Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cheeky Characters Write Themselves

Yesterday, I had the sad job of watching a story die on the page. It shouldn’t have died, I figured – it was the prologue. It had all the elements of a good prologue – a protagonist scorned, a world of injustice, the start of a very long journey. And yet the story stopped. I made it halfway to the end of prologue and found nothing more to write. This bothered me because the novel’s already half-written. After 42,000 words of novel, what’s a few hundred words of prologue? Why would it be so hard to write a stirring introduction to a story that’s already halfway done?

The problem was expectation. As I noted in “Hit Your Muse With a Rock,” expectation can kill inspiration where it counts most – on paper. As writers, we struggle with two expectations – we expect a certain quality in our words, and we expect a certain ability in ourselves. In good writers, these expectations are not necessarily in agreement, but they are in harmony. The writer expects that he or she can write, and the words produced generally meet the expectation of decent work. But most beginning writers face the problem of low self-esteem coupled with an intense desire to write something good, to write something incredible. The low self-esteem results from lack of practice, and the desire is a natural product of Barnes and Noble. Today, we are surrounded by good books. Even the second-tier authors we rarely hear of are very good writers. As human beings, we feel that we have to match their performance in order to join their ranks.

This expectation of great work kills the creative process. It turns writers into control freaks. We spent hours mulling over the meaning of a single line, lose precious minutes trying to decide between “he said” and “said he.” The momentum of the moment stalls as the process of writing gives way to the process of frustration.

Unfortunately, lesser expectation often creates the same problem. Yesterday, my prologue had little chance of greatness. I wasn’t looking for great – I was looking for an introduction, a way to explain the character who stars in my novel. When the story stalled, I shrugged and walked away. I figured inspiration would come to me, but it didn’t. The expectation that killed this work was a desire to mold the character myself, to control the outcome of this prologue to match the novel. I had turned into a control freak of limited scope, but the effect was equally devastating – the story stopped. The words ran dry. The prologue sat unfinished.

My story needs a prologue, so I’ll start it again. But on the second try, I will remember the cardinal rule of fiction – the best protagonists write themselves.

Now, you’re wondering how I can label this the “cardinal rule.” If I had a dollar for every “first rule of writing” I’ve heard, I wouldn’t need to publish to pay the rent. But the fact is, life is about conflict. Great stories are about conflict. Readers sit riveted because they want to know what happens next, because they can’t predict from page one the outcome of page two. But if you want to keep readers in their seats through page four hundred, you must maintain the same unpredictable tension on every page of the book, whether it’s page one, two, or three-seventy-three.

There are two processes you can use to accomplish this. In the first process, you can carefully plan out a riveting story and then write it. I don’t recommend this. Very few writers can pull it off. This method fails because the inner control freak gets free reign. In the outline, every plot twist seems simply stunning. But in the manuscript, as you’re trying to foreshadow and trying to build tension and trying to insert the critical plot twist – everything just like it says on the outline – the story stagnates. It sounds dry. It’s a lot of trying and not a lot of “let’s see what happens next.”

The second process is better. Start with your character, and then write. You don’t need to know exactly where you’re going to write a good story – in many ways, it’s better if you don’t. Pick your favorite fictional protagonist – I’m fond of Jane Eyre, myself – and think about what you enjoyed about that character. Was it the way the character reacted to the world? The words the character said? The way they always managed to do the “right” thing, even if it was unexpected or simply outrageous?

Characters don’t achieve this kind of free-spirited winner-take-all success through outlines. They become flesh-and-blood heroines through their own quirks and their own ways of viewing the world. They become realistic because the author allows the character the freedom to pick what comes next. Stories are about conflict, yes, but they are most riveting when they are about personal conflict, the kind of struggle that rocks the protagonist to her bones.

The prologue I couldn’t finish failed in that regard. I inserted my protagonist, but then I withheld the conflict. I made it a secret. She didn’t know that she was walking into a trap, or that she was about to start her long journey. She had nothing to do but stand and wait.

Readers hate waiting. And it’s a dull theme to write. I grew bored, and the writing stopped. When I start again – from the beginning – the protagonist will know the conflict. She’ll know what she’s fighting for – or at least what she’s fighting against. And I’ll have an idea of what the protagonist will do, but I won’t know. That part’s up to her. As a full-grown character, she has to make decisions. She has to be an adult because that’s what readers want to see – an adult making grown-up decisions regarding her own life, regardless of how twisted the world she’s written into.

So as you go forth and write, remember to ease up on your protagonists. Allow them the freedom to make the choices that you yourself would not make. If the protagonist wants to try something outside your plans for the story, go with it. Try it out. Let the characters speak for themselves. You’ll have more fun, as will your readers.

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About Ryan Edel


Anne Willkomm said...

Ryan is so right about so much in this blog entry. I recently heard John Grisham being interveiwed. When askedthe infamous question, "So how do you write?" He responded with a resounding, "Outline, outline, outline -- that's the only way." What I find interesting is that Mr. Grisham's novels have become so ultimately predictable (unlike his earlier works). Is that a function of using an outline, in the most narrow sense, no. What I believe it is a function of (and something new authors especially suffer from) is the lack of proper character development. My editor made me devote months (after I finished the 1st draft of my novel) to do nothing but free write to capture the true being of my characters. While I was initially ho hum about the prospect, it took only a few free writes to get into the head of my character and be blown away by what I discovered. And this is precisely where outlines fail. They can be great when it comes to chronological events, being sure the plot follows the proper sequence (i.e. you did have Mr. Smith fall to the ground and die before the evil villain has even entered the room). Outlines do not in any way capture human emotion and without human emotion (or emotion if your character is from Mars or is a mangy pack dog) it doesn't matter how good the plot -- no one will want to read it.

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