Looking back over the previous sections of this essay, and then at the ruinous wasteland of the novel I’m currently attempting to write, I feel I should clarify something. I don’t think it’s necessary, or for many writers, even possible to answer the question, “What is my novel about?” fully from the get-go. It’s also likely that any definitive answer to that question will, in the course of writing the book, change beyond recognition. What I do think is necessary, though, is engaging with the question from the beginning and then constantly thereafter.
A good way of approaching this is to look for connections.
When I’m writing, I often find myself stressed out at the prospect of having to come up with new ideas. Character motivations can be particularly difficult. I’ll have a character do something that feels necessary for the story, but I won’t know why he does it, or how he feels about what he’s doing. At those moments, I often convince myself it’s necessary to invent an elaborate explanation: I’ll give the character a convoluted interior monologue explaining his philosophy or politics or a heretofore unmentioned earlier backstory that somehow justifies his actions in the present day. These passages are not fun to write, because they involve creating out of formal necessity, not out of inspiration, and they usually feature (in my own work and the work of others) the highest density of clichés and the lowest level of clarity in the prose. For these reasons, they’re also not much fun to read. But more importantly, they fail at what they’re meant to do, which is to make the reader believe the character would act this way.
Allow me to provide an example from fiction’s younger and more glamorous sibling, the screenplay. A moment like this occurs in the movie Juno, when the title character has a change of heart at the abortion clinic. Juno, who we’ve so far been lead to believe is a spunky, independent, irritating, and fairly intelligent teenager living in the contemporary United States, has knowingly scheduled an appointment for a procedure that anyone with a television and eyes knows is highly controversial. Abortion rhetoric on both sides of the issue is in fact so numbingly overfamiliar that it seems doubtful anyone could be unacquainted with it, even the Amish, much less the kind of smart-aleck who rattles off pop culture references at such a clip it’s like she’s composing a Barenaked Ladies song in ordinary conversation. Yet screenwriter Diablo Cody appears to have gotten her as far as the clinic and gotten stuck. Juno needs to stay pregnant for the story to proceed, but why? To answer this, Cody went through the process I describe above and invented an elaborate explanation: the poorly articulated and entirely unoriginal arguments offered by a protester outside suddenly, inexplicably convince Juno, as if she’s never heard them before, and she flees.
What could have Cody done differently? I would argue that, instead of inventing something, she could have looked at what was already present in the rest of the story and tried to find connections. To me, the answer is obvious: Juno loves the guy who impregnated her – though she hasn’t yet admitted it – has a high opinion of herself, and believes their combined genetics will produce a great kid, one that could bring joy to the lives of others, including adoptive parents. (It’s right there in the screenplay: she even looks at an ultrasound of the fetus later in the film and enthuses over its resemblance to the father.) If, for example, Juno’s annoying friend said something like, “It’s too bad, though – you and the worst actor from Arrested Development would’ve made a super cute baby,” and Juno pondered this, then decided to leave, it would make sense with her character and resonate with the rest of the plot. Bringing politics into the situation isn’t just unbelievable; it actively distracts from what the story is about, because it isn’t connected to anything else.
Of course I don't mean you, Tobias.
My point is that, while writing, it’s often not necessary to invent anything new; you’re better off using (or re-using) what you already have whenever possible. Oddly, this can actually be easier, too, because you don’t have to make things up out of desperation. And it’s particularly important when it comes to characters, their goals, and the obstacles to those goals. If you want us to care what happens to someone, then that person should have internal coherence: the way he acts should be organically connected to what we already understand about what he wants and how he sees the world. And complications that arise should arise naturally, at least partly as a consequence of those actions; they just shouldn’t drop out of the sky from an authorial hand. More on that in the next post.
...next up: victims vs. passive characters
...next up: victims vs. passive characters