Thursday, July 20, 2017

Digging Deeper With Character by Nola Passmore


(Photo from photobucket.com; 
http://i703.photobucket.com/albums/ww33/bacalacabuckett/wed-nov16-dog-winter-games.jpg)


My protagonist has a really clear goal.  Maggie is a young Englishwoman travelling to Nova Scotia in 1881 to find her young brother and sister who've been sent to Canada as part of the Home Children program (a scheme that sent orphans and waifs from England to homes and farms in Canada). She was working abroad as a governess when their mother died, and the children were shipped off to Canada without her knowledge.  Sounds like a pretty good premise, doesn't it?  Well I thought so, until Lisa Cron arrived and shook my world.  Lisa Cron is the author of Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel.

If someone had asked me a few months ago about my character's motivation, I would have said that she wants to reunite her family.  If they'd asked why, I would have looked at them with a blank expression.  Well isn't it obvious?  Anyone in that situation would want to find their siblings and reunite their family.  The trouble is that I was looking at the external motivation without considering what was going on under the surface.  In Story Genius, Cron shows how to dig deeper to find out what your characters are really about.  What is the internal struggle going on that's fleshed out in the plot?  Do they have misconceptions that drive their behaviour?  Who were they the day before your novel began and how is that going to change as the novel progresses? Without that underlying conflict, the story can just become a bunch of things that happen, regardless of how beautifully written it is.



To avoid spoilers, I don't want to say too much more about my novel, except that I've discovered Maggie's main issue is abandonment.  Instead, let me use a hypothetical example to show you how 'digging down' might work.

Imagine your protagonist, Miranda, has a dream of becoming the CEO of a large corporation.  She starts out as an Administrative Assistant and overcomes a barrage of obstacles to finally reach the top.  However, the story won't necessarily engage the reader.  Unless we can connect with Miranda in some way, we won't want to go with her on the journey.  We won't care if she makes it or not. To build a connection with readers, you need to go deeper into her motivation. Why does she want to get to the top?  There are many possible reasons, but let's say she wants to have a job where she can earn a lot of money.  Why does she want to earn a lot of money?  So she can buy the things she's always wanted (e.g. nice clothes, house, car, travel).  But why does she want those things?  It's because her family didn't have a lot of money when she was growing up and she often missed out on things like a new dress.

So far, we've discovered some of the reasons that make Miranda tick, but it's still pretty general.  Most people would like more money so they can buy things they want.  Why does this mean so much to Miranda?  Think of a specific event when she couldn't afford something she wanted.  How about this?  When she was in Grade 10 at school, a boy she liked asked her to the school dance, but she didn't have anything suitable to wear.  She couldn't afford to buy a new dress and she didn't want to wear one of her old ones because some of the girls at school had previously made fun of her clothes.  So rather than be embarrassed, she turned down the invitation.  The boy asked someone else to the dance and she stayed home.  So how did that make her feel?  She felt like she was a second-class citizen who wasn't as good as the other girls.  She felt unloved.  What is the incorrect belief that guides her current behaviour?  She thinks that if she can rise to the top of the corporation and earn a lot of money, she will finally gain the love and acceptance she craves.  However, this is a mistaken belief because money doesn't guarantee love and happiness.  The plot then shows Miranda's internal struggle and we see her change over the course of the novel.  There's still more drilling down to do, but hopefully you're getting a sense of what is needed.  It's the internal struggle that drives the plot and builds connections with readers.

Lisa Cron explains it much better in her book, with lots of examples and practical tips.  I highly recommend Story Genius if you want your novel to really connect with readers rather than just being pretty prose that goes nowhere.  Now I just have to apply that advice to my own novel!

Could you dig deeper with any of your characters?  I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Nola Passmore is a writer and editor who has had more than 140 short pieces published, including fiction, poetry, devotions, magazine articles, and true stories.  She and her husband Tim own and operate a freelance writing and editing business called The Write Flourish.  You can find her weekly writing tips blog on their website.  She is currently penning her ever-changing debut novel, which involves lots of digging down :)

Website: http://www.thewriteflourish.com.au/
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheWriteFlourish/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/NolaPassmore





22 comments:

  1. I read and reviewed Story Genius when it was published and thought it was excellent. But now I have to apply it ...

    I'm currently faced with a similar issue as Maggie - I've discovered my character motivations aren't strong enough, nor specific enough. She wants to be happy. Fine.

    But now I'm faced with the same question as you - why? What happened in her past that makes this important? And what does 'happy' mean?

    It's going to take some work, but I'll get there. We both will.

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    1. Thanks Iola. It's encouraging to hear you're travelling the same road :) I was fortunate in one way in that I already had a reasonably good back story and there were also little snippets in the manuscript to alert me to the theme, but it needs to be developed a lot more. As you probably remember, I was doing a parallel narrative, but you might not know that I ended up ditching that because it was becomingly increasingly clear that I really have two novels - an historic one and a contemporary one. I decided to finish the historic one first. The only problem is that when it was a parallel narrative, the main theme was social justice. There are still social justice elements in it, but it took me ages (about a year - LOL) to twig that once the modern story was taken out, the main theme had also changed. It certainly does take a lot of work, but hopefully both of our novels will be a lot better for it. Good luck wrangling your happy heroine and thanks for commenting.

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    2. Great post and illustration, Nola. Must read 'Story Genius' now!

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    3. Thanks Rhonda. It's well worth reading. I've only given a small taste of it. She has lots of strategies and examples.

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  2. Loved your post Nola. I've always been interested in human psychology so engaged fully with the idea of digging deeper into the real reason why people do stuff. God seems to be calling me mainly to Non fiction writing at this stage, but reading your blog I was tempted to get back into some fiction writing. It's interesting that we need to uncover (at least in our own minds) what the characters deeper motivations are. Makes total sense too. Oh - and I loved the picture! And I'm intrigued about Maggie and her journey into finding her lost family. All the best to you in writing your story. So looking forward to reading it one day.

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    1. Hi Anusha. Thanks for that. I'm getting closer to finishing my story. I've learned so much doing it. When I write my next novel, I'll know what I'm doing - LOL I've always been interested in those reasons behind people's behaviour too and worked as a psychology lecturer for 25 years. With that background, you'd think I'd be better at character development, but I was clueless :) All the best for your writing too, Anusha. Many people, including me, have been blessed by your inspirational writing. Take care xx

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  3. Great post, Nola. I love the image 😊 I started reading Story Genius and but was irritated by the tone. Kathy Weiland and others also talk about the importance of inner motivation in a useful way. Also, from memory, Stephen James in Story Trumps Structure. And we'd looked at the idea of the brain being wired for story (I would say designed rather than evolved). Plus' I've always been fascinated by inner motivation - the why. So the concepts didn't seem that new. But I have started retreading it and getting more out of it. And it is a great reminder to be more intentional of bringing the why to the surface. Love the examples you've given.

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    1. Thanks Jenny. I didn't mind her tone, though I can understand that it might not be everyone's cup of tea. I know others have looked at underlying motivation, so that concept in itself isn't new, but I liked the way she does it. It's very hands-on with lots of examples and helped me see my novel in a new way. Like Iola, I just have to apply it now :) Thanks for commenting.

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  4. Great post, Nola. Off to buy a copy of Story Genius now. (Love the premise of your story, too)

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    1. Thanks Carolyn. Hope you enjoy the book. I should have asked her for commission - LOL Thanks for commenting.

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    1. Thanks Sally. I'm getting a lot out of her book, so thought I'd share :)

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  6. Great post, thanks Nola. Story Genius has been on my tbr list for a while. I must do something about it!

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    1. I'm finding it very helpful, Jeanette. She really breaks everything down and gives lots of hands-on examples. Thanks for commenting.

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  7. Very encouraging... and challenging at the same time. Thank you

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    1. Thanks Susan. I'm finding it challenging myself, but I can see the benefit so will keep plodding along. Thanks for your feedback :)

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  8. Great job Nola - you had me 'in' with the photo!! I love your style of writing and oh my goodness get that novel out...can't wait to read it!
    You are so right about connection...
    Thanks for the tips and pointing us towards Story Genius.

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    1. Thanks Di. I love that photo too. Wonder what he's found down there? And thanks for the encouragement re the novel. I think the reason it's taking so long is that I didn't know what I was doing when I started (LOL), so it has morphed as I learn each new thing. But the end is nigh :) Thanks for commenting.

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  9. Excited that you're almost finished your novel, Nola! That's a relief isn't it? I'm halfway through mine and have just gone back to check inner motivations of both heroine, hero and antagonist. Yes, that really makes the pace move faster doesn't it?

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    1. Thanks Rita. Yes, it is a great feeling. Though I should add that I'm almost finished the structural edit. Still a lot of polishing and fact-checking to do, but I can see the end :) And good luck with yours. Yes adding all of those motivations certainly does help in so many ways. I still need to do more work on my antagonist. Thanks for commenting.

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  10. I'm just catching up with CWD blog posts and am a long way behind but I really enjoyed this post of yours. It was also great talking to you about your novel a couple of weeks ago; it gave me a deeper understanding of your struggles as a writer. (I'm already attached to your character, lol, so I'm hoping for a signed copy. :))I'm so glad you found Lisa Crons book, which sounds fascinating. I'll be looking to pick up a copy myself soon.

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    1. Thanks Melinda. I've certainly learned a lot through this process. The next book should be a lot easier - LOL And really looking forward to reading yours too. Thanks for commenting.

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