Thursday, September 26, 2013

Does "Likability" Matter?

Often when you're reading a book, whether or not you 'like' the character makes a big difference on whether or not you 'like' a book. In the end, personal preference is always important. But do we get too caught up in this 'likability'-- on either end?

Authors Moshin Hamid and Zoe Heller attack this question from either end, and I think both of their points are, well...poignant.

In their article "Are We Too Concerned That Characters Be 'Likable'?", Hamid and Heller look at what makes a book, based on its characters, likable. Hamid states, on the one hand, that finding 'nonlikability' as an unacceptable flaw is in itself incorrect.
"I confess" he states, "I read fiction to fall in love. And in fiction, as in life, characters don’t have to be likable to be lovable."
This is an indelible truth that I think many readers miss. Yes, we read to escape, or to learn, or to be entertained. I for one don't like graphic or scary movies (or books, for that matter) because I don't find them entertaining. They aren't likable. But there are some instances where I can appreciate a certain style or character that I maybe don't like because I can see the artistry behind it. In my own experience, this happened the most clearly with The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen starts out the book as a 'likable' character. In fact, you love her. You want her to win. You want her to survive and be the hero and save the districts.

By the end of the second and throughout the third book, I really didn't like Katniss. She was, in the end, emotionally and psychologically harmed and twisted by the events that had taken place to her. She wasn't perfect. She didn't have all the answers. She was downright annoying at times. But who wouldn't be, faced with what she had to face? I was flabbergasted, and in fact I was impressed with Suzanne Collins for not only tearing down the 'heroism' of her heroine but also taking the honest, true-to-life approach that so many fiction writers can miss. It's like losing the forest for the trees. If you're writing a fantasy or a fiction, you want it to be believable, real. You want your readers to step into your world and see it as possible.

And if it isn't realistic, then they aren't going to find it easy to believe. Done.

On the other hand, Zoe Heller attacks the idea of making 'likeability' an option rather than something to seriously consider. She states that:
"I grew a little uneasy, though, when in subsequent Internet discussions a consensus seemed to emerge that caring at all about “likability” was an embarrassing solecism, committed only by low-rent writers and hopelessly na├»ve readers. This struck me — and strikes me still — as faux-highbrow nonsense."
Liking a book or a character does not mean that they aren't deep. You don't need sardonic, cynical, moody characters all the time. You don't always need a commentary on the faults of the world or of humanity, life, the universe, and everything. And sometimes you'll lose your readers if you don't cater to their desires-- a desire to learn something, to escape, or to be entertained. If all you do is tick them off or make them feel bad about themselves and life in general, you're not going to get very far. To Heller the idea of whether likability is a successful factor or not is very similar to Hamid's idea about 'realism'. Heller declares that the importance of a character is whether or not they're "alive". When your character breathes and has a beating heart and sweats and bleeds, they can be likable even if they're deplorable. You know those villains we 'love to hate'? They're alive.

Heller sums up this argument by using Shakespeare as an example of likability:

"It’s not necessary to “like” Hamlet, but if we’re so repelled by his treatment of that sweet girl, Ophelia, that we withdraw all sympathetic interest in his dilemmas, then the play is unlikely to mean much to us."
Ok. That's pretty clear.

So the issue of "likability" is more a point of whether your characters, your book, is alive or not. If it's too perfect, it doesn't seem real. If it's too imperfect, no one will like it (or your reader base in either case will be so small as to be pretty meaningless anyway. Then again, John Updike is considered a classic American author. Well, there's no accounting for taste.)

Make your characters real. Make them live. And if that means making them do horrible things sometimes, do it. If it means making a hero who never gives up, do it. But don't tie your flag to either one side or the other.

In everything, a healthy dose of moderation...

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Fresh Air, Fresh Words

I've begun writing again this last week (thank goodness!), and so when I stumbled across this poignant article this morning, I felt it rather apt for the day.

How many of us write indoors, at our computer, surrounded by walls and ceiling and distractions in the way of Facebook and email and instant messaging?

How many of us suffer from an inability to really concentrate when we're working?

Carol Kaufmann of the New York Times penned "Time to Write? Go Outside", an article all about the research done on how fresh air and natural environments aid the brain when working.

Of course when you really think about it, this makes perfect sense. It's been scientifically proven that sunlight and vitamin D do more than just help our brains think-- it's good for your overall mood as well. Fluorescent lights (and a lack of sunshine and fresh air) have actually been linked with forms of mild depression and even eye strain. There's no substitute for a natural environment and some good old R&R.
"Back in the 1970s, two pioneering environmental psychologists, Rachel and Stephen Kaplan, began investigating nature’s healing effect on the mind. Decades later, their studies concluded that connections with nature could help us shirk mental fatigue, restore drifting attention and sharpen thinking. Even in an urban environment, a little green stimulates our senses, they report."
In addition to that, though, Kaufmann points out several compelling arguments in favor of natural scenery as a benefit to creative thought. When indoors we're surrounded by a million and one different distractions and tasks that we can't get our minds off of...not really anyway. The only way to escape, to focus, is to get out somewhere, where it's just you and your thoughts and your senses.

"The author and journalist Richard Louv has thought a lot about technological distractions: 'easier to write outside not only because of nature’s direct impact, but because of the absence of so many distractions, most of them technological.' [Nothing is harder than] writing with only a partial mind, because our mind lies in too many different realms...Bad handwriting can always be transcribed; jumbled thoughts are a devil to untwist."

Kaufmann describes that
"Nothing coaxes jumbled thoughts into coherent sentences like sitting under a shade tree on a pleasant day. With a slight breeze blowing, birds chirping melodies, wee bugs scurrying around me and a fully charged laptop or yellow legal pad at hand, I know I’ll produce my best work."
I for one am inclined to agree. I never feel calmer, more relaxed, and more mentally stimulated than when I'm deep in the mountains or surrounded by trees. It's like I can feel myself taking root in the air and color around me, drawing from a rather sublime understanding that I am incredibly small, leaving plenty of room for my wrangling story or thoughts to grow in.
"Nature immersion also helps us feel alive. Another series of studies published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2010 concluded that being in nature made people feel energetic and less lethargic, all essential ingredients for writing stories that exude telling details and narrative tension. After all, you just can’t tell a good story when half asleep."

This is because our mind is made up of so much more than grey mushy matter. Why do you think you can write better when listening to music, when lying on an incredibly soft blanket or curiously textured carpet, when smelling a delicious waft from the kitchen or cafe next door, while snacking? It's because the brain is as integrally tied to our senses as our body, and the body will invariably help the mind work better. Sound, visual triggers, scent, touch, taste-- all of these help focus or even inspire the mind.
"'Most people think of the mind as being located in the head,”'writes Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses, 'but the latest findings in physiology suggest that the mind doesn’t really dwell in the brain but travels the whole body on caravans of hormone and enzyme, busily making sense of the compound wonders we catalogue as touch, taste, smell, hearing, vision.'"
Do you have a hammock? A patio? A wheelbarrow? Get your pad of paper or your portable laptop and go outside. Get fresh air. See the sunlight for the first time all week. Stretch out under a tree or in your favorite porch bench and let your mind focus on something other than technological barriers or indoor distractions. Look out into the sky and image how far it is you're actually seeing. All those miles and light years and vast spaces.

Now fill it up. Write.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Two Weddings and a Con


You know that whole, getting back on the horse and writing after the 4 month unintentional hiatus thing I talked about, oh, two months ago?

Well, it's been six months. Still haven't written anything.

 The face of guilt. I have it.

I have a good excuse though (I feel like someone's staring at the back of my neck when I mention excuses. Maybe it's my conscience)-- this is the month of Two Weddings and a Con.

Maybe I could write a book about it. Hm.

It sounds catchy, no? But really, it's two weddings, two conventions, and two rather important birthdays.

Then bam, out of nowhere I stumble across a new song that lasts only about 2 minutes. And I have an idea for a scene in the book I'm working on right now.

A scene that, in all of however many pages it will take (no more than five or so, I suppose) could launch into its own spin-off book.


At the moment, I have a twist-fairytale to finish writing and a final novel in a trilogy to start and complete. I have enough on my plate at the moment, but it's there in my mind, lurking as a possibility.

All my writer companions-in-arms: do you ever feel like writers have to be slightly off in the head? We have multiple peoples living in our minds and we delve into alternate possibilities and worlds in an attempt to make them as real as possible.

No, I don't need a straight jacket.

So the writing begins again! Prepare yourselves, mortal readers, for Ming the Merciless will come down upon you with magnificent myths.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Amazon Again and the Struggle of Japanese E-Readers

So if a company has the best product at the best price and has a motto of providing “Every book ever printed, in every language, available to buy in 60 seconds,” is it a bad thing for them to have a monopoly?

To everyone who has been struggling with the growing Amazon tycoon, yes, this is a bad thing. Small eReader makers, small publishers, and small xyz have been fidgeting under the reign of Amazon's growth for the past several years, and with the big rain forest of cheap media and materials showing no sign of slowing, the news has been fragrant with mentions of the online shopping database.

First Europe, trying to ban the website. Publishers doing sketchy deals with the price platforms. And the latest-- Japan struggling with their own companies as Amazon grows in Asia.

Joshua Hunt reported in his article "Japan’s E-Reader Industry Struggles to Keep Up as Amazon Takes the Lead" that the Kindle e-Reader
"quickly became Japan’s top-selling e-reader, gaining 38.3 percent of the market, according to the MM Research Institute, a data firm in Tokyo. Even though Rakuten’s Kobo had beaten Kindle to market by nearly five months, it grabbed only 33 percent of Japan’s e-reader sales during the same 12-month period. Sony, which had stated its goal of selling half of all e-readers by 2012, managed to hold only 25.5 percent with its devices."
"In Tokyo’s Jimbocho neighborhood, famous for more than 100 years for its used and specialty bookshops, Hiroshi Kobayashi of Komiyama Books said customers sometimes used their smartphones to snap photos of books they planned to download later. Still, he said that he didn’t consider the Kindle a threat to his livelihood — yet."
 Used book stores are for the purpose of not only finding a deal, which Amazon is taking over, but for finding classics and treasures that you can't get online. And until online browsing finds a way to replicate that for the masses (as opposed to online auction halls for the truly unique and rare), used bookstores will likely remain at least largely untouched, if not entirely unsinged.