<![CDATA[Zoe Armitage - Blog]]>Mon, 14 Dec 2015 22:18:03 -0800EditMySite<![CDATA[Personality Quirks´╗┐]]>Mon, 14 Dec 2015 21:40:35 GMThttp://www.zoearmitage.com/blog/personality-quirksCurrent niggling problem: how to convey personality without intruding. Le Carré is superb at it. He’ll mention a button on a coat, or the way someone looks in a mirror, and give you tiny glimpses without ever mentioning what’s going on inside. He doesn’t need to – the glance, the buttons, do it all.

I need to self-slow. I tell my students to do that all the time – “Imagine me holding you back by your shoulders” – to give themselves time to shape the sounds they want to use. Take my own advice, eh? Yes. Slow down the dialogue, the action. Ignore for a time how things look, sound, smell to the character. She won’t be aware that she’s hesitated before the mirror just a micro-second too long. She will have forgotten about her buttons. (Unless she’s Margaret Thatcher, who obsessed over hers, and what a detail that is.) So those tiny behaviors noted by the narrator will add up.

One of my latest characters is Japanese. Female, in her late 30s, two middle-school children. What kinds of buttons does she wear? More likely, how does she drink her tea? Hesitate before returning a compliment?

Another is a much-loathed teenage girl – a queen bee – who becomes prey. When we perceive someone as a victim, no matter how obnoxious she’s been, we kind of want to help, yeah? Even when she’s been in our face for three long adolescent years… in other words, forever. But where’s the tipping point? The murmur of pain? The “help me” look in the eye? The catch in the voice? It’s not just our perception, it’s the deconstruction of a hidden facet of personality. The narrator does it in ways that – crossed fingers – alter readers’ perceptions (though not memory . . . hey, she’s still the witch who slammed our beloved protagonist) and evoke empathy.

Memo to self: slow, not tell.
<![CDATA[The Baddies, Again]]>Tue, 19 Aug 2014 15:06:32 GMThttp://www.zoearmitage.com/blog/the-baddies-again

Yeah, back to villains. You could say I’m obsessed.

I came upon a short newspaper interview – there’s an embedded video, as well – with Emma Donaghue, author of Room, Slammerkin and Frog Music. She explains why she’s drawn to stories with a great deal of darkness.

The how is what gets me. I think I’ve figured out a way to do it. Another way, that is.

First, you could know evil/psychopathy – because where do you draw the line, really? since dysfunctional brains produce stark and horrifying results – on a personal basis. You’ve experienced these people day-to-day or during a lengthy interview.

Second, read up on it. Lots of great nonfiction books out there dissecting crime and the people who do it.

Third way is to draw from within. Some writers say, hey, my foul characters, they’re all part of me! Maybe they’re telling the truth, maybe they’re scamming.

Then there’s this: Someone once said that the brain processes of criminals are straightforward and logical, they just derive from unacceptable premises (e.g., “I’m bored, I need entertainment, I’m entitled” – the top three excuses men in an Asian survey gave for why they rape). Keeping that in mind is incredibly helpful these days as I write about the indefensible actions of a man to whom other people are not important. Call it psychopathy, call it narcissistic personality disorder. This guy thinks, “I’m more important than anyone else, so when I want something, people in my way are a hindrance and can be shoved aside, if I can do it without getting caught”. Yeah, nice guy. I’m learning with each scene how to think like him.

It’s a lot like acting, including the need to de-role. Don’t want to find myself shoving other people aside, setting the bar low for my behavior.

I’m finding it’s sort of a costume. As it gets easier to slip on and off, so do the others. The refugee teenager with many sisters and a worried, strict mother. The BFF, an ex-pat in a culture quite different from hers. Less a question of how they think than what they value. What is their premise? Actions, words, secrets, all lead from that.

<![CDATA[Writing Villains]]>Mon, 02 Jun 2014 17:21:49 GMThttp://www.zoearmitage.com/blog/writing-villains
Villains are obnoxious and dreadful and lethal – yet we use them. They’re opposition for the protagonist, the shadow that emphasizes light. Readers root for their comeuppance or downfall. They can also be the subject of humor, like Roadrunner’s coyote. Sometimes they’re on a quest for self-improvement and redemption. Often, they stay irredeemable. The Mountain, for example, from Game of Thrones.

Writing gets tough with villains. They’re your characters, and it’s hard to see one (two, three, more) behave so terribly in the sandbox. You say, “Stop it, you’re hurting yourself, too, you know!” But do they listen?

There a theory going around right now that mean girls are the product of an unhealthy need never to be wrong. That their actions are not to bolster their cred or to humiliate others or gain points in some cosmic “name that baddie” contest, but because they fear being mistaken. I predict this theory will be pfff by winter. Remember when bullies were pitied because, oh, poor widdle ones, they must have sub-basement self-esteem? Then psychologists discovered that bullies’ self-regard was unreasonably high, not pathologically low. They thought too much of themselves, yes, they did – as any victim could have told you without a funded study.

No doubt the same will be found of rapists, most of whom are serial: their torture of others is about maintaining their own supremacy in twisted minds that equate other people’s pain, humiliation and terror with winning points.

When I write villains, I use the patterns set by people I know, or know of. One bully is much like another; sociopaths have a lot in common.

Not with us, the healthier people, but with other sociopaths (4% of the US population – that’s one out of every 25 people). Playing the “poor me” card is a sign. These are individuals who have the emotional intelligence of gnats, and all I do is tweak them a little to make them characters acting the way they always act, just in a story. Your corner psychopath. The knife-happy guy two doors down. The woman who keeps needling an acquaintance at work – you know, the one who’s into embarrassment and pain.

Other writers delve deep into their own psyches to design their villains – “what would I do if….?” – which I think is a signal to avoid those writers in the dark hallways of conferences. Maybe they actually are that ill. Maybe they’ll create a monster inside.

Actors are warned not to play too many bad guys, because their body actions (including menacing looks) can influence their own interior thoughts, much like Botox “freezes” empathy (and also makes it hard for babies to recognize their Botoxed moms). Why would writing be any different? Yes, it’s thought, but . . . not only do you write or type the words on the page, we now know the brain is plastic. Use the same pathways over and over, and the brain gets good at them. Works for violin-playing. Probably works with violence and manipulation, too, even if it’s all in the head.

So when you write, be wary of internalizing too much evil. Don’t make the mistake of bringing disturbed characters inside you. They’ll do more damage there than they will on the page. Empathize with them from a distance. Bad genes, bad brain chemicals, dreadful parents, a will to induce pain, past trauma unexplored, whatever.

They’re theirs, not mine. 

<![CDATA[Nonfiction Answers Questions. Fiction Asks Them.]]>Mon, 31 Mar 2014 16:15:21 GMThttp://www.zoearmitage.com/blog/nonfiction-answers-questions-fiction-asks-them“Science says the first word on everything, and the last word on nothing." - Victor Hugo

I enjoy reading nonfiction. My current book is Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2007). I like writing nonfiction, too. Blogposts are a form of nonfiction. Longer than tweets, briefer than all but the very thinnest short stories.

Nonfiction answers questions you didn't even know you had. What is the relationship of various brain sections to the facility of reading, how have our brains evolved to encompass different types of symbols, do Chinese readers’ brains differ from those of English readers? When children have trouble learning to read, what parts of the brain are responsible? How can teachers work around faulty brain synapses?

Nonfiction writers answer those. Especially Wolf.

But fiction ... ah, fiction. It poses the “what if?” questions.

What if, in a far-off land, a struggle for power encompassed multiple noble houses while the countryside itself was under threat from an unseen and barely believable source? The Game of Thrones series.

What if a quiet boy who had tried to commit suicide met wacky thrill-seeker classmates who made him feel valued? The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

What if . . . and then what if . . . and if later . . ..

Meanwhile, the reader goes back and forth between the scenes on the page – hey, old-school, paper only – and the scenes in her head, not only of what is described but also of what she has seen and experienced in her own life. Compare and contrast. Better, worse, entirely new, old as the hills. 

And what would she say in that character’s place?

Reading fiction raises a slew of questions – the writer’s, the reader’s – in a never-ending series of what-ifs, even after the last word.

Even better, and unsurprisingly, with all that what-if going on, reading stories improves brain function. 

Take that, nonfiction-only fans.]]>