Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Character Traits: Intelligence

Photo of astronomical clock in Prague
found on Free Stock
I was thinking the other day about how I view intelligence. While I value it highly in those I choose to associate with, I don't go by IQ scores, and I'm always surprised to be compared favorably to another person's intelligence. I pride myself on my creativity and grasp of grammar, and I carry around a lot of random trivia, but I don't consider myself particularly smart.

There are different types of intelligence, of course, and there's the famous quote about judging a fish by whether it can climb a tree. But that's not it. Intelligence isn't a mastery of many different facets of knowledge, nor is it having the right answers. To me, curiosity about the world around you is what separates a smart person from one I'll look down on for a lack of intelligence. Deciding you have all the answers, refusing to listen to contrary evidence, being convinced you're right, putting down others' intelligence before you've given them a chance to show their strengths, all point to a lack of intelligence, in my mind.

The way I see it, I don't have all the answers. The more I learn, the more I find things I want to know more about. The world changes every day, and it's a big place. A lifetime isn't long enough to learn everything there is to know. Even if I spent the next thousand years reading and researching and testing hypotheses and exploring the world, there would still be things I wouldn't know.

It's an overwhelming notion. Luckily, I take comfort in what I can learn, and in the lives I can explore within the pages of books. I find, however, that I have a hard time enjoying perspective characters I find unintelligent. Characters who don't learn anything, or who take too much hammering-away by the authorial hand to get the point, annoy me. So do characters who are too stupid to live, mostly because it shows a certain unwillingness to have learned from one's past mistakes. Also, it taxes my suspension of disbelief; I have a hard time believing the character has survived that long in the first place.

When I write my own characters, if they're supposed to be intelligent, I use the above philosophy. The bad guy in my trilogy wants to keep the status quo as it is, while the good guys' quests are driven by finding out more about how the world works. The main character in the epic fantasy I'm still mentally mapping knows very little about how the world works, and it's her curiosity to find out that ropes her into the adventure. I've never considered her stupid; she has an innocence to her that makes her a character I really want to write.

I hope my approach to intelligence makes my smart characters easier to relate to. I hadn't even realized I'd been doing that until I articulated my view of intelligence, in the first place. Now, I intend to use it to my advantage.

Feel free to do the same. Or drop me a comment about how you characterize intelligence when you're writing.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Review: Things I Want My Daughters to Know by Elizabeth Noble

Things I Want My Daughters to KnowThings I Want My Daughters to Know by Elizabeth Noble
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the seventh book I've read for my 2013 TBR Pile reading challenge. It puts me back on track for my book-a-month goal, as well as my enjoyment of books I'd been meaning to read for a while. I'd picked this book up years ago when I met the author, and have enjoyed everything else I'd read of hers. Why, then, did I hesitate to read this?

That answer is easy: it's about a mother of four daughters who dies of cancer. The last time I almost picked this book up to read, my own mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I felt I would jinx her recovery if I read about a similar mother dying. (My mother has made a full recovery and is doing well. She's been cancer-free for two years.)

The girls' ages are far more spread than that of me and my sisters. The oldest in this book is in her 40's, while the youngest is still in high school. (The British equivalent thereof, anyway.) They're also a lot closer, both geographically and emotionally. They bemoan the distance between them, but they also consider it odd to have not spoken to one another for months, whereas my sisters and I catch up primarily on Facebook, and go years at a time without hearing one another's voices.

The story, itself, follows the four women in the aftermath of their mother's death. She left them letters, and a journal of her life and thoughts. She loved them dearly, but she also sheltered them from certain truths about her life while she was alive. The story lacks any major conflicts, but the sisters' relationships and personalities pull the reader through to the end. I never felt like the story dragged, despite the lack of a strong narrative thread.

The sisters are initially hard to tell apart. Their names are so generic and interchangeable that I had a hard time keeping track, and the omniscient narration didn't help. Perspectives shift from one paragraph to the next, in some passages. So, while each section may list a perspective character, it doesn't stick to that one character enough to solidify that person. By the end, I had them sorted out, but it took me nearly two thirds of the book.

Overall, I liked this book. It starts off bittersweet, but turns into a story about celebrating love and life, and making the most of what one has. I think I'm glad I didn't read it when I was worried for my own mother, though. The opening sections, immediately after the mother's death, would've been more than I could take.

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Review: Swan Song by Robert McCammon

Swan SongSwan Song by Robert R. McCammon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a long, intimidating book that starts off really grim, with a nuclear apocalypse killing hundreds of millions of people, and scorching the skies. I'm glad I listened to all of the people who praised it, though, and kept going. The payoff is well worth getting through the depressing start.

While the book never states the year it's taking place, it's clearly an alternate 1987. There are too many cultural markers tying it to that time in US history. This version of 1987 has the cold war escalating rather than fizzling out, and culminating in the launch of every nuclear device on the planet. Many hit their targets, but many fall out of the sky to wreak havoc on US soil. There are survivors, but most are badly burned, and they have to scrabble to find food and potable water, not to mention a reason to keep going.

Within this category of survivors are Colonel James P. Macklin, Roland Croninger, Sue Wanda (Swan) Prescott, Josh Hutchins, and a bag lady on the streets of Manhattan who goes by Sister Creep. Each character has their own struggles in the post-apocalyptic landscape, and the book paints the aftermath in their personal conflicts. Meanwhile, there's an unnamed man often referred to as The Man with the Scarlet Eye who can shift his appearance at will, create fire from his hands, and make people do his bidding. He revels in pain and death and corruption, and makes it his life's mission to stomp out what little hope humanity has left after the events that end the world.

This book is often compared to The Stand, and it's a fair comparison. End of the world, good versus evil, and there's a personification of the devil walking around. The differences don't end with the causes of the end of the world, though. Swan is a far more sympathetic perspective character than Mother Abigail, and The Man with the Scarlet Eye is a much more sinister force than Randall Flagg. He doesn't simply amass a force; he insinuates himself into the very souls of the survivors, so that even good people are led to do terrible things, never realizing the evil of their actions. I also felt that Swan Song has a greater grasp on human nature. What separates "good" from "evil" characters is how corrupted they are, and many characters reform once they have a reason to hope.

In the end, Swan Song is about the endurance of the human spirit, and how we adapt to even the most trying situations. The message is that life is worth living, so long as we're alive, and that there's always something to hope for. Even in the most hopeless and bleak moments within Swan Song, the characters can find beauty.

I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Tom Stechschulte. He has an authoritative sound, well worth the gravity in this book. He also has a good range of accents, so no two characters sounded alike.

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