Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Empathy Works Against Comedy

I'm working on the revisions for Lord Lightning and in the process I'm getting a bit more insight into what distinguishes comedy from drama.

It turns out to have a lot to do with how much insight the author gives us into the characters' motivations.

Take for example Austen's brilliantly funny character Lady Catherine De Burgh. All Austen shows us about her is what we would see observing her from the outside: what she says and how she treats people. These become very funny at times, for example when she meddles in Charlotte's housekeeping, or explains that her daughter would have been a wonderful pianist if she had only taken up the instrument. And of course she's extremely comic when she confronts Elizabeth and insists that her engagement is impossible since Darcy is engaged to her daughter, leading Elizabeth to ask why, if it is impossible Lady Catherine has made a long journey to demand she give up that very same engagement.

But look what happens if we take the identical character and tell the same story writing from deep within Lady Catherine's point of view, which provides the reader with far more information that reveals why she acts the way she does.

For example, if we saw Lady Catherine's meddling from her point of view we might learn that when she was a child no one ever gave her any advice and as a result she made a very poor choice of husband that ruined her life. Her meddling is meant to help others--she sees others as being continually on the brink of making dangerous mistakes. That they don't understand this makes her sad, but she can't give up.

Narrate the scene with the piano in her POV and as she looks at her sickly daughter let the reader learn that her husband turned out to have syphilis. She is terrified that her daughter's sickliness is the result and blames herself for her condition. The dream world she has created about her daughter's abilities is an attempt to drown out her fears.

And her obsession with her daughter marrying Darcy? Stay in her POV and let the reader learn that she wants to protect her daughter from marrying someone dangerous, as she did, and the only way she can think of to do this is to marry her someone she can completely trust--her nephew, Darcy.

Were we to experience these scenes this way, Lady Catherine would no longer be funny because the reader would understand her motivations in a way that creates empathy. Then Lady Catherine's self-delusion, meddling, and matchmaking are no longer comic, but depending on how the author spins them, might be tragic or ironic.

The POV convention used in today's romance novel is the deep third person POV that takes us deep into the characters' personalities and builds empathy with them. That's important because we want our readers to fully enjoy the romance. But if you want your readers to laugh at characters, you have to step back from them and avoid those deep points of view. The less your reader knows about why the character is doing what they do, the funnier that character will be.

The Omniscient POV that Austen uses so masterfully is very well suited for comedy, as is the entire medium of film where we are always outside of the character judging them only from what they do or say, or what others say about them. Blending comedy and empathy, which is what I've tried to do in Lord Lightning is challenging. I start my readers out laughing and by the end, they are, I hope, feeling the emotions that my characters feel. Doing that turns out to be all about just how deeply I take my reader into their POV.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Research: Tom Brady in a Wet T-Shirt

One of the toughest challenges we face when we write love stories is coming up with heros who excite our readers. Those making movies or TV have only to find someone who looks and sounds the right way to get the ladies slavering.

After all, when you can show your audience someone who looks like what you see above, it almost doesn't matter what story you put around him.

But when we write stories we have to make readers feel that kind of zing using only what our hero says, does, and thinks and what other characters can put into words about their perceptions of the hero.

This would appear to place us at a disadvantage, but it could be argued that if we do our job properly, the heroes we construct are more satisfying to us, emotionally, than are those pretty boys we see in films.

That's because when we read about them we engage with them so much more deeply. We know what they're thinking. We know what emotions they experience and how intensely they they experience them. We know how they think about their past and how they dream about their future. Movies rarely show us that.

What, after all, is Mr Firth really thinking when we see him looking intense in a photo? Does his soul resonate with the intensity we imagine him having, or is it just a trick of the light? Is he brooding about his wounded heart or fighting an attack of dyspepsia? Could the pain he so obviously feels be due to the poor performance of his stock portfolio? With the image, we never find out. In a romance, because we learn so much about the hero's inner life, we do.

Still, once we have written our hero and made him think and behave in ways that render him irresistible to our readers, we do have to put some work into conveying what he looks like. When we do, we have to struggle mightily to avoid cliches. Craggy brows, high cheekbones, and hair as black as ravens' wings do not distinguish our hero from all the other aspirants to the hero's crown.

So what does? In an attempt to answer that I turn to Google Images and hunt up photos of attractive men. Then I challenge myself to see if I can describe their faces or physiques without using any of the standard cliches.

Amid my researches I went looking for images to help me describe the Cavalry Officer hero of my WIP. Given how fit such a man must be I turned for inspiration to that modern warrior, Tom Brady and I did not come away empty handed. Peyton may be having a better year, but he will never look as hot!

How useful this particular research technique will be, only my eventual readers will be able to tell me. Meanwhile, as print-outs of hunks come to adorn every free surface of my office, the World's Nicest Man has suddenly adopted a new fitness regimen and is working very hard on his pecs.

There are days when it is really a lot of fun to be a writer of Romance!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

What is the Seventh House?

"Lords of the Seventh House" is the title of this blog. It may also end up being the title of the series of romances I will be publishing with Avon. The words have a nice ring to them. Everyone loves a lord, and the phrase, "The Seventh House," has an archetypal feel. But what does "Lords of the Seventh House" actually mean?

The phrase is one that comes from traditional astrology, which is the kind of astrology the heroine of my first book, Eliza Farrell, uses. Eliza is a descendant of William Lilly, England's most famous astrologer, so she naturally draws heavily on the techniques and terminology described in his landmark book, Christian Astrology. Christian Astrology was first published in 1647 and has remained in print ever since.

The term "House" as it is applied to a chart goes back to the ancient Greeks. It is the term used to describe each of the twelve segments into which the astrological chart divides the sky. Houses Seven through Twelve represent the portion of the sky that is above the horizon at the time and place for which a chart is cast.

The Seventh House itself represents the section of the sky that is closest to the western horizon--the place where the sun, moon and planets set.

Charts can be drawn up to investigate the nature of anything that can be defined with a place or a time. When a chart is drawn up for a person using that person's time and place of birth, each house on the birth chart describes how specific areas of the person's personality and life experience will play out.

The First House on our charts, for example, describes the way we assert ourselves in the world as well as the personality we show the world--a personality that may be harmonious with, or greatly at odds with, how we feel inside depending on other planetary placements.

The Second House describes our relationship with our material obsessions and more broadly what kinds of things we value. The Third House describes how we communicate with our immediate environment and those in it, including the siblings whose presence or absence in our immediate environment is so decisive in early life.

The Seventh House is where we look to find out information about the people with whom we form important, long-lasting connections. The Seventh House has become known as the House of Marriage because for most of us marriage is the most important partnership we will ever form.

But it's worth pointing out that the Seventh House is emphatically not the house of Love. The brief fling falls into the purview of the Fifth House, which is traditionally associated with, among other things, play, gambling, and love affairs. Astrology knows that marriage is not always or even mostly about love but is, instead, about functioning together as a unit in the eyes of the world.

When planets are found in the portion of the sky mapped by a specific house they color how the affairs of that house will play out. If Mars is in the Seventh House of a birth chart, anyone with more than a passing acquaintance with astrological theory will expect that the person's marriage will be energetic, sexualized, self absorbed, perhaps, and prone to flare up in dramatic quarrels. A person with Mars in the Seventh House is likely to be attracted either to a partner who has a strong Mars on their natal chart, or who is experienced by the chart's owner as having Mars-like characteristics: a strong sense of self, impetuosity, a taste for combat.

But what if, as so often happens, there are no planets in the Seventh House? It is then that Traditional Western Astrology comes to our aid, because it interprets houses by looking at the planet that rules that house--its "Lord" in Lilly's parlance.

Finding the ruler of a house is easy. When a chart is drawn up, each a specific degree of a sign is placed on the cusp or boundary of every house in the chart. Each sign, in turn, is ruled by a specific planet. If you understand the strength and chart placement of that planet, you can learn a great deal about the house it rules--though this is a BIG "if."

If the planet that rules the house is in a sign where it expresses its energy easily and if it makes harmonious aspects to other planets, the affairs of the house will unfold effortlessly. If the planet is placed in a sign where its energies are hindered or if it makes harsh square aspects to other planets they will present challenges.

Traditional astrologers evaluate that planet's strength using a highly complex set of rules that have been passed down and elaborated on by astrologers starting back in the days of the ancient Romans.

I have been having a great time this past year delving into traditional astrological techniques that have once again become fashionable in modern astrology over the past decade,and applying them to the charts I study--including those of the protagonists in my novels. I've found these traditional techniques extremely helpful as I go about writing the second book in my series.

I use real charts for my protagonists--a process I'll describe in a future post. The lovers in my second novel turned out to be two people with Scorpio Suns because it is standard astrological belief that Scorpios are happiest mated with other Scorpios. When I came up with charts that fit them, both of the lovers turned out to have Seventh Houses packed with planets.

This sent me back to studying the traditional meaning of the Seventh House. One thing that emerged was that in traditional astrology, while the Seventh House is indeed the House of Marriage, it is also the house that describes a person's enemies.

A person with a strong Seventh House filled with conflicting planets like those of my protagonists has a choice. They can engage the important people in their lives as partners or they can turn them into enemies. Couple this insight with the naturally suspicious nature of the person with a Scorpio Sun and their tendency to keep their real self hidden, and the conflict described by my protagonists' packed Seventh Houses began to emerge.

Can they trust each other enough to become partners or will these two passionate Scorpios end up as enemies? That is the dynamic that is driving the storyline of my second novel.