Saturday, October 20, 2012

Little Terrors

I love horror movies. Not the gruesome ones where it seems like body parts fly off every scene and fountains of blood gush everywhere, but the supernatural ones. Poltergeists, demons, mysteries of haunted houses or towns. Maybe it's fear of the unknown, or maybe it's something most of us can relate to: being in a quiet house and hearing unusual creaks on the floorboards. A loud crash when something inexplicably falls off the shelf. Shadows that form frightening faces on the wall. That eerie feeling like someone is creeping up behind you.

You know, the usual Friday night home alone.

There are so many horror movies in store for October and the coming months and even 2013, and I've seen a lot of the ones that are already out. I have to say it's been a long time since I've watched one that truly frightened me, but it doesn't stop me from trying out new ones. I do have one indication that I probably most definitely won't be scared.

Ghost/demon children. For example, a woman moves to a new town and discovers there are evil little munchkins running around and terrorizing the grown ups.

Evil little munchkin
Granted, if I were a character in one of these movies and a razor-teethed boy wanted to eat my face off (provided he could break my legs first to reach that high), I'd probably be a tad terrified. But as the viewer sitting comfortably at home or in the theater, I can't exactly work myself into a frenzy of fright when the onscreen child glowers menacingly at the protagonist and mumbles vague remarks intended to foreshadow impending doom.

There's nothing scary about children in real life. I've never found myself walking down a dark alley, spotted a child coming toward me, and thought, "Crap! I hope I didn't forget my pepper spray in my other purse."And if I hear the laughter of a little girl where there clearly isn't any little girl, I'm not likely to think she's there for nefarious reasons.

"Is he--is he still standing behind me? I should offer him milk and cookies."

Nonetheless, I do enjoy such movies, probably for the comical factor of seeing a child make grown men and women crap their pants. Laughter might not be the desired reaction but it's something, right?

Friday, October 12, 2012


They arrive in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, stumbling through the airport gate as they gaze around at fellow travelers dressed in suits and carrying briefcases filled with important things. There's weariness in their shoulders, bewilderment and timidity in their eyes as they meet the open stares of curious passersby, but most of all, there's a quiet kind of relief that says, "Thank God I've made it."

To have left behind the tragedy and despair that is shared by all of those who have lost their homes and loved ones. To have journeyed from a place where ambitions don't extend beyond tomorrow's meal and people dare not dream for fear of having more to lose. It can only be a miracle when, after years of fervent prayer, their names were called and they feel as though they've won the lottery--no, as though they have been admitted through the pearly gates of Heaven and to eternal bliss.

But reality soon hits hard. America is certainly the land of the free, but it's not the land of free things.

"I have to work hard? Eight hours on my feet?"
"Maybe more if you want to pay your bills. And well, with the way things are, you'll be lucky to get any sort of job, my friend."
"But I'm blind and lost in this new land."
"You will gain new sight, though the world ain't pretty to look at when you're poor."
"I can't speak, you see."
"You will have to learn the language, unless you want to be the laughingstock of this town."
"What about the bullet in my thigh? The one that pains me through the night?"
"We have doctors for that. And if they can't cure you, you'll move on. 'No pain, no gain' is what we say here."
"My four young ones, who will raise them? Who will teach them my values, my mother tongue, my heritage?"
"They will do just fine without you. They don't need the stories of superstitious old men."

There is peace here, the streets quiet where gunshots once lulled their children to sleep, but their hearts are restless. Food is plentiful, but the scale at the doctor's office tells a sad story. Fear has been a constant companion their whole lives. It is here with them now, peeking over their shoulders with a ghastly grin. The future is the black sea looming in front of them, and they'll have to swim to stay afloat. The only other choice is to sink.

"My people back home, they think I live in paradise," they say with a bitter laugh.
"Why don't you tell them the truth?" I ask.
"They'll never believe it. They think I'm keeping all of the riches for myself. You just wait--they'll come to this land and know what I know. That there's no such thing as paradise on earth."

Contracts, applications, interviews, orientations, doctor's visits--"They've taken all my blood. I have no blood left in my body"--bills, bills, bills. Finally, a job working at a warehouse. "I used to carry firewood on my back day and night, though it's been over twenty years," the aging woman tells me. "These old bones don't move quite the way they used to. At least I can pay the bills now." Thank God for miracles.

Days and weeks turn into months and the months settle some of that old fear about the unknown as this new world becomes comfortably familiar. And then they begin to see the blessing for what it is. The stark disappointment gives way to blooming seeds of hope.

A woman sweeps the steps of her apartment building, her children chasing one another around cars. She gazes out at them, the contentment on her face shining through the worry lines, and says, "My husband and I are saving up for a minivan. I think it will help our family."

They are learning to dream.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Character Creation

When I first started writing (fiction, not the alphabet in kindergarten), I used to come up with characters as I go along. I would create a name and, armed with a vague idea of who or what, throw a new character into the mix. Then the details of appearance and personality and everything else would gradually start to take form.

Because of this, there have been many cases when I had no idea where the character was headed and sometimes the end result would take me completely by surprise, both in a good and a bad way.

A definite downside to this was that there were times when I created protagonists who would meander through the story, not really having direction or stable characteristics. There was a case when a friend said, "This character is a real enigma. I'm not sure what to think of him." My response to that was, "Me neither!"

Perhaps there's one good outcome of doing things so haphazardly (or so says the glass-half-full side of me). Human beings are complex creatures, not confined to strict categories or defined entirely by labels. While a thorough character blueprint certainly helps a writer get a good handle on the character, it's possible that it limits the range of behavior or thoughts the character is allowed to have.

So perhaps, and this is only a guess, not defining a character rigidly might allow him or her to have more dimensions as long as the writer also takes measures to monitor the character's progress throughout the story--something I clearly failed to do in the past.

While it's fun to discover about a character much the same way a reader would--by seeing him or her in action--it's also much too risky. So I've tried to take the safe road and spend as much time on developing the character beforehand as I do on coming up with the storyline. And I start this in an unusual way: creating a character's motto before all else, sometimes even before a name.

I first did this on a whim one day. I looked at the character page of one of my stories and decided to entertain myself with them. I set up an interview with all three main characters, answering questions the way I imagine my characters would.

It's also a surprisingly fun exercise that all writers should partake in at least once.

Example of an interview question and diverse answers:

What do you like most about yourself?

First: I’m a quick study.

Second: Thanks to the discipline my father instilled in me, I can face any situation without irrational emotions clouding my judgment.

Third: What’s not to like?  (A bit of a narcissist, which means I enjoyed her answers the most)

Interviewing imaginary people: Three parts awesome and one part sad.

One of the questions happened to be, "What is your motto?" It was toughest one to answer, but also the most revealing. Each character's response was unique to him or her: What does he stand for? How does she cope with life? What does he/she belief at his/her core?

By doing this, I suddenly have a solid and vivid vision of each character. And the process of creating a new character is different now. With this single defining statement about a new character, I can build on it and tie everything back to it, from appearance to personality to hobbies.

Mottoes of past characters (one of them shares my own):

"Where my people are concerned, the ends always justify the means"
"If it can be done, it will be done"
"I wear an iron mask even at my weakest"
"Never lose self-control" - (Interestingly, this character and the one above are very similar externally, but couldn't be more different internally).
"Better to be hated than to be pitied"
"I am confined to nothing, not even the truth"
"Justice, loyalty, and kinship"
"A sword says more about a man than his words"

Since I started doing this, I find myself connecting better with new characters and having a blast bringing them to life!