Protagonists: Where to begin?

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WRITING

protagonist frodo

Protagonists:

This week’s writing tip comes from a recent conversation I had with a couple of writing friends. We started talking about the traits of our protagonists, when a realization hit me: I’d seen protagonists described in all sorts of ways, but never had I seen anyone (at least that I recall) point out the most important trait of a protagonist, especially in fantasy or science fiction. Before I divulge this tidbit, let’s run down the list of important traits in a protagonist.

One: They have to be sympathetic

Well, yes and no. While most protagonists are sympathetic, there have been quite a few in the realms of fantasy that have not been and even a couple that have been quite dark. Thomas Covenant in the first Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever was anything but sympathetic. Wounded? Yes, but he was also angry, selfish, violent, and stubborn. Another example of the anti-hero is Elric in the Stormbringer series by Michael Moorcock. So, in the end, no, a protagonist doesn’t have to be sympathetic.

Two: They should be physically attractive/powerful.

This depends on the genre. It would be hard to find a romance novel with ugly protagonists. The whole purpose of the genre is to provide an escape. I might want to read about a guy who’s not very attractive, but then again, I’m not the target audience. In fantasy, there have been quite a few protagonists that have been less than handsome. In my current series, I went out of my way to paint the two participants of my main romance in less than the usual glowing terms, going so far as to state that most people would consider my heroine’s nose too big. In the excellent novel, Magician, by Raymond E. Feist, Pug, the main character is a very ordinary looking boy who grows into an ordinary looking man.

Three: They have to want something.

Yes. Absolutely. Every protagonist in every novel I’ve ever read has been in or put in a situation where they want something desperately.

But there is another quality your protagonist needs and surprisingly, it has more to do with you as a writer than it does your reader. It’s an inside/out way of looking at your main character, it you will.

Your main character has to be….drum roll please…..IGNORANT.

Yes, that right. In order for you to write convincing scenes and convincing dialogue, your main character is required to display ignorance, usually on a grand scale. Every protagonist I’ve ever read shares this fundamental characteristic. Here’s a quick rundown: Bilbo, Frodo, Thomas Covenant, Pug, Harry Dresden, Errol Stone (mine), Willet Dura (also mine), Rand al’ Thor, Kal and Shallan. You name it, they’re ignorant. Each of these stories is a tale of people caught in circumstances they must struggle to understand and they wander blindly through the unknown hoping that they can somehow manage to survive until the know enough to act.

So, when you’re outlining your next work, take a moment to think about your protagonist. What does he know at the beginning of the story? If he knows too much, it will guarantee that most of your scenes and much of your dialogue will have the sound of author intrusion. You’ll be trying to communicate information to your reader that your protagonist already knows.

The fun of stories is discovering the world and the danger while we experience it in the skin of the protagonist. So, when you’re outlining your story, think about the importance of your character’s ignorance.

EDUCATION:

euclid

Last post I talked about the elephant in the room. This week, I’d like to take a moment to offer an explanation about the difficulty teachers face in accomplishing their stated task. I’m not looking for sympathy. Honestly, if I thought I needed any, I would quit and go do something else. That reminds me of a story, but that will have to wait. Let’s get back to the teaching environment in most high schools. First, understand that because of social promotion, most high school classrooms are a mixture of ability levels.

An English teacher for example may have an enthusiastic student who is already reading on the college level and a student who is barely reading on the third grade level. And every level in between. In math, the story is no different. I’ve had classes with students who could have easily grasped the concept of taking the derivative of the volume of a sphere with respect to the radius to get the formula for surface area. I’ve also had classes where if I asked students to add two single-digit numbers without a calculator, a third of the students would be counting on their fingers. Really.

So the plight of the teacher is really quite simple. We don’t get to choose who we teach and we don’t get to decide what we teach. I have a set of mathematics standards that I have to teach in order to be in compliance with the state and my district. Every year, teachers are evaluated based on how well their students performed on the state benchmark test. Understand that these tests don’t cover all the remedial material that teachers have to go through just to get their students to a place where they might understand the actual course material. No. The tests cover the standards for Algebra II or English III or whatever.

So what happens in most classrooms? Well, it’s really quite simple. With all these different skill levels, teachers have to choose their battles. It usually comes down to a decision. Does the teacher “teach to the middle” to try and catch as many students as he/she can or do they “teach to the bottom” to try and help those students who most desperately need it? Either way, some students will be left out. There are a lot of strategies to overcome this, but the problem with most of these is that they’re intended for a few students and the students that require remediation are often the majority in many schools. Remember the numbers from last week. In one Tennessee district 15% of the students are doing math at grade level and 25% are reading/writing at grade level. Even in the best district in Tennessee the numbers are only a little over 40%.

I’m going to let you think about this for a while. Next time, we’re going to take a look at the improvement/achievement dichotomy.

MISCELLANEOUS:

My publisher has set a deadline for the next manuscript: mid-March. Prayers, as always, are appreciated.

I’m still trying to learn how to play jazz piano. This is probably good for me, because it’s teaching me empathy for my own students.

I’m down about 6 pounds since New Year’s. Let’s just say there’s still a considerable ways to go before I can ditch the cholesterol medication. Tonight I cooked cabbage soup for dinner, no meat. Not bad, but I find myself craving cheese.

The sound of good writing & Fixing education (part 1)

WRITING:

writing on parchment

Let’s start this week with a confession: I made a mistake when I wrote my first series, The Staff and the Sword, and if I had to do it all over again, I would fix it even if it meant turning in the manuscript a little late. What did I do? I messed up the editing process. Not in a huge way, and honestly, most people probably wouldn’t notice the difference, but even now, years after it still bugs me.

I didn’t read the story out loud.

First, you have to understand how I came to be a writer in the first place. I have four sons and they’re all spaced roughly two years apart. It made life around the house a wonderful, crazy, frantic time. One of my favorite parts of being a dad was getting to read to them. I have shelves and shelves of my favorite books, everything from children’s stories to my own personal favorites, and I delighted in getting to share those with them. About the time my youngest son, Ethan, hit the age of six, we would gather every evening and for half an hour to an hour I would read from stories like The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad, and more.

A hidden benefit of reading all these wonderful books was that my ear became attuned to the rhythm and cadence of a well-written story and it became the standard by which I judged the writing of the books I’ve read. Even now, years later, I can’t force myself to read a story with poor cadence or rhythm no matter how highly-recommended it comes.

Thus, my regret and my advice. There are a handful of places in my first series, probably no more than a dozen, that bug me because the cadence and rhythm are off. Now, sometimes this can’t be helped. For the sake of clarity, sometimes you have to repeat a name or pronoun so the reader doesn’t get lost, but there are a few places in each of those first three books I would edit if I could.

Now, how does this translate into what you should do with your work? I’ve laid out some steps below that I think can help you polish your work so that it falls lyrically on your reader’s ear.

One: After you’ve finished your final edit (except it won’t be final) read your story out loud from start to finish. Listen. Have you varied your sentence structure to avoid an oppressive rhythm? Do you have a word repeated too close to itself? Do you have run-on sentences that need to be modified to give your reader a chance to read? Do you have the right balance between dialogue and narrative? Listen.

Two: Read the best stories in your genre out loud, preferably with like-minded friends. Well-crafted rhythms and cadences are usually a big reason why a story sells well. Almost all of the best books have them. When you hit a passage that is particularly powerful, analyze it. Figure out what makes it work and then, in your own style, create something similar.

Three: Read poetry, the good stuff. Here, I would suggest that you read free-form poetry. The absence of a defined meter forces the skilled poet to create internal, more subtle rhythm within their work. Again, find these rhythms and see if you can emulate them in your own writing.

Do these things and I think you’ll find that your writing will improve. You may even discover that your story has moved from being a tale to being an epic.

 

 

EDUCATION

social promotion

About a week ago my state released its data for student achievement. The news, as everyone took pains to predict, was bad. For me and those like me who teach in urban districts it was horrific. In my district only 25% of our students are reading at grade level. In math the results were even worse. Only 15% of the students are working at grade level? What’s worse, these results do not represent the nadir of district results for our state. True, they’re a long way from the highest, but they’re not the lowest by any means.

Whenever results like these are released, there is an understandable amount of hand-wringing that occurs and justifiably so. This is usually followed by the usual litany of questions:

How did we get to this state?

Why is it being allowed to continue?

What can we possibly do to fix a problem of this magnitude?

Answers, of course, depend on who you ask. My own educational background is somewhat more ecumenical than most teachers in public education. As an Air Force brat, I attended a lot of different schools. I had what most people would call a nightmare elementary education. By the time I finished sixth grade, I’d been enrolled in six different schools. Things settled down a bit after that. I went to a middle school for grades 7-8 that had about a thousand students. That’s not a misprint. I hate that place. It reciprocated. Then I went to high school. That was a little better.

Out of high school, I went to Georgia Tech and by hard work, the support of good friends, and the grace of God, I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I capitalize it because it makes me feel good. I worked as an engineer in different jobs for about twenty years before becoming a school teacher. After that, I became nationally board certified (to this day, that’s probably the most difficult test I’ve ever taken), and earned a Master’s Degree in Educational Leadership. So, anyway, that’s me. Call my experience “the mutt” of educational pedigrees.

I’ve been teaching for ten years now. There are a lot of problems in education. It’s a big list.

Huge.

But I know the biggest problem and I know how to fix it. That may sound like ego or arrogance, but practically any teacher with a decent amount of smarts and experience would say the same thing because we’re all confronted by the same problems.

Here’s a bit of background. Years and years ago, a study was done (we do all sorts of studies in education) that showed a correlation between student retention (that’s edu-speak for failing someone and making them repeat a grade) and the dropout rate. Now, it’s important to understand that showing a correlation isn’t the same as showing causation, but we’ll come back to that a later date. Suffice to say that this ushered in an era in public education defined by social promotion. The hope for this was that if we could keep students with their peers they would be less likely to drop out of school. Well, it worked.

Fast forward a few years to the No Child Left Behind legislation, a bipartisan work envisioned by Pres. Bush and crafted by Sen. Kennedy. Now, school districts would be punished monetarily for failing too many students. The trickle of social promotion turned into a flood. The graduation rate improved of course, but in the end the once-venerated high school diploma became worthless. By turning high school graduation rates from an indicator into a target, we turned the high school diploma into a “congratulations-you’ve-turned-eighteen” certificate. If that offends you and makes you angry with me, remember, 25% reading, 15% math. At this point, it’s impossible for you to be more offended than I am.

So there you have in brief, the evolution of a really bad decision. Since then, public education has been trying to rescue this decision. You can spot the efforts, most of them well-intentioned and some of them even heroic, by their acronyms:

DI – Differentiated Instruction

RTI – Response to Intervention

RTII – Response to Intervention and Instruction

SEL – Social and Emotional Learning

GFL – Grading for Learning

SBG – Standards-Based Grading

The list goes on. Understand, most of these are actually pretty good ideas. Not all, of course. Nobody bats a thousand, but most of these ideas have something to offer the teacher in terms of instruction, communication, and curriculum. The problem is many times these ideas are being used to try and rescue the original bad decision to push students to the next grade based on how old they are instead of based on the skills they’ve mastered. That won’t work and almost anyone in or out of public education would be able to tell you why.

In short, social promotion has to go. In future blogs, I will outline in greater detail its impact on the classroom and how to get rid of it, but for now, suffice to say that we owe our children a better education than to push them along from grade to grade until they’re eighteen and then put them out in a competitive workplace without the academic skills to succeed or compete. We owe them more than a diploma. We owe them an education.

 

MISCELLANEOUS

misc

Writing update: I should be done with the first draft of “The Wounded Shadow” in another couple of months. This is the third full-length novel of “The Darkwater Series.” After that me and my editors will start the polishing process. Prayers, of course, are greatly appreciated.

Jazz Piano: My oldest son is still trying to teach me jazz piano. I’m constantly amazed at how many different techniques, approaches, and tricks he has in his arsenal to get me over whatever difficulty I’m currently wrestling with. Honestly, he amazes me.

Other: My doctor said that I might be able to come off my cholesterol med if I get down to 175. To that end, I’m going to make a renewed commitment to watch what I eat in the evenings. The school day is easy to manage because I’m so busy, but in the evenings I tend to snack on all the stuff that undermines my efforts. But seriously, 175? I weighed 174 when I graduated high school. I’ve probably put on a pound

The Quantization of Murphy’s Law – Everything goes wrong all at once.

Finding something – anything! – that works

Admittedly this week’s blog is a bit of a mashup because I’m struggling in so many areas right now – writing, teaching, getting in shape, learning jazz piano. Yeah, it’s safe to say that everything is kind of tough. So, before I launch into what I’m doing to fix this disaster in each area of my life, I’ll provide a bit of context.

One: I’m a writer. Sorry, but I still can’t say the word “author” without cringing inside. It always comes out sounding like “Look at ME!” Anyway, I have six books published and most people seem to genuinely like them since I have a lot more reviews than I have friends or relatives. Now, and I mean right now, I’m working on the 7th book, which is the last book in the current Darkwater trilogy. And…I missed my deadline for the first time ever because getting all the plot lines wrapped up while still creating an interesting story is more difficult than I thought.writer-guy

Two: My day gig for the last ten years has been a high school math teacher. Some years are easier than others, and this year has been difficult. I can tell you the most challenging part of teaching math is to take a subject that many of your students actively hate and try to make it interesting. This year that’s been even more of a challenge than usual. This may come as a surprise to many of you, but many times a well-intentioned educational policy can do more harm than good. Chalk it up to the law of unintended consequences.teacher-guy

Three: I went to the doctor this last summer and the paraphrased conversation went something like this:

DOCTOR: “Everything looks good except you’re too fat here take this pill.”pill

ME: “I don’t wanna take that pill.”

DOCTOR: “Well you need to unless you want your arteries to look like the interstates downtown on Friday at five o’clock.”

ME: “What do I have to do to NOT take the pill?”

DOCTOR: “Get down to 175.”

Now, understand that I weighed 174 when I graduated high school. I’m fifty-freaking-five.

Four: My son, Patrick, is an amazing jazz pianist. He’s got the degree, he’s got the chops, he’s got the love. And unfortunately, he has me as a student. No degree. No chops.chopsticks-piano Just love. You should probably pray for him. His teaching gig might be harder than mine.

So, there you have it. Life is unfair and nothing goes well sometimes. My solution? Quite honestly, it amounts to throwing spaghetti at the wall. For writing, it means showing up every day, pounding out a thousand words in the hope that a few hundred of them are worth keeping and going for long walks in the woods when I can’t get the plot to come together. For teaching, it means hunting for an incentive so my students will stay motivated and pay attention in class, even if they’re still not thrilled with the idea of complex numbers. For getting in shape, it means making myself pick up the weights even on those days when I get home from school feeling as wrung out as a dishrag. And for piano, it means taking a step back and admitting I don’t know enough theory yet, to understand the pieces I’m trying to play.

 

Will any of this work? I have no idea. I’m just throwing spaghetti at the wall in the hopes that something sticks. Lucky for me, though, I have a wife who loves Italian.

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