Saturday, May 28, 2011

Part Two: Are My Characters Doing Enough?

The average person has a lot going on in their lives--family drama, relationship drama, work drama. Character-driven stories do need plots; it’s just that the plots are more…bag-like. Plot flows out of character and since you really can’t nail people down until you start writing, story events and the general direction of the plot go into and out of the bag. Sort of like if you started with a tomato, went to the store, added a can, reconsidered it—took it out, and added a box of pasta and some garlic instead. It all started with a tomato, could have gone toward tacos or goulash, but ended up spaghetti because that’s the tomato “said” to you. Plot is defined by what’s in the bag when you check out. You can’t really go wrong with a tomato because a tomato is the beginning of a meal.

Since John and Jane are already having dinner, let’s start them off with a simple green tomato. One of those hard ones.

John and Jane break up because Jane is overly controlling and need to talk about their problems to have their happily ever after.

Remember that old cliché? All they needed to do was talk and the story would have been over? It’s a cliché because it’s true. Most relationship stories end when the hero and heroine work things out. The difference between an agent or editor saying, “You could have wrapped this up on page fifty if the hero and heroine had simply talked,” and “enough plot” is Benny. Remember him, Jane’s mobster uncle?

Jane’s uncle, Bill the undercover cop and Busby the flying monkey are all story elements. If John and Jane don’t talk because Lucia wants Jane to talk to Benny, and Bill wants John to spy on mob, then what’s going on between John and Jane isn’t strong enough to support the story by itself.

Which means fifty pages in, John and Jane are still arguing with Bill and Benny, the mob is closing in, Lucia is having horrific visions of blood and death--and suddenly—a car blows up because the story really isn’t about John and Jane. It’s about John, Jane, Bill, Lucia and Benny and what happens when Lucia talks about her visions. Dinner was just an easy way to separate John and Jane so they can run around trying to stop something bad from happening, make up at the end because it’s a romance, and finally have a happily ever after.

Jane isn’t important because the story isn’t about her. It’s about the plot. The plot grew, dropped Busby, added Bill’s point of view, made him incredibly hot to set up for the next story, and turned into what the writer thought was a romantic suspense. If John and Jane had talked the story would have been over, so instead of putting the focus back on John and Jane, the writer added more complications. The mob boss is related to the mayor, the entire city council is on the take and the cops are all dirty—except for Bill. After all, don’t complications mean “something happens?”

It’s always easier to make something happen than to think about relationship stuff. Isn’t Bill hot? Isn’t it easier to describe his abs and Lucia’s visions than to figure out why Jane is such a control freak?

A story that follows John and Jane’s relationship is a lot different from a story that follows a psychic aunt and a hot cop. For a relationship based story, it’s enough that John and Jane interact in a way that shows why they “can’t” talk.

Maybe John has some kind of core event trauma that deals with being controlled. And Jane has a core event that makes her need to control the one she loves more important than anything else which means all along, John has been fighting his trauma to be with Jane and Jane has been working to protect him because of her past trauma.

People do things when they have issues. They fight to deny them, continue doing the same thing, try not to do the same thing, and in general—act like people.

Maybe for the whole time they’ve been together, because of her behavior, John has slowly started identifying Jane with his mom—the source of his issues. By itself, that’s probably not going to stop him from talking to the woman he loves, even if it comes out in a horrible tidal wave of “YOU that! And YOU this!” Which means the degree of trauma needs to be jacked up a notch. If he identifies Jane with his mom, then his mom has to have done something so horrible he “can’t” talk about it.

Maybe his mother was one of those overly controlling moms who didn’t allow GMO products or sugar, chose his clothes for him and only allowed him to associate with the right kind of people. And to make it even darker, maybe she also used him as her punching bag and kept him locked in his room because of the time he tried to sneak some candy. And he has a little sister—the apple of his mom’s eye, who can do no wrong, and the bad thing is, he loves her too because she loves him, and she’s a nice kid.

One day, while he’s locked in his room, which fronts a busy street, he watches her wander into the front yard and despite yelling and screaming at her to come back, and yelling and screaming at his mom to let him out and trying to break the door down, his kid sister is hit by a car just as he jumps out the window and breaks both legs. Which means, he doesn’t just get to lay there and watch her die, he gets to spend the next couple of weeks flat on his back thinking about it.

There’s a reason core events are called core events.
A core event is a catalyst that creates change and motivates behavior.

If his sister hadn’t died, John would probably have dealt with his dysfunctional life and left the day he turned eighteen. But because of the way she died, he rebelled and ran away from home less than a year later which put him on the street, later in the military and still later made him a private security consultant.

He equates love with pain and loss but overcame that to be with Jane but this whole thing with his mom and Jane is bringing it all back. After being raised in an abusive home, he doesn’t want any self-knowledge, and he’s not going to sit down and talk about his kid sister to a woman who reminds him of his mom. He isn’t just freaked out and upset, he also feels betrayed. He trusted her.

Jane on the other hand, had something bad happen to her because she was too slack. Maybe Jane is also ex-military, and as a bright young officer lead her entire crew of techs into an ambush because she didn’t follow through when she heard someone say the city they were going to was about to fall. Stuff happens to other people, you know? She was support—not front-line. If she’d only….

She was responsible—although she was cleared—for leading five of her best friends to their deaths. She “needs” to control the people she cares about, because if she doesn’t, they’ll die. She buried her trauma and hasn’t talked about it for years.
She loves John and doesn’t want him to die—can’t he see that?

Which means this story isn’t just about John and Jane talking about their issues. It’s about John and Jane, their ghosts, self-knowledge, personal growth “and” talking through their issues.

Just because it looks simple on the outside, doesn’t mean it “is” simple.

If you throw in the death of John’s dad, a career military officer, a local tech start-up founded by his PSTD group, and a little kid, you’re talking a seriously emotional story about two people who have to overcome and accept their past issues before they can reach out and love each other the way they deserve to be loved.
Everything flows out of their issues because the story is about John and Jane. There’s nothing big going on, but once we’re at the doesn’t matter.

Next up:
“It’s not exciting.”


Janet said...

Thank you for doing these posts Jodi. They're so helpful.

"She “needs” to control the people she cares about, because if she doesn’t, they’ll die."

At the start of the story does she consciously realise this is her reason for wanting to control the people she cares about? Does she link her behaviour to her core event?

Or does she tell hereself she's being controlling for a less shameful reason -- because she doesn't want to admit to herself she was too slack?

How aware are characters (at the start of the story) of the link between their present day behaviour and attitudes and their core events? How much is buried/repressed?

jodi said...

"She “needs” to control the people she cares about, because if she doesn’t, they’ll die."

At the start of the story does she consciously realise this is her reason for wanting to control the people she cares about? Does she link her behaviour to her core event?

….Most people—and I’m making generalizations here—are maybe 5% aware of what drives them. They simply exist and do things a certain way. It takes some kind of trauma or “need” to bring a core motivation out into the conscious mind, which is why there are mental health professionals.

….the thing is—there are “lite” core events and dark ones (like the stuff I usually focus on). Jane can have a less weighty reason for being the way she is, but that wouldn’t drive her to keep going through your story. A core event is the subconscious motivation for your character and changes over the course of the story into being conscious motivation. The transformation in the transformational arc.

Or does she tell hereself she's being controlling for a less shameful reason -- because she doesn't want to admit to herself she was too slack?

…She’s going to be telling herself all kinds of things, all of which are designed to keep her motivations buried or sealed away. People hate self-knowledge because you then either have to accept it into yourself or know it’s there and fight it.

…I mean, I know I’ve put on twenty pounds since my husband passed away, and I sort of knew it, but it took three years of squeezing into tighter jeans and being out of breath to force myself to actually look in a dressing room mirror and buy a pair of jeans two sizes up. And I still get startled when I see myself sideways, so maybe the knowledge is starting to submerge again, even though I know it for a truth.

…Jane could have explored her feelings during therapy, figured she was finished with it, sealed it all up and simply moved on with her life. It’s easier to seal up pain, then to suffer through it until it gets muted. So the potential for some serious anguish is there when John rejects her for a coping mechanism she “grew” to make sure something like the death of her crew never happens again.

Janet said...

This is a fascinating series of blog posts. Cutting and pasting everything.

"It’s easier to seal up pain, then to suffer through it until it gets muted."

Can I jump in here and ask a question about core events that would really help me with my story?

I tried to create a character who'd subconsciously trained himself not to show his emotions. He feels emotion but shies away from revealing his feelings to others. (The heroine never has a clue what he's really thinking and often jumps to the wrong conclusion thinking he's indifferent to issues that matter to her)

Then I got stuck because I couldn't work out why he'd believe that letting people see inside you brought pain.

He'd lost a brother and his mother when he was a young teen. I thought maybe his father had been the sort who believed in keeping a stiff upper lip and had refused to discuss the deaths and his and the hero's feelings.

But I'm strugglig to see why the hero would think revealing your emotions brought pain.

Would the father have had to be the sort of man who made the hero feel ashamed of revealing his emotions (the sort of man who derided any show of emotion and made the boy fear appearing weak?)

Would I need other core events for the adult hero to come believe so strongly that he must keep a lid on his emotions? He hides a rush of pleasure too not just painful emotions.

jodi said...

It's one of my favorite soapboxes. Core events are my baby.

I'm going to take your comment and create a sub-post.

Not that I've forgotten the next one, lol. I have it minimalized in the corner of my screen, along with Hailey's comment. :)

Anonymous said...

or a relationship based story, it’s enough that John and Jane interact in a way that shows why they “can’t” talk.

This. It grabbed me. It's how my romance starts off. No, they're not in a relationship, but...

Well, I won't get into it, but I feel as if it's there, my beta reader felt something was there, but my workshop instructor feels I need something bigger. The instructor is really into plot-driven stories. I'm wondering if we're on the same page.