Posts by hkatz

I'm a professional writer who works primarily with businesses and sometimes with academics. I also enjoy writing fiction and blogging. You can reach me at writehilakatz (at) gmail.com or by leaving a comment at https://brightacrossthelifespan.com/ (Bright Across the Lifespan).

Four Annoying Things People Do When Discussing Fictional Characters

I like talking to people about fictional characters, for two main reasons:
1) It’s interesting to think about psychology, behavior, relationships, and culture.
2) As a writer, I find it worthwhile to think about how other writers have crafted characters. How did they portray a character’s development or find a creative way to describe appearance?

Along with many enjoyable conversations with people, online and offline, about characters, I’ve also run up against some frustrating behaviors. Here are four examples of annoying things people do during these discussions:

1) Exaggerate the flaws of an unliked character

I won’t try to argue someone into liking or disliking a character. How people feel about a character isn’t always easily explainable, and people have preferences that you can’t control.

What I do care about, however, is a fair and well-intentioned reading (or viewing, if we’re talking about a movie/show). For some people, it’s not enough to dislike a character. They have to make that character the WORST EVER, blowing up all their faults while minimizing or erasing any good points. They’ll exaggerate mistakes or terrible behavior while pretending that the character has never done anything meaningfully good or interesting. Sometimes, they’ll completely make stuff up.

(I’ve also seen the reverse situation, where someone favors a character to the point where they exaggerate everything good about them and give that character credit for things they never did. This can also be annoying.)

2) Reduce a character to one dimension

Oversimplification bothers me. When a multi-faceted character gets described – and dismissed – as “the muscle” or “the babe” or “the brat” or “the bitch,” we miss out on an opportunity to consider a more complex figure with a mix of characteristics and motives, a character who may have changed in key ways throughout a story.

3) “Well I wouldn’t have done that!”

It’s normal to wonder how you would have handled a situation similarly or differently from a character. It’s interesting to consider how the same situation can affect people in different ways.

It gets annoying, however, when people keep using themselves as the sole yardstick for determining whether a character is good, wise, kind, beautiful, worthy of sympathy, or written realistically.

Regarding whether or not a character is “realistic,” there are multiple issues to consider. A character may seem unrealistic because the author failed to portray them convincingly – maybe the character seems flat, written without care or consistency, or the author messed up some major details about their job or religion. Or maybe the character is meant to come across as deceptive or unreliable in some way. Or the story is set in an unsettling fantasy realm, and as a reader you haven’t yet figured out all the “rules” for the way things are. There are interesting discussions to be had about what it means for a character to be realistic.

In any case, your personal experience is important, but it isn’t the sum total of existence. People don’t all act/speak/think/feel the same way in similar situations.

4) Make unwarranted, uncharitable assumptions about the author and other readers

Authors do sometimes write themselves into a story as a character, or they seem to favor one character greatly (possibly at the expense of the other characters or the plot).

But I’ve also seen many cases where readers make unfair assumptions about an author based on the behavior of a character. One example – they assume that a character’s racism is reflective of the author’s beliefs. Or that if a villain didn’t receive a harsh punishment, it must mean the author is condoning what the villain did.

They may also make assumptions about other readers (or viewers) in a similar way. In some fan forums and social media subcultures, it’s imperative that you feel a certain way about a character, or else you’ll get viciously harassed, dog-piled, or even doxxed. By liking a certain character, you become indistinguishable from them in values and world view. Never mind that it’s possible to like a character for multiple reasons. For instance, you can be drawn to a character because they’re interesting and make the whole story more interesting, even if in real life you know they would be harmful to you.

Implications Beyond Fiction

Everything I’ve mentioned here can derail a discussion about fictional characters or make it become deeply unpleasant, an exchange of attacks rather than a conversation. But what also bothers me is that I see the same kind of reactions applied to actual people:

The need to demonize opponents, while downplaying the flaws (or dismissing the crimes) of those you support. A strong tendency to sum people up with a label or two before stuffing them into some mental compartment within easy reach. An inability to see beyond yourself and try to understand why another person (someone in the present day or perhaps a historical figure) acts, thinks, or feels a certain way. A desire to ascribe unwarranted, perverse motives to people or leap to conclusions based on faulty judgments of collective guilt or guilt by association (“you agree with so-and-so about one political issue, which means you agree with them about every political issue, you bigot/communist/fascist/insult-buzzword-of-the-day”).

If we change the way we think about and discuss fictional characters, can we change the way we look at real humans in the messy world around us, present and past?

Dealing With Regret: Insights From an Australian Novel

“There’s always a chance to start over” is a common message. It’s meant for encouragement, and plenty of times it’s accurate. People do often rebuild their lives after an abusive relationship or a job loss or an illness. Their life may not look exactly the same, but it can wind up being better in a number of ways.

Other times, there’s no fresh start, not in the way one hopes for. A missed chance is gone. An opportunity won’t return. There are limits to the ways in which we can start over.

Regret naturally follows. And regret can throw up a wall around you, keeping you locked up with your past, tormented by “what-ifs,” and unable to perceive present and future possibilities.

Insights From Tirra Lirra by the River

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Last year, I read Tirra Lirra by the River, a novel by Jessica Anderson. As a young woman, the main character, Nora, jumps at the chance to leave the backwaters Australian community where she grew up. As an old woman, she returns and wonders whether leaving had been the right decision after all.

Nora has a gift for art. In various ways, she draws on her artistic skills after leaving home, but towards the end of her life she also thinks that she would have grown more as an artist had she stayed.

Throughout her life, she suffers various heartbreaks, including a wretched marriage. After her marriage, she wonders if some paths are permanently closed to her:

I knew that like fruit affected by a hard drought, I was likely to be rotten before ripe. Sometimes I believed it was already too late, but at others I was seized by a desperate optimism that expressed itself in spates of chatter and laughter and hectic activity.

But it would be wrong to say that her life has been devoid of joy, interest, and friendship. And this is what brings me to the main point – What insights does the novel give us about dealing with regret?

Avoiding sentimentality and self-pity

Nora may feel angry, crushed, or terrified at various times in her life, but she doesn’t indulge much in self-pity. She also doesn’t try to sugar coat reality. Her retelling of her life has a clarity and straightforwardness that’s admirable. She can also take on a wry tone, finding absurdity in depressing circumstances.

She isn’t invulnerable to despair. But her general level-headedness is a way of dealing with regret and getting on. She doesn’t spend a lot of time railing against fate. She doesn’t lie to herself and pretend that everything is ok when it’s not. And – this is also important – she doesn’t pretend that something isn’t good enough when in fact it’s quite lovely and inspiring. Without being sentimental, Nora can appreciate what’s good.

Avoiding what-ifs

Nora has her “what if” moments during the book. But for the most part, she doesn’t dwell on alternate scenarios or choices left unchosen. She also doesn’t waste mental energy on “should haves” or “shouldn’t haves.” (“Things shouldn’t have turned out like this!”) Whether they should have or not isn’t really something we can fully understand or control. Things are as they are; hard work and powerful hopes don’t guarantee certain outcomes. Sometimes we do have the power to change things, but not always, or not to the extent we like. We face our circumstances, make various choices, and that’s it.

Seeking beauty

With her artist’s eye and her powerful determination, Nora does find beauty in all kinds of situations:

In whatever circumstances I have found myself, I have always managed to devise a little area, camp or covert, that was not too ugly. At times it was a whole room, but at others, it may have been only a corner with a handsome chair, or a table and a vase of flowers. Once, it was a bed, a window, and a lemon tree. But always, I have managed to devise it somehow, and no doubt I shall do it again.

This skill in seeing beauty has been with her all her life. For instance, when she was younger:

I was amazed and enthralled by the thickness and brilliance of the stars, by the rich darkness of the sky, and the ambiguous peacefulness of the blazing moon. In an aureole of turquoise the moon sailed across the sky, and as I watched, our block of land became a raft and began to move, sailing swiftly and smoothly in one direction while the moon and clouds went off in the other.

And when she’s an old woman:

… at the other end of the veranda, I can see the dark leaves climbing one behind the other, casting on the timber a shadow perforated by tear-shaped fragments of sunlight.

This ability to perceive beauty in various forms and make space for beauty even in the middle of pain or misery, is a potentially life-saving skill. And it can certainly help temper regret.

Notes from a New Year’s Day Fitness Fair

In what is a promising way to start 2020, I went to a fitness fair at a health club and community center. All of the classes at the fair were free, and it was a fun way to try some different activities. Here are my notes:

MELT method for improved neck and shoulder posture and pain relief

– I didn’t know what the MELT method was, and unlike in a regular class, the instructor didn’t have time to explain. She kept using certain terminology (like “shearing”), and she mentioned how this was about connective tissue.
– The particular exercises she used were supposed to help with the healthier position of the neck and shoulders and a release of tension in those areas, which is important for me, because when I write I have a tendency to get a tortoise neck (where my head pushes forward towards the laptop screen). So I thought maybe this could help.
– The exercises involved lying on a mat and using a cylindrical tube, a roller, made of foam that sometimes didn’t feel soft at all, like when it was digging into my spine.
– Some parts of me did feel genuinely more relaxed – not numbed, but truly more relaxed. But I also developed a pain in a part of my upper back. So, mixed results.
– Maybe it would have worked better with a smaller class where the instructor can stop next to each person and make sure their technique and roller positioning are good.

Nia Dance

– Ok, this was fun. So happy I signed up for this one.
– It was an hour-long workout combining dance, martial arts moves, and other types of movements (free-styling too). The warmup and cool down were effective, and the workout itself was energetic and called on the whole body.
– Also, the energy in the room was fantastic. A friendly vibe, people enjoying themselves. This was seriously a great activity.
– I felt happy, relaxed, and at peace with the world after.

A lecture on sleep

– Some of the stuff I learned kept me awake at night. (Just kidding, somewhat.) Anyway, sleep is a critical part of good health.
– It’s important to consider both quality and quantity of sleep.
– The lecturer talked about some things I’d like to look into further, like blue light from various screens and light fixtures (fine during the day, but could disturb ability to sleep when exposed to it at night before going to bed).
– Low-quality sleep can arise for multiple reasons, ranging from anxiety to problems in the physical environment. Also, the lecturer brought up a disturbing attitude towards sleep, where some people consider it unproductive or a waste of time.

Meditation

– Really low-key instructor. A relaxed, quiet guy. You could tell he meditates.
– The first meditation, which was just breath-focused, was pretty good, but I also felt impatient some times. The instructor talked about how to gently note the impatience and gently return attention to breathing whenever attention slips.
– The ticking of the clock sounded like a caterpillar munching on a leaf.
– The second meditation was more successful for me. It was focused on breathing and on a single word of your choice. I chose “mayim” (pronounced “mah-yim”), the Hebrew word for water. This also got me to imagine water flowing over me (including on the MELT-induced upper back ache), and to picture myself at one of the best beaches I’ve ever been to – the one at Halibut Point State Park near Rockport, MA. This is a photo I took when visiting there in the summer of 2017:

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– The third meditation involved focusing on a feeling of warmth and closeness. That one was good too, but for meditating on a regular basis I think I’ll do the second one most frequently.

Narrative Point of View (POV): A Lesson From Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones

Let’s say you’re writing a novel. What POV should you choose? Should it be a first-person narration (the “I” or “we” POV)? Or some form of third-person POV (using “he/she/they”)?

There are many reasons to choose one type of POV over another, or even to mix multiple types of POVs in a single work. One example comes from Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones, which is set during the 1979-1981 Atlanta child murders. The novel is divided into three sections, each focusing on a different kid from a fifth-grade glass in an Atlanta elementary school. These kids are struggling with personal problems unconnected to the serial murders going on around them, though the murders will also change them in profound ways.

For each of the three kids, Jones uses a different type of narrative POV: third-person, second-person, and first-person. I don’t know what led her to choose a certain POV for a particular kid, but I’m going to post my own reasons for why I think the choices work well.

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LaTasha Baxter: Third-Person POV

Tasha gets the third-person POV – what’s more, it’s a third-person limited POV. In her section of the book, the reader can experience only what she experiences. None of the action takes places without her present, and the feelings described are only hers (though of course you can guess what other characters are thinking/feeling based on body language, word choice, and other clues). She doesn’t speak in the first-person “I,” but she’s the focus of this part of Leaving Atlanta, and the reader is meant to stick by her side through the events.

I think this POV suits her because she’s an “everyman” character. She isn’t the smartest or most successful student, but she isn’t struggling and failing either. She isn’t the prettiest girl in her class, but she isn’t considered ugly, though she’s sometimes taunted about her looks. Her family is neither the richest nor the poorest among their acquaintances. She definitely isn’t the most popular kid or even among the chosen circle of popular kids, but she also isn’t the class pariah. Although she’s capable of cruelty or thoughtlessness (usually when she cares too much about what the popular kids think), she isn’t mean for the sake of being mean; she isn’t a bully. Her concerns and hopes are typical for a kid her age, and her middling social standing gives her a vantage point from which she can observe a range of kids in her class, including the ones who are regularly trodden on. The reader can easily observe things alongside her.

Rodney Green: Second-Person POV

The second-person POV uses “you.” (From the book: “As you chant nursery rhymes to distract yourself from the news report, Father stacks his breakfast dishes in the sink and shuts off the radio.”)

Rodney is a boy who’s regularly being judged and accused. Most painfully by his own father, but by many others as well. He has no friends and is considered an unintelligible weirdo; only one other kid (see Octavia, below) gets treated worse in class.

He fears scrutiny. He wants to be furtive and unnoticed. The “you, you, you” is like a drumbeat of accusations or a constant reminder that the boy can’t escape from someone’s critical eye. It creates an impression of a character being watched by someone who’s dogging his footsteps.

At the same time, the second-person POV also works because Rodney wants to be understood. It’s as if he’s appealing to the reader and trying to form a connection. He wants you, the reader, to put yourself in his shoes. (The stuff he goes through – you’re the one going through it too as you read the second-person POV.)

By the end of his section of the book, he’s given up on anyone ever caring enough to understand him.

Octavia Fuller: First-Person POV

Octavia, even more than Rodney, is the class pariah. She’s very poor and her skin is also darker than everyone else’s; her classmates, although they’re also black, have made her skin the butt of most of their jokes about her. Her school experience is one of perpetual shunning. Even Rodney is wary about openly associating with her. Aside from an older boy who lives in her neighborhood, no one has been consistently friendly to her.

Generally, Octavia is quiet. But in one scene, when a boy insults her openly, she fights back, lobbing insults and rocks at him. She carries around a lot of hurt and anger, but she isn’t defeated. She has a strength that carries her through day after day of mistreatment and disappointment. The first-person POV suits her, as she’s a person with a firm, distinctive voice and character. She’s also fairly isolated. In multiple ways, she remains apart from the crowd as an “I.”

Not Sure Which POV to Choose for Your Work?

Sometimes authors will try out different POVs for a particular character or story to see which one “rings true.” With each change in POV, the readers’ relationship with the characters and events will change.

Five Things I Learned Writing a Novel

I recently finished writing a novel. (I recently finished writing a novel!) I’ve been working on it for years, on and off, and to see it reach its third draft is amazing.

Now that I’m finally sharing it with people for additional feedback and preparing it for agents and publishers, I’ve been thinking about the work of writing a novel and what I’ve learned during those multiple drafts, including the earliest and most hopeless-looking one.

1) You may need to grow older or go through certain experiences to write a novel

It isn’t impossible to write a novel at a young age. (I wrote one in high school that remains in a plastic bin awaiting massive revisions.) But there are novels that can’t be written until you’re older, more mature, and more aware of what’s going on in your life and the lives of other people. This awareness was underdeveloped in younger me. I couldn’t have written this particular novel in my 20s.

2) The first draft is a mess

I thought I might be able to finish the novel in two drafts. I needed three. The first draft is just ink splatter with potential. The second draft is rough but much more coherent. And the third is finally ready to be seen by other people.

If you struggle with perfectionism, the state of the first draft might destroy your willingness to keep writing. Just keep in mind that it’s ok for the first draft to be deeply discouraging. There will be a gulf between how you envision the story and how it’s actually emerging. Your first draft can make you think that you’ll never finish the novel and that you’re incapable of producing anything but a rag pile of loose ends and flat characters who’ve had all the life wrung out of them. And there will be typos and missing words and sometimes sentences you’ve left unfinished.

3) A certain amount of doubt is productive

Too much doubt, and you’ll never finish your novel. You won’t have enough confidence in yourself and faith in the outcome. But some doubt is useful. Between the first and second drafts of the novel, I made a major change to the plot – for the better – after a couple of weeks spent doubting the believability of what I’d written.

Where you aim your doubt is also important. Doubt aimed at weaknesses in the writing is helpful when you’re rewriting a draft. Massive doubt dumped on yourself (“I’m terrible, I’ll never finish”) can stall you or derail a project.

4) You don’t need a rigid writing regimen, but do mind the gaps

A regimen works for some people. They write at the same time each day. They write in the same location. Or they commit to writing a certain number of words or pages per day. I wrote mostly in the same location, but not at the same time, and the amount I wrote varied considerably day by day. What’s more important than a regimen is continuity. Work on your novel most days of the week. Don’t leave gaps of weeks (or worse, months) where you aren’t looking at it or thinking about it.

5) Writing a novel can make you feel vulnerable

There isn’t a one-to-one correspondence between the characters in the novel and people in my life, including myself. And many of the things that happen in the novel never happened to me.

But there’s no denying that I’m in the novel – in more than one character and across different settings. The novel contains things I fear or hope for or struggle with. Which makes me uneasy, even as it amazes me – look at what can emerge when you’re creative, when you’re trying hard not to block yourself with falseness and fear.

I wonder what conclusions others may draw about me, accurately or not, based on what I’ve written. There’s an instinct to shy away from scrutiny and hide what I’ve written. I’m ignoring that instinct and taking steps towards sharing the work and publishing it.

Some parts of the novel took me longer to write than others because they caused some emotional turmoil and forced me to think about things I would have preferred to overlook or quickly disregard. I did my best to write through the turmoil, with an effort for greater clarity and honesty. If you’re writing a novel, and you’re stuck or feel reluctant to keep working on a particular scene, one possibility is that you’re writing something that’s psychologically demanding. (Of course, there are other possibilities, such as being tired after hours of work/parenting/school or getting distracted by Twitter.)

Concerns About AI Bias Aren’t Just “PC-Ness”

People often need to frame things as a battle between two forces (“libs” vs. “conservatives,” or “SJWs” vs. “anti-SJWs”). Any concerns or opinions mentioned predominantly by one side will get automatically shot down by the other.

I’m seeing these kind of knee-jerk responses in conversations about algorithms trained to make predictions about individuals. Depending on where the algorithm is used, these predictions can affect anything from the health care you receive to whether you’re hired for a job.

One example is a medical algorithm that was significantly more likely to recommend special health care programs for white patients than black patients who were equally sick. The factor that shaped the decision-making in this case wasn’t even race, at least not directly. From a recent MIT Technology Review article on this issue:

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One of the remarks I regularly hear (and read) about this topic is that these algorithms are upsetting people because they reflect “facts not feelings” and that “facts don’t lie.” Ok, maybe facts don’t lie, but what do they actually reflect? What datasets are you training these algorithms on, and what do the data really tell you about people? (Not just groups of people, but individuals who are on the receiving end of these predictions.) The fact that members of one group may have historically been more likely to receive worse health care, on average, than members of another group doesn’t mean we need to perpetuate the problem.

The biases produced by these algorithms – biases which may be based on class, income, race, sex, or other dimensions – don’t necessarily reflect unchanging truths about human nature or social problems we can never address. So it’s disheartening to see people crow about how decisions based on algorithms are reflecting the “real truth” underneath the layers of PC-ness we’re festooned with as a society.

The medical algorithm mentioned in this post was examined, and the problem got addressed. In many other cases, we don’t know why algorithms are making predictions or decisions in certain ways. We don’t know what data they’ve been trained on, and companies are keeping quiet about it. There may be little accountability or option to appeal a decision. This is a critical issue to discuss, while hopefully minimizing the knee-jerk responses and the thought-terminating clichés (chants of “facts not feelings” from people who are also acting emotionally about this issue, though they don’t recognize their satisfaction or delight as feelings).

Excessive Negative Thoughts: Coping Strategies

This video from Psych2Go starts out discussing the terrible effects too much negative thinking may have on your health. After that onslaught of negative thoughts, it lays out several coping strategies (starting around two and half minutes in).

One important point that comes up during the suggestion to use distractions: these strategies aren’t meant for avoidance. Even when you distract yourself with a book or a movie, the goal isn’t to keep trying to escape from a problem in your life. The goal is to help yourself become less stressed so that you’re able to deal with the problem more effectively after you’ve become more calm.

Good luck! (I can tell you that the tip about paying attention to body language caught me off guard. Jaw unclenched, for the time being…)