Tag Archives: writing

The Ultimate Final Exam

DIGITAL CAMERAAfter 11 months with an exchange student here with us, our life is now beginning to revert to its previous “business as usual” state.  That means that I can schedule my time, my days, and even weeks, and actually see those goals come within reach and grasp them.  It means that I can sit down at my computer, and write 10 hours straight if I’m on a roll!  It’s suspiciously quiet here now, but that does not mean something’s afoot this time… unless the cats are up to something.  With all of her exams through the school year, I was reminded of a list I’d seen years ago; when I shared a similar list in my previous post, I decided to track this one down and share it with you.

This ought to keep you entertained and out of trouble, while I dive into my fifth novel’s manuscript with a fresh eye (since I haven’t really seen hide or hair of it since April…!).  Enjoy, and have a great week!

Warning:  I take no responsibility for snorted drinks or explosions of anything out of your north or south ends

The Ultimate Final Exam

  Read each question carefully.  Answer all questions.    Time Limit: Four hours. 

 HISTORY:

Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrating especially but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, America and Africa.  Be brief, concise and specific.

  GEOGRAPHY:

Predict the position of the tectonic plates as they will appear two billion years from now. Be prepared to prove your results.

  MEDICINE:

You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze and a bottle of Scotch.  Remove your appendix.  Do not suture until your work has been inspected.  You have fifteen minutes.

  BIOLOGY:

Create life.  Estimate the differences in subsequent human culture if this form of life had developed 500 million years earlier with special attention to its probable effect on the English parliamentary system.  Prove your thesis.

  PUBLIC SPEAKING:

2500 riot-crazed aborigines are storming the classroom.  Calm them.  You may use any ancient language except Latin or Greek.

  ART:

Give an objective analysis of the relative significance and quality of the works of the major artists of the past three millennia. Be specific, and prove your analysis with detailed examples.

  MUSIC:

Write a piano concerto.  Orchestrate and perform it with flute and drum.  You will find a piano under your seat.

  PSYCHOLOGY:

Based on your knowledge of their works, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment and repressed frustrations of each of the following:

  • Alexander of Aphrodisias
  • Ramses II
  • Gregory of Nicea
  • Hammurabi

Support your evaluation with quotations from each man’s work, making appropriate references.  It is not necessary to translate.

  SOCIOLOGY:

Estimate the sociological problems which might accompany the end of the world.  Construct an experiment to test your theory.

  COMPUTER SCIENCE:

Write a program that will end world hunger and homelessness. You may use the computer console next to you, however use of a modem or any other communications device is prohibited, as is the use of electricity.

  ENGINEERING:

The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed in a box on your desk.  You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In ten minutes a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room.  Take whatever action you feel appropriate. Be prepared to justify your decision.

  PHYSICS:

Explain the nature of matter.  Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on science.

  ASTRONOMY:

Create a miniature stellar fusion reaction, and describe in detail the effects of close-range stellar radiation on human flesh.

  POLITICAL SCIENCE:

There is a red telephone on the desk beside you.  Start World War III; report at length on its socio-political effects, if any.

  EPISTEMOLOGY:

Take a position for or against truth. Prove the validity of your position.

  RELIGIOUS STUDIES:

Prove or disprove the existence of God, without the use of religious texts over a century old. Be specific, and include a discussion on the possible true meanings and uses for the Tetragrammaton. Also be prepared show how your proof relates to the national debt and the Watergate scandal.

  ECONOMICS

Develop a realistic plan for refinancing the national debt.  Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas:

  • Cubism
  • The Donatist controversy
  • The wave theory of light

Outline a method for preventing these effects.  Criticize this method from all possible points of view.  Point out the deficiencies in your point of view, as demonstrated in your answer to the last question.

  PHILOSOPHY:

Sketch the development of human thought; estimate its significance.  Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

  GENERAL KNOWLEDGE:

Describe in detail.  Be objective and specific.

  EXTRA CREDIT:

Define the Universe; give three examples.

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Rules of Writing: Elmore Leonard

elmore-leonard-authorElmore Leonard, best known for countless novels and their film adaptations, such as Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight, was known for this gritty writing style and strong dialogues.

Here are a few of his gems of advice for writers (with my comments in parentheses):

  • “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
  • “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” (Think: thick paragraphs of prose; boring lists; role calls that seem to be there more to remind the writer who’s in the scene than to entertain the reader.)
  • “If proper (grammar) usage gets in the way, it may have to go.  I can’t allow what we learned  in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative.” (This advice should follow the adage, however:  First learn the rules; then you’ll know how and when you can break them.)
  • “Never open a book with weather.  There are exceptions.  If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe snow and ice  than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.”
  • “I never see my bad guys as simply bad.  They want pretty much what you and I want:  They want to be happy.”
  • “At the time I begin writing a novel, the last thing I want to do is follow a plot outline.  To know too much at the start takes the pleasure out of discovering what the book is about.”
  • “It doesn’t have to make sense, it just has to sound like it does.”

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New Year’s Resolutions

new-years-resolutions-3It’s that time of the year again, when people talk about “New Year’s Resolutions”, as if the turning of the yearly calendar will somehow magically give them the impetus to make changes.  Rarely does it work that way, however.

A work colleague of my husband once upon a time trained to be a competitive  cyclist, and he said that once one makes the decision to give up in a race – for whatever reason – it makes it all the more difficult to persevere thereafter… once resolve caves, winning it back is harder work than ever before.  The same can be said of life, and resolutions.  If our daily goals don’t match our long-term goals, those long-term goals will never be reached; if we give up or cave in, we’ll find daily excuses why we can’t reach for the goal “yet”, and we’ll have a growing sense of guilt that makes us less willing to face the challenge.

Resolutions at the beginning of the year are usually related to a desire to better oneself; but resolve is something that’s built on a day-to-day basis, and should be a process.  If you set a mental goal – such as going to the gym twice a week  – which is not in agreement with your heart’s desires, then it won’t happen; our mind and heart need to get aligned in order for us to reach any target.

So I say, rather than making a resolution, become resolved.  Take baby steps to reach a goal; those steps might be to go on a walk once a week, or to take the stairs instead of the lift, or to purchase an exercise bike and put it somewhere in your home that’s a motivating place (e.g. near a window with a nice view), and then resolve to build up your stamina gradually with an initial time limit, stretching it as you feel you want to rise to the challenge.  If your goal is to write more, then decide on a specific amount, and take those baby steps – make space in your schedule, or learn how to utilize “limbo” moments toward your goal; carry a notebook and pen, and use them.  If your goal is to appreciate those around you more, then begin to focus on the positives, not the negatives; learn to compliment more and criticize less.

Whatever you want to see change in your life, go for it!  If you fail today, pick yourself back up, dust off your knees, and try again tomorrow.  Anything worth reaching is worth the effort, and every new day is full of opportunities.

Have a wonderful year, and may you look back on 2017 with satisfaction, knowing you’ve grown in positive ways!

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Shifting Sands

The title is an apt one this year for me:  In February, we went from having no kids to having a love-starved, distrustful PTSD teenager with defence mechanisms and trauma-induced autism, who, in the first few weeks of her being here, barely spoke intelligible sentences (communication with the outer world is a challenge for her, whether in her mother tongue or not).  She’ll be with us until late-January 2017 as an exchange student, but she’ll be in our lives for years to come, because we’ve become the parents she never had.  When she returns home, we will have to release her back into the abusive situation which caused many of the problems in the first place.  The country she comes from in Asia seems to be stuck in the past by several centuries, especially when it comes to things like psychology; diagnosis and treatment are nearly impossible, simply because they see such things as a weakness that would cause the family to lose face, and in this particular case the fear is that the father would put her on the streets if he found out.  Because of that fact, we’ve not been able to draw on the help of the student organisation’s volunteer psychologist (they would need to inform the father), so we’ve basically been on our own in this complex process; even the diagnosis is my own, having had to apply my research skills into an unknown field and narrow down the symptoms and manifestations, and figure out what we were all dealing with (it’s since been confirmed by friends who work with autistic children). shifting-sands-2 I have a profound respect for parents who raise autistic children on any spectrum of the condition; I know that our situation is simply not comparable – in a few weeks she will be leaving us; at the same time, we had no preparation for going from zero to a hundred overnight.  We thought we’d be getting the average exchange student; God had other plans both for her and for us – plans that go far beyond a year, touching eternity.

What that’s translated into for me this year is an abrupt shift in long-term goals and the shifting sands of daily priorities getting turned on their heads at a moment’s notice.  If you’re like me as a writer or creative person, an inner irritability arises when I can’t write – not as in “writer’s block”, but as in “as soon as I sit down I’m going to be interrupted, so I can’t even begin”.  Two weeks of this month were school holidays, which meant she was here 24/7 except when she was out with friends (which was unpredictable, and not very often as she enjoys being “home”); one week of that time it was just the two of us as my husband was away.  By 24/7, I mean it – any time night or day, when I was trying to focus, she’d show up in the doorway, whether noon or 3 a.m; parents understand!  We watched films, talked, painted, and did our own things.  By the time she went back to school on Monday, I was ready to have my time for focusing again – I’m sure every mother on the planet can empathise!  She gravitates to me, soaking in my presence; that’s lovely – it means she trusts me, wants to be with me, and gets the attention she craves (and should have been getting throughout her life).  I like spending time with her; but it also means that my priorities – writing, editing, graphics, blurbs, and all of the thousand other steps toward publishing my fifth novel – have taken a back burner; the goal of getting this book out by Christmas had shifted away with the dunes of life by May.  It also means that I can’t really relax – I never know when, after finally sitting down for a moment, I open one eye to find myself being watched.  Literally.  Or I just sit down and hear, “Mom!” from a distance corner of the flat.  Sometimes it feels like every move I make draws some kind of commentary – it’s her way of trying to connect, and I understand that with my heart, but sometimes my mind wishes I could just flip a switch and turn it off for a while.  Again, I know that every mother can relate to those feelings; just keep in mind that I’m not actually the mother, in the sense that I haven’t had years to get used to these things!  She has a great father-daughter relationship with my husband, too – pillow fights, lots of fun and talks at the dinner table, and the occasional ice hockey date are icing on the cake.

maidWe’ve had to raise a teenager that had basically raised herself the past (very formative) five years (her father bought her a flat in another city, and just paid for a maid).  I am not a maid (this image is a magnet hanging on our guest room door frame).  Everything that parents teach their children along the way over the years, we’ve had to try to teach her within a few months, as far as what it means to live in a family, communicate with each other, and basic principles such as clean up after yourself, turn off lights behind you, shut the refrigerator door, fold and put away clothes neatly, respect others’ property, and the list goes on and on and on. family-rule-signThis family rule sign, which hangs outside our front door, is what we’re trying to teach as a foreign concept in more ways than one… oh, and her mouth would have driven sailors from bars the first fortnight she was here; we started charging 1 Franc for every curse word, and encouraged her to get creative with such things; now she says “Fluff-butt” and “sweet cheese and crackers” instead!  Needless to say, it’s been a huge learning curve for us all.

Sands have shifted; priorities, for this year, have been relentlessly shifted; but more importantly, we’ve seen the shifting sands in one life transform into a foundation planted on solid rock.  We’ve seen her open her heart to be loved, to begin to recognize the issues in her own life that will need professional help once she’s old enough to seek it without repercussions, and also begin to have an understanding and patience for and with herself.  We’ve played a part in rescuing someone from the verge of suicide to a place of eternal perspective, future hope, and present happiness, and we are humbly grateful for the opportunity entrusted to us.  Writing priorities be hanged… there are more important things in this life sometimes.  There is a time for every purpose under heaven.

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Novels Worth Reading

As a novel writer, I’m first and foremost a reader; I love to read, I love to buy books, smell them, feel them, upload them… any form is fine by me.  I want the books I read to be witty, intelligent, and well developed in terms of plots, characters and environments.

Kitchen Sink Realism

Everyone has different tastes – that’s why there are so many different genres; but for me personally, there’s also a list of things I don’t want in a novel:  I don’t want to be confronted with messy lives dealing with self-inflicted problem after problem; I don’t want tragic or sad or bitter endings; I don’t want to be confronted with the grit, grime, blood and gore of dysfunctional lives that end up learning nothing, making no character arcs, and end up in the mud by the end of the tale.   This genre description actually has a name:  Kitchen Sink Realism.  It was a cultural movement in Britain back in the ‘50s and ‘60s that was portrayed in films, books, plays, and art – the grit, grime, anger, disillusionment and harsh realities of realistic social scenarios.  It’s what might also be referred to as postmodernism.  My personal response to this kind of novel is, “If I wanted that kind of realistic tension, I could just go hang out at the nearest bar.”

A Tough Nut

I once had an English student, and our focus was medical English in preparation for their upcoming medical exams (two nurses came together for semi-private tutoring).  As part of the lesson we needed to work on basic conversational skills and sentence structures, and I find that the best way to bring in a wide variety of scenarios is usually to do a type of role play – nothing embarrassing, but each person is given a character to put themselves into a situation that they might not normally deal with:  They may be a chef, or a secretary, or a customer in a hardware store.  This particular student, when asked what kinds of books she read, said, “history and autobiographies or biographies”.  When asked what novels she read, she said she found such things ridiculous and a complete waste of time (this was back before I became an author!); she categorically refused to even try to put herself into someone else’s shoes for the scenarios.  My impression of her as a person was that she was narrow-minded, knew it, and was proud of that fact.  She was a hard character, and all the time I knew her or met her afterwards, I never saw a soft side emerge, either toward herself or toward others; I often found myself wondering why she’d gotten into the nursing profession in the first place – as a patient, I wouldn’t necessarily want her working on my ward…  A line from the novel I’m currently writing (Asunder, the third book in the Northing Trilogy) would have fit her life too:  “he has never had the propensity for engendering compassion; I pray he never needs it, as he never gives it.”  An epic love story might do her a world of good.

What’s Worth Reading

What I want when I read a book is to be transported into another life, whether that’s in the past, present or future, on this earth, or on another planet, or in another dimension; I want to be entertained, made thoughtful, learn something about the world around me, and learn something about myself.  Ideally, I will come away from the experience having been changed, in even a small way.  I want to feel connected; somewhere out there is a person I can relate to – whether it be the author, or the character, or other readers that appreciate the same books.

Aside from places and times that are genre-specific, such as science fiction and alien planets in the future, or London in the 18th century, all of the elements of what I like in novels are universal.  Humans the world over, in every century, want to feel connected; to feel that they can relate to something someone else is going through; even to have parts of their own life’s experiences explained through someone else’s perspectives in similar circumstances.  Above all else, at the heart of every good novel – regardless of the genre – is a story of love; that is the ultimate connection between characters.  It may be a child finding the love of a family after being shoved through the knocks of life too much for their age; it may be the hero or heroine finding love; it may be a widow or widower finding love again, or reuniting with true loves; it may be someone coming to the point in their life that they accept and love themselves just the way they are.

On to You!

When you read novels, what is it you’re looking for?  I would love to hear about it – please comment below, even if it’s just a few key words!

novel-colin-firth

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Just Smile

smileHave you ever stared at a word for days on end?  I have, and coming to the end of the tunnel is bliss.  When writing, I tend to use “place-markers” – anywhere from a single word to a rough-sketch of a scene that I know will need to be fleshed out, moved, replaced or “cannibalized” for a concept.  Some people like to use special writing programs, and I’ve tried a few over the years, but I tend to do all of my writing in Word; it’s got review “post-its” I can type into the side margins, and I’m usually more organized than programs like Scrivener anyway.  When I go back over such sections, I take off my writer’s hat and put on my editor’s cap, and dive in.

I’ve been editing a manuscript, and at the moment I’m focusing on repetitions; the most recent word was smile.  Each time I came across the word, I needed to read the context, think about whether it should be removed, replaced, the sentence reworded, or left as-is.  I’ve discovered that there are not actually that many synonyms for “smile” in the English language; smirk, sneer, grimace, simper, scowl, grin… they each have their own connotations, and are not simply interchangeable – each choice will effect the overall meaning in distinct ways.   as William Blake once said, “There is a smile of Love, And there is a smile of Deceit, And there is a smile of smiles In which these two smiles meet.”  Sometimes it can simply be left out – the context informs the reader about which emotions are being displayed by the characters.  Characters in love have a different smile for each other than for frenemies, or antagonists, or superiors, or subordinates, and each situation in which various characters are combined might result in a different word for smile.  And does one smile warmly, or coldly?  Broadly or tight-lipped?

theoden-king-of-rohan-lord-of-the-ringsSometimes I wonder if I think far too much about such details; but I’d rather think about it once too often and get it right than not.  It might have seemed a tad extravagant for Weta Workshop to emboss the inside of King Théoden’s breastplate armour for the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and Return of the King (in which the character appears), knowing it would never actually be seen in the films; but Bernard Hill, who played the king, said that such details helped him easily slip into the role, even feeling the nobility of a king, and it thus enhanced and influenced his performance.  As visuals matter in epic films such as LoR, words matter in writing a novel, drawing the reader into the imaginary landscape of the world the author creates. ever-after

They also matter in script-writing:  In Ever After, starring Drew Barrymore and Dougray Scott, some of the dialogue lines are just downright embarrassing – especially those of Anjelica Huston:  They go to the trouble of being opulent and period-accurate in costumes, locations and scene dressings, and then throw in lines like Relax, child and I’m management!  The editor in me cringes.

One man’s smile is another man’s smirk; one woman’s grin is another woman’s sneer.  Now, on to the next item on my list of editing revisions!

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Musings A to Z Challenge: K

Challenge:  Write a short paragraph (100 words or less) daily on a topic beginning with the sequential letter of the alphabet.

Kaleidoscope

I love kaleidoscopes and their constantly changing patterns, made just by turning a simple tube; the creative energy of endless possibilities is what draws me, and the same can be said of words.  Combined differently each time, they have endless possible patterns: It was a dark and stormy night; it was the best of times; it is a truth universally acknowledged; the sun shone, having no alternative, on nothing new; once upon a time.  Each opening pulls us into a completely different world.  A single premise may birth a thousand tales, each one inspiring a thousand more… so keep writing!

Kaleidoscope

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December Musings

December means a lot of things to a lot of people:  For some it’s a month for slowing down, or baking, or taking time with family and friends, or cuddling up on the couch with a good book while it snows and blows and freezes outside (for those of us in the northern hemisphere, at least); for others it’s a month of work stress in winding up the year-end’s tasks, or cramming in meetings and project plans that need to take off in the New Year; for others it’s stress due to shopping – either because one has no idea what so-and-so wants/needs yet one must give said person a gift, or because of the crowds that seem to defy population censuses for any given town.

For me, it’s the juxtaposition of wanting to cuddle up with a selection of books on the couch between our three cats, settling in with an Earl Grey tea and a blanket and ignoring the world for a day or two, versus reaching my goal of getting the first draft of my fifth novel done before Christmas.  Said draft goal is only realistic if I keep at it, every day, disciplining myself to ignore the urge to kick up my feet and read, and (I will admit it) even ignoring the urge to write for my blogs, until I’ve written 1,000 words toward the completion of the manuscript.  Once that’s done (or the equivalent in editing and tweaking), other things can be given attention.  Important tasks that come at the right time are “priority”, but when they come up at the wrong time and intrude on my concentration, they are merely distractions.

So here I sit, 2:30 a.m. and finally have time to sit down to write to you.   Whatever your December looks like – whether stressful or relaxed, planned to the gills or with room for the spontaneous – remember that each day we wake up is a fresh opportunity to get it right, and each time we go to bed is an opportunity to take a moment to remember the blessings that came our way that day.

Awkward

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Tricks for Writing Dialogue

Listen, RespondI recently listened to a Ted Talk by British psychologist Elizabeth Stokoe, who analyses patterns, rhythms and wording in conversations. From her talk, I distilled a few interesting points that could be applied when writing a dialogue for fiction, and I’d like to share them with you:

  1. Are you willing?  If a person is given a sense of control or authority in the situation, they’re far more likely to cooperate.  If you ask, “Do you want this service / action to happen?” you may draw a blank response; but if you ask that person, “Would you be willing to receive this service / be willing to see X happen?” you’re more likely to get a positive response.
  2. How did you…?  When you want to find out particular information from a person, how and when you ask for that information in the course of a conversation / dialogue greatly decreases or increases your chances of getting a positive response / reply.  If rapport is first established, they are much more willing to reply.
  3. Why did you / were you…?  If an open-ended question is asked, target information may not come; but if a target-specific question is asked non-confrontationally, the desired information is more certain.  “Why did you do X?” or “Where have you been?” are both confrontational, and the reaction will likely be evasive or defensive.  But if you instead say, “I was wondering what your reasons for doing X were… could you explain?” or “I tried to reach you earlier, and was wondering where you were”, these are more likely to get a more positive response, or to solicit the information you’re searching for.
  4. Any or Some?  “Any” tends to elicit a negative response or a refusal, while “some” invites a more positive response.  A simple example is, “Would you like any tea?” – this implies an unwillingness or a reluctance on the speaker’s part to provide, whereas, “Would you like some tea?” implies the assumption of a positive response, and is thus more likely to solicit an affirmative response.  In both cases the person asked may want tea, but would be unwilling to coerce the one offering if they have the impression that the offer is made unwilling through the use of “any”.

When applying these ideas to writing a dialogue, a positive application will move your characters closer to a solution or resolution, whereas the negative application will lead them more toward miscommunication and conflict; depending on what you need to happen, you choose which way the dialogue takes your characters, and thus your readers.

Keep writing!

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Archetypes: Aphrodite vs. Dionysus

Throughout literary history, archetypes have been used to help us relate to characters, their stories, the morals of the tale and the paths they choose and why.  Understanding the archetypes helps to figure out how to portray a particular character; it keeps you on the “same page” as you write, as you develop characters, and try to figure out what makes them tick and where that ticking will take you and them.  Today I’d like to take a closer look at Aphrodite and her male counterpart, Dionysus.  I’ll give examples of these characters from films and books, relatable to most whether you like to read or prefer the visual experience of film.

Kim Novak,  Vertigo

Kim Novak, Vertigo

Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, pleasure, beauty and procreation.  Like a coin, there are two sides to the character:  The Lover (or seductive muse), and the Femme Fatale.  On the Lover’s side of the coin, there are characters such as Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, or Ginger on Gilligan’s Island.  The positive side of this character motivates others to improve themselves.  The flip side of that coin are seen in Sharon Stone’s portrayal in Basic Instinct, Kim Novak’s character in Vertigo, or the Bible characters of Salome or Delilah.  On one side you have a character that is nurturing, attractive, seductive and at the core often good, while the Femme Fatale is seductive with often quite dark ulterior motives.  Sean Young’s character in Blade Runner is a good example of the Seductive Muse; she forces Harrison Ford’s character to examine his own sense of humanity by her mere existence.

Mr. Willoughby, in Sense & Sensibility

Mr. Willoughby, in Sense & Sensibility

Dionysus is her male counterpart:  His two sides are the Woman’s Man, and the Seducer.  Either way, Dionysus needs women in his life.  He loves women; on the positive side, he loves to make women feel loved.  The flip side is abuse in one form or another, with darker motivations behind his love.  Fifty Shades of Grey is a touchy topic right now; on one hand it’s immensely popular, and on the other very harshly condemned as glorifying abuse, violence and manipulation in the guise of relationship or love.  I tend toward the latter view, as did the main actor in interviews during his junket (he often found himself apologizing to his co-star after their scenes, which speaks volumes about his instincts of what’s right and wrong, and Shades definitely crossed that line for him and for a growing number of critics).  Other examples are Mel Gibson’s character in What Women Want – his character makes the arc from the negative side to the positive; Cary Grant’s character in An Affair to Remember makes a similar arc.  Leo DeCaprio’s Jack in Titanic sits firmly on the positive side of the coin, and makes for a memorable and loved character.  Count Dracula is a typical Seducer, as is Jane Austen’s character of Mr Willoughby in Sense and Sensibility.

There are many other archetypes; if you’d like to know more on the topic, check out Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s 45 Master Characters.

Keep writing!

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