Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Back To Work: Categorizing Characters...




So. Sometimes when things aren't going well, a writer has to use the recluse clause until they can sort out the problem, wrestle with it, swear at it, tie its hands behind its back and slap it in the face, then feed it cake until it behaves itself and toes the line for further cake-shaped rewards. That's pretty much where I've been, barring a few interruptions from real life. Again.

Let me just get this out of the way. That dance scene my editor suggested was a complete %&$!$%& to write! *deepbreathandrelax...*

Here's the thing. Remember (again) these aren't the characters I started out with. When Blake looked like Christian Bale and Olivia looked like Reese Witherspoon, I had a pretty good idea of who they were and what motivated them. Characters are my thing. At least they used to be when I could - y'know - write. When I started back to this story, I went in with the proverbial clean sweep of a new brush and re-cast my hero and heroine as part of the shake up to get me going again. Now don't get me wrong, I love the new version of Blake and Olivia who now look like Michael Trucco and Charlize Theron. Problem is, I don't think I took enough time to get to know this new version of them. And when that happens, things tend to come to a screeching halt when they start doing things you don't think they should... like dancing a Tango for example...

Thanks to a little help from my Internet friends (you know who you are!), I had a better idea of the dance itself and could get my head around the idea of two people who have never learned the Tango, somehow pulling off a comparable set of moves around the dance-floor without looking like complete idiots. I'm not about to volunteer to try it with anyone, but with a little dose of creative license, a lot of tweaking, several re-writes and a ladle full of sexual tension tossed on top, I like to think I've got past my hang ups about this scene. But what really made a difference was taking a step back from the keyboard and having a long think about who these people are and why they were reacting the way they were. Then a short snippet of dialog came to me a few nights ago (you'll know what I'm talking about if you're following me on Twitter) and suddenly my hero had arrived. He took his sweet time if you ask me. But with his line a piece of the puzzle fell into place and I realized where I'd been going wrong...

The original Blake was cocky, arrogant and confident as hell. That hasn't changed. The original Blake had issues with his dead father. That hasn't changed either. He had an agenda. Yup, still there. But the original Blake also had a secret identity my heroine wasn't aware of. The new Blake is who and what he is and doesn't give a crap who has a problem with that. I know I've talked about this before, and on the surface that might not be much different from the original version of him either, or at least that's what I'd thought. See, I've been working really hard on my subconsciousness need to justify his actions - cross my heart I have! - but even if I wasn't correcting it on the page, I was still doing it in my mind. And that my friends, was a huge mistake. Because Blake isn't me. And readers aren't stupid. Everything happens for a reason. It's why Blake does what he does and why (hopefully) my readers will keep turning the page to discover why. All I have to do is know, then forget about it until the point he reveals it to my heroine. The reader will find out when she finds out in the same way they would - or I would - if we met someone in real life and had to spend time getting to know them. I preach this often enough. So why was it suddenly so darn hard to put it into practice?!

I think the answer is, because there are times we have to surrender control to our characters and let go. And that's not always easy. Especially if you're the writer-ly version of a control freak, which apparently I am when my confidence is low...

Over-compensating much, Trish?

Ridiculously, and because we all know what a geek I am, I'm gonna use the Joker from the Batman movie The Dark Knight as an example to make my usual long-winded point here. Bear with me. If you know the movie then you'll know the Joker is a sociopath. You'll also know that Bruce Wayne spends a good portion of the movie trying to understand him and justify his actions in some way so that he can think ahead and formulate a counter-measure to prevent the kind of chaos the Joker is seeking (thus gaining control of the situation). It takes Alfred to tell Bruce a story about a man who simply was what he was for Bruce to understand that sometimes people just do what they do; summed up in the line 'some men just want to watch the world burn' (or words to that effect). They don't have to have a master plan. Yes, the Joker will continually reference things that are all 'part of the plan', but it's a flawed 'plan'; one designed to have the chaos he thrives on as the outcome. He's hell bent on destruction. Doesn't see any further than his end goal or care how it will effect everyone around him. In a much less psychotic manner, I think this is where Blake is at the start of my story. He has a plan, but it's a flawed plan. And I've been Bruce, trying to understand why he's doing what he's doing and justify it so I can figure out how my heroine will prevent him from achieving his goal (thus gaining control of the story). Obviously the similarity ends at the point where my heroine discovers there is a reason why Blake does what he does, but until that point, thinking of Blake as the kind of man who simply doesn't give a damn is a big part of my heroines conflict. By not allowing myself to 'let go' and roll with that, I'm frequently making the mistake of allowing my heroine to behave as if, on some subliminal level, she knows there's a reason why Blake is behaving the way he is. Thing is, she doesn't. And every time I forget that, I not only lose that part of the conflict, I also have her behavior rocking back and forth in a way that just plain doesn't make sense.

Let me put it another way. Oh come on - you've met me - you thought I was done? By now you should know to make coffee and visit the bathroom before you visit here.

In the Orson Scott Card book 'Characters and Viewpoint', he talks about how we all categorize people. I've often referred to it as a kind of mental filing cabinet with many drawers where we can file people away under headings. The headings can be as simple as 'good guy', 'bad guy' or 'man' and 'woman', but they can also be more complicated with sub-headings like 'Good guy: Work colleague/not a potential love interest/nail biter/wearer of really bad after shave', etc., etc. We categorize people every single day of our lives and from an early age. We categorize ourselves. Often, the most basic categorization is based on stereotypes and first impressions. If we get to know someone a little better then some of the sub-categories may change, but ultimately we still need to label them and file them away according to levels of perceived importance in our minds. The fact my heroine can't do that with my hero is a source of much confusion for her, particularly when she's so sexually attracted to him (the category that includes 'rude, arrogant, over-bearing' being completely at odds with the category of 'potential sexual partner' in her mind). Part of the reason it's so frustrating is the fact she categorizes everything in her life to almost obsessively neat standards in order to feel she's in control. She then uses that perceived control as a kind of security blanket. I think that's something else we all do to some extent or other, because by categorizing everything into neat little compartments, we can (theoretically) understand why things happen the way they do, understand our own reactions better and seek logical solutions to our problems, even when those solutions may initially seem out of reach.

There are hundreds of complicated and complex theories based on our need to categorize people this way. There are long lists of stereotypes and personality types and archetypes and... other words that end in 'types'... but personally, I don't feel we need a masters degree in something or to wade our way through some heavyweight book on psychology to know we ALL categorize people and to use it to our advantage when telling a story. The trick is not to force our own way of thinking onto our characters. If we did that, wouldn't they all be exactly the same?

If I take a heroine who borderline obsessively categorizes people and place her opposite a hero she can't neatly categorize, I've got the makings of internal conflict. In order for that conflict to work, I have to leave my hero the hell alone, forget that I know why he is the way he is, and allow my heroine to react in a way that demonstrates her dilemma. It took me a week to get my head around that. You'd think I'd have known by now. Apparently I needed a reminder. *Sigh*

Spending so much time thinking about all this might seem like a form of procrastination. Spending so much time working on one scene might seem like another form of procrastination. Both might be considered a waste of time to those who stick rigidly to a pre-set word-count each day. But like I've said before, each to their own. I now feel more confident about the direction I'm headed, with my characters clearer in my mind. I also understand that getting the dance scene right was important because it's what I consider a 'pivotal scene' (more about that next time). So yes, I did disappear and become a recluse again, but hopefully you understand why. I think it was a necessary evil this time. A writer's gotta do what a writer's gotta do and all that...

So how's everyone else doing? Still chugging along? Characters behaving? Life getting in the way? Want to brainstorm anything? Ask any questions? Share some thoughts on my long, rambling post? My sister-in-law made me brownies. So I'm gonna have coffee while I eat them and answer some comments and then it's horses and keyboard, in that order. TTFN!

6 comments:

Donna Alward said...

Well, I'm nearly at the 18k mark. However I fear my book may be horribly dull as I just fell asleep at my desk for nearly 15 minutes.

You know, I think I'm just mentally tired.

Melissa Blue said...

Ha. I was reading this book called Fearless Creating. The writer was writing in this lyrical, over the top way that irked me so I read it in spurts. But the first stage of creating is called "Hushing". Where you just sit around and think about what you are going to create. In a way I agree that you need a quiet moment before you start, but I think you need them many times during the entire process.

As you would say the idea or characters (even plot) needs to simmer for a bit. Which is hard for me because when I get a juicy idea I want to write it that very moment. So I've been researching Saint Lucia and thinking of how my characters fit together. For me how they fit together tells me who they are as individuals. Kind of like puzzle pieces. Soon I can start writing. Can't wait.

Sally Clements said...

Glad you're back on track, Trish! I think the thing that is so compelling about a scenario like this one is the 'Whaaa??' factor. You know, the one when the heroine thinks she's got him sussed, and then he does something that doesn't fit the stereotype she's got of him in her head. Like Blake Snyder's save the cat moment tips off the reader that even though the hero may be a total b**tard, he has hidden qualities, a different side. The whaaa?? factor challenges her conception of him, adds a reason not to dismiss him as totally unsuitable, and messes big time with her head. It can be the key into a deeper him.
I'm doing my revisions and getting on okay. Some of the scenes I've rewritten are much better, others just tweaked. I hope I've done a good enough job, I'm fretting!

Trish Wylie said...

You'll overtake me pdq, Donna. I sincerely doubt the dullness factor, my love. Just how many things are you trying to pack into a day at the minute? Hmmmmmmmmmmm???

I've got the point where when I'm that tired, I try something new and novel (for me). I GO TO SLEEP. But then I have the luxury of allowing my body as much sleep as it needs in one go before I - y'know - deprive it for days on end. My sleep pattern is officially screwed. Having said that, right now, I've been going to bed at a fairly reasonable hour and am up during daylight hours. Imagine my surprise... ;)

Sometimes I think we just have to listen to what our body tells us. Especially as we get older. I have my leg as a reminder now. Too many hours at the keyboard in my office and it puffs up like a balloon. Once the skin starts to feel stretched, I take a break and go prop it up like a good girl.

Trish Wylie said...

You know I'm gonna have to look at that book on Amazon now, right Melissa? brb...

Okay, I've looked. Hmmm. Dunno. Liked the part about hushing though. It makes sense to me, and might explain why - since I've come back to work - I find it difficult to write when there's music with lyrics playing. USED to be able to do that. But now, it's instrumental or complete silence.

ITA there are times during the creative process when you need to take a step back and let things simmer a little. As someone who doesn't plot everything down to the nth degree, it's kind of a necessity. When it comes to that initial rush of a new idea, I'll make some notes. Maybe collect some pics and make a collage or simply open a folder and store everything in there for when I'm ready. Particularly if I'm already working on something when the idea comes to me. I can't, and never could, work on more than one story at a time. I know some people can, but I'm not one of 'em!

GREAT comment hun!

Let us know when you make a start with your new story and how you're getting on, won't you?

Melissa Blue said...

Of course I will. Thinking about the novel takes more time than the actual writing of it. So after I get started don't blink.

Also, that same meh feeling you got when you read it is why I finally got rid of the book yesterday.