Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Motivating character with the dragon

Interviewer: When you teach, you talk to your students about “the dragon” . . . . Could you please explain it?

Sue Miller: It’s an analogy for the writing of fiction lifted from Flannery O’Connor—the notion that every character in a story must struggle with something: his dragon. . . . My argument has been that if you really look at any given character, there is . . . a dragon for that character: something born of him that is the thing he ought to be confronting fictionally that you could make him confront. . . . If you look at each character, there is something that’s the pickle he needs to be in in order to make a story happen. . . . The character richly drawn struggles with something which emerges from himself that he ought to struggle with; or at least he learns that he’s going to have to struggle. In a way, what fiction does is watch people struggle.

Presumably Sue Miller isn’t talking about watching me struggle, which is what it feels like right now.

I’m looking at this explanation of hers carefully lately because it’s a really helpful metaphor for the aspect of the writing I have to work on next. In the first draft, I thought in terms of “longing.” What does this character long for? Trying to answer that was great for helping me build up tension from one scene to the next to keep the plot going.

Now that I’m working on the rewrite, I’m seeing lots of places where there still isn’t much going on with the characters--not much longing and not much struggle, places where the struggle doesn’t seem very significant or meaningful, places where their longing doesn’t connect to other places, places where they simply aren’t “richly drawn.”

So I’ve been using this dragon metaphor to guide my imagination in the rewrite. What’s the thing that is each character’s core that they need to struggle with?

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