Monday, January 17, 2011

Re-visiting inner needs, external motivation and a bunch of subconscious stuff

It’s been a long time since I revisited some of my older blog posts, although I’ve been thinking of re-doing the stuff on emotional structure. I still remember being all dead-serious with my thirty buck Post-it easel. My first and to date only in-person workshop. They’d come to hear easy tips for Nano and got some kind of weird garble--I was way too inexperienced, trying to be all academic.

But, I got a question, and I love questions...

In one of your blog posts you said something about making the character's external goal a symbol of their inner motivation (inner need) In the example you posted, you had a boy fighting for a cat (his external goal) because to him this cat represented the feeling of self-worth he got from his grandmother (who had a cat.)

…and I love this post. One of my favorites.

I love the idea of linking the characters external goal and inner need, and using that need to drive not just the external goal, but all the character's decisions actions. But in some romance novels the character's external goal seems to take them right away from fulfilling their inner need eg the hero's unconscious inner need is for a close loving family, but his external goal is to take a job travelling from place to place and avoiding all emotional entanglements.
I can't work out what is driving the character in a case like this. (apart from fear ) The character's core need is a loving family . (He won't admit it and doesn't even realise it, but this is the only thing that will make him truly happy) but he's acting as if his need is escape.


This is actually two questions, one that deals with layering the transformational arc and another that deals with core events.

What do we know about this guy? (let's call him John)

*John needs a loving family to make him happy.
*But what John really wants and is actively pursuing is a wandering-man kind of job where he can keep all his emotional entanglements shallow.

Lots of people know what’ll make them happy so why does John have this disconnect?

Depending on the sub-genre, and the kind of person John is, it can be all kinds of things so...let’s say this is a straight-up contemporary and give him some background. John grew up with a loving, wonderful family. His mom and dad finally took off last year RVing around the country. He has a brother named Cal, a great sister-in-law and a niece who just turned eight. He's well adjusted, stable and ten years into a job at the hospital where he’s an anesthesiologist--rock-solid, right up until the day he decides to go winter camping with his brother and sister-in-law.

Because of a faulty GPS they end up in a ditch. Cal and his wife die in screaming agony while their little girl and John are trapped—unable to do anything but watch. By the time they’re found, the kid is all but catatonic. John’s parents can’t cope with Cal’s death, and there’s this girl—once the apple of their eye—who just sits there.

John is carrying huge survivor’s guilt—not helped by the fact his mom blames him for Cal’s death. If you’d been the one driving, if you’d pointed out the road, if you’d been able to tear free and get everyone out of the car…Never mind he was trapped in the wreckage.

Flash forward eight months. His mom and dad put the kid in a nursing home, leave for Arizona, and John has issues. His parents can’t stand the sight of him, he’s in serious emotional pain and he’s got crippling guilt. If there’s one thing he knows, it’s that he should have died instead of Cal.

…in some romance novels the character's external goal seems to take them right away from fulfilling their inner need eg the hero's unconscious inner need is for a close loving family, but his external goal is to take a job travelling from place to place and avoiding all emotional entanglements.

John “wants” to run, can you doubt it? His parents hate him, his niece is a visible reminder of his failure, his beloved brother is gone—and it’s all his fault. He’s in pain. And when people are hurting, they try to avoid the source of that pain—which in John’s case is his family.

I can't work out what is driving the character in a case like this. (apart from fear ) The character's core need is a loving family . (He won't admit it and doesn't even realise it, but this is the only thing that will make him truly happy) but he's acting as if his need is escape.

He’s afraid to love, because love got him into this mess. No one can hurt you like a loved one. John loved his brother, but Cal died, he loved his mom and she rejected him. His niece is catatonic and with every passing day, John slips deeper into a downward spiral.

He doesn’t “want” a family, what he really wants is to get the hell out of Dodge.

People are enormously complex and have lots of motivations, many of which go back to a trigger or core event. If Cal hadn’t died, there would be no story—if John’s mom hadn’t done an Ordinary People on him, John wouldn’t be so messed up.

Deep down, John needs someone—a family or just the heroine—to accept him and give him the space to heal. It wasn’t his fault, but when the people who say they love you turn their backs on you, you don’t think logically. Right now John equates love with betrayal. He’s afraid of opening himself up to love because he’s in pain, angry at being betrayed by his parents, angry at himself for not being able to help his brother. Angry because he knows there was nothing he could do and guilty because deep down he knows he should have been able to do something. He’s not just running from the situation, he’s running from himself.

By the end of the story he'll realise what he needs to make him happy, but in planning my story do I make him motivated by escape -- or by family (his true need) ? Or maybe I should have him driven by escape until the midpoint, but then he begins to veer towards his true need (a loving family. )

It’s not that easy, and that’s the trouble with character-driven stories. They’re hard to plot because motivation isn’t always linear. John has issues only he can take care of. So it’s probably better to say his motivations are in a process of push and pull.

Internal conflict.

Although the trouble with internal conflict is that it’s often subconscious. The John Cal's death has turned him into versus the John who can accept love and become the person he was meant to be.

Which means this…

…the idea of linking the characters external goal and inner need, and using that need to drive not just the external goal, but all the character's decisions actions.

...needs to be more complex.

The kid and his cat are a fairly simple way to link external goal and inner needs, because the kid has a single motivation and there are only two layers. The kid’s external goal—getting a cat, and his inner need—the self-worth represented by the cat.

Just like the kid, John’s external goal and inner need are in sync. He wants to get away because he wants to stop the pain. Everything he does flows out of that. But he also has stuff going on that he doesn’t know about—a subconscious need for love and family complicated by the fallout of his issues, which is cool because you want your people to be multi-dimensional but the trouble is—how to show it?

By giving him a goal that represents his subconscious need.

Think one layer down. Not something that represents his inner need—which is to stop the pain, but his subconscious need, which is for love and family.

In short, he needs his niece to get better.

Remember her? In a coma, totally unresponsive—locked away by the people who should have loved her? John loves her too, and visits every week. He can’t do anything for her—but he desperately “wants” her to get better.

She’s the symbol of everything he lost and everything he can gain. Her recovery is a visible manifestation of his transformational arc. And that’s what this question was all about—how to show John’s arc.

John was never motivated to actively seek a loving family, because through the entire book his motivation was always to get away. It’s through the process of coming to know and care for that family (or heroine) that he changes enough to start the healing process, accept and return love--and at that point, the end of the book, his motivation finally changes to actively pursuing his subconscious need because it's no longer subconscious.

17 comments:

Janet said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janet said...

Great post, Jodi! I love discussions on character flaws and needs. (deleted my previous post after spotting loads of typos)

So... in situations where a character's inner goal and external goal seem to oppose each other this is because that particular character actually has 2 inner needs--a conscious one and an unconscious one?

The conscious one drives the character's actions and decisions until the crisis (when the character becomes aware of the unconscious one and that takes over as the driving force.)

So using Shrek as an example...

Shrek's EXTERNAL GOAL is to get his swamp back (and go back to living in isolation with his 'keep out' signs.)

The CONSCIOUS INNER NEED that drives his actions for most of the story is EMOTIONAL DETATCHMENT.

The external goal is the first step towards this so they are linked. (just as they should be)

But Shrek's deep UNCONSCIOUS INNER NEED (and the one that opposes his origianl exteranl goal) is TO OPEN UP AND CONNECT WITH OTHERS. And he won't be truly happy until he gets this.(Which he does at the end of the story.)

Have I got it right?

Janet

Janet said...

Oh I'd forgotten about the character's motivation being in a state of push and pull.

Maybe shrek's UNCONSCIOUS NEED TO CONNECT WITH OTHERS) draws him towards situations where that will happen. This Unconscious need is working away in the background and causing internal conflict (Because if this need were truly unconscious he wouldn't experience internal conflict?)

He's vascillating between dentity and essence (Michael Hague's terminology. Michael Hague has developed a six stage plot structure showing the character arc in terms of identity and essence.)

jodi said...

nicely said. Yes, it's very much like the push and pull of Identity to Essence. Hauge is my favorite structuralist. When he talks about slipping back and surging forward, he's talking about showing internal conflict--in a much nicer way. He's got great delivery.

And true--self-realization and the beginning of active pursuit end the story, because that's the point where the original transformation stops and another begins. :)

*happy sigh*

I love craft questions. Thanks, Janet.

Janet said...

Thank you Jodi. Heading over to Savvy Authors to find details of your on-line course.

deanna said...

Ms. Henley, I sure appreciate the way you teach. :o)

I'm having a grand time reading essays by Earl Swift. Thanks for letting me know about him.

jodi said...

lol, Deanna, and I appreciate reading your blog--although I wish I had "more" time to ead your blog or do anything *sigh*

Earl Swift is great, isn't he? Love his stuff. Sometimes I just settle in and re-read Journey on the James just because. And then I think about ordering the Tangierman's Lament and don't (because I have no time) and then regret it because when I do have time. Although right now--it's looking like I'll have time somewhere in late February? No, maybe...March? *sigh* Sooner or later, when it's warm outside and I can see the mountains. :)

Eva McKellen said...

Another eye-opener Jodi! I'm about to start reading it for the third time ... :)

Can't wait for the workshop to begin next week. I'm sure I'll have a lot of questions as usual. The more I know, the more I know there is so much I don't know. But it's so much damn fun learning it all!

Eva

Kaige said...

Chunks. Expertly wrapped.

deanna said...

Tangierman has such a variety of stories. Now I need to get Journey on the James...

I know you're out there and will have time to read again...soon, I hope. :o)

jodi said...

Thanks Eva! I look forward to seeing you again. I love re-visiting stuff I looked at a long time ago. It lets me see where my head is going, lol.

Thanks Kaige! That's the workshop I'm developing (or at least outlining) for savvy--Emotional Structure :)

Ahhh...you read Tangierman's lament. I've always wanted to order it. I really need to. It's no wonder the guy won a Pulitzer, he makes me even want to read his piece on Vietnam. :)

Anonymous said...

Ohh the shine!


Pretty!


Eva :p

jMo said...

Ahh, so this is what you're up to

jodi said...

lol, Eva!

*sigh* Jeanna. You know all those nights when we'd talk and it was 2am my time and 4am your time, and we were both tanked on caffeine? I'm up--mostly, just writing craft. It'd be easier, I think--if I didn't have this need to write 7-10 pages answers, lol. I think my very first lecture--the one I took through KOD was my workshop related core event. Never want to do that to someone else. I hate being ignored :(

epic said...

Congratulations, Jodi the Henley.

I will return to your blog, and read things, and pick random fights with you about Stupid Plot Tricks just to give you guff.

jodi said...

lol, epic. you can give me gruff anytime :)

Hailey Edwards said...

All I can say is--I like how you make me think about these things.