Rosanne Dingli

Rosanne Dingli

Friday, November 25, 2011

A weak character can make a strong protagonist

Most writing manuals, courses on creative writing and authors' handbooks tell the writer to create strong characters. This makes one visualize tough personalities, imperturbable people who march through the written pages like nothing can flap them. Like they are made of steel. Titanium. Sterner stuff than we meet in our daily humdrum lives.

Strong character
Hm - on the other hand, authors are required by their audience to be believable. To create characters one might enjoy meeting. Or fear, or avoid, or love or admire, in a realistic way. To populate novels with memorable characters is certainly the requirement of today's demanding reading public.

Strong characters - two words one often finds in book reviews. Still, one has to wonder what strong really means. Exploring this in depth is vitally necessary to those who write character-driven stories: stories that stay in the heart not merely because of heart-stopping action, but because of the heart-rending emotion and psychological drama through which the author has led the protagonist.

We all have personality flaws and weaknesses - and secretly, we like to find similar failings in books, especially novels. Relating to a heroine who falls for the wrong bloke, but comes through victorious in the end makes for entertaining reading to some. Relating to a hero who dithers, ducks and weaves but reaches some sort of decision-making stance by the end can make for a good read. Many readers like it when tough-guy baddies have a chink in their armour. Since there is no such thing as a totally strong and unassailable character in life, we hardly expect to find it in fiction.

Brad Pitt as Achilles
Weakness in character, an Achilles' heel, a flaw or habit that reins in a protagonist and makes her worthy of attention can be interesting, and serve to make a novel that much more entertaining and intriguing.

In my forthcoming romantic thriller, Camera Obscura, my hero struggles valiantly with his weak side. He wonders why he cannot turn himself around, exit his inertia. He finds a woman who - in contrasting ability to his - takes charge of his life, at least for an interval, and makes him dizzy with ... with a feeling he cannot analyze. Oh dear. This man has weaknesses and failures. And yet, I have made that a strength. A strength for the novel and what it means. I hope I have imbued Bart Zacharin with enough muscle to satisfy a reader seeking change.

Perhaps that is what readers do seek: a weak character with failures much like their own, who finds an impasse but manages to overcome it.

Stay with me for the next few months, until Camera Obscura hits the online bookshops. Read chapter one by clicking on this link, and try and figure how I take Bart Zacharin from his state of inertia and make of him a fine hero one would not mind keeping and following.

Tell me what kind of character you like, if you are a reader. If you are an author, do you relish putting your characters through trials and tribulations that make them stronger?

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Saint Luke's Secret World

The Four EvangelistsImage via Wikipedia
The Four evangelists by Jakob Jordaens
There were four evangelists. They did their writing during the first century AD, and what they wrote is now lost to us in the original. As one would imagine for such important writings - in an age when literacy was either low or non-existent among the ordinary town and village populations of the world - the scrolls were copied many many times and learned off by heart to be passed along verbally to the faithful, by those who took it upon themselves to spread the word.

There were historic intervals when supporting or disseminating the Christian faith was dangerous, if not lethal. Reciting what the evangelists left behind as testaments was not always safe. The copies of the gospels, as they came to be known, were hidden, secreted, buried, lost, stolen, forgotten, left behind and discarded. As often happened in history, some hiding places were only discovered centuries after the caretaker of a scroll died.

The faithful spread the word, and the evangelists suffered for their diligence and zeal in getting the word out. Their followers, translators and transcribers did their best to further the dissemination of their important message. Despite - or because of - this zeal, mistakes were often made, and what we read in the scriptures today is in all probability quite different from the original writings the four testament writers took pains to put down for posterity. What we are left with is the subject of study, controversy and conjecture by scholars. Is it exactly what the evangelists wrote?

So many stories - myths and legends - grew around the origins of the gospels, who had written them, and the ways they were copied, translated and interpreted, that it was difficult to come upon one unifying decision. Conclusions and pronouncements were made by kings and popes, and some were contentious enough to incite great debate or outright wars.

When Jakob Jordaens painted the picture you see here, he might have done it with something other than devotion or reverence. The origins and motivations of the evangelists must have been on the artist's mind. Controversy surrounds the reason why this respected Flemish painter portrayed three old men and one rather young one. Who is the youngest one? Is it Luke? Was Jordaens privy to a secret about the identity of this evangelist? We must remember that according to historians, Luke never met Jesus, but did meet Mary. Did the Flemish artists of Jordaens's time know something disputable about Luke's identity that has remained a secret?

Find out in According to Luke, a novel that takes the secret controversy and blows it apart. As an author, I took on a lot of research, and found that a considerable number of Flemish artists portrayed Luke in an androgynous way - unbearded, smooth-skinned, and with eyes averted. Why did they do this? They must have shared some secret about the evangelist who traveled with Saint Paul and wrote the Acts of the Apostles. What did they know?

Read According to Luke and see how this exciting thriller gives a reasoned, researched solution to the question. See how Saint Luke's secret world was so dangerous that murder, extortion and mayhem were undertaken to keep it that way... secret.
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Thursday, November 10, 2011

Nothing beats F2F

Yesterday, I gave a talk about According to Luke, together with Robyn Varpins, the artist who created all the icons and other reverential artworks for the launch of the novel in May 2011.

Atwell Art Centre, Perth WA
We spoke to a room of very enthusiastic art patrons and practitioners, who were very intrigued by the interface between fiction and visual art. Talking in tandem, Robyn and I discussed the various aspects of the whole project.

I spoke about how I conceived the story and the characters. Robyn spoke about materials, inspiration, and working to a theme. Some of her icons were on display, and aroused a lot of interest. The aged timber supports, paints used, additions such as gold leaf... the audience was spellbound, and one could feel the questions start to form.

Although there was no time to read an excerpt, since this was a Wednesday lunchtime event with most people engaged for something else later in the day, it was lovely to see the rapt expressions of the varied audience. They watched the scrolling slide show on a large screen to one side, which showed various shots of locations from the novel, ancient icons, publisher BeWrite Books logo, locations used, and the cover of the paperback, of course.

Several copies stood on a table, in a display that included several Rubik's cubes, to highlight the significance of the cover illustration - a design by Tony Szmuk. In a very brief sidebar, I commented on the relationship one develops with the publishing team, and what joy and satisfaction can be derived from it. It is very much a part of what an author's life is all about.

Questions from the audience revealed a fascination with all things visual, and how they can relate to the human condition, fiction, and a host of other ingredients. A couple of audience members admitted to a fondness for writing, and all were avid readers - sometimes an author just gets lucky! Robyn and I could have answered questions all afternoon, but Deb Weber, our hostess for the event, wound up the session and opened the 'shop'. Yes, sales were very healthy for both books (they were all claimed off the table!) and icons, so Robyn and I both went home very pleased with the whole day.

Madonna icon by Robyn Varpins

One of the questions we were asked was whether we were going to attempt another collaborative project similar to the one for According to Luke. Robyn and I both nodded with the same enthusiasm. The success of this project is making us think very hard about the upcoming launch for my next thriller, Camera Obscura.

Since it involves visual art again, I have no doubt we shall be able to enthrall the growing body of fans for this kind of overlap between the different disciplines.

Do you read books about art? Leave a comment if seeing images from a novel portrayed in real paintings would elicit a shift in perception for you.

Do you write books about art? How does collaboration with an artist sound to you?
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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Inspiring locations

Authors are often asked on interviews where they find their inspiration. Some find that question hard to answer, since seasoned writers can find triggers in almost everything: nature, real life situations, observation of behaviours, and more. In fact, anything to do with the human condition can get a seasoned author thinking creatively.

Overlooking Grand Harbour, Malta
I have often said that words themselves can drive me to write: a great sentence read in a newspaper article, a long-lost proverb, a line out of a play or song, or something as prosaic as a billboard can form the basis of a whole chapter or short story.

But nothing inspires me in the same way as a good location. More than the visual aspects alone, I can be captivated by what more imaginative people sometimes call the 'spirit of a place'. My pragmatic nature shies from words such as 'spirit', but I do hold that places are much more than what one can see in them.

A visit to a location sets off a series of questions in my writer's mind, and they are to do with history, origin, and the various footsteps that tramped that place through the years; the eyes that saw it, and the various stories that might have taken place in the very spot where one stands with one's camera.

Take this picture on the right. I stood right there in 2004, and waited until dusk bathed Grand Harbour, in Valletta with a veil of darkness, which was suddenly transformed by golden floodlights that turned the whole magnificent inlet into quite another place. The battlements and bastions were turned upside down in the water, and even the plainly practical port structures such as cranes looked romantic and meaningful. I had to use that scene - but more than just a scene: I had to use that feeling.

I gave the sentiment to a protagonist in a novel that will be released soon: I made him stand right in that spot, taking photos and feeling the enormous shunt the sheer history of a place can give a person. It's like a kick in the derriere that puts one little life into perspective. In the face and presence of some locations - and the essence packed into them - everything is pushed willy-nilly into perspective.

When the characters in my fiction have a problem, I send them to some magnificent place. I make them stand in some location where many before them have experienced drama: politics, romance, religion, ethics, the personal drama of relationships. All these are dwarved by the magnificence and meaningfulness of place. Place outlives them all, yet absorbs them all, and becomes imbued with their essence.

We could all make lists of locations that seem to embody history and drama. Yet there is not one square mile in any country that could be said to be free of history, politics, religion, personal drama and romance.

Pic courtesy
My forthcoming novel Camera Obscura (click to read Chapter One) is more than any other of my works of fiction, perhaps, concerned with the magic of locations. Scenes take place in  medieval places such as Mdina, where ancient portals can mystify the traveller, and Le Havre, in France (left), where constant change is just as intriguing and engaging. Compare this little photo with the big painting on top - yes, it's the same place, but what a difference! The same person, the same artist, the same novelist, can experience different feelings, even when visiting the same place on different occasions, or with a different companion, or with another camera.

Novels would be nothing without the places in which they take place. Whether these are real ones the reader can visit, or totally fabricated by some very imaginative author, the place must contain the story and magnify it. The importance of this cannot be emphasized too much.

How do locations in books affect you, as a reader?

If you are an author, how much time do you spend researching a good place in which to anchor your story?

Leave a comment - a discussion about locations would be fascinating.
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