Hope & Joy in a Classic Tale

By Janice McCaffrey      a christmas carol

While pondering the upcoming holidays my stream of consciousness meandered over past memories and future dreams. A few quiet moments of reflection led of course to Dickens’ ghosts.  My favorite version is The Muppet Christmas Carol with Michael Caine.

I love the little mice bookkeepers working dutifully and diligently in the cold office under the supervision of the kind-hearted Bob Cratchit performed by Kermit. Best of all though is the interplay between Rizzo the Rat acting as sidekick to Gonzo while he narrates the story as Charles Dickens himself.

My thoughts bumped over the moral of the story and what it means in today’s world. I got stuck on ‘don’t be stingy’ but wanted more. So what else is Dickens telling us?

On enotes.com’s website where they proclaim “We’re the Literature Experts” I found an article by Christian Themes (literary essentials: Christian fiction and nonfiction) titled     A Christmas Carol Themes. Let me paraphrase:

Scrooge’s initial penny-pinching reflects the values taking hold during the Industrial Revolution. Dickens illustrates what happens when individuals view relationships and other people through their financial worth. The author exposes the tremendous gap between the rich and the poor.

Then he illustrates a solution, individual redemption. The world becomes a better place almost immediately after Scrooge changes his outlook. The story implies that a renewed connection to humanity is, in fact, the very essence of redemption. His change is not introspective and personal; it is outward-looking and social.

While the results of Scrooge’s change didn’t alter the social structure itself, the compassion he showed to individual people did change the social relationships they shared. Despair turned to hope. isolation to belonging, and unhappiness to joy.

Wow! And I thought it was just fun to watch.

Yes, it’s a Christian based tale, but certainly can be applied to all of us no matter our beliefs. Let’s follow Scrooge’s example, enhance our relationships, and join Tiny Tim in his prayer.

tiny tim 2

 

“God bless us, every one!”

 

Besides Having More Money: The Rich in Fiction

By Karen Wills

There’s a famous, though perhaps apocryphal, exchange between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald says, “You know, the rich are different from you and me.” Hemingway responds, “Yes. They’ve got more money.”

I’ve been pondering wealth and its effects and just how authors have depicted very rich characters in fiction. Pat Barker’s novel, The Silence of the Girls, silence of the girlsis set during the Trojan Wars with characters out of Homer’s Iliad. One of her characters, Agamemnon, is a nasty, boundary-ignoring king who never learned to share. He possesses vast wealth and vast power. He takes Briseis, a high-born captive woman awarded by the army to Achilles, away from him. He is brutal to Briseis, lacks honor in his dealings with Achilles, mistreats the powerless, and lies to his soldiers. But he pays a price in his greatest hero Achilles’ refusal to fight,  the scorn of his Greek officers, and the costs of prolonged war. Although we don’t see it in Barker’s story, which centers on Briseis, Agamemnon comes to a bad end in spite of all his gold, concubines, and power when he returns home to his wife.

Move ahead to Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Jane Eyre, in which a plain governess discovers that the wealthy, brooding, yet attractive master of the mansion has a mad wife kept in the attic. It appears to Jane that our tortured hero is an innocent victim of fate. jane eyreBut wait, in the sixties another British author, Jean Rhys, started puzzling over the madwoman. The result was a new novel, The Wide Sargasso Sea. Since reading it neither I, nor many others, have been able to see Mr. Rochester as anything but a money and power-hungry monster. His naïve first bride loses freedom, fortune, and sanity at the hands of this now rich and powerful villain. He even eventually gains smart, loving, caring Jane as his wife. But before that, the madwoman/victim inflicts some serious damage of her own.

Now back to F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, that story of wealthy scofflaws pursuing an amoral version of the American Dream. I’ll focus on Tom Buchanan, great gatsbyborn into the upper class with an ego-fed sense of entitlement and an Agamemnon-like disdain for those less privileged. When Tom’s wife commits a hit and run, he buys them out of trouble that threatens to upset their lives. As the story ends, fate hasn’t seemed to exact a price for his corruption and carelessness with the lives of others. But I take comfort in the fact that The Great Gatsby was written and set in the mid-twenties. We all know what happened at the end of that decade.

These three characters, arrogant and immoral, are three different authors’ depictions of the very rich, written and set in three different time periods. They tend to be villains and authors find them useful antagonists. I’ve been trying to think of any wealthy character who challenges these recurring character types.

Can you think of any?

river with no bridge

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What Our Characters Keep

By  Karen Wills

“All these items you’re safeguarding are, in essence, the relics of your life’s defining moments.”                   Chip and Dan Heath, The Power of Moments

Authors can depict and clarify fictional characters by their keepsakes. Sometimes such objects are discovered and loved in a protagonist’s childhood because they’re connected to influential adults.

overstoryIn Richard Powers’, The Overstory, Nick Hoel, destined to become an artist, is fascinated by a series of photographs taken every month since 1903 of the sentinel chestnut on his family’s farm in Iowa. He keeps the stack of photos intact throughout his life which becomes as singular as the chestnut itself. The tree and the photographs ultimately shape Nick—his values, his devotion to one woman, and his fate.

In another of my favorite novels, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, gentleman in moscowthe aristocrat Count Alexander Rostov is sentenced during the Russian Revolution to life under house arrest in the Metropol, Moscow’s most luxurious hotel. Moved to a cramped attic room, he must choose only a few possessions to take with him. One choice is a portrait of his deceased younger sister, Helena. He loved her, and her portrait also evokes memories of Idlehour, his family’s country estate. He associates the painting with his idyllic boyhood as part of a refined, privileged, and noble family. The siblings’ history shows the foolishness and sometimes cruelty of the old life as well. Both Helena and Idlehour are part of the beloved lost past. But our charming Count might still have a most surprising future.

In Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, thirteen-year-old Theo rescues a precious painting following a terrorist attack on the museum where the work by the Dutch master Fabritius is part of an exhibit. The attack leaves Theo’s mother dead. He carries the little painting with him for years, never revealing that he has it. Its beauty sustains him through grief, loneliness, and one of the most interesting friendships ever created by an author. At the novel’s end, he ponders everything that has happened, and realizes that he kept the painting first and foremost because it is so touching and exquisite.

goldfinchHe thinks, “And I add my own love to the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them…while passing them along literally from hand to hand, singing out brilliantly from the wreck of time to the next generation of lovers, and the next.”

What our characters choose to keep safe can help define them. If we accept that a bit of ourselves exists in each of our characters, perhaps their keepsakes help define us, too.

river with no bridge

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Time Travel

By Janice McCaffrey

I’ve been captivated with the idea of time travel as far back as I can remember. According to Wikipedia, stories of time travel date back as early as 3rd century Greece. In our day the idea was popularized by H. G. Wells’ novel Time Machine. Since then there have been many versions using a multitude of techniques to transport characters between places and times.

Following Wells’ lead Bill and Ted used a phone booth to travel through their                excellent adventure. Marty used a De Lorean sports car with its flux capacitor driven engine to get Back to the Future. The TV show Quantum Leap used a quantum accelerator that emitted blue lights and smoke. It shuffled a scientist to and from places and times where he could prevent incidents that would have catastrophic repercussions on the future.

Some authors use objects or talismans to transport their characters. Somewhere in Time tells the story of a young reporter who is to interview an eighty-plus year old actress in an historic hotel. While awaiting her arrival, he sees her photograph from sixty-years earlier and falls in love with her. He longs to go back in time. Then with an old coin in his hand and in the room she stayed in on her first visit, he falls asleep. When he wakes it’s the day, sixty-years earlier, the young actress arrived at the hotel. And the romance begins!

Other fictional characters have used portals found in a wardrobe, mirrors, bridges, water, walls, children’s bedroom closets, and video games. Think Chronicles of Narnia, Monsters, Inc., and The Matrix.

Vortices (plural for Vortex) are areas known to either draw energy out or pull energy into the earth. Sedona Arizona is famous for the strong vortices in the surrounding area. Resorts advertise the health benefits of the energy exchanges that take place there. And I’ll bet folks with strong imaginations attempt journeys to the past or future. I know I would.

How does one find a vortex? You could visit one of the many roadside Houses of Mystery. Or, websites explain that a person can use their inner-sensitivities to feel the energy pulsing through their bodies. However, there is scientific equipment that can help. It seems that a strong radio-active field is at the center of a vortex. The military has electromagnetic field meters to locate vortex energy. Then a Geiger counter’s response gives a weak or strong reading. So using an EMF with a Geiger counter a person can locate the precise center of a vortex; and just maybe a portal to another place and time.

Characters travel willingly or accidently finding themselves in an unfamiliar place and/or time. Depending on the plot, some characters could experience both. And that leads to the question of how to return a person or animal to their original location and date. Again it’s up to the writer; talismans, machines, portals, vortices, anything a person can think up.

Are there any rules for time travel? Can or should a traveler change events in the past to affect the future? Can a person travel at will or do they need an exact place or time to aim for? Can the passenger of a time machine control where and when they arrive at a destination – in either direction? Can a person land in parallel universes of the same time period? Can a time traveler choose to stay in the past or future or is their return mandatory? Can a person feel physical and/or emotional reactions as they pass through centuries? The protagonist in Elan Mastai’s All Our Wrong Todays (2015) has these decisions to consider.

Based on scientific facts and past experiments, traveling through time is not possible. But based on creative authors it can be done with or without rules and through whichever method they choose. The unknown adventure of time travel is a wonderful gift to writers. We can create situations, methods, choices, and consequences for our characters without parameters.

I still haven’t figured out how Marty got back to the future, but I am having a fun adventure creating time travel experiences for my characters.

 

What’s in a name?

By Janice McCaffrey

According to Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint (2010) characters’ names have “many associations” for readers. Surnames signify ethnicity and family connections. Given names can identify where and when a character was born. A name can help with the character’s physical description or hint at their personality. (pgs. 54-55)

So how do authors choose names for their characters?

Dickens is probably the most famous for creating names that convey a character’s looks, personality, or place in society. In Bleak House Mr. Nemo is an unkempt looking man who owes six-weeks rent, has no friends and is found dead from an opium overdose. Accident or suicide? No one knows for sure. When readers are told that nemo is Latin for ‘no one’ they understand that people did not acknowledge him. And learning it was not his legal name tells them how he felt about himself.

Icelandic storytellers refer to historical figures that same way. A prime example is a woman in one of the sagas whose name is Aud the Deep Minded. Then from other sagas there’s men known as Helgi the Lean and Bork the Stout.

Card advises that authors vary the first letter, number of syllables and sounds of characters’ names in a manuscript. The example he gives is how “monosyllables like Bill, Bob, Tom, Jeff, Pete lead to boredom and confusions.” But he also cautions against using “a lot of flamboyant, bizarre names unless that’s an important part of the story.” (pg. 56) Of course, when writing historical novels authors can and should use full names of real people. However, that does get confusing when families have used the same given name for two or more generations.

Anyone who has read a Russian novel will understand another of Card’s points. Simplify characters’ names and use only one name per character. I find stories easier to read and identify with their characters when I can pronounce their names. Easily knowing and remembering who’s who also helps. Not like Anna Karenina where her husband is Alexei Alexandrovitch Karenina and her lover is Alexei Kirillovich Vronsky. I’ve wondered why Tolstoy used the same given name.

Then I read the Introduction in a Barnes & Noble edition (2013) written by Amy Mandelker. She says that one of the themes throughout the novel is mirror images. Besides Anna’s two men having the same names Anna itself is a mirror since it is spelled the same frontwards and backwards. Her maid is Annushka which is a nickname for Anna. The daughter’s name is Annie and Anna adopts a protégée by the name of Hannah which is the Hebrew form of Anna. Tolstoy knew how to get the most out of a name!

Another suggestion from Card is not to have all the characters in a story have names that “mean something” . . . unless it’s an “allegory and [you, the author] deliberately want them tagged with symbolic names.” (pg. 56) My comment to that is if the meaning  of the name is important to the characters’ back story or description be sure to include the meaning some way or other to inform your reader.

As we search for creative names for our characters we should remember that over the years, for better or worse, characters’ names have become part of our cultures’ mindset. Thanks to Dickens we know that a person who is selfish and/or doesn’t like the Christmas Spirit is a Scrooge. Hearing the phrase “Double Oh Seven” conjures up a picture perfect version of Ian Fleming’s James Bond. (For me that will always be Sean Connery). How about Norman Bates, Jo March, Darth Vader, Lolita or Mr. Darcy? Novelists have given us characters whose personalities and deeds will never be forgotten. A challenge to every fiction writer.

What’s in a name? Evidently a lot!!