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Creating Imperfect Characters for the Perfect Story

            Characters are the heart and soul of a story.  Any book, no matter how good the plot, how interesting the setting, or how clever the twist, must have characters that are distinct, believable, appealing, and imperfect.  Yes, imperfect.  Readers need to relate to the characters in a book within the first few pages.  They need to be able to identify with the character.  And one way a writer can do this is to give a character flaws.

            We’re only human.  Right?  Well, the characters in a book should be too.  No one likes someone who is wonderful in every way, because none of us are.  And having a flawless character will turn off a reader quicker than they can turn a page.  We all have good and bad qualities, talents and limitations, strengths and weaknesses.  And we like to read about characters that are like us–flawed and human. 

            A well-known and well-liked character such as Harry Potter is a perfect example.  Harry is likeable not just because he is kind and friendly, but because he’s just a little messed-up.  Harry is an orphan, he is mistreated by his aunt and uncle, he hangs out with the geeks of Hogwarts, and he has a dark side that he constantly has to wrestle.  We like him because each one of us can see a tiny part of ourselves in him.  All of us feel alone or rejected at one time or another.  Every person feels neglected by friends or family on occasion.  Very few of us are popular and hang with the “In” crowd.  And we all have a not so nice side that we struggle to overcome.  We identify with Harry Potter, and that is why we love him.

            Love or hate the books, we can all identify with the characters from Twilight, as well.  Bella is an ordinary girl who wants to be extraordinary.  She is clumsy and insecure and sees herself as plain and unattractive.  Sound like any teenage girl you know?  But Edward, the handsome, dangerous, bad boy finds her irresistible.  Even Edward, the two hundred year old undead vampire, appeals to our human side.  He is seen as evil by most of the world, except by the one who loves him.  And he struggles with his carnal urges because he is inherently good.  Don’t we all?  And of course there is Jacob who must protect the one he cares about knowing he will never have a real chance with her.  He also struggles with his carnal urges and even sides with the enemy to protect the one he loves.  Stephanie Meyers, for all the flack she has taken about her books, has the human psyche figured out.

            And what about the characters of the Hunger Games?  Can’t we all relate to one or more of them?  First there’s Peeta?  He is kind and good, but not so athletic.  He is a great talker, but not so skilled with weapons.  You just can’t have it all.  Then there’s Gale.  Gale is the strong, hard working, good looking guy who has to sit back and let the girl he loves make all the decisions.  He’s not in the driver’s seat, and he knows it.  Sounds like marriage material to me.  And of course, there is Katniss, our heroine.  Katniss is your typical strong female character, but with a twist.  She, like Bella, is in the middle of a love triangle and must balance her feelings with her obligations to family and friends.  She is stuck in the middle of the Capitol’s plans for control, and no matter what she does, she is set-up to hurt someone she cares about.  Talk about a no win situation.  I’d say that Suzanne Collins has our human nature pegged, as well.

            In my young adult novel, Island of Tory, Arella Cline is the main character.  She struggles with your typical teenage angst.  She is an only child who has trouble relating to her parents, and when her parents are killed in an accident, she feels regret and loss.  Arella doesn’t like rules or authority and rebels against them every chance she gets.  When she is forced to attend a stringent academy, she breaks the rules and then quits.  But in the end, Arella must make a choice.  She must decide whether to side with good or evil, and she knows that no matter her choice, someone she cares about will get hurt.  She is caught between a rock and a hard place, in fact, between a wishing stone and a cursing stone.

            So a writer must keep in mind that readers like their characters flawed.  Readers want to rub shoulders with fellow narcissistic, insecure, rebel loners who redeem themselves in the end by putting others’ needs first.  That’s what makes them human to us.  They are a reflection of who we are, or at least, who we strive to be.

            Island of Tory is available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble online, and Joseph-Beth Booksellers online.  Autographed copies are available on this website.

 

Planner or Pantser? That is the Question

            So you have an idea for a novel, but you’re just not sure how to proceed.  Should you start with an outline plotting out the entire book or just start writing, making it up as you go along?  If you take a survey of writers, novice and expert alike, you will get a plethora of answers on how to successfully start and finish a book.  The correct way, however, will depend upon the type of writer you are and your personal preferences.

            If your personality dictates that you must know precisely where you are going and how you will get there, you are a planner by nature and will tend to lean toward outlining your book before you attempt your first paragraph.  Outlines are like roadmaps.  They can be as detailed or as sketchy as needed.  If you are a AAA trip-tick or Mapquest enthusiast, this is probably your preferred method of writing madness and you are most likely a planner.

            Some planners like to write chapter outlines where they list the main events of each chapter under the chapter title.  This gives them a good overview of their story’s sequence and allows them to get from point A to point B in a nice orderly succession.  Other planners like to put down the “skeleton” of their story first and then fill it in with the “meat” or details, taking a general to specific approach.  Still others work backward, knowing the ending before they begin.  They start at the conclusion and backtrack, detailing the events that lead up to the grand finale.

            Many agents and publishers require an outline of a novel before they will look at anything else.  And though the outline might be an excruciating chore, it does make writing the novel much easier.  Some writers, however, feel that once the outline is written, they are married to it.  Unless the outline is chiseled in stone, you can change it and your story however you see fit.  There is no outline commandment that says, “Thou shall not change your mind once thou typest The End.”

            But there is something to be said for those writers who fly by the seats of their pants and do it with finesse.  These are known as pantsers.  These masters of the imagination can spin a yarn as easily as your grandmother crochets an afghan–intricate, flawless, and off the cuff.  Even when they write themselves into a corner, they find a trapdoor and escape.  These writers enjoy the freedom and excitement of the unknown.  And though they may not know where they are going or how they are going to get there, they enjoy the ride.

            But do not fear if neither approach appeals to you, for there is any number of degrees between the two extremes that are productive.  Scores of writers practice varying combinations of the two methods with great success.  My personal preference is to have a basic beginning, middle, and end in mind, while letting my writing take me where it will.

            When planning out a novel, I am not one to take the time to fill-in a sheet full of Roman numerals and letters, but I do have a vague mental roadmap in mind before I begin to type.  I like to start with my protagonist, making him or her a reluctant hero with genuine flaws.  The plot of my story revolves around this character’s problem and how it is resolved. 

            Second, I add conflict.  Someone or something has to stand between the protagonist and his or her goal.  Without a villain or obstacle, there is no story.  The conflict can be man verses man, man verses nature, or man verses self.  Regardless of the type of conflict, there needs to be drama.  Without drama, a plot dies.  No one likes a story where everyone is content and happy from beginning to end.  But tell a story about someone facing a crisis, and you’ve got an audience.

            Third, I create my setting.  Though I am a fantasy writer, I do not design my story locations from scratch.  I like to research real places and time periods that fit my needs, and tweak them to fit my stories’ purposes.  For example, in my young adult fantasy novel, Island of Tory, I needed to set my story in a remote and mysterious place to suit the requirements of my plot.  I researched various Irish islands to find a real location that would lend itself to my story’s purpose and mood.  When I read about Tory’s history and legends, I knew I had the makings of the perfect setting for my book.

            Once I have the protagonist, conflict, and setting of my novel nailed down, I improvise and adlib the rest, adding characters and events like pavers in a road to the finish.  So if I had to define myself as one or the other, planner or pantser, I guess I’m a Mudblood.  My flavor of writing is a fusion of the two in varying degrees, depending on the story at hand.  And if a random survey of writers was taken, I doubt that most would fit neatly into one of the two categories. 

            So, planner or pantser?  That is the question.  I say…yes.

The Voices in Your Head

            Ghosts, spirit guides, mental illness?  There is any number of explanations for hearing voices.  Gift or curse, the phenomenon is very real for some, and most cultures do not consider it normal.  In his song Voices in My Head, Bruno Mars expresses the question “Is it strange I believe them again?  Voices in my head.”

            The most widely accepted theory for the cause of disembodied voices is mental illness.  Whenever someone experiences sensory perceptions outside of the norm, society chooses to label them with any number of mental disorders.  At first, the individual may be diagnosed with excessive stress.  Post-traumatic stress syndrome is a condition attributed to individuals having an adverse psychological reaction to a highly stressful event.  It is characterized by depression, anxiety, flashbacks, recurrent nightmares, and hearing or seeing things that aren’t there.  Schizophrenia is another mental illness associated with hearing voices.  A schizophrenic individual may experience hallucinations or delusions.  Schizophrenics are characterized by a loss of contact with their environment and a disintegration of personality.  For many, hearing voices equals mental incompetence.

            There are, however, those of the thought that hearing voices is the special ability to tune into beings from another plane of existence.  Some people, referred to as sensitives, claim the ability to communicate with the deceased as well as inhuman spirits such as ghosts, guides, angels, and dark entities.  The voices may sound like an echo or emerge as sudden and unexpected thoughts.  Cases have even been noted where the voices appear as block print inside an individual’s head.  Some individuals can have conversations with the voices, while others can only listen.  Electronic voice phenomenon or EVP’s are sited by many as further proof of the existence of disembodied voices.  EVP’s are said to be at a frequency unintelligible to the human ear, but may be audible to some sensitives.

            “I knew the words couldn’t be real, but the sound of their voices still rang in my ears.  I clasped my fist to my ears, blocking out the insanity trying to move in,” from the young adult fantasy novel Island of Tory.  In the book, Arella Cline is haunted by the voices of her deceased parents after she is the sole survivor of a fatal car crash.  Island of Tory is due for release by Loconeal Publishing in March 2012.

Auras–Seeing Beyond the Physical

           Ever wish you could read someone’s mind?  What if you could glimpse inside someone’s heart?  Did you ever want to predict what someone was going to do, even before the thought ever crossed their mind?  Of course you have.  Who hasn’t?

            It sounds like something from a science fiction novel, however, there are real people who claim they can read a person’s thoughts and intents like you or I read a book.  They are clairvoyants who see auras.

            What is an aura?  There are many definitions, but most agree that an aura is a luminescent display of energy given off by living and nonliving things.  All matter is made up of vibrating atoms.  It is this vibration that produces the energy that some see in the form of glowing waves of color.

            The auras surrounding humans are composed of both high and low frequency waves.  The low frequency waves are related to body function, such as metabolism, circulation, DNA structure, etc.  The high frequency waves are related to thoughts, emotions, and intentions.

            Auras are not static.  They transform as a person’s body and mind changes.  Auras give warning of developing disease, predict thoughts before they are expressed, and foretell of secret intentions.  Auras are a person’s spiritual signature.

            Each color in an aura has a specific meaning and is a physical, spiritual, emotional, and mental fingerprint of the person it belongs to.  Purple is a very positive color that indicates spiritual thoughts.  It is never permanent, only flaring during divine moments of deliberation.  Blue represents a balanced existence.  Individuals who are relaxed and content display a lot of blue in their auras.  Turquoise is the color of a dynamic personality.  People with turquoise in their auras have a strong influence on others.  Green is a restful color.  Green in an aura signifies a natural healing ability.  Yellow auras correspond to feelings of joy, freedom, and nonattachment.  Halos depicted on saints in art are believed to be yellow auras.  Orange is the color of inspiration and power.  Orange usually goes hand in hand with yellow.  Pink is love.  Unfortunately, pink is rare and is usually a temporary thought.  All of the above mentioned colors are positive and would be found in various combinations in an optimistic, well-balanced individual.

            Unfortunately, there are also negative colors found in auras.  Red is a materialistic color.  It can represent anger and force.  Brown is an unsettling color, and is also a color found in auras representing materialistic thoughts or intentions.  Gray signifies dark and depressing thoughts.  Sulfer or mustard auras indicate pain or anger.  White indicates a serious disease or impending death, a lack of harmony in the body and mind.  Any one of these colors in an aura suggests an unhappy, unbalanced individual.

            Skeptics believe that auras may be seen due to brain injuries or disorders such as migraines, epilepsy, or synesthesia.  Vision problems or eye fatigue are also thought to be a possible cause.  And of course, drug abuse such as the use of LSD is also thought by some to be linked to auras.

            In my novel Island of Tory, Arella Cline begins to see auras after recovering from an automobile accident.  She later discovers that her father had also been a Seer during his time on Tory Island.  Arella’s ability to see auras allows her to know who are and are not her true friends on the island.  Island of Tory is due to be release in March 2012 by Loconeal Publishing.

The Cursing of the HMS Wasp

            The Irish are known for their superstitious nature.  They believe in blessings as well as curses.  From avoiding black cats and ladders to making the sign of the cross to ward off evil, the Irish have a long history of believing in the power of the supernatural.  The people of Tory Island are no exception.

            Tory’s history is full of mystical stories of blessed clay, magic water fonts, secret charms, and enchanted stones.  But most people believe the tales to be nothing more than folk legends, told to explain the inexplicable and amuse the masses.  However, one tragic incident is still rumored to be the result of a true Irish curse:  the sinking of the HMS Wasp.

            In September 1884, the HMS Wasp set sail from Westport, County Mayo to collect taxes and deliver eviction notices to Inishtrahull Island off Malin Head.  She was on course between Tory and the mainland when disaster struck.  Around 3:45 am, the Wasp hit the rocks directly beneath Tory’s lighthouse and sank to the bottom of the ocean in less than half an hour.  There were only six survivors of the fifty men onboard.

            Was the lighthouse lit?  Reports are mixed.  Some say the light was on, but was purposely turned off at the critical moment the Wasp passed by Tory’s shore.  Others claim the light was never dimmed.  A Royal Navy Court Martial concluded that the HMS Wasp was lost due to a lack of care and attention (her boilers were down, she was taking a quicker but more dangerous course around the island, and junior men were at the helm while senior officers slept.)  No one was singled out for blame, and the case was closed.

            However, rumors soon began to surface, and stories of Tory’s inhabitants invoking a curse against the vessel started to circulate.  Tory was known to have a Cursing Stone called Cloch na Mallacht or Cloch Thorai.  It was believed to be linked to St. Colmcille and the pilgrimage route around the island called An Turas Mor.  On the pilgrimage, islanders would visit various holy sites on Tory.  At the conclusion of their walk, they would turn the stone upside down, a quite benevolent act.  However, a curse was said to be invoked if the walk was done in a counterclockwise direction.  Many believe the islanders used the Cursing Stone to doom the HMS Wasp for fear that Tory would be its next destination for tax collection and eviction.

            Fuel was added to the fire when the Cursing Stone went missing shortly after the night of the Wasp tragedy.  Many theories abound as to the Cursing Stone’s whereabouts.  It may have been buried locally or thrown into the sea, but all that remains today is its pedestal, Cloch Arclai, and the mystery of the sinking of the HMS Wasp.

            In my young adult fantasy novel, Island of Tory, the legend of the Cursing Stone and the sinking of the HMS Wasp are the foundation stones of the plot.  Arella Cline, an American teenager, finds herself trapped on Tory Island.  The island and its inhabitants are stuck in time because the Cursing Stone was used against the Wasp and its crew.  Arella needs to journey An Turas Mor to reverse the curse.

            Island of Tory is set to be released March 2012 by Loconeal Publishing.  Like Island of Tory on Facebook or subscribe to this site for updates.

The Magic of Irish Stones

            Since man’s earliest time, he has relied on rocks for his very existence.  Humans fashioned their first tools from stone.  They learned how to build fires for cooking, warmth, and protection by striking sparks from stone.  Stone walls were the early artists’ first canvases.  Later, great buildings and cities were constructed of stone.

            Given man’s continued dependence on rock, it is little wonder that stones would evolve into man’s earliest symbol of divinity.  At first, stones were worshipped as a manifestation of God himself.  Later, stones were considered God’s dwelling place.  Megalithic monuments were erected for sacred ceremonies all over the world.

            These ancient stone shrines remain standing as a testament to man’s belief that there is power in rock.  In Chile, massive stone statues keep watch over Easter Island.  The pyramids in Egypt tower above the sands.  At Carnac in France, rows of monoliths stand at attention over grassy fields.  And most famously, Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England reminds us that early man was industrious and clever as well as spiritual.

            But stones from Ireland have long held a mystique of their own.  Myths abound of the supernatural power of Irish rocks.  One reason for Ireland’s strong belief in stone magic could be attributed to the Celts and their religious devotion to rocks.  Ireland boasts of the greatest collection of wishing and cursing stones anywhere in the world.  The famous Blarney Stone near Cork, Ireland is a perfect example.  The legend says that those who kiss the rock will be granted the gift of gab.  Many visitors to Blarney Castle risk bending over backwards to reach the stone with their lips in the hopes that a little luck will rub off.

            Tory Island is no exception to the Irish rule.  As small as this island is, it boasts two magical stones–the Leac na Leannán or Wishing Stone and the Cloch na Mallacht or Cursing Stone.  The Wishing Stone sits at the top of Balor’s Fort.  It juts out on a cliff 100m above the Atlantic Ocean.  A wish is granted to anyone who is brave enough to climb on top of it.  Anyone lacking such courage may also be granted a wish by successively throwing three stones onto its crest.  The Cursing Stone was located at the west end of the island, but it is now mysteriously missing.  It was part of a holy pilgrimage called the An Turas Mór.  The last time the stone was seen was in 1884 when it was allegedly used to curse the English tax ship the HMS WASP and cause it to wreck on the rocks of Tory.  Now all that remains is the Cloch Arclai, the cursing stone’s pedestal.

            In my novel, Island of Tory, I use the legends of these magical rocks to weave a tale of the possible consequences of the curse on the island and its inhabitants.  I imagine that the islanders are stuck in time because of their malevolent behavior.  Because they cursed, they shall be cursed, an Irish version of karma.

            Island of Tory is due to be released by Loconeal Publishing in March 2012.

Tory Island's Wishing Stone

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