Fighting Yourself

I recently came across an intriguing observation: “The curse is not that you are given a destiny, it's that you make your own destiny.” It made me think of a number of novels written by fledgling writers in which the lead character proceeds on a single track all book long, almost like a wooden toy train. He has been imagined as a certain type, and he does not deviate from type.

Life is full of contradictions, though. Consider that in a literary novel, the main question is how the lead character can overcome herself. Her obstacles are largely of her own making. We all know that a character-driven book is more literary than a plot-driven one. So, how come those protagonists spend so much time wrestling with their own demons?

Unless you have formal training in being a writer, you’re probably better off starting with a plot-driven book. You decide on a certain core of defining characteristics for your hero: he’s hard-bitten, abs-packing, gunshy with women, or whatever. That’s the way he acts most of the time. Yet if he never leaves the track you put him on, he will remain a monolith—guarded from the reader by the traits you insist on maintaining.

We all have weaknesses: drink, net surfing, knee-popping exercise, etc. We are tempted to do wrong, and we often fall, for reasons we don’t understand. The deficits run the gamut from the petty—filching Halloween candy from the bowl—to book-long dilemmas, such as fighting off the powerful attraction of a former lover while staying true to the new one.

You cannot be satisfied merely with a situation. That is a one-time event, soon forgotten by the reader amid the tumult of plotting. When we make a mistake, we can be exposed for it. A single word said the wrong way can have repercussions that continue to spiral downward. The fight to stay on track enriches a portrait while the plot is delivering the excitement.

Exercise: Pick a guilty secret the protagonist has. Now sketch out several strings of scenes. If the secret is discovered by a spouse, how can the heroine recover her standing? If the secret is found out by a friend, how does that affect their relationship? If an enemy, how can it be used to blackmail the heroine? Don’t commit yourself to any of them until you explore all the delicious possibilities.

“From separation and loss, I have learned a lot. I have become strong and resilient, as is the case of almost every human being exposed to life and to the world. We don't even know how strong we are until we are forced to bring that hidden strength forward.”
—Isabel Allende

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine

No comments:

Post a Comment

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.