lose your keys so memorably we begin to connect that action to all our losses, to our desires, to our fears of death. Good writing works from a simple premise: your experience is not yours alone, but in some sense a metaphor for everyone’s.
In the end, I think poetry communicates something like Whitman’s barbaric yawp. We are, in fact, not alone on the planet. The ordinary world is, in fact, extraordinary. The spoken word is not how we compare ourselves out of community or fraternity or sorority or society, but rather how we find our place within. As Appalachian poet Charles Boyd writes:
As you are reading this–now, in the same moment— I am writing it.
Horace: Ars Poetica.
Barthes, Roland: The Pleasure of the Text.
Bloom, Harold: Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism.
Brooks, Cleanth: The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry.
Calvino, Italo: Six Memos for the Next Millenium.
Frye, Northrop: Anatomy of Criticism.
Heidegger, Martin: Poetry, Language, Thought.
Mill, John Stuart: Dissertations and Discussions.
Pascal, Blaise: Pensees.
Plato: Collected Dialogues.
Santayana, George: Essays in Literary Criticism.
Sapir, Edward: Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech.
Wimsatt, W. K.: The Verbal Icon: Studies in the Meaning of Poetry.
Zumthor, Paul: Oral Poetry: An Introduction.
Douglas Jones has written and seen produced more than forty plays and screenplays, including the musical Bojangles (music by Tony Award-winning composer Charles Strouse, lyrics by Academy Award-winning Sammy Cahn), The Turn of The Screw, and his award-winning Songs from Bedlam–which Backstage declared “a triumph,” and D.C.’s Studio Theatre said “achieves a rare and magnificent balance between brutal reality and sublime fantasy.” His docudrama 1607: A Nation Takes Root plays daily at the Jamestown Settlement & Yorktown Victory Center.
He was awarded the Virginia Commission for the Arts Playwriting Grant in 2006, the Martha Hill Newell Playwrights Award in 2015, and the Emyl Jenkins Award for Promoting Writing and Education in 2016. He teaches memoir, playwriting, and other classes at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and The Visual Arts Center, and is a member of The Dramatists Guild. He lives in Richmond with his wife actress Harriett Traylor.