Monday, July 31, 2017

Novel Writing Tips: How to Introduce Your Main Character

Because I am trained primarily as a poet, I am always perplexed by attempting to critique fiction. So today's question is:

 Do experienced, published authors (as opposed to aspiring authors) actually introduce their main characters by first and last name immediately?

I have a gut feeling that good writers don't do this, but I don't have evidence to back this up. I do have two novels here in the motor home with me: Explorer and Destroyer, both by C.J. Cherryh, plus some Kindle books. So I can do some research on this even without access to an entire library.

 EXPLORER BY C.J. CHERRYH: “Steam went up as the shower needled Bren's back….” NO for example #1

DESTROYER BY C.J. CHERRYH: Two ¶'s about spider plants aboard the starship, mention of another character (Narani) by first name only, and finally, mention of our main character's name, but not in direct reference to him. Rather, “Bren Cameron's devoted staff had by now offered spider plants to every colonist in the deck above…”. So I'm going to say a QUALIFIED NO for example #2.

ROLLING IN THE DEEP BY MIRA GRANT. Opens with dialogue: “Captain Seghers, permission to come aboard?” End of next long ¶, we discover her full name in this sentence: “Deaths were unlikely, given the number of precautions in place, but Jovanie Seghers had been working the ocean long enough to know that nothing could be ruled out.” I'm going to call that a NO.

FRANKENSTEIN BY MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT SHELLEY: Narrator is writing a letter to his sister, and signs it R. Walton. NO

DRACULA BY BRAM STOKER: Chapter heading “Jonathan Harker's Journal” - so no clunky introduction in the text. I'm calling this a NO.

FOLLOW YOU HOME by Mark Edwards. First-person narrator, identified only as Daniel when kissed by Laura. NO.

WAR BRIDES by Helen Bryan. In the first sentence of the prologue, we have our first example of full name and title for a main character: “In the departure lounge of the Atlanta airport on an early May evening, Alice Osbourne Lightfoot, the trip's organizer, smiled at everybody and said, "Hey! How you doin' this evenin'?” As she ticked their names of her list of their London-bound party.“ Finally, a YES. 

TAKE ME WITH YOU BY CATHERINE RYAN HYDE. "August Schroeder stood at the rear door of his broken-down motor home, looking out through the small, square window.” A second YES.

WAR AND PEACE BY LEO TOLSTOY. One paragraph of dialogue, then “It was in July, 1805, and the speaker was the well-known Anna Pavlovna Scherer, maid of honor and favorite of the Empress Maria Fedorovna.” YES #3.

CHIMERA BY MIRA GRANT. Opens with a transcription of a video recording. “DR. CALE: My name is Dr. Shanti Cale.” I think we have to call this YES #4.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN BY PAULA HAWKINS. First-person narrator, so NO.

2030: THE REAL STORY OF WHAT HAPPENS TO AMERICA BY ALBERT BROOKS. “It was a normal day, or so it seemed. Actually, nothing in 2030 seemed normal, not to Brad Miller anyway.” YES #5. 

I think I can stop here, and say with certainty that yes, main characters are usually introduced by their first and last names, but their names are rarely (if ever) the opening words of the novel.

Friday, January 13, 2017

What Does "The Great Code of Art" Mean

Northrop Frye's book, The Great Code:  The Bible and Literature, draws its title from the words of poet William Blake, who said, "The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art" (quoted by Frye xvi).

Here's the context from which Frye draws the quote:

 Around his engraving of the famous Roman sculpture, Blake included (as you can see in the image above) a LOT of text, which reads in part:
Jesus and His Apostles and Disciples were all Artists. Their Works were destroy’d by the Seven Angels of the Seven Churches in Asia, Antichrist, Science.

The Old and New Testaments are the great code of Art.

The whole business of Man is the Arts, and all things, common.

No secrecy in Art.   

Art is the Tree of Life.

God is Jesus.

Science is the Tree of Death.

For every pleasure Money is useless.*
A quick Google search reveals hundreds of attempts to decipher Blake's idiosyncratic theology; I have no desire to go there.  What fascinates me is the idea that these sacred texts are difficult, that they are encoded, and that when you decode them, what emerges is not a bloodless theology, but vibrant, living Art.

You, and I, and every human being, have been created in the image of a creative God.  Our creativity is therefore potentially holy and definitely meaningful.

Whenever I feel discouraged, I need to remind myself of this larger context against which our brief, tiny, creative lives are played out.

Our lives are not meaningless, and we are not alone.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Thirsting for New Water

The Bible "has had a continuously fertilizing influence on English literature from Anglo-Saxon writers to poets younger than I, and yet no one would say that the Bible 'is a work of literature' " (Northrop Frye, The Great Code, xvi).

Waterfall, Cloud Forest, Costa Rico.
©2017 Tina Quinn Durham

At what point is a treasure trove of inspiration exhausted?  Will the Bible always be a source of creative inspiration?

When we keep draw upon the myths of the past for our fantasy, our movies, and our serious literature, we don't merely copy them. We re-vision them – that is, we consciously attempt to see the past in new ways, from new perspectives.

At the Gethsemane Encounter (a Buddhist-Christian conference at a Trappist monastery), Fenton Johnson talks to a Buddhist nun named Dr. Yifa.  She tells Fenton Johnson: “I joined the sangha [the community of monks] to make it richer and more attractive to others. A pond is dead water unless it has a stream of new water coming in” (Keeping Faith:  A Skeptic's Journey 13).

Perhaps this applies, not merely to monastic communities or communities of faith, but to everything.  In agriculture, cross-pollination occurs when a plant pollinates a different variety of the same species.  Sure, you could end up losing good qualities of a commercial hybrid or strain, but you also might up with greater genetic diversity and resistance to pests or diseases.  A more productive variety could emerge from this chance encounter.

Nations benefit from an influx of hard-working, highly motivated immigrants who bring new foods, new ideas and necessary skills.  Their cultural influences revitalize art, music, and literature.

It's not just the Bible that "has a continuously fertilizing influence on English [and American] literature."  We have been blessed by "new water" from every people and every culture that has come to our shores.

When we cease to embrace the Other, we will embrace Death.

Durham, Tina Quinn.  Image "Waterfall, Cloud Forest, Costa Rico."  Used by permission.
IAC Publishing, Inc. "What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Cross Pollination?" Reference. IAC Publishing, Inc., 2017. Web. 11 Jan. 2017. <>. 
Rhoades, Heather. "What Is Cross Pollination - Learn About Cross Pollination In Vegetable Gardens." Gardening Know How. Gardening Know How, 01 May 2016. Web. 11 Jan. 2017. <>.