Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Tag: Fiction (page 1 of 3)

Janelle Brown, Watch Me Disappear, a Gripping Read

Janelle Brown’s latest novel, Watch Me Disappeardue out July 11, is a gripping read. A mother’s disappearance while on a solo backpacking trip in the mountains of California devastates her husband and daughter. The narrative is beautifully imagined and intricately woven. The plot is driven by love, loss, and lies. Those three forces pull the characters in opposing directions, making them doubt everything they thought they knew. The father, Jonathan’s, love drives him to write a romanticized autobiography of his life with Billie, the lost wife. As events unfold, he begins to doubt that he ever knew her. The daughter, Olive’s, love causes her to see visions of her lost mother, calling Olive to find her. But she finds much more than she thinks she is looking for. The narrative of Watch Me Disappear is filled with unexpected turns that make the reader not want to put the novel down. And the surprises never stop coming. The characters are complex and sympathetically drawn, very real people with traits that make you love them and traits that make you hate them.

Janelle Brown’s writing is stunning. Beautiful descriptions, surprising images (“an ominous premonition spiders up the back of his neck”), pithy insights into human nature and the beauty and tragedy of life. An old woman who answers the door: “Her hand is papery and porcelain-thin on Olive’s own.” Descriptions that make your skin crawl: “He left an impression of stubble and flannel and stringy unkempt hair, and a sharp smell, something itchy and intense oozing from his pores.” At times the language itself creates a moment of comic relief: “As Isaac tongued her molars, Olive kept visualizing the slides of amoeba they were studying in her biology class–his germy pseudopods spelunking in her mouth.”

Watch Me Disappear is an engaging and rewarding read.




Dan Chaon’s novel Ill Will Is Not for the Faint of Heart

Dan Chaon‘s book Ill Will is a beautifully written, dark, at times almost lyric portrayal of a man’s struggle to discern what is real and to confront his past. He is a therapist who grew up with a disturbed, abusive older adoptive brother, and whose parents were brutally murdered when he was a teenager.

Chaon’s novel follows two plot lines, the disintegration of the therapist’s own family after his wife dies, and the bizarre investigation by the therapist and one of his patients of a series of deaths. Told from multiple points of view and shifting frequently between past and present, the narrative is complex and engaging. It moves toward its conclusion driven by the inescapable, inexorable power of the past to control the present. The characters’ journeys are downward spirals right from the beginning.

Chaon offers a dark, almost despairing view of human nature. This book is not for the faint of heart.

From the Forge: Creating Complex Characters, Part II

There are two general methods of characterization—Indirect and Direct. The Indirect method consists of the author telling the reader the character’s background, feelings, values, and so forth. This is that bugaboo all writers are warned away from—“telling” instead of “showing,” the author interpreting the character for the reader. Over-using the indirect method of characterization will result in the First Deadly Sin of writing, monotonous prose. There are, however, times when the Indirect method is useful. With it, the writer can move freely in time and space and can communicate a lot of information quickly.

Just remember, because it is telling and not showing, a little goes a long way. Readers want to be pulled into the scene, to experience the story with the character.

So most of a writer’s work in characterization occurs through the Direct method. There are four generally recognized ways to characterize directly—appearance, action, speech, and thought.

Janet Burroway, in Writing Fiction, says that “appearance is especially important because our eyes are our most highly developed means of perception” and that “it is appearance that prompts our first reaction to people.” The accumulation of concrete particulars in a person’s appearance—not just hair color, but hair style—not only gives the reader something to “see,” but also reveals something about the character. It may be unkind to judge a person by his/her appearance, but the fact is appearance says something about who we are.

BUT a story is not just what characters look like. It is, more importantly, what characters do. Action is what drives a story. Action causes and reveals conflict, which is the heart of any story. Action causes and reveals change, which is essential to character development. What characters do reveals who they are more powerfully than any other descriptor. Characters make decisions and re-act to forces acting on them. And their reactions become the catalysts for further actions in the story.

And remember, even when a character does nothing in response to a stimulus, the lack of action is itself a response that reveals something about who the person is. Burroway says, “In fiction as in life, restraint, the decision to do nothing, is fraught with potential tension.”

In the next From the Forge column, we’ll look at the remaining Direct methods of characterization—speech and thought.


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