Saturday, September 3, 2011

Bob Kernen's "Building Better Plots", part 25

This comment scares me. A “vast, complete knowledge of the world in which you are working will help you to avoid making poor decisions or untenable leaps of logic.” I get the point that the more the writer knows about the universe she/he is writing in, the better the story will be, but I’ve also read comments from published authors who say that a particular plot point or theme didn’t appear until the story was being written.

As in most (if not all) writing advice, I guess it depends on the specifics of your story and maybe somewhat on your way of working. All this “it depends” can get annoying. After all, why read advice if it can’t help you with specifics? It does, but you have to think about it. I’ve signed up for my third writing course so I do believe in getting advice. I’ll have to look at what I’m being told and see how it applies to my situation. Yes, sigh all you want, learning how to write well is cerebral and usually not quick.

I’ve discovered that just because most of the characters in my WIP have been in my head for a few decades, I didn’t necessarily *know* them. When I wrote out exploratory scenes and filled out character profiles, I discovered things I had no idea about. I knew Sandy liked his Ferrari, but I didn’t realize that when he got his first one, he went tearing all over the county and wound up in the Angeles Forest where he smashed into a guard rail. Despite his main quirk of being naïve, this also shows he does sometimes take chances. So, it is in fact realistic that he wants to take a chance on helping Neal.

My only concern is the idea that getting to know characters can be done in a few writing sessions. Maybe some people can work that way, but I think what worked for me are the dozens of scenes I wrote over a few years. Every new situation I explored showed more of each character’s personality. The characters evolved one way, but I realized that wasn’t realistic, and so I had to change things up. The guys in the band, originally, were too nice to each other. Sure, they’re friends, but they spend so much time together that it’s natural for nerves to fray and arguments to explode.

At first, it felt wrong to introduce a bunch of changes. I didn’t want to change characters’ fundamental natures. Now that I’ve had time to adjust to that idea, I see that I’ve simply enhanced their personalities. I always knew that Eric came from a religious family that he felt was too restrictive, and then I discovered that his family ran a mission/soup kitchen in the Denver area. He saw a lot of the dark side of life there. Being front man for the band is how he distances himself from his past. Of the band members, he reacts the strongest to Neal showing up at the band’s house because of his own background.

I discovered Sandy had a relative who resented his success because she couldn’t seem to get her life together; he felt tremendous guilt when she died an alcoholic. That makes him more than just a nice guy trying to do a good deed for Neal, it gives him an emotional connection to Neal. Those are concepts a lot of people can relate to.

So don’t be afraid to change your characters to bring out drama and realism. Delve deep and see what happened in their childhood, teen years, and early working life. Take a seed idea, plant in a big pot, water with “what if”, and then let the result break out of the pot. Climb that beanstalk and see where you wind up. I’ll bet you have great fun!

When my series resumes, I’ll touch on themes and the climax.

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