Janus: the god of writing?

Janus: the god of writing?

Gwynn Scheltema

January is believed to be named for the Roman god, Janus. The first month of the Gregorian calendar, January replaced March as the first month of the Roman year, no later than 153 BCE.

As we’ve left behind 2016 and begun 2017, consider that Janus is, among other things, the god of time, beginnings and endings. His two faces look simultaneously to the future and the past.

Janus symbolized change, transition and motion. He presided over the progress of one condition to another, from one vision to another, and young people’s growth to adulthood, transition from savagery to civilization, from rural to urban space, from one universe to another. Janus oversaw the beginning and ending of conflict. As a god of motion, Janus caused actions to start.

He represented time, and was worshipped at planting and harvest, at births and marriages and deaths. He had a role to play in journeys and exchanges, gateways and thresholds.

Doesn’t that sound like a writer? I think writers are a lot like Janus, presiding over our fictional worlds.

So what can we learn from Janus?

Past and Future are connected

At any point in the writing of a story we need to be looking into the past and the future simultaneously. Even though action and plot are moving forward into the future, we need to be aware of our characters’ pasts or back story, because that is what drives all our characters’ quirks and traits and shapes the decisions they make.

The distinction between past back story and present, or future action and plot, is a cornerstone for understanding pacing. The plot and action is what moves the story forward and keeps the pace up (and the reader engaged). The moment you indulge in a flashback (back story; the past), your pacing stands still. Sure we learn things about the characters, but the storyline is momentarily halted. Stay in the past too long, and the reader will lose interest.

That’s not to say that backstory is not important. It is. It is the subconscious motivation that drives the characters’ present actions. The future unfolds according to the events of the past, and witnessing some of the past will help the reader understand why a character acts the way he does.

Beginnings and Endings are connected.

We all know that stories have a beginning, middle and end, but it’s more than that. Like Janus, we need to be aware of the beginning and end simultaneously wherever we are in the writing of the story. Everything is causal. Nothing happens without a reason.

Plotters write their plot beginnings with plot endings in mind. Pantsers freewheel the plot but know their character arc beginning and ending. At any point in the story the reader should feel that there is change afoot, that there is growth and discovery around the corner. Your reader should sense that at the end, it will have been worth the journey, and that the promise given at the beginning has been kept.

Duality in characters

The two-faced Janus reminds us, too, that our characters also have dual aspects. They are at once good and bad. Readers relate to villains who have redeemable qualities. Readers like heroes with flaws. It makes them rounded and believable, not cardboard.

A character arc is a progression from one condition to another: from shy to confident, from intolerant to tolerant, from angry to calm and so on. Cardboard characters have no arc. They are shallow and act without motivation, act only because the author needs them to. If the writer, like Janus, is aware of the character’s past as she writes the action and change of the future, then the character will be more developed. The reader will care what happens to the character and keep turning the page. And that’s what we all want.

So as we write, let’s remember Janus, this January and all year long. Our readers will thank us.

DID YOU KNOW

You can explore your inner Janus this April at Writescape’s Spring Thaw retreat. This all-inclusive getaway at Fern Resort on Rice Lake, Ontario, offers plenty of time to focus on character arcs, plot developments and flashbacks that don’t drag down your story. Gwynn and Ruth are on hand to give you one-on-one feedback on your work in progress. Registration is open now.

Recipe for Great Characters

Recipe for Great Characters

Ruth E. Walker.

Sometimes you need to cook up a new character. Sometimes, you just want to add depth to a character that could use a little spice. Here’s my quick and easy recipe. It’s open to all kinds of substitutions, so feel free to experiment and season to taste. I’d love to hear how it worked for you. By the way, if you are missing any of the “ingredients” email info@writescape.ca and I’ll email you a starter.

MAIN INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 cup of ‘real’ person (a neighbour, a picture from a magazine or someone from your past, for example)
  • 1 cup of a story idea (choose a theme or a question that begs for an answer)
  • 2/3 cup setting (browse through travel brochures, coffee table books or stare into your own backyard)
  • ¼ cup back story (this one’s entirely up to you, writer!)
  • Flavour bouquet (mix 3 positive and 2 negative traits, such as cheerful, friendly, kind and boastful, envious…)
  • 1 tsp of a line of dialogue (overheard on a bus or at an event, or some line you really like)

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a quiet room, mix together the first three ingredients. Allow them to simmer over a low heat. Stir occasionally to see what changes.
  2. Add back story. Continue to simmer.
  3. Choose contents of your bouquet. Loosely tie ingredients together and add them to the pot.  NOTE: Don’t worry if any bouquet ingredients seem too strong at first; you can always spoon some out for now. Remember to reserve your removed ingredients in case you need them later on.
  4. Carefully insert the line of dialogue.
  5. Bake in your pre-heated mind for 2 minutes.

INGREDIENT LIST — brief notes here, just the bare bones. This will be your reference point as you write your character scene later on.

1 cup of real person

  • Name
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Appearance Basics

1 cup of a story idea

  • Kind of story and genre
  • Loss/Gain
  • Theme(s)
  • Emotional connection for character?

2/3 cup setting

  • Place
  • Year
  • Season/temp
  • Time of day
  • Smells, sounds

¼ cup back story

  • Childhood
  • Old losses
  • Old gains

Flavour bouquet

  • Positive
  • Negative

1 tsp of a line of dialogue

“Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah-de-blah blah!”

Additional spices

You are the cook; what else do you want to add?