Archive for June, 2012

Writing Australian Characters…Correctly.

 

Fellow Australians, I’d like you to think for a moment.

 

Who is the very worst Australian character you’ve ever seen (or read) in a movie or book? As in, they just don’t come across as an actual credible Australian.

 

 

I ask because this has been a topic of conversation this week on Codex Writers Group where a couple of (American) writers were asking for advice on Australian syntax and vocabulary. They did this in order to make their Aussie characters authentic. I cannot tell you how much I respect them for asking. Ok I can: I RESPECT THEM VERY MUCH!! Thank you, Rick – Thank you Darja! Thank you for asking and for listening.

 

 

As an Aussie, I’m probably as sick of wierdly redacted and contorted caricatures of Aussies in the media as Chinese people were of the kinds of “Ah so” characters we used to see so often in 50s, 60s and 70s movies.

 

 

Having said that, it’s not all that easy to write a character from a place or people group you’re not familiar with. And I have read writing (Kevin Ikenberry’s for example) that portrays Aussies with great accuracy. There have also been Australian characters in movies and TV which have been wonderful, simply because they’ve been scripted with “normal” lines and no ridiculous Aussie-isms such as “Cripes”, “ruddy hell” or “ain’t”. The Australian woman in the first Transformers movie comes to mind, as does the Aussie doctor in House. (Sorry I can’t recall their names off the top of me ‘ead, guv’na).

 

 

That guv’na comment leads me into the two areas where I think non-Australian writers/directors get Aussies wrong:

 

1.They present them as suntanned Cockneys (see the half-cockney, half-Aussie character in Tango and Cash, and the James Coburn character in The Great Escape, using words like ain’t and dropping their “h’s”)

 

2.They base their character on a redaction of the kinds of country folk that may (or may not) have existed in 1930s Australia. (Using words such as “Galah” and “drongo”)

 

A problem for non-Australians (who don’t know a lot of Aussies personally) is the ridiculous portrayal of “typical” Aussies in movies like the horrible Crocodile Dundee trilogy (which should have earned Paul Hogan permanent expulsion from Australia, lol), Baz Lohman’s abysmal Australia (ok, I’ve only seen a couple of scenes from it, but they were enough to make me physically ill), or Kangaroo Jack (very funny movie, but hopelessly inaccurate depiction of Australia).

 

I’ve rarely met a person who sounds anything like Mick Dundee or his mates. And they invariably annoy me, because they come across as trying to be Australian, instead of just being Australian.

 

 

A warning for writers about internet-based research: it’s often crap. Sounds obvious, I know, but it needs to be said. Apparently, some of the advice on the internet my writing friends received was that Aussies are fond of words like “Cripes”, “Crikey,” “Galah” and “ruddy” (as in “Get that ruddy car out of the way!”).

 

 

Aussies walking around saying “Cripes” or “Galah” or “ruddy” or even “she’ll be right” would be a little like an American walking around talking like they’re from a 1930s Chicago gangster movie, I’m guessing — a 1930s Chicago gangster movie written by South African teenagers in the 1980s! Anyone walking around south-east Melbourne where I live and saying things like “Crikey, you’re a ruddy galah, cobber” is seriously gonna get bashed for acting like a tool.

 

 

For reference (and in my humble opinion), most of the differences I can see between Aussie and American English these days are in intonation and a few vocabularly differences. Probably our senses of humour and irony too. A lot of us still call the “john” a “dunny”. We call erasers “rubbers” (which always seems to break Americans up over here — or horrify them when a schoolkid asks them for a “rubber”). Reckless drivers (or those who break the law in cars for fun) are called “hoons” (like loons but with an “h”). We seem to like finishing statements with an upward inflection, turning them into questions (and I did hear a linguistic term for this during the week, which I’ve promptly and helpfully forgotten!)

 

 

Once again, I respect my writerly friends for asking real life people for their advice. It made me more aware of my own need for feedback. When I write women, I need women to read the character and tell me where I’m stuffing it up. When I write Chinese characters (as I did with Kevin recently) perhaps I should be asking Chinese Americans or contacts in Singapore how the character’s coming off. None of us are immune to misrepresenting a person who is “different” to us…and this is just one reason why I love writing fantasty where I’ve invented the culture and nationality!

 

 

So please, writers who want a charming and quirky Aussie character in their next story: charming and quirky is fine, but pleeeeeeez get their language right!

 

 

….Oh, and about that question I started with? For me, the examples that come to mind are Ugly John on MASH, the Aussie bad guy on Tango and Cash, any Australian characters depicted by Bazz Lohman (or however you spell his name), our current Prime Minister Julia Gillard, and the entire constellation of characters in Muriel’s Wedding. And then there was the bloke who runs into the pub in a scene in the recent Tom Hanks series The Pacific, yelling “Hello Cobbers!” (SHUDDER).

 

AHWA SHORT STORY COMPETITION winners

 

Congrats to the Australian Horror Writers’ Association SHORT STORY COMPETITION winner Joanne Anderton with “Always a Price” and to the FLASH COMPETITION winner Shauna O’Meara with “Blood Lilies”. I look forward to reading both pieces in Midnight Echo.

 

Unfortunately for me, this means my story “Mud” (having not won) now begins the search for a new home.

 

“Mud” was shortlisted for Andromeda Spaceways last year but didn’t make the cut. It’s been knocked back from several other publications since, and I find that weird personally, because I think it’s a more polished piece (and a historically interesting one) than Night Music or The Bridge, both of which had no problem selling.

 

Perhaps it’s the length: at 6900 words, it’s a harder sell than a 3 or 4 thousand word piece. Anyway, it’s back to the drawing board for “Mud” as its author tries to decide between submitting to a magazine, anthology or perhaps another comp.

 

What’s Wrong with My Scene? Part 2

 

…in which I continue to repackage Alison Goodman’s scene diagnosis workshop. I attended this workshop a couple of weeks back with a half dozen other writers of varying experience. Alison’s purpose was to help us assess, tweak and fix our scenes for maximum scenely goodness. Let’s get right into the good stuff…

 

Another piece of helpful advice was around character point-of-view (ie., the character through whom we readers are experiencing the scene).

 

The answer to “Whose pov (point-of-view) should this scene be?” will be the same as the answer to “Who’s going to get the most ‘action’ in the scene?

 

Actually the question “Who will experience the most conflict in the scene?” might be even better. Imagine the pov character is observing two strangers brawling in a bar — not much action for the character, but she is in conflict because the fight might make her scared for one of the strangers, or it might surface memories of physical abuse, or make her despair about human nature (a theme in your story).

 

Once you’ve established whose scene it is, look at the beginning of the scene. What kind of energy is there (or “value” as Alison called it). Is it positive or negative? Is the character feeling vindicated after an earlier scene, glowing in the warmth of yesterday’s kiss, sad and angry that a friend just got killed by the giant robot? Then look at the end of scene: what’s the energy/value there?

 

If character walks in happy, do they walk out sad? If so, there’s been a shift in value from positive to negative. If they walk out happy, then there’s been no change in value/energy and often this can be a reason that the scene feels flat. It might be okay to keep an even value in a scene, but the most tension is where there’s been a shift in value either way + – or – +.

 

This made me think about those scenes (I know they’re out there – just can’t recall one) where the surface tone of a scene is happy happy happy, but the background tone is tense – where, for example, something is happening in the background or bigger picture which lets us viewers/readers know that the character’s living in a bubble and the bubble is about to burst. Though the value of the scene for the character himself is neutral, for the reader the tension is building. This might be a scene where a girl races to her iPad to check her emails, excited about her love interest’s declaration of love just yesterday, finds the love email there, reads it in a warm fuzzy bubble, sighs and writes her reply … All happy right? For her in that moment, sure. But we the readers just read the scene prior where Bobby her new love finished typing out his email to her, then hit send just in time to avoid his wife seeing it as she walks into his den. The tension in the next scene would mount as we feel sorrier and sorrier for our love-stricken girl. (By the way, that scene would work the other way around gender-wise too).

 

On the subject of characters (the people who populate scenes), our tutor also suggested reviewing the minor characters or “extras” in a scene carefully. Do they need to be there? Do they add to or detract from the energy and focus of the scene. In my novel Last Among Equals (currently under submission), I had a character Anselm who appeared later in the story. In draft three (when I was trying to chop 15,000 words from the manuscript), I realised I didn’t need Anselm. He wasn’t necessary to the plot, and his entire reason for being there seemed to be to carry a crossbow which he shot once before he got killed. Combing through all the scenes that he appeared in, I delegated all of his dialogue and action to other characters (and cut a lot of it out completely because it just wasn’t essential) before erasing Anselm from the story entirely. From memory, this not only made the story simpler and tighter, it cut almost 2000 words from the manuscript (and enhanced the roles of other minor players).

 

So putting this all together, I took a look at a scene from my current novel project. In the scene, the character Maria starts off nervous as she threads her way toward a rendevouz through her medieval town at midnight. She finishes the scene angry and despairing. So that sounds a negative-negative shift in value, or a neutral one. But I’m happy with the scene for three reasons:

  1. The intensity of her negative emotion ramps up during the scene. Her nervousness is not acute, because her town is reasonably safe at night. But her anger by the end is a much stronger emotion.
  2. Through an argument, she provokes the other character in the novel to becoming angry too … and this is an accomplishment because he’s normally an emotionally bland person. So his value shifts from tiredly matter-of-fact (neutral) to angry (negative).
  3. An outcast from her society, Maria draws hope in the middle of the scene that the other character is actually someone who still cares about her…only to then feel that he’s doing it out of duty not real concern, which leads to her anger and despair. So there’s a movement toward feeling positive which is then dashed – in other words, there’s a rise and fall in the value and the pitch of the emotion in the scene.

 

I hope for you writers out there that this has been helpful. Even in non-fiction and in articles, you can use these ideas to create an emotional tone and arc for your reader; I’d be interested in your ideas and feedback on that.

 

Well, happy writing and happy reading.

 

By the way, Alison’s site and books can be found here. Well worth the look!

 

See also:

 

What’s Wrong with My Scene? Part 1

 

I write this fresh off the back of a wonderful workshop facilitated by Eon author Alison Goodman . The concept was fixing scenes in your novel you sense aren’t working. Thought I’d share some of the gems I took away from it …

 

The first thing Alison talked through with us was the idea that a scene must contain ACTION that moves through (or entails) CONFLICT. Something has to happen. It can’t just be people walking from the bus to the front door if there’s no conflict, no change, or nothing driving the plot forward. You as a writer might be interested in Janee’s crossstitch technique as she sits by her window with a cup of tea on a rainy afternoon, or the colors Fred uses to paint his Warhammer figurines, but I dare say, few readers will be…

 

Now if Janee is kicking herself for letting her boyfriend dump her first and taking it out on the crosstitch — or Fred’s Warhammer figurines (is that the right word??) come to life, then THAT’s interesting! Because that entails conflict and drama. It’s the conflict that shapes the tension and vitality of a scene. That conflict will be one or more of the following:

  1. inner (e.g. needs versus desire; the comfort of the status quo versus the higher calling of ideals, faith versus feelings)
  2. interpersonal (conflict with a loved one, a family member, a friend)
  3. extra-personal (where the conflict is with something from outside the character’s inner circles: a villain, a society, an event, an environment)

 

We writers must be clear on what conflict(s) the scene contains (and what it’s there for). Once that’s clear, we craft an “action/reaction” cycle where characters do something (or the environment does something) and the others react. This action/reaction essences the conflict(s). Once there’s a kind of climax to the scene (and that could be as simple as one character running away and slamming the door, or a character shooting someone dead, or the interruption of a routine phone call), then the scene is largely over and needs to be exited asap.

 

There was another great point Alison made which I’ll dump here and then leave you to think through all this (if it’s where you’re at). The best writers play with their readers’ expectations during a scene (or a sequence of scenes).

 

This put me in mind of the wonderful scene in Tony Stark’s penthouse in The Avengers where Hulk and Loki confront each other. Loki launches into what I expected would be the typical Villain Monologue…and without spoiling the scene, the writers play with our expectations in a wonderful way. (And interestingly, once they do and that particular “conflict” is done, the scene’s over – they get the hell out of that scene as quick as they can without spoiling the moment).

 

So. If you’re a writer and you’re looking at a scene and wondering why it feels ikky, consider it using the ideas above:

 

  • what’s the conflict(s)?
  • where’s the action and what’s it accomplishing? Where’s it need tightening or tweaking or enhancing?
  • how does the scene climax and does it go on too long perhaps?

 

Happy writing.

 

1 June 2012: The Week in Review

 

Aye, it’s been a grand week for me, writing-wise. Finishing anything always gives me a great feeling of “Yeah, baby!” This week I’ve finished (finally) editing the 3rd chapter of my current novel project. But not only that, I got a short story written from scratch and polished and submitted to a competition, all in five days.

 

For this last, one I have a few people thank:

  • Lee Maston who made me aware of a thriller short story competition (weird thing is, the competition didn’t allow you to write anything related to crime, violence, swearing or danger…so I submitted it to another competition with double the prize money up for grabs! But thanks, Lee, for sparking this for me)
  • Ian, Rachel and Kev for very quick turnarounds on critiques. You three were so responsive, it kept the fire alive in me for the piece

 

Hopefully, come August 31st, I’ll be crowing about another publication! (And I’ll have some free copies in the mail to four of my friends).

 

This week, I also had one of those conversations with a teenager (in my day job) where I was both thankful for the normality of my own life and realising afresh that many people live in their own private hells day in and day out. My heart went out to a somewhat twisted but nevertheless courageous young person wrestling with being someone she could be proud in the midst of an insane family life. I was reminded afresh that we have the chance at any moment to add light and encouragement to someone’s journey, and I continue to pray that I remain switched on enough to do just that.

 

Happy reading, happy writing, happy days!