Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Tagged: Heart-Shaped Box

wounds, wounded, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, character depth, layered characters

Wounds matter in life and in fiction. The last blog was a bit heavy, true. My goal was to start the dialogue about being wounded. You are not alone. I am not alone. We’ve all been hurt in some way and to some degree. Just goes with being human.

Admitting weakness, failure, mistakes, and flaws isn’t always easy. In fact, it can be downright terrifying for even the ‘strongest’ of us. It’s an especially daunting task in a world that idolizes something none of us will ever be…perfect. Wounds are part of the human experience. When we understand the nature of wounds, our fiction becomes all the richer just by adding in these layers.

All genres and all stories require wounds. No wound and no story. Even¬†The Little Engine That Could had self-esteem issues and a confidence problem ūüėČ .

Wounds provide friction vital for conflict, No conflict, no story. Conflict turns pages, sells books, and cultivates fans. The entire point of stories is a flawed character overcoming some internal issue (damage) in order to triumph over an external problem. It’s why readers read fiction.

Genre Dictates Damage

wounds, wounded, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, character depth, layered characters

This said, the wounds need to fit the genre because genre acts as a guideline for reader expectations. Our goal as authors should be to meet then exceed reader expectations. Stories are all for the reader or should be, which is why genre constraints can be very helpful for writers.

No one expects a cozy cupcake mystery to explore the nature of evil. Readers who gravitate to this genre are wanting a lighter read and will resent us playing Dostoyevsky. Conversely, if a reader is in the mood for a story that probes the depths of the human condition, they’re probably not picking up a novel about a cupcake baker who solves local crimes.

Many emerging writers often shy away from damaged characters and use genre as an excuse to avoid the uncomfortable. Big mistake. A cozy cupcake mystery can give the reader the light entertainment she craves and¬†also offer emotional resonance she needs…without being Crime, Punishment and Cupcakes (though that’s a killer title, LOL).

When we understand wounds better, it helps us cultivate layered characters who’ll make for page-turning stories, regardless of genre. Let’s look at some common sources for wounds.

Pain of Perfect

wounds, wounded, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, character depth, layered characters

First, what is perfect? Good question. Humans all across time and in every culture idolize perfect¬†(always have and always will)¬†though what¬†perfect¬†is varies vastly and changes all the time. Just take a moment to check out female beauty standards across the ages and it’s easy to see how, while the world around us might change, people don’t.

We are still ridiculous.

The ancient Incas thought being cross-eyed was super sexy. RAWR. They often fitted infants with a plank between their eyes to artificially create this ‘natural’ beauty for those unlucky enough to be born with ‘normal’ eyes. Ancient Greece was hot for the unibrow.

From ideal body type to what constitutes success to what constitutes normal or abnormal is in constant flux, and is different everywhere. It even varies from household to household depending on culture and you got it…wounds. This is where writers can have a lot of fun creating mayhem in fiction.

Falling Short

wounds, wounded, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, character depth, layered characters

No matter what genre we write, a character failing to ‘live up to’ some ideal is gold. Maybe your character has spent a lifetime being measured against the ‘perfect’ older sibling, and struggles with self-esteem. This character might flounder trying to create his/her own distinct identity.

Or flip it.

What if the character happens to be¬†the ‘perfect’ older sibling? This character didn’t ask for family or outsiders to pick on his or her younger sibling for not being as smart, talented, pretty, ambitious, etc.

This character never asked to be the standard unit of measurement to judge another human being. How much guilt might come with that? Think of the pressure or even the fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’?

Also, we have another ‘person’ who lacks a distinctive identity.¬†While we have two very different ‘people’ both characters are defined¬†in relation to the other. Outsiders have denied agency to both.¬†It’s amazing how something as simple as birth order can create a wound that drives characters and their decisions (good and bad).

We see this sort of wound explored in everything from¬†The Joy Luck Club¬†(literary fiction) to¬†Game of Thrones¬†(epic high fantasy) to one out of every three Hallmark movies ūüėČ .

The Diseased Family Tree

wounds, wounded, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, character depth, layered characters

Since we’re all in the holiday season, we might be more intensely aware of how wounds can come from those closest. We touched a bit on family damage with ‘perfection.’ Family damage can come in many forms.

Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box¬†does a brilliant job of exploring the ‘anti-goal’ which is a common fruit of the diseased family tree.

Judas Coyne is a famous rockstar, wealthy beyond imagination who has everything (including a lot of emotional baggage). Hate, anger and resentment fueled his incredible success, yet false guilt and profound shame keep him from enjoying any of it. A vengeful ghost determined to destroy him body and soul might be the only thing with the power to liberate Coyne from his emotional bondage.

Sometimes the diseased family tree is not as obvious. Often, parents believe they’re giving their children the best, but are actually deluded about the nature of their motives.

In¬†The Luckiest Girl Alive, TifAni’s mom is superficial, materialistic, and self-absorbed. Her father is an emotionally absentee ghost who resents his life. Her mother pushes for TifAni to attend an elite prep school to give her daughter all the opportunities she missed (code for ‘marry real money’). Dad doesn’t have the spine to stand up and say ‘no.’

Both parents are too self-centered to realize TifAni in that school is a ticking bomb.

Of course, not every character needs to grow up in Season Ten of The Jerry Springer Show in order to take on some damage. The road to therapy is paved with good intentions.

Parents are human, too.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty explores how the best of intentions can poison everything.

Life Wounds All

wounds, wounded, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, character depth, layered characters

Life has 100% fatality rate. No one gets out alive. Also we’re all going to get hurt somewhere by someone. Thing is, life is all…pointy. If family doesn’t make us bleed, then school, peers, romantic interests, work colleagues, Facebook or plain bad luck will.

I know. I missed my calling writing inspirational cards ūüėõ .

Why am I talking about all this? Because we writers have more ‘competition’ than any other time in human history. With no gatekeepers, discoverability is a nightmare. There are a gazillion choices for books and most of them (like cable channels) are a waste of what little free time we have.

More is Not Always Better

From movies to television to books, audiences are deluged with tired tropes, boringly predictable plots and characters with the emotional depth of a goldfish. We can see this ‘glut of meh’ as a problem or use it for our advantage.

If we know why readers read, what they want, then we can work hard on what matters. Readers long for emotional connection and stories that help them deal with pain, ease their pain or maybe even solve/release their pain. They want hope that messed up people overcome big problems in spite of, or perhaps because of, wounds and flaws.

At the other side of the problem is joy, peace, true love, freedom, fulfillment, healing, understanding, wholeness! Wounds are healed and victory sealed. Who doesn’t want more of THAT?

wounds, wounded, writing tips, Kristen Lamb, character depth, layered characters

What Are Your Thoughts?

Getting tired of the same old same old? From Hollywood to books it feels like it’s just the same stuff over and over. I get giddy when I discover something truly excellent. What about you?

I love hearing from you and am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of DECEMBER, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

I’m running Round Four of my ‘Write Stuff’ Special. 20 pages of deep edit for $40. ONLY TEN SLOTS AVAILABLE. Get your slot HERE.

NEW CLASS! 20% Early Bird Discount

The Art of Character: How to Craft Dimensional ‘People’ in Fiction

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $45 USD (Only $36 with discount)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: January 4th, 2018¬†7:00 P.M. EST—9:00 P.M. EST

No matter what genre we write, the key to writing unforgettable stories always rests with character. How do we create intriguing characters who hook readers and never let them go? What makes a character unforgettable? How do we write stories that endure?

It is easy to fall into tropes and caricatures if we lack a fundamental understanding of human nature and how this plays out in the dramatic narrative. This class will delve into how to add depth to our characters which will, in turn add, resonance with our plot.

This class will cover:

  • Discovering Wounds;
  • Understanding Coping Mechanisms;
  • How Wounds Collide to Increase Dramatic Tension
  • How to Create Dimensional Characters
  • Using Character to Plot

***A FREE recording is included with purchase.

Lately we’ve been talking a lot about what differentiates the decent stories from the ones that gut hook us and don’t let go. In my opinion the truly superlative stories stand out in one way. We are not only entertained…we are changed. We aren’t the same person we were when we flipped open to page one and decided to give the story a go.

By the end, through characters, trials, challenges, heartbreak, ruin and victory we are forever a different person. The story generates a chemical change, rendering us a cake that can’t be unbaked.

Great stories (and the authors who pen them) serve us fresh insight into ourselves and others, a different perspective on the world around us. They might reveal a darkness we never noticed or were to afraid to face or offer hope we didn’t know we could have.

Most vital of all, these stories provide perspective we could gain no other way.

Fiction is the only way we can step into the shoes of a broken, pathetic alcoholic (Girl on a Train), an aging heavy metal rock star burdened by false guilt who never truly escaped the sadistic father who turned his childhood into a hell (Heart-Shaped Box).

We can know what it is to feel like life is no longer worth living once we’ve outlived our usefulness even if we are young (A Man Called Ove). We can experience the gross injustice and humiliation of being a black maid in the American South during the 60s (The Help) no matter what color our skin.

Regardless of race, faith, gender, or background, stories allow us into a perspective to experience life, to encounter our own wounds (wounds common across all of humanity) from a different vantage point. We come to appreciate how seeing our pain worked out through another gives us the psychic distance necessary for us recognize then heal the pain that in real life we can’t yet touch…without screaming.

The Battle of Logic & Emotion

I find it interesting that scientists really don’t have a definitive reason WHY we dream. Is is the brain defragging? The subconscious mind revealing what we can’t see when we’re awake because the left brain rushes in with a logical explanation?

When left brain gets a vote, it’s all too easy to miss¬†the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

He wasn’t being mean. It was a joke. He’s right. I don’t have a very good sense of humor.

But fiction? Fiction is emotion. Fiction is primal and hooked directly into the right brain. Dreams are not ruled by logic, but they are extremely limited in what they can do once we’re up and have had our coffee. But, there’s another way…STORY.

Yet how do so many of us tackle our demons?

If you’re like me, you read self-help books about self-esteem, boundaries, forgiveness and healing and while these books can offer a lot of great information, (in my POV) they’re talking to the wrong side of the brain.

We can read all the self-help books about forgiveness, but what happens when we come face to face with our betrayers? When we have to be in the same room with flesh-and-blood villains who have zero remorse over the ruin left in the wake of their actions? The liars, pillagers, and plunderers we once supported, loved and trusted…who knifed us in the back and never shed a tear after leaving us like this.

I can tell you what happens when we face these folks.

We’re calm and composed and easily recall the breathing exercises, meditation, and self-affirmations spoken into a mirror. We stare into our betrayer’s face knowing we’re a better person who’s done a lot of therapy and exercises. We even composed long letters of how this person hurt us, burned the letters and let the embers fly away on zephyrs delivering our pain into the sky and to the unicorns.

And everything is okay because we know hurting people hurt people….and….

%$#& THAT $#!%!

Reptile brain rises up like a hidden viper threatening to sink its fangs into left brain’s soft gray matter if is says one frigging reasonable word.

While left brain is the calm, enlightened negotiator, reptile brain is Old Testament and Old School and believes an eye for an eye.¬†Right brain is raw emotion and the one who’s closest to the reptile (brain) inside all of us.

What happens next in such a confrontation can be placed anywhere on a large continuum from getting in a shouting match spewing venomous words to ending up on an episode of Dateline.

Right brain is creative, thus good at hiding bodies.

Why Fiction?

Yes, self-help books and therapy, etc. have a place, but I don’t think they’re nearly as well-suited for healing wounds as story is. Why is that?

Because we cannot heal emotional wounds with logical poultices.

It’s like trying to halt a runaway MRSA infection with anti-depressants. Infection is virus and it needs something anti-viral, equipped to surround and dismantle the invasion.

Same thing goes for psychic wounds.

The wounds created BY emotion (betrayal, abandonment, exploitation, abuse) can only be healed WITH emotion. Inner demons and wounds are by nature emotional, thus in the realm of the right brain (and limbic brain). This means the right brain is far better suited (perhaps even DESIGNED) to stop the “infection” and heal the damage.

When we read fiction and vicariously experience our hurts, failures, disappointments, betrayals through another set of eyes, it’s a way of facing our villains in life. We get a place to feel these emotions, but better still? Story shows us it is possible to come through the fire not only healed, but stronger and better.

By reading all kinds of stories with characters battling a vast variety of problems, we can experience far greater empathy, compassion, understanding and forgiveness. It’s also far more effective than coldly analyzing our baggage on a flow chart.

Mending the Broken 

For me, my greatest AH-HA moments have come from fiction. Stories have allowed me another way of looking at myself and my pain.

The most recent example of this came from¬†Heart-Shaped Box.¬†Sure it’s a horror, the story of a vengeful ghost hot on the tail of an aging rock star. Yet, oddly enough, this story changed my perception of myself more than a stack of self-help books and years of well-meaning therapists ever did.

Fifty-four-year-old rock star (Judas Coin) is on the run from a vengeful spirit with his goth girlfriend (Georgia) who’s half his age. I could relate to Georgia, though our backstory is different.

She believes she’s damaged goods, worth nothing and grateful for the crumbs that fall from the table. She’s had a hard life filled with exploitation, pain, failure and shame and, as a result, chooses men she knows will hurt her because suffering is what she deserves.

The Lightning Strike

Judas and Georgia have a conversation at a Denny’s during a brief reprieve from the ghost who’s hunting them and end up on the topic of kids. She says she’s never had kids because she’s too afraid they’ll find out about her. Judas asks what exactly her kids would find out. This next bit is some of the most powerful dialogue I’ve ever read.

Georgia: “That I dropped out of high school. That when I was thirteen I let a guy turn me into a prostitute. The only job I was ever good at involved taking my clothes off to M√∂tley Cr√ľe¬†for a room full of drunks. I tried to kill myself. I been arrested three times. I stole money from my grandma and made her cry. I didn’t brush my teeth for about two years. Am I missing anything?”

Judas: “So this is what your kid would find out: No matter what bad thing happens to me, I can call my mother, because she’s been through it all. No matter what shi##y thing happens to me, I can survive it because my mom’s been through worse, and she made it.” ¬†~¬†Heart-Shaped Box¬†by Joe Hill (page 171).

I remember this part of the novel hitting me like a bolt from the sky and I burst out crying, the moment of catharsis so raw and visceral. I once was Georgia (maybe a part always will be). Because of my life experiences, I too believed I was damaged goods.

Because I empathized with Georgia (similar demons) I could vicariously experience her breakthrough, that WOW moment when Judas completely reframes what she’s just said. She isn’t “damaged goods” at all. Rather, she’s like furniture that’s been battered and scratched that collectors pay big bucks for because it’s “distressed” and thus more interesting and far¬†more¬†valuable¬†because of its damage and scars.

I’m sure a zillion well-meaning friends or shrinks told me the same thing. Probably read similar notions off faded Post-Its on the bathroom mirror, so why didn’t the happy, happy mantras stick? Why didn’t these affirmations melt me, undo me and remake me?

It’s because that left-brain approach is too sterile, and it doesn’t shove us face first into what we need to face. Fiction, on the other hand is ugly and dirty and raw. It provides intimacy and slams that psychic distance tight (while we still are technically “safe”).

Real fiction, the good stuff, reveals that the worthless “damaged goods” in truth, are valuable and maybe even priceless. The story shows the protagonist his or her worldview, their perception of themselves is faulty and through the crucible remolds the protagonist into what we call a hero. This is why I challenge all of you to be fearless in your stories, because if you can be fearless? So can your readers and they will love you for it.

What are your thoughts? I like good self-help books and therapy is important and often vital. But fiction really has a way of grabbing me by the scruff and shaking me. Have you ever read a book that completely revealed something about your own wounds? That helped you? Gave you insight? Helped you heal?

I believe all genres have the ability to give us tremendous healing and hope y’all will check out my Speculative Fiction Class where we are going to bore into the grit and heart of the dark stuff.

I love hearing from you!

For the month of AUGUST, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.

I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

July’s winner will be listed next week.

****And MAKE SURE to check out the NEW CLASSES classes below (including writing layered characters and strong females) and sign up!

Summer school! YAY! We’ve added in classes on erotica/high heat romance, fantasy, how to write strong female characters and MORE! Classes with me, with USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds and award-winning author and journalist Lisa-Hall Wilson. So click on a tile¬†and sign up!

Blurb - Cait Reynolds
BLURB BOSS: Writing Blurbs that SELL BOOKS. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 10, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
BRAND BOSS! When Your Name Alone Can Sell. $45 USD. Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017, 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
PLOT BOSS: Writing novels readers want to buy! $40 USD. Thurs., Nov. 16, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!
Bad Boys. $45.00 USD. Friday, November 17, 2017. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST. Click the image to register!