Before you get to the meat of this post, I wanted to let you know that, Kathleen Bolton and Therese Walsh, a couple of writers who blog on "the craft and business of genre fiction" at Writer Unboxed, are publishing a two-part interview with yours truly, beginning Friday, February 23. For what it's worth.
An American Olympic skater was knocked down when a competitor fell in a race. The American slid blades-first into the side barrier, on her back, clearly out of the race.
But even before she'd stopped slamming into the barrier she was scrambling to regain her feet. The instant she was upright on the ice, her entire focus went down the track. The intensity in her eyes and the set of her mouth was almost palpable, even on a television screen. She took off, her desire still powerful, her determination everything, and my heart and admiration went out to her. I was rooting for her. And respecting her. And liking her.
If you can get a reader feeling that way about your character, you're on your way to compelling storytelling. So how do you do that?
Last week I noted that screenwriting guru Robert McKee says that a story's inciting incident is an event that radically upsets the balance of forces in the character's life. But to what end?
In his book, Story, he goes on to say that the character must react to the event, otherwise there would be no story. But react with what?
A desire. A goal.
In McKee's approach, the desire is for the character to put their life back into balance. Now, of course a character doesn't think, "Dang, my life is out of balance. My desire is to regain my balance." No, the desire would be a specific goal, such as to get my children back from the kidnappers.
Is that right, then? A desire? Another craft instruction book tells us that fiction is about trouble. And we've all heard the cliché: get your character up a tree and throw rocks at him until he figures out how to get down.
But the "trouble" model is a passive one. Oh, there should be trouble, but it needs to come up as a result of what characters do. Because they have a desire. Because they take risks in trying to achieve their desire.
It's this pursuit of a desire that creates the "rooting factor" that draws readers into a story, that gives them something to identify and empathize with. Just as I did that Olympic skater.
The strive is the thing. Without it, your sleek vehicle of a novel has no fuel in its tank. One of my editing clients was a good writer. He'd done his research well, the language was good. He'd created a pleasant, likeable character. Smart. Pretty. Decent.
But the character just drifted through her life, reacting to things, never initiating much, not striving for anything. There was no tension. Nothing compelling me to turn the page. My recommendation was to create a strong inciting incident at the front of the story, to knock the character far out of her happy life.
Why isn't a happy story good enough? Why is it a good idea to trouble our characters, knock them down, and then keep knocking them down as they struggle? Why does that make them more compelling, more watchable?
Because, as human beings, we struggle too. In our ordinary lives, we may struggle with things small or large, but struggle we must. We understand how a character feels who has been knocked down. And here's the thing that a novel can do that lifts it from being a mere entertainment: show us something about how to be a human being.
Learning to be a human being has a lifelong learning curve, and we can use all the help we can get because there aren't many good instruction books. Although fiction, novels can be instruction books on the truths of being a human being.
Fiction models behavior for us, teaches us what (in the writer's imagination) works, and what doesn't work. We like to see characters desire and yearn and attempt because it helps us understand what, maybe, what we can do in our own lives.
In thinking about my first novel after coming across McKee's idea of creating a desire in a character, I thought I'd failed to do that in my main protagonist: it seemed to me that he mostly reacted to events.
But then I'd realized that, unwittingly, I'd done one of the things McKee talks about: created an unconscious desire. My character's inciting event really pulled the rug out from under his life but, on the surface, he seemed satisfied with the way things were. He just wanted, it seemed, to keep on doing his work. But unconsciously, it was the opposite.
My job as a writer is to learn to do it wittingly.
McKee says that a story is more powerful if a character has both a conscious desire and an unconscious desire that works in opposition to the conscious desire.
This is heady stuff for a simple guy like me, but I think I see how it can work. For example, let's say a man's wife is kidnapped and a ransom is demanded. His surface desire is to rescue her. That's what society, his friends, his peers, and he himself expects. Standard thriller stuff, you've seen it a thousand times.
But what if he hates his wife? Then his unconscious desire, the one that can't be admitted out loud, is to somehow lose her.
In my novel, darned if my protagonist's unconscious desire didn't affect what he did, and what happened when he pursued conscious goals that came up. Eventually, his conscious goal came to be the same as the unconscious one, and he grew.
Checklist for your work in progress:
- Does it contain an inciting incident that throws your protagonist's life severely out of balance? (By the way, your antagonist needs an inciting incident, too, such as the opposition of the protagonist.)
- Does the event create a conscious desire in your character?
- Does your reader know about it?
- Does your character immediately take action, take a risk to achieve a goal that springs from the inciting event?
- Optional: does it create an unconscious, contrary desire?
These are the elements that not only create the engine that will drive your story, they create the fuel. The horsepower of that engine, and its power to affect the reader, depends on:
- how severely your character's life is thrown for a loop, i.e., how damaging are the consequences?
- the difficulty of achieving the desire that is aroused
- the size of the risks she must take to recover.
How does your story measure up?
Free edit in exchange for posting permission. You send a sample that you have questions about and of which you'd like an edit. I won't post it without your permission. Please attach samples as documents to your email.
© 2006 Ray Rhamey