Beastie

First off, two appearances: If you’re in the area this Saturday, I’ll be signing at the Chappaqua (New York) Children’s Book Festival. I’ll be there all day, so there will be plenty of time to chat.

And in the evening on October 26th, I’ll be conducting a writing workshop and speaking at the Blue Water Convention Center in Port Huron, Michigan.

Details for both are on the Appearances page right here on the website. I would love to see you!

And let me mention for future planning for SCBWI members, that I will be conducting a two-and-a-half hour workshop in writing fantasy on Saturday, February 3rd at the SCBWI national conference in New York City.

Onto the post!

On September 8, 2017, Aster wrote, I wrote down an odd dream I had the other night, and I’d be interested in expanding it. I read Ms. Levine’s post on expanding fragments (she gave advice including delving into character- thought, feeling etc.). However, I do not think that some of those tips apply because the story is written from the point of view of a monster (more of a fictional animal), and I worry that by elaborating on thoughts and feelings beyond threatened, angry, submissive, etc., would make the character too humanesque.

Any thoughts? 

I asked for clarification, and a dialogue followed with Christie V Powell.

Christie V Powell: Have you read the Eragon books? I think it”s the last one where the narrative jumps to the dragon”s POV for a couple chapters. She still feels alien in her thought process yet you can relate to her as a character.

I also suggest looking at some of Temple Grandin”s books, like ANIMALS IN TRANSLATION. Temple Grandin uses her autism to describe how animals perceive the world. I tried to use the principles when my MC uses animal form– she is less flowery, doesn’t use names, notices details and especially contrasts, is afraid of sudden movements, etc.

For expanding ideas into plots, I play around with several ideas. If it started as a dream, I’ll daydream with it, just playing around and seeing how long I can make it last. If that goes well, I ‘ll jot down as much of the dream and daydream as I can remember. Some of the characters have depth but others are cardboard cutouts or change throughout. Then I’ll come up with a fluid plot line. I do a lot of brainstorming, some lists, and some stream of consciousness. I also like to cheat and look at THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS by Christopher Booker, which gives some potential plot structure ideas.

Aster: Thank you so much for the suggestions. To clarify- I was wondering how to expand the story fragment without giving the animal/monster human qualities- like intricate thoughts and feeling other than primal instincts.

Christie V Powell: It seems like it might be tricky to have a pro-active protagonist that way– a character who reacts as well as acts. Nowadays, proactive characters are preferred, although I’ve read a few who aren’t, like WHITE FANG (Jack London ).

I admire Christie V Powell’s loose, relaxed methods for generating ideas, which Aster and all of us can use to turn our idea germs into full-blown books (not diseases!).

And I love the suggestion of looking at the writings of Temple Grandin. I haven’t read her books, but I have heard several of her interviews, which may be available online, and through them have glimpsed inside a unique mind.

Many years ago, I read a book called CREATIVE DREAMING by Patricia Garfield (high school and above). One of the things I learned and have tried a few times is to set the stage for dreams while I’m still awake. For example, we can think about a plot problem as we’re drifting off, and we may dream a solution. Aster might re-imagine her dream, and the dream might extend itself when she falls asleep. It can take a few nights for this to work, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all, but it’s fun to try. Have any of you done this?

Another book to look at is GRENDEL by John Gardner–high school and up–which is a retelling of BEOWULF from the monster’s POV. And one more: NOP’S TRIALS by Donald McCaig (not sure–may be okay for middle school). I remember only the dog’s POV, but I just looked online and see that his owner’s POV is in there, too. As I recall, there is nothing cutesy about the dog’s POV in this book.

These books are real achievements, because, in my opinion, it’s difficult to write from the POV of a character who is so different from us humans. One difficulty, I’d say the major one, is that readers may have trouble entering the MC, whose actions and reactions aren’t explained through complex thoughts, feelings, and speech–unless Aster’s creature does speak. We also don’t know if he–I’m making him male, but he may not be–understands language. Regardless of the difficulty, I think it’s worth trying. It’s always an interesting challenge when we limit our resources. In this case, we’ll probably have mostly action to work with.

But action isn’t possible without some level of thought. So we should spend a little time thinking about how he does think. In words? In pictures, as Temple Grandin believes (if I remember correctly) that animals and autistic people do? In sound, maybe? In colors–how cool would that be!

How can we create sympathy, if that’s what we want? This is a version of how to make a character likable. We need to use everything we can think of, his name, for example. We’ll have a different initial response if his name is Snarl than we will if it’s Purr.

We can make him save someone right at the beginning, which will prejudice the reader in his favor.

We can use the humans around. Our creature can cause speculation and misunderstanding in his observers, which could be funny–or sad. People can perceive a threat when none is intended. This can escalate; first the creature can be in danger, and then everyone can be. The reader will care.

We can learn a lot about him from his reactions and from the acts he initiates. For example, does he hide from people or go toward them? Does he respond to different people differently?

To develop a plot, we can have him want something. Then we can frustrate his desire and see what he does. We can create obstacles and have him make mistakes or bad choices in the course of going after whatever it is.

Or we can put him in a terrible situation and not let up. Again, he can make mistakes. We can give him an antagonist, who is determined to harm him.

To expand his repertoire, we can give him abilities that humans don’t have. He can have as good a sense of smell as a dog. He can perceive colors differently than we do. He can sense emotions in a complex way, even though he may not have many words to describe them.

Going in a different direction, we can write in third person, and the narrator’s voice can interpret him for the reader. Or, the story can still be from the creature’s POV, but we can introduce a character who is a sort of monster whisperer. This character can explain the creature to the other characters and the reader, but she may sometimes be wrong.

Also, we don’t have to write a continuous narrative. Our creature may lend himself to shorter related pieces. The reader can see him in various situations and can connect the dots on her own.

Experimental fiction, which doesn’t have to be linear or logical, may lend itself to our creature. We can be dreamlike and surreal and concentrate on language. We can create discontinuities.. Also, just saying, dreams are traditional territory for poems.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your creature is trapped and put into a cage in a menagerie. Write his capture and the scene that follows.

∙ Write the scene that precedes the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” in which the prince is turned into a beast, assuming he becomes at least part beast internally.

∙ Getting real for a minute, your MC has a head injury, wakes up in the hospital with cognitive losses. His thinking isn’t what it used to be. In a way, he’s the monster. Write the hospital scene from his POV.

∙ Have your creature fall in love either with a creature like him or with a human. Write the scenes in which this happens.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I love these ideas for approaching a non-human POV, and the prompts. Thank you!
    I’m from MI, so I’m excited that you’ll be in Port Huron and really hope to make it to the workshop!

  2. Thank you so much for writing this article! These are really helpful suggestions. A small side note: any thoughts on an unreliable narrator? I’m not writing any thing from that perspective but I have always been curious…

    • Totally different media, but Disney’s “Emperor’s New Groove” has an unreliable narrator, used for comedic effect and to show how much the title character changes. “I was the nicest guy ever and they ruined my life for no reason!” right after he proves he’s not such a nice guy is a big hint, followed by “See what I mean? This guy is trouble!” after the guy in question rescued an old man.
      I’m not sure this counts as an unreliable narrator, but in my WIP my main character makes a wrong assumption that effects how she thinks about things for a whole chapter. It’s 3rd person limited, so the whole story shows how she thinks (instead of a 1st person what she says).

  3. I definitely thought about the beast from Beauty and the Beast as I was reading this post, so it was fun to see it crop up in the prompts. It gave me some fun ideas to write about. Thank you!

  4. *spoiler alert!*

    Oooo, a retelling of ‘Beowulf’! In Grendel’s P.O.V.! But what happens after Grendel looses his arm/dies?!

    (p.s.April/Angie, how did you manage to get profile pictures?)

  5. I’ve had a bit of a breakthrough, and I thought I’d share it in case it helps somebody else.

    I’ve been really stuck on the WIP, trying to keep track of what’s happening to who where, when, and why. I even tried outlining, and I’m a major pantser. Then I realized: I don’t need an outline to get a grip on this book. I need a CALENDAR.

    Never mind what chapter or scene this is, or whose POV I’m in. Just tell me who’s doing what, where, and when. Even if there’s half a chapter happening on one day and 4 chapters on the next.

    Ex: Day 1: Character X plays Monopoly. The demons practice their kickline. The Monopoly game goes into overtime, and Character X goes to bed.

    Day 2: Character X buys Park Place. The demons try on their tutus…

    This way I can even write in what the villain’s doing behind the scenes, even though it’s not in the book.

    Of course, given the nature of serpent-demon digestion, at some point I’ll get:
    Day 35: The demons eat a cow and go to sleep.
    Day 36: The demons are still sleeping.
    Day 37: Zzzz….

    Oh well.

    And once I started thinking like this I thought of a bunch of scenes that intertwine beautifully, because it’s “Character X goes looking for Y, but doesn’t find them BECAUSE Y is with Z doing such-and-such…”
    And it REALLY helps to have a timeline for the Bad Guy too.

    • I’ve used one before just to keep track of travel times–when my characters are traveling all over the map, I need to figure out how long it takes to get somewhere. I can definitely see how this would be useful for keeping track of multiple plotlines–I’ll have to try that for my NaNo novel.

      • That’s a great use for it. I’ll probably need to do that in the next book.
        I noticed that some calendars also have the moon phase on them, which an be handy. And it’ll remind you when the seasons change.

    • I’ve relied heavily on a calendar when the plot took place over the course of a year. Anytime I adjusted the timing of something, and everything shifted, I wanted to be sure I wasn’t sending characters swimming in a creek in March, or describing fully leafed out woods in early April. Also, I had a series of events that were supposed to take place on Wednesdays throughout the summer. The date was sometimes included, and I didn’t want to give two dates that were really only 12 days apart when they were supposed to be two weeks apart.

      • Exactly! My serpent-demons need to sleep for several days after they eat, and they’re really cold-sensitive, so I had to keep track of when they were eating and sleeping, and make sure they’re not outside in a cold snap.

      • lol. I once had a story set in 1880`s Edmonton AB, and I had zero snow by March… oops. I never thought of using a calendar. Hmm.

  6. StorytellerLizzie says:

    Completely off-topic, but I was wondering if anybody had some reference material for writing dialogue in a Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones type universe? I’m playing with an idea of my MC being from a modern time and then being sent to a time/world/etc. where they use more of an “Old English” style of speaking. I mostly need colloquialisms that would replace modern phrases like “take it easy”, “calm down”, and such. Any help would be appreciated!

  7. Try replacing single words with more old fashioned words. ‘you’ is an easy word to change. You can say, Thee, Thou, Thy (thy is your, but you get the idea.)
    One of my other strategies is to use fewer contractions. I think there are lots of ways to do it, so it depends on the exact style you are looking for.

  8. I have a “beastly” question:

    What are some ways to balance out making your character beastly, yet sympathetic? In particular:

    The character does something literally “inhuman: that leaves the other characters (and the reader) aghast, but they don’t understand why everyone’s upset, because it’s perfectly normal behavior where they come from.

  9. This post gave me some good things to think about regarding one of my characters, a human who’s under a curse and has taken on some animal-like qualities (physically and otherwise). So thanks very much for that!

    On that note I have an off-topic question concerning my current WIP; wondering if anyone can share some advice. I recently began querying with my first novel, and while I’ll still be tweaking it as I receive feedback I’m trying to work on my next project at the same time. That way I have something else in the works, and if I don’t get anywhere with the first novel I can try with the second. I’ve never done this before and I’m having a little trouble switching my focus fully from one story to the other, especially since they’re not related in any way except genre. Any advice for this situation would be much appreciated!

    • I haven’t done this before, but I’m about to: I have one story in editing, and I’m going to start another for NaNoWriMo. At the moment they’ll be separated by time: I’m only going to work on the second one in November, and the first in October and December. I’m guessing that it will also help while they are still in different stages: one editing, one drafting. I don’t know what I’ll do when they both reach first draft status, whether I’ll just pick one or jump back and forth. I do know that jumping from editing to drafting and back again is super hard for me, but you have to do that for the first draft even when you have only one project. You edit some, but then you realize you need a new scene and you have to draft that.

      • Good point about having to do both editing and drafting when working with just a first draft. And you’re more organized than me if you can put one story aside completely to do NaNoWriMo! I feel like when I’m working on one thing I always get ideas for another. Good luck juggling your multiple projects!

        • Thanks. I haven’t done it yet! On the other hand, I have put aside my series to work on these two. Sometimes my series characters still talk to me, so I listen and write down what they’re saying and then go back to my current work. So far it’s working.

  10. I have a question. My NaNo story is going to follow the story of a whole people, so for the first time I’m going to be jumping point of view. Any ideas how many plotlines or points of view are too many? Right now I have two adult characters from different families as main characters, but I’d like to mix in some journal entries from one of the teenagers. Should I stick with those three, or is it okay to jump to other characters on occasion? I have two more that I was thinking might get occasional POV roles: the villain and a 5-year-old learning his family abilities (travel through dreams).

    • I’ve recently had a couple of conversations about this with my siblings. My brother told me of a book he read, about a fictional plane crash. The main story was about two of the rescuers, and he liked it a lot. But he said there were also a bits and pieces of the stories of the people on the plane, and he thought they were irrelevant and distracting from the main characters’ story.

      My sister told me of a series she started reading. She decided it wasn’t really worth her time, but she did want to know what happened to the two particular characters she cared about. She ended up skipping through the rest of the series, reading only the scenes about those two characters.

      That said, we all love books by Gordan Korman, and he often uses many view points. So my sister and I thought back over several of his books and concluded that it works if every scene, whatever the POV, is still about the main story. In I WANT TO GO HOME, the story is about two boys who don’t want to be at summer camp. Most of the book is in the POV of one of them, but several of the counselors and even a beaver have scenes too. But when the counselors have scenes, they’re talking about these boys (mainly about one of them). When the beaver has it’s occasional scene, it’s reacting to the boys, and also building a dam that comes into play later on. Every scene moves the story forward (mostly the boys scenes), ups the tension (Counselors’ scenes), or provides information the other characters don’t know (beaver). That may be over-simplifying a bit – some of the scenes might be in there just for laughs – like the counselors’ reactions to the boys’ schemes.

      • Thanks! One of my inspirations for this story is the LDS historical novel (I’m sure there are non-LDS historical novels that follow the same pattern but I haven’t read them). They have a large cast of characters, and the whole focus is the history, jumping from as many characters as necessary in order to have someone at each interesting historical event the author wants to cover. I loved them as a teenager. I’m not doing historical but I wanted the same feel of covering a huge event that effects a large number of people.

        Actually, SALT TO THE SEA by Ruta Sepetys is a historical fiction with multiple characters. I remember really liking when it jumped from character to character in the beginning, especially when the characters started to meet and interact with each other, but I had a harder time with one character who doesn’t cross paths with the others until over half-way through the novel.

        • I looked for our copy of the book to see what I could learn about that one, but I couldn’t find it. As I remember, the beaver had only a couple of scenes (around three), probably a half a page or less each. I mainly remember him being afraid of the boys, distrustful of anything with human scent on it, and baffled by the human-scented white round thing that fell from the sky (a baseball). All he wanted was peace and quiet to build his dam.

  11. Ms.Carson, I have asked your advice for my school assignments before and I was wondering if you could help me again.I am writing a short story for school I have an idea but my writing skills seem to have disappeared I cant seen to consistently write a story that flows, or that has any movement through the plot

    I would also love it if you could give any tips in editing personal poetry!
    thanks!

    • Gail Carson Levine says:

      I don’t think we know enough to help with your story. What’s it about?

      Poems are a little easier.Generally, poetry is concise. Cut any words that aren’t necessary. Include details, especially images. Introduce pleasing sounds, like alliteration and assonance.Don’t worry too much about logic–poems can be free-wheeling!

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