Yesterday, I attended a wonderful class called Presenting Story Magic by Laura Baker and Robin Perini, hosted by the Heart of Carolina Romance Writers. I highly recommend this workshop if it comes to a writers group near you. It focuses on how to write a story based upon who the characters are, which resonated with me. Their approach (which I won't describe totally here) is to create a grid for each character, including most of your secondary characters, and the grid basically forces you to answer a lot of why questions that are central to who your character is, and why, therefore, the story progresses as it does, based upon who those characters' essential forces.
Deb Dixon's book on Goals, Motivation and Conflict, is also useful, but I felt it focused too much on externals, such as conflicts, without addressing the why. Even the internal conflicts don't necesarily get to the why of someone does something, and that's what you really need to understand.
The why is probably the most important thing to understand when you write and edit fiction. Why does your character act the way s/he does? What is that person's driving force? Once you know the person's driving force, then you can set up your other characters so there is a dynamic between the driving forces that basically sets the stage for the story.
Here's an example. Okay, it's a stupid example, but it's still an example:
You have a protagonist who has a deep-seated need for stability. Once you identify this core personality force, you can then extrapolate to identify how this trait will be both positive and negative. Sort of like the old Star Trek episode where Captain Kirk was split into two: Kirk 1 was a really nice guy but lacked decisiveness and aggressiveness. Kirk 2 was aggressive and decisive, but he wasn't very concerned about other people. Both were halves or views of a character who needs to be a leader. Leaders are concerned about people, but they also must be aggressive enough to make the hard decisions.
So, back to the protagonist. If this person, let's say it's a man, needs stability, this can express itself positively through traits such as being systematic and careful, good at weighing alternatives and selecting the one with the least risk. Good at risk management. Could be very good in a job involving security.
On the negative side, this person could also be perceived as too rigid, or a stick-in-the-mud, unwilling to take risks. May even be domineering in order to suppress activities going on around him that may cause change. Can be very uncomfortable with any kind of change.
Already, you can see how this guy is a prime target for a story involving the necessity to accept change.
Now, for an antognist, you have a couple of interesting paths you can take. You can do the opposites attract thing, like Dharma and Greg (I never watched that show, so forgive my spelling), or even more interesting, you can use a character which also resists change, but force the two into a deadlocked situation where one or both of them is going to have to take risks and accept change.
What I found interesting about this, is that once you start going down this path, plotting becomes ridiculously easy, because you have a built-in theme (some risk and change is necessary: Life is change) and you can build secondary characters who will actually have a purpose in highlighting this change or even forcing the protagonist's final realization that Life is Change.
Cool, huh? Sure, it's still not easy, and I've left out a bunch of stuff from the class, but this was the major bullit-idea. Robin and Laura called this the character flaw, but I don't like that term, although it does harken back to the basics of writing as expressed by the Greeks. I don't like this term, however, because it has negative connotations and it doesn't really encompass all the functions it is serving.
This isn't so much a flaw as the essential force within a character. It is:
- The Character's essential quality, the source of what is both good and bad, strength and weakness in the character. It answers the question of why this character is who s/he is, and why this character acts the way they do, and will act in a certain way in a given situation. I think of this as a character force because it is so intrinsic to the character's personality, that they have very little control over it, if any. It is a driving, essential force to the character, and the book.
- The Theme's basis, the source of the overall theme of the book will derive from the dynamics of the essential forces in the protagonist and other characters playing against each other.
- The motivator: it's why the character does what s/he does and why the subcharacters even exist, in order to expose this essential quality and prod the main character to achieve some enlightenment or realization (or the reader may be the one enlightened, if the main character fails to achieve realization in the end).
- The goal in each scene: Each scene in the book will then "fall into place" as a necessary scene in order to force the character to come to terms with this essential quality and either change or...in the case of literary fiction...just get deeper into the hole because the charater never realizes what is wrong, or right, with them. There are always multiple aspects to an essential force, good and bad, strong and weak, so it is the job of the writer to generate sympathy for the character by exposing the good aspects of the quality while still forcing the character to change or control some of the bad aspects of the essential forces driving them.
Remember, this is an essential force within the character, so they can't completely change it, however through the story you weave, they can come to realize this quality and move toward the more positive end of the spectrum. In the case of the example I gave, you could never really have a character who completely "overcomes" his need for stability and become an Evil Knieval risk taker, but you can have him realize that some change is inevitable and instead of resisting it, s/he can view it with an open mind and accept or even strive actively for change, while still maintaining a core of stability within.
So that's it for today. I'm going back through my manuscripts, making sure that I have clearly defined essential forces in all my characters and that they give meaning to the stories woven around them, instead of plots just "happening" to them.