Take Care of Your Characters

Have you ever been writing a story and get the worst writer’s block? Maybe you simply can’t figure out where the plot should go or why your characters are even in the situation in the first place. If you’ve had this experience, don’t worry. You are not alone. (If you haven’t, then I am jealous of your talent.) A good method to use when you get writer’s block is to focus on your characters. The plot is definitely the main element of a story, but the characters have a huge impact on where the plot is going.

If you’re like me, then you can get caught up in all the plot details like how Person A and Person B will finally fall in love and be together or how the hero will climb out of the hopeless situation he’s been thrown into. These, along with many other types of plot details, rely on characters. If you can figure out what you want your character’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations to be, then you can figure out where your story is going.

One thing I like to do in order to keep everything organized in my brain and give me a visual aid is make character sheets. I compile a list of all the things I would want to know about my character. And this isn’t limited to a simple description like eye color, hair style, body type, and clothing. Although appearances can give certain clues to the identities of people, they do not tell the entire story. You can also list personality traits. What mood are they in most of the time? Give both the good and bad side of their character. Also, list some other random facts about them. What annoys your character to the nth degree? What can they simply not resist? What is their sense of humor like? What are their greatest fears? Do they have any deep, dark secrets? All of these attributes can affect your characters’ actions and therefore guide the plot of your story in a specific direction.

If you’ve got all this stuff down already, then maybe it’s time for a plot twist of some sort; you may need something unexpected to happen. Well, this may sound harsh, but to do this, you’ll probably need to put your character through a little (or a lot) of turmoil. But don’t be afraid to be mean to your characters. A lot of the time, the most influential moment in a novel or short story is when something negatively impacts the characters, especially the main protagonist. If they take something for granted, take it away, whether it be an object or a person. It will cause them to either change routes or test their commitment to a certain path. Maybe they have a belief or a certain someone or something they believe in. Make them doubt it. Make them confused. They may choose to seek out another truth or maybe they will overcome it and have a new, stronger faith. Remember their worst fears? Use them. They could fall in defeat or overcome it.

I used a couple of these methods when I was in one of my creative slumps as I was writing one of my fantasy stories. I specifically turned to my protagonist’s loved ones. My young, orphaned heroine had recently begun to form a positive and growing relationship with her newfound father figure and mentor, and she couldn’t have felt happier or safer with him. The plot grew to a standstill because the protagonist felt too safe and had no reason to move forward in her quest, so I decided that this was the time the villain should strike and take away this new safety from my heroine. I didn’t exactly kill the beloved mentor off, but I left barely enough hope for the heroine to hold onto so that she would have the motivation to continue her quest and fulfill her destiny in my story. Saving him and the goal of her quest became the same, so if she believed that she could save her mentor, then she would have the motivation to fulfill her destiny in completing her quest.

You can use these concepts and techniques to both develop your characters’ identities and push the story forward. Thinking about your characters, their actions, their beliefs, their fears will help aim the plot of your story in a certain direction. Without your characters, there would be no story.

Written by Taylor Hayes

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Why Do We Love Movies that Make Us Cry?

Why is it that we humans willingly submit ourselves to the pain of a sad story? We spend hours watching movies like A Walk to Remember and reading books like The Fault in our Stars, even if we already know the plot is going to end badly. Moreover, tragic characters themselves seem to have a certain appeal. We find ourselves secretly rooting for their redemption. Many times I have caught myself longing for the kind of story line that I have just mentioned, and it got me to thinking, “why?”

Tragedy has a special power over us. Writers create these stories because they know they can influence our emotions in ways that comedy may not. The most common tropes of tragedy – the death of a loved one, the loss of a relationship, or the character that is beyond salvation – leave every fiber of our being screaming out for something better, something happier. Because we are created in the image of Christ, the idea of perfection is ingrained deep within us. Our world is fallen, but our souls cry out for more. When we see something sad, we subconsciously know it isn’t meant to be like that; it’s a result of the eternal striving for heaven that God created in us. The typical reaction to tragedy is twofold: usually, we cry or get upset first because the inherent wrongness of the situation irks us to the core. Then, we seek change. We plot how the story might have turned out if the characters had just done this or that instead. For this same reason, when we do watch happy movies or read happy books, we feel a sense of satisfaction when the story has a happy ending.

The wonderful thing about literature, including tragedy, is that it mirrors the real world. However, in the real world, we do actually have some power to create change. There are some things that we simply cannot conquer in our fallen world, like death and sin, but we, unlike fictional characters, have the freedom of choice. We can learn from the mistakes made by these characters so that we don’t have to make them ourselves. This is why I think we continually submit ourselves to tragedy: it can inspire change. When a writer brings a problem to our attention that leaves tears running down our faces, we can and should do something about it.

Written by Taylor Hayden

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Letter to the Opinionated Writer

The Great Gatsby, written by the infamous F. Scott Fitzgerald, tells the lonely tale of a wealthy man: known by everyone, yet never truly seen. Nick Carraway, a pathetic lowlife who moves to New York in hopes of gaining popularity and fame, narrates the story, which is kind of unfortunate because his character is really annoying. At the beginning of the story, Nick goes to dinner with his cousin, Daisy Buchanan, the novel’s most high-maintenanced and selfish character. She and her husband, Tom, live in a rich neighborhood. Nick obviously doesn’t belong, but he is lucky because, by the grace of God, he is introduced to Daisy’s golfer friend, Jordan Baker, who Nick quickly titles “Lady Friend of the Week Award,” yet he never actually verbally admits to it. One would think that their acquaintance would be the highest point of action at this particular dinner party because, hello, he’s Nick, and she’s supposedly gorgeous and richer than rich can get. But then, Nick finds out that Tom is having an affair with some side-chick, Myrtle Wilson, and everybody knows about it, including Daisy. Still, nobody directly addresses the issue with Tom, and instead, they all continue about their extremely awkward, I-can-literally-see-the-tension-in-this-room kind of evening. Weird, right?

Then, a couple days later, Nick goes with Tom to visit this Myrtle character, which is extremely uncomfortable for everyone, and Fitzgerald really shouldn’t have put the experience in his book at all, but then again, he’s from Minnesota, so he’s probably accustomed to weird circumstances, don’t yâ knōw? Anyways, eventually, Nick, Daisy, Tom, and Señora Baker all end up at the most extravagant party, hosted by Mister Jay Gatsby himself. Well, it says that he hosted it, but literally nobody sees the guy until he very creepily and gently whispers “well, hey there, Old Sport,” into the ears of Nick, who is spending time with his “friend,” Jordan. Then, he asks to speak with Jordan alone, which one would think would leave Nick feeling pretty jealous because, if Nick and Gatsby were to get into a fist fight, we all know Jay would sock the “k” right off of the end of Nick’s incredibly unoriginal and over-used name. However, when Jordan leaves, Nick transfers all of his emotional energy onto Daisy, who we all know he secretly, but unadmittedly, has a crush on, and it’s like Jordan doesn’t even exist until she comes back to tell Nick about a secret love that Gatsby and Daisy used to share, which blows everybody’s mind and definitely gives the readers clarity on why Daisy acts like a complete and utter psychopath. And that’s pretty much all of the most important parts of the story, or at least, the only ones worth reading.

The end.”

Well, kind of.

It’s at least the end of a terribly long, and border-line offensive, example of a highly opinionated summary of Fitzgerald’s most popular piece of art. That’s right, the information above is in no way factual, practical, or acceptable for use by any of you hooligans looking for information to include in your own book reviews (I’m talking to you, highschoolers; just READ the book). In fact, the only purpose for the nonsense written above is to prove this point: personal opinions, while valuable and worth having, seldom have a place in academic writing. Even if one might think that Nick is the bratworst*, that information is not, in anyway, relevant to the events that actually took place in the story, unless the author specifically said so. Trust me, there are times when I, too, want to rip a story to shreds and tell my professor exactly what I thought about every character and event that took place, but I can guarantee you that there isn’t a single professor on this green earth who would have accepted the work above as a book review of The Great Gatsby without handing it back with some pretty stern, probably red, opinions of his or her own written on it, too. Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place when opinions are acceptable, even welcomed, in academic writing. Most professors love hearing about their students’ personal thoughts and perceptions of things; however, when those are what they’re after, they make it abundantly clear in their instructions. So, when you’re unsure if you should include personal opinions in your writing, look to your assignment sheets, syllabi, and Writing Center family to help you determine if doing so would be appropriate. In fact, consider taking an even bigger leap and ask your professor directly! Doing so will not only clarify what he or she wants, but it shows that you truly care about your work and want to succeed.

So, to the opinionated writers who have stuck with me this long, know that you are not alone. We’ve all been there, and it really is difficult to completely eliminate opinions from certain assignments, but it is possible, and the UWC is here to help.

* Brat•worst, (brätˌwurst): a play on words. Taking from the extraordinary vocabulary of The Karoline Faith Ott.

Written by Haley

P.S. I promise The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite books, and I respect Fitzgerald’s work with all of my being.

P.S.S. I have nothing against Minnesotans. All good things here.

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How to Become a Better Academic Reader

As a student, a large portion of my homework revolves around assigned, academic reading, and as an English major, that is increased tenfold. As much as I love reading, I don’t usually enjoy the topics I’m reading about in those assignments, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels this way. However, over time, I have discovered a few tips and tricks that have helped me with academic reading and to make it slightly less painful to endure.

One lesson about reading that I have repeatedly learned the hard way is to avoid procrastination. I’m sure we are all familiar with the mad dash to finish two weeks’ worth of reading in the space of one evening and promising ourselves we won’t put it off this long next time, only to repeat the same process the following week. The best solution to the problem of procrastination is to schedule out the reading over the course of the assignment time. If you have fifty pages to do in five days, do ten pages per night instead of all at one time. For people like me who may have trouble sticking to this schedule, I’ve found the best thing to do is to block out a chunk of time in the day to do that specific assignment and to not do anything else until the reading is done.

Another common problem that comes with reading textbooks is getting bored easily. The temptation to check my phone or talk with my friends increases exponentially with my distaste for the particular topic I’m studying. I can spend hours reading my favorite novel but, after five minutes of reading a history book, I have checked out completely. To help combat the boredom, I try to make the assignment fun for me in some way. Either I will reward myself for reaching certain milestone in the assignment (i.e. eat a piece of chocolate every time I finish a page), or I will choose colored pens or highlighters and use them to mark and annotate in my book. It seems like such a silly, little thing, but using the various colors gives the task a fun element that makes it more enjoyable. Whatever way you can come up with to help you enjoy the assignment will take some of the edge off of the monotony.

When I find myself struggling to focus, I will also sometimes take notes to help focus myself and ensure that I don’t miss anything. While this method may not work for everyone, some people may find it helpful for keeping their concentration. Also, similar to the highlighter technique mentioned before, making your notes colorful or artistic can be another useful trick in having a more pleasant experience. However, be careful to not get too caught up in the note making and lose focus on the actual reading. Do what you need to do to stave off boredom while still getting work done efficiently.

Because textbooks and academic reading are just a fact of life when we’re a students, we have to learn how to use them in a way that will best work for us individually. Whether you’re super artistic and make the most colorful and decorative notes or you prefer to go in cold turkey and read the whole book in one sitting, it’s important to make the experience the best it can possibly be. So, next time you have a reading assignment get out the gel pens, grab a bar of chocolate and ready your notebook. Happy reading!

Written by Taylor

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“Around the World in 80 Days” in One Afternoon

One of the best ways to relax after a long day of class is to read a good book, and Around the World in 80 Days is a delightful way to see the world from the comfort of your own home. Written by Jules Verne, this work has been beloved by many ever since its original publication in 1873. So here are a few quick reasons why you should definitely check it out:

Nostalgia. If reading Around the World doesn’t bring you back to your childhood love of adventure and imagination, I don’t know what will. Follow the stuffy, indubitably British Phileas Fogg as he bets his club members that he can travel all the way around the world within precisely eighty days. Joining Mr. Fogg are his French manservant, Passepartout, and a dogged but at times misguided agent of Scotland Yard.

It’s short. Clocking in at 159 pages, Verne portrays an infinitely charming and intriguing story without overwhelming the reader. You can knock it out in an evening or two!

Adventure. Duh. How can you say no to travel, especially on such glorious sources of transportation such as elephants and wind-powered sledges, or merry chases involving Sioux Indians, India Indians, angry Japanese circus masters, and a stuffy British detective? You can’t, I tell you.

Jules Verne’s one-liners. “Moreover, it is safe to say that, when Americans, so casual as a rule, show signs of caution, it would be the height of folly not to be cautious too.” Or “Passepartout stuck on the animal’s back and, receiving directly the full force of every jolt, was all the time trying to remember his master’s recommendation and to keep his tongue from getting between his teeth, as in that position it would have been bitten in two.”  Verne’s dry sense of humor gets better and better.

Delightful stereotypes. The antics of a certain hot-blooded Frenchman contrasted with cool, calm, and collected Phileas Fogg are incredibly entertaining, and the ensuing chaos from such a decided clash of cultures is hilarious. (Sidenote: is there anything Passepartout can’t do?)

Also: how do you pronounce “Passepartout,” you ask?

…Good question.

Phileas Fogg’s thought processes. “Oh, you don’t believe I can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days, old chap? Allow me to bet my entire fortune on the fact that I can, and knowing you have nothing better to do with your life and your money, you’ll take my bet.” He is literally surprised at nothing; unless of course his latest manservant in a long line of manservants brings his shaving water to him at 82 degrees instead of 84 – truly shocking.

Finally, Verne’s love for travel, technology, and other cultures comes to life in such a delightful and humorous way that one can’t help but laugh, smile, and go along for the ride. I promise you won’t be disappointed.

Written by Carilee

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