This is Really About Character / On Beginning
Honestly, I used to feel like I started with character because I heard a voice, even though it sounded remarkably like my own. And there’s that question always being leveled at us, what comes first, character or plot, as if these were the only possibilities. It felt like character came to me before plot. Except, not entirely before plot, and that got me thinking.
This is Really About Character:
Honestly, I used to feel like I started with character because I heard a voice, even though it sounded remarkably like my own. And there’s that question always being leveled at us, what comes first, character or plot, as if these were the only possibilities. It felt like character came to me before plot. Except, not entirely before plot, and that got me thinking. (da dum.) I went back and looked at my first lines. I realized, I start with conflict.
Why conflict before character?
Story needs a protagonist, but conflict must be inherent in the characters inhabiting the story if it’s going to be a story that garners any readers. Conflict is inherent in all of us. Unlike life, story needs a place to go, making scheduled stops at beginning, middle, and end. Conflict is the ‘how’ and ‘why’ that sends the story’s protagonist in a given direction, and the continuing advance of story is derived from conflict.
Many writers write away from conflict, particularly those of us who would stand away from conflict in everyday life. But readers don’t want to read two hundred pages about how well everyone gets along. They want to read about people who find themselves in trouble and who figure out what to do about it. Then it’s satisfying to hear everyone (or nearly everyone) gets along.
It doesn’t matter whether character or conflict seems to be your inspiration. But on paper, character is conflict expressed as action and dialogue.
I think it’s necessary to think of conflict, character, and story in a cross referenced way. I can’t talk about character or conflict or story, without at least referring to the others. If I talk about one, I am talking about the others.
The first need a story has is conflict.
As it happens, writing about conflict is the easiest way I know to get to know my character, to get a story started, and these are just some of the possibilities:
Conflict is incompatible goals. The immovable object and the irresistible force.
Conflict is two people who have the same goal, but there’s room for only one at the top. Two dogs and a bone.
Conflict is someone wants something, somebody else doesn’t want it, but doesn’t want them to have it. Slightly different than two dogs, one bone. More, dog in the manger.
Conflict is two people operating in an environment that gives one of them an unhealthy balance of power: student and teacher, rich and poor, sick and well, and so on. Keep in mind, the power doesn’t always flow in the direction we most often observe; that can make for an interesting story.
Two people who are perfectly happy and hopeful of going on that way until circumstances separate them. Somebody goes on a journey.
Two people who need each other, but they have different goals. A fork in the road.
Conflict is two people happy together until a significant third person comes along. Somebody comes to town.
Two people separated by circumstances but fighting to get back together.
Conflict is someone did something and somebody else doesn’t like it.
Two people facing a crisis find they have unexpected differences or a great loss that makes it difficult to meet each other’s needs.
Notice, the most readily understood conflict is other people. Conflict works best when there’s an element of interdependence to give emotions a charge, so you must find situations in which to demonstrate the ways in which your characters need each other, or at least benefit from one another’s presence in a situation. If you can show the interdependence before the ball starts rolling downhill to larger conflict, you have characters with something invested in the outcome. You have cause for one emotional display to kick off another.
First thing we want to know about a character, why do we empathize with him? Empathy is based on understanding, so what is like us in that character, why is (s)he not a perfect person who is entirely successful in every way? In other words, what’s her flaw?
Once we’ve established that, we want to know what (s)he wants now and can’t get. We want to feel for her here because this is the carrot (? something with more sugar—you fill it in) we will follow through the story. And maybe we already have an inkling of who or what stands in her way.
There’s a way to make finding a story as natural as breathing.
Start with one interesting word. A noun.
Make that the tip of your pyramid. And beneath it, write three words that “game” brings to mind. This isn’t meant to be a think hard project, just the first three words that come to mind.
For me, the words are lose, win, cheat.
I go right to those words because I think they’d be important to a story about a game. Plus I know the rules for exactly no games except, Mother,may I. I was not a kid who played games; I collected bugs and reptiles.
Now I grant you, your words might just as easily be the names of games, and if this is the case, I think I’d wonder which of these games you play very well. I’d wonder which one you don’t like much (because you don’t play very well). I’d wonder if one of these is a game you know somebody else likes, if you thought “Dad likes to watch football on Monday night.”
The main idea is not to come up with the same words because there aren’t any RIGHT WORDS. There are only the words that happen to be your words, and eventually you want to think about why you chose them. This is how you come to know what your story is about. Pick your own noun, your own three words and follow the breadcrumbs. Like this:
I’ve decided I might like to try three different words.
Cheryl Lynn—she was a girl in seventh grade who got to be team captain a lot and never chose me for her team. (Nobody chose me for their team, I tended to wander off.)
And softball—not because I like the game but because once I followed the greenest grasshopper I’d ever seen into the midst of a softball game. The ball hit me between the eyes and knocked me out, and I didn’t catch the grasshopper either.
Seven Up—I think this is the name of a card game, but it was also what the school nurse gave me to settle my stomach after I got knocked out. It was part of her lunch. And then I ate the rest of her lunch.
I think I could start writing here, but really, it’s best to add another line to the pyramid. If I can. Well, I can make a whole line out of Cheryl Lynn:
snooty, lived in the apartment downstairs, liked to be mean
So you can see that from just the thought of Cheryl Lynn, I can stretch this story into a lot of different shapes. It could be a story about wanting Cheryl Lynn to like me, or about not liking her very much either, or both.
It can be a story about how our mothers went to work in the evening and we both had little brothers to look after. Because we actually didn’t get along, this story could get really interesting around whether our brothers were best friends or one of them was a bully, about how our mothers wanted us to babysit together because we’d be able to help each other, or instead, I could write about how Cheryl Lynn’s mother thought I was a bad influence. All of these things were true, at one time or another, about the boys’ dynamic, about our mothers’ reasoning.
I never understood what made Cheryl Lynn decide to be mean about something. She could be going along being nice enough and then turn mean, and I could write about that, making up a reason and trying it out in the story. I could write about how after a while it surprised me more that she could be so nice some of the time, that’s how mean she was. Not just to me, but to her brother and even to her mother. Once her mother asked her to weed the garden, a measly little plot of petunias and pansies that made her mother happy and Cheryl Lynn tore a lot of the flowers out with the weeds. On purpose. She laughed while her mother wiped away tears.
Adding brothers, mothers, flowers
Remembering the dead bat Cheryl Lynn was afraid of and I kept it in the freezer to get her to back off once when she planned to beat me up (our brothers tattled because, they said, I was their favorite and would I make them hamburgers?). So they kept me safe, and I never turned them down on the hamburgers.
Cheryl Lynn was the kind of person someone reading a story loves to hate, so she’d be a great character. Any story with a Cheryl Lynn in it is half written from the start.
Then again, I could write about being a bad influence.
Nah. It didn’t involve smoking, drugs, sex, or violence (not much violence, anyway) so hardly going to hold anyone’s attention these days. It was more like exploring when we claimed to be at home (our brothers were thrilled) and joining up with a group of older kids who bribed (with a small bottle of liquor, does sloe gin count as liquor?) the guy at the roundhouse to take them for rides on the locomotives (our brothers were blissed out). Only Cheryl was dumb enough to blab to another girl who told her own mother, you get the picture.
I could think about softball, how I really don’t know much about it, except I liked the summer evenings when other people watched the game, so ‘seeing how far I could get following the cracks in the sidewalk, fireflies.’
Seven up. I might want to use it, so, ‘rules,’ because I’ll have to look them up. Seven up is the soft drink, and somehow that doesn’t interest me much. What I remember is how the school nurse made me sit on a cot with a wool blanket while I drank it. The blanket made me itch and gave me hives on my legs. This leads to flea baths, which is what my mother made me take because she thought the hives were from fleas from our dog, and then she slathered me all over with calamine lotion.
Why, you ask yourself, didn’t I just tell my mother about the wool blanket?
I tried to. But the school didn’t send a note home about how I got knocked out on school property, and because I started my story there thinking I would lead up to the wool blanket, my mother said, “Are you making this up about getting hit between the eyes? Because I don’t see a mark on you.”
“I’m not making it up,” I said. I hardly ever made things up, except for my own entertainment, usually while staring out a window in class or when I’d been put to bed long before I could possibly fall asleep.
My mother said, “Don’t tell lies.” I did sometimes tell lies, but how to make it clear this wasn’t one of those times.
So I never got to the part about the wool blanket.
I thought the flea bath was pretty relaxing after such a hard day and my mother was always gentle and sweet when she did things like put calamine lotion on flea bites. Flea bites were small; it made her nervous to think about telling a school principal she didn’t think it was right that he didn’t call and tell her one of her kids got hurt. That would be intimidating. She probably didn’t like to be reminded of all the things that could go wrong when she wasn’t looking, either; she had a lot to deal with where she was looking. So while I don’t know that card games or soft drinks will be a big part of this story, I have a full line of interesting things to think about for my pyramid:
lose, win, cheat
Cheryl Lynn, softball, Seven Up
snooty, lived in the apartment downstairs, liked to be mean
brothers, mothers, flowers, dead bat in the freezer, tattlers love
‘hoppers, see how far I could get following cracks in the sidewalk, fireflies
rules, wool blanket, hives, flea baths, calamine lotion, don’t tell lies, mom
What are we looking for? If you don’t know, start again at the top. Me, I’m thinking Cheryl Lynn threw that softball.
Occasionally, writers discover themselves through the experience of undergrad homework assignments. These may provide a first taste of the rewarding experience of being praised for the written word. But more writers find themselves through some isolating experience, an emotional time with little other outlet, so they feel compelled to tell their story on paper, if nowhere else. Or a period of intense boredom during which they found this way to entertain themselves. Or they’ve suffered an illness or other experiential education that demands to be shared.
Writing begins in isolation. We step into it willingly, even eagerly, it seems, and perhaps we think it will end our separation, but in fact, it converts an otherwise short sentence to life. I’ve never met a writer, published or not, who wasn’t a lifer.
Writers orphan themselves through the experience of writing. We damage the experience of casual reading, we can no longer sit through a social experience without agenda, or feel anything without trying to find a way to express it in words. If chastised for writing, or conversely, if we receive too much admiration to handle, we develop defenses of ego, of irritability, of depression, of reticence, or suspicion.
Our labor defines us. As writers, we write or we don’t, but now this is labeled “producing” or being “blocked.” We succeed or we don’t, but always within the context of being a writer. Because, finally, writers write about themselves, actual selves and imaginary selves. Even when they’re writing about a character who is entirely different, their attitude toward that character reveals who the writer really is.
The first step is to look at writing as a process, your process, of becoming more of who and what you are. As you test characters, you try out the labels that apply to those characters. As you plunge your characters into sticky situations, you question your own actions, your values, your boundaries, your flaws, your failings.
Writing requires a willingness to try and fail, probably several times before success finds you, demanding a kind of mental toughness that has nothing to do with being able to run a marathon or defeat an opponent in the ring.
The disposition needed to become a writer is developed along with writing skills, as your first daring thought that you’d like to be a writer is born and nurtured. It may be that you’ll write blithely, as I did at twelve, before I learned what an impact my words could have. Or you’ll write secretly, because you already know you’re lighting dynamite.
But you will write. If you want to publish, you’ll develop a disciplined approach to sitting down to write, to keeping the pen moving, the computer compiling the words you give it. You’ll make a deal with yourself that you’ll only ever consider yourself a good writer, no matter how many rejection letters you can paper the bathroom walls with, because a writer who considers any other possibility is flirting with failure. You’re obviously a good writer who has something more to learn, and I guarantee you, that won’t change, no matter how many published books you may eventually have to your credit.
Writing is a process, and it never reaches a state of such perfection that you can’t find something in it to improve upon, perhaps not in the book you just finished, but in the book you’re about to write.