Thursday, August 19, 2010

Character development and plot

I'm doing very little drafting lately, which dings up the self-confidence some, but I am getting legitimate work done. I still have a lot to figure out about my characters and what their issues are at the start of the book. I should have gotten this done months ago, but that's where I am. The last few days have seen some progress, I think.

I got on this track a few weeks ago when a writer friend heard the summary of my idea and reminded me, "Do you know what her problem is? Make sure she's got something going on." What's key for me right now about that advice, is the timing of her problem -- of the something going on. Obviously, during the course of the story characters have problems. External and internal conflicts. But it's sinking in for me in a conscious way for the first time that it's better if they arrive at the start of the story's present action with problems. I want something going on with them that makes them open to whatever action is proposed to them at the story's kick off.

Let's say, for example, that a secondary character says to the main character, "Let's go rob that liquor store." It's easier to get going if the answer he gives is a new answer (let's say, "yes" for our example) and if there is a good reason for him giving a new answer that he never would have given before. What happened yesterday, the day before the present action begins, to make him open to going a new direction. Maybe a scolding by his mom about his choice of friends is making him feel oppositional.

And not necessarily a dramatic new direction. Just a little stepping off of the usual path can be enough. The secondary friend says, "Let's go to the movies for once. You sit at home too much." What makes the main character agree for once? They arrive at the story's start with some kind of vulnerability to change.

Thinking of it that way is helping me get focused and get my story going, right now. This is too new idea for me to insist that it's universal or very common. I'd have to go through some stories to see how it plays out. Let's try one real quick: The Great Gatsby. First of all, I'm going to treat Carroway is the main character, which I'll argue about another time. Given that, roughly, you could say that Carroway is open to being sympathetic to Gatsby because he's annoyed with Tom and Daisy. But that annoyance really is triggered in the present action. What he arrives on the scene with is a sense of disconnection from the east coast vs. the midwest. A heightened sensitivity to elitism. It's a problem for him because his circumstances are encouraging him to ally himself more with the elites, and he feels conflicted. That's set up in the first grafs of the book, and it's back story, not present action, though it gets developed during the present action.

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