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How Art Can Save Your Soul

I have often wondered what it is about certain books that resonates with the reader. There are certain books that, no matter how much time passes, still hold a place in your mind – books that stand out as sharing something powerful, books that heal, books that tap into a fear or a passion. What is it that makes some of the books we read stay with us?

And so it is with art, music, and many other forms of creativity.

I came across this fantastic article and talk at brainpickings.com, and if you haven’t read, it I would highly recommend a look. The brain child of Maria Popova, who has written for Wired UK, The New York Times, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, and The Atlantic, among others, the site delves into art, design, science, technology, philosophy, history, politics, psychology, sociology, ecology, anthropology, and more. It never fails to come up with interesting and creative articles. This one is too good to miss. In the video below, British philosopher Alain de Botton expresses a need to understand Art and its psychological impact on our lives. 

He focuses on the the seven psychological functions of art, all of which I think can be applied to books and reading:

1. REMEMBERING

Since both memory and art are as much about what is being left out as about what is being spotlighted, de Botton argues that art offers an antidote to this unease. With the written word, much of its power also lies in what is not said, what is left to the reader to fill in and imbue.

2. HOPE

Both art and the written word present a form of hope, however dark or ‘pretty’, they inspire and give us a form of hope that can become lost in everyday life. “Cheerfulness,” de Botton tells us, “is an achievement, and hope is something to celebrate. If optimism is important, it’s because many outcomes are determined by how much of it we bring to the task. It is an important ingredient of success.

3. SORROW

Sorrow in art and in books reminds us of the legitimate place for negative emotions and for sorrow in life. It helps to process pain and to feel less alone in our suffering, when times are hard.

4. REBALANCING

Art can help us to balance our psychological states, relationships and working routines. “We might, for example, tend to be too complacent, or too insecure; too trusting, or too suspicious; too serious, or too light-hearted. Art can put us in touch with concentrated doses of our missing dispositions,” according to de Botton. We are sometimes drawn to books that differ greatly from our lives, and the knowledge or emotion we gain from reading a particular work can fill in a gap in our knowledge or feelings about life. A work of art or a book can portray a virtue we are missing and restore a form of balance to our lives.

5. SELF-UNDERSTANDING

Much of what is mere intuition in our lives can be opened up to us through a painting or a story, as they delve into the depths of the soul. De Botton proposes that, “from time to time, we encounter works of art that seem to latch on to something we have felt but never recognized clearly before. Alexander Pope identified a central function of poetry as taking thoughts we experience half-formed and giving them clear expression: ‘what was often thought, but ne’er so well expressed.’ ”

6. GROWTH

Many forms of art widen our horizons. Paintings and books both take us to places we my otherwise never venture into, helping us to grow and develop. I can think of several books that have taught me much about the heart of human emotion and of situations which I have never encountered. The writer can take you into the mind of a person experiencing something you haven’t met in your own life and a painting or a photograph, in turn can help us to connect and to grow.

7. APPRECIATION

In the busyness of our lives, we so often miss the small details, the expressions on a child’s face, the light catching a new bud, a word unspoken, a colour, a scent, a sound. We rush through our lives and often fail to appreciate what we see. The artist and the writer can draw us into a specific scene and dissect life in a way that we may miss.

If you are interested in finding out more about Alain de Botton, you can find him on the website and on twitter. His new book, Art as Therapy, is one of the best art books of 2013. He founded the lecture series The School of Lifeartastherapy (1)


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The Best Characters Are Broken

Broken Glass

‘The best characters are broken.’

I came across this quote yesterday and it has stayed with me. I started to think about why this is the case and how the reader identifies with broken characters. The quote was a little nugget in a much longer article by writer Faith Hunter. She writes in the fantasy/thriller genre but this concept travels across all genres of fiction and, I should add, non-fiction.

Why? 

Psychologists suggest there is a part in many of us that is broken and often hidden from the world, a part of us which we are afraid to reveal for fear of other people’s reactions. As children we have no qualms about crying or screaming if something is wrong, or throwing ourselves onto the floor and lying prostrate with fists pounding the carpet. Anyone seen this? Yes, well. Somewhere along the line, though, we are told to temper our responses with phrases like –  ‘don’t cry,’ ‘try to behave,’ ‘big girls/boys don’t shout.’

While this helps to create a society which is relatively restrained (most of the time), it also teaches us to suppress our fears or pain. It tells us that emotions should be dealt with quietly and privately, and not in public. It pushes us into corners where we have to wrestle and fight against feelings of fear, inadequacy, rejection, pain and even phobias. It’s not unlike snake charming gone awry. These are just a few of the murky areas of our lives which we have been taught to just sit on and ignore, in the hope that they will just vanish.

Why do readers need this in a story?

Why do we read books at all? For a vast majority it is a means of escape, a way of entering into an imaginary world where the rules have changed and events are happening to other people, events which stir up emotions in the reader and trigger memories of their own fears. We need to feel that we are not alone and books can provide an intense range of emotions in the reader. The level of which is down to the craftsmanship of the writer.

In a good novel we are taken on a journey with a roller coaster of emotions which vary in intensity throughout the pages. The journey can be frightening and it can be comforting, it call tell us that our fears are universal, it can navigate us through the choppy waters of disbelief, it can heal the deeper parts of our soul and can remind us that all of humanity lives with these bundles of hidden thoughts, and all in the safety and privacy of a collection of words, neatly bound in a cover without us having to leave the house or to communicate these fears.

How can we find the ideas?

As writers we have fears which need to be exploited to form a convincing plot, fears which will leave the reader turning page after page. Some of these fears begin in childhood, others might be more recent, but they are there and they need to be dug up, excavated and displayed in the pages of your books. Readers connect with writers who artfully pull at these strings – strings of challenge, of hopelessness, of a fear of change. Whatever the issues with your key characters, you need to delve into the murky waters surrounding an event and pull out the rawness of the emotions.

If there is no tension or emotion in your story it won’t fly.

Open up the corridors of your inner world and pull out all that lurks in the darkness. You will help your readers to relate to the characters and bring a believable plot to life.


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Creating Intriguing Characters

Human male face made of several different people, artistic concept vertical collage

Creating interesting, engaging and intriguing characters can be most of the battle when it comes to writing fiction. It is the characters who draw the reader deep into the story and who make a compelling case for why the reader should care about the the people involved in the story. This is relevant for almost any genre of fiction and some non-fiction, although there may be some exceptions.

So how do you go about creating the kind of people who readers will be unable to leave behind? Some characters will be kind and generous, others spiteful or deceitful, some will resist elements of the plot and its events, others will be dislikeable but their flaws might resonate with the reader by exposing a certain vulnerability.

Think about the people who you have met, seen in films, read about in compelling books, or interacted with in business or by other means. Who do you remember and why? What sort of character traits make a person likeable or dislikeable? What has happened in their life to make them behave in a certain way? There are cultural differences to consider – how does the character’s ethnicity and cultural background shape them as a person?

Dig deep into the each character’s psyche and tease out the details of their life, their surroundings, family, experiences, passions, dislikes and fears. Often a character’s fears, especially that of your protagonist, will be rooted in an event or a set of events which might be familiar to people on a larger scale. Are they afraid of change, restrictions, loss, death, illness? Do they have an inability to make decisions?

Take time to profile your characters – brainstorm, make notes, paste photographs into a notebook or onto a Pinterest board (see my post on using Pinterest to improve your writing). Make sure that you know your characters to the very core and then let them loose in a situation, a setting, a crisis and you will know how they respond and why, you will know the decisions they need to make or are afraid to make.

Can you think of interesting characters you have read about recently? Do you have any tips on creating realistic and engaging characters?