Sunday, December 25, 2011

Running in the Dark: organic structure for character-driven stories

It's been awhile since I wrote this--which, lol, I thought was the hottest thing going since sliced bread. Nowadays, I kind of look at it as old-school, but it's also an important part of organic structure. 

Core events. Point A on the transformational character arc. The lens for exploring and focus in your story, and probably stuff that I haven't thought of yet. I use it for just about everything, including figuring out how people tick, deconstructing stories, and getting things back on track.

Some people think “organic writing” is another word for pantsing. Other people think it simply means growing your story. Structure is important, but there are many kinds of structure and one size doesn’t fit all.

Organic writing > writing from inside your characters.
Organic writing > writing from inside your characters > character-driven stories. In organic writing, characters drive stories. Although to be fair, this can also work for purely plot-driven stories too. The needs of a plot drive stories in an organic way, so in some ways, it might also be called “structure for pantsers” or “pantsing for plotters”. And to understand that, let’s talk about what character-driven “isn’t."

In a story driven primarily by plot, characters are interchangeable, and I’m not trying to say plot-driven stories are bad, simply that they’re “different” from character-driven stories because of the focus. Archetypes work well in plot-driven stories because they're a listing of character traits that tend to go together, sort of like if I said, "I'm a mom" rather than, "I'm a chubby middle-aged birdwatcher with a fixation on church steeples and pickled carrots." General versus specific.

Organic writing, and I’m using the term to mean “character-driven organic writing” for this workshop, is specific to your characters. Characters and plot in organic structure can't be taken out and used somewhere else because "those" characters produce "this" plot.

If I take John, my multipurpose example-guy, out of his story, there's no way I can replace him with someone else, because if I do the story changes. A well-thought out, multi-dimensional character in a character-driven story can't be removed without damage.

In a plot-driven story, the story events drive the characters--so if I remove John and insert Rob, a twenty year old with acne and a brand new truck, his "Rob-ness" doesn't matter. What does matter is the "weight" of the plot. To carry Rob, the plot would have to override personal details.

For an example, let’s talk about First Blood and the Rambo series.
First Blood, for those who haven’t seen it, is the first Rambo movie.

Loosely based on the David Morrell book of the same name, it’s the psychological study of a Vietnam vet.
In the movie, Rambo is a drifter. Everything that happens in First Blood builds on both his backstory and who he is because of that backstory. When he heads up into the mountains and does his whole poncho-survivalist thing, it's understandable because he was Special Forces.

All actions are based on who he is, what he did, what he became, and what's happening to him because of that. Because he was Special Forces he did "this", which produced that reaction, which was triggered by something in his past. Circles in circles, unlike the more linear structure of a plot.

Organic structure is a bull’s-eye of concentric rings, each spreading out like ripples from a central character. An organic plot happens when the rings of one character hit the rings of another character. brief note here--
this was my first workshop, is still my favorite, and something I'm constantly evolving. For most purposes, this is still a good analogy.

While the first Rambo movie is character-driven, the later "Rambo" movies are plot-driven. Although Rambo is still at the center of each movie, he could easily be replaced by Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal.
…keeping that in mind…
---A little bit about psychology, the environment your characters grew up in and how to use core events to create the people you want, or understand the people you already have.

People live in context, and are a result of the choices they've made, the way they grew up and what they've done with their lives. In other words, people are "me-centric". We have our own point of view and the world exists--for us--through our point of view.

The only-child-college-kid in an upper middle class household might view the world as her oyster. Daddy bought her a Miata for high school graduation, she's going to University, has good clothes and great health--her teeth are white and straight, she's got a nice haircut, and for spring break she's touring Greece (taking it as a given she's well-adjusted).

"I love life!” she tells people. “Life has always been good to me. I have no worries and my swim team is going to London this summer."

But if you take that same nineteen year old and put her in different context, the world changes because her focus shifts. 

This kid grew up in a single parent working class household; she shares her room with two sisters. They have bunk beds and she has a twin. Her grades were bad because she worked the night shift at McDonald's to help her mom out, and she's tired all the time. Sometimes she thinks of going to community college, but somehow she fell through the cracks.

"I wish I'd never been born. My mom works all the time, and I'm tired of taking care of my sisters. People laugh at me because my teeth are crooked and I work at McDonald's. The first thing I'm going to do when I win the lottery is get braces."

The same sun rises in the same sky when each kid gets out of bed, but for one kid, each day has unlimited potential. She gets up, thinks about eating and decides against it because she's trying to stay a size 3. The other kid pulls her uniform from the shower rod, makes a face because it smells like mildew and decides against eating because if she does, there won’t be enough for her sisters.

They were both born with the same basic equipment in the same way each character starts out as a blank page, but the girl touring the Greek Islands isn't the girl getting written up for a dirty uniform. The choices you make about "who" your character is influence "how" they act.

Did you think the rich kid buys lottery tickets? A million dollars doesn't buy much. But the kid with one discretionary dollar knows a million dollars isn't “just” a million dollars--it's toys for her sisters, a car for her mom, an end to baby-sitting and a kind of freedom the other kid doesn't know she has.

Knowing your character's social status in relation to the world they inhabit is a necessity.
It's the most important of the character building blocks because from social background you also get physical and emotional building blocks. Each block leans against the other.

The physical appearance of your character is a combination of genetics and life-choices, both of your character and his/her parents. Let's go back to Mercedes. Mercedes is the poor kid who works at McDonalds. 

She grew up poor, which brings us to her appearance--maybe she slouches and gives people angry sidelong looks. Maybe she has acne from a greasy diet and burns from cleaning the fryers. Her hands are rough and her nails are broken. Maybe she wears Medicaid glasses, the big ones with the large plastic frames, and her cousin Stefani’s hand-me-down clothes, too big or too small.

Back before she was born, her parents were poor and I’m not going to get into a far-reaching discussion of genetics, it’s enough to say her mom was a teenager when Mercedes was born and Mercedes’ dad wanted nothing to do with a baby and couldn’t pay child support.

Mercedes could have tried to escape by joining a gang or trying to sleep her way out, but I want “this” Mercedes, the one who works at McDonalds. To get that Mercedes I need to “see” her core events. What made this girl the person she is now?

Something has to hold her at McDonalds and because she’s going to be my heroine, I’m going to make her sisters nine year-old twins. She loves those little girls and because she loves them, she’ll do anything she can to make sure they have enough to eat and things to wear. If she was a secondary and just had a minor role, I might have used an alcoholic mother to point up what a nice person Mercedes is under her worker-drone exterior, but since she’s my heroine, I want to layer in her anger and give her depth.

So I’ll make her mom a good woman, trying to survive in a bad situation. Her skills aren’t valuable, her rent is barely covered by section 8 and she has food stamps which she’ll lose if her income goes over a certain amount.

Mercedes isn’t stupid. She knows her mother is trying. She watches her mom every day, tired and worn-out just like Mercedes. It feels wrong to hate her mother, but Mercedes, like a lot of people, can’t shut down her anger and resentment.

---now let’s flesh her core story event.

And in this instant we can work our story backward or forward. By that I mean, “What do you want Mercedes to do in this particular story?” or “Would you rather create Mercedes first and then figure out what she’s going to do?”

Both are legitimate ways to get to the same point.

Say this story is purely character driven in that I don’t know what’s going to happen. I want to wait and see.
And if there’s one thing I want you to take away from this class, it’s that you can’t create a real person. No one can. Real people are like an Old Masters painting. In our stories, we create Impressionist paintings of people. We draw them in pieces using the important parts, so when you step back, you see the whole. In an Old Master, no matter if you’re close or far, an eye looks like an eye.

In an Impressionist painting, if you get up real close, an eye is a series of small brush-strokes that look like a collage. When you step away and look at it from a distance, it looks like an eye. For some stories or in secondary characters, line drawings work because although not everything is there, the whole is recognizable and we need less of them.

Let’s say in this story I plan on kidnapping Mercedes sisters since that would hurt her most. Mercedes has to have a core event that A) focuses on her sisters and B) will not let her back down short of death.

---quick point?
Core events are backstory. One focal point where everything crystallizes. While you can (if you want) show them in flashback, or refer to them, they’re like the green beans in a casserole. They need to be there for the dish to be “green bean” casserole, but you pretty much just see the fried onions and mushroom soup—the signature of a green bean casserole.

If you spoon into a green bean casserole, you’re going to see green beans. Every spoonful of casserole has green beans and echoes of the core event in it, mixed in with the soup and fried onions in the same way that your character--who they are, what they are, and because of that, what they’ll potentially do--is an integral part of your story. By itself, a green bean is just a green bean, but “together” with other ingredients, it becomes a casserole-person. You don’t need to show a core event for it to be the driving force behind your story. You just need to know it’s there, and it’ll reveal itself as you write.

And you can simply say, “I’m going to kidnap Mercedes sisters and she’s going after them.” And maybe get, “well, she’s also poor” and “I want her to have acne.”

But thinking Mercedes through makes each layer of her character interconnect. She’s poor, she’ll dress like this. She eats a lot of fast food, she’ll have greasy hair. She has acne on her forehead because of her hair, her mother makes her angry, but she can’t do anything about it, so her facial expression is like “this” a little sour. So when you get stuck, say—maybe you have her riding in the car with the hero and he glances over at her, description, conversation and situation are all laid out.

He’s driving along, glances over at Mercedes. Her greasy lank hair falls in her eyes, hard to see behind the horrible windshield-style glasses. (Description of her physical person)
Her arms are folded and locked across her chest (let’s throw some body language in there) and she’s putting off anger like a perfume. (Emotional state)

Because anger usually responds to anger (and knowing her background) he says, “This isn’t McDonalds and you can’t get your sisters out of dry storage.”

She gives him an angry, sidelong look (because I’ve already established that as one of her mannerisms based on how she feels about her life situation) and says, “I know.”

Because based on her background, method of earning money (a solitary job versus a social job) and decision to be there for her little sisters, she probably has little social life, or skills, so it’s highly unlikely she’s going to go off into a beautiful monologue or engage the hero in idle chit-chat.

So let’s do her core event. The day everything she felt for her sister crystallized in one hot, shining instant.
---when Mercedes was thirteen and her sisters were four, her mom was working. Mercedes was watching her little sisters. Angry because she didn’t “want” little sisters, she hasn’t been a good big sister. She puts them to bed and falls asleep on the living room sofa. BUT, she’s also been experimenting with cigarettes and falls asleep with a lit cigarette. The sofa catches on fire and her sisters wake up at the smell of smoke. They race to wake her up. They get out, but the house burns. They made the conscious decision to wake her up because she was important to them. Unfortunately, their tabby cat, precious stuffed animals and blankies burn.

Her realization that her sisters sacrificed what they loved to save her—who they also loved, changed Mercedes. That one crystal pure instant--visuals, emotions, smells, sounds, everything, all at once, that locks into place is called "flashbulb memory."

Mercedes got a close up, firsthand look at love (when her sisters stumbled through the smoke and fire to save her) and pain (because by then the house was burning and she couldn’t go back in to save their cat and animals) and the consequences of her actions.

Out of this one core event, Mercedes develops the determination to save her little sisters from pain, a hugely developed sense of responsibility and let’s herself admit she loves them in return. To further develop the story, I can also make her terrified of fire and have a hard time sleeping unless she checks the house to make sure there are no fire hazards and everyone is safe. Some core events have more impact because of flashbulb memory. Flashbulb memory creates a stronger impact in a shorter time. 

Does your protagonist have a core event? What is it, and how does it drive your story?


Hailey Edwards said...

I learn something new about my characters every time I read this workshop. Thanks for making me think. (No matter how painful it is.)

jodi said...

lol, Hailey. I hate thinking my way through a story (which is why I understand exactly how painful it is)

Merry happy holidays!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this. I kept hearing "character driven, plot-driven," but never quite grasped it until reading your workshop.