Monday, August 10, 2009

Untangling motivation

I'm halfway into my second read-through of my latest draft -- it's nearly 400 pages so this is not a quick process -- and I am discovering something different this time: I love it.

This is rare. Unique, in fact.

Don't get me wrong, it still has the clumsy prose and wandering narrative that is my specialty. But there is, maybe for the first time, something there.

At this macro level of editing I'm focusing on character motivations and change, something for which (rightly so) my brother took me to task in the last book. It's since been fixed, but I'll never forget his red comments, getting more and more disbelieving, culminating in "YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! NO F'IN WAY!" It was like being edited by John McEnroe.

And so on this book, I'm sensitive to the same issue. Why does my character act this way but feel this other way? Does he grow and change? Is it realistic for him to react in that way? Because I did not outline in detail -- and really, how can you for something this big? -- my character tends to contradict himself, behave inconsistently, hide, reveal, and re-hide truths to himself, on and on.

I have built a spreadsheet that would put an accountant to shame, detailing chapters, POV, primary motivation, secondary motivation, etc. My first thought was to surgically remove everything that did not represent a linear path from Belief A (the main character at the beginning) to Belief B (the main character at the end, when he feels differently about a great many things).

Things were going well; it was fun, when I charted his changing motivation like this, to see what lay outside that path and surgically remove it. I was editing! Hooray! I cannot be stopped!

Until, that is, I realized that none of us proceeds down a single, linear path from Belief A to Belief B. We avoid the issue. Get distracted. Try out different ways of thinking and then double back to the original. Pretend to abandon it. Come back to it. There is a wandering nature to how we grow.

The task of fiction is to maintain one foothold in reality by showing this wandering ... without abandoning the art of it, which requires a certain artificial linearity.

What?

Let's try that again. Showing a simple progression from believing in one thing to believing in another might be convenient for the plot but it would be unrealistic. Yet documenting every motivational twitch or flirtation would be tedious: why read about that when we live it every day? Fiction walks that line, as it so often does.

3 comments:

Peter S said...

Props for the hidden Emperor quote. I'm also going back through my book and reexamining motivations and actions. I was inspired after hearing Brad Bird talk about making Ratatouille. He said that late in the process, he realized what was the true story and what got in the way. This led him to kill off one of the three main characters before the movie begins. Chop! So I need to be ruthless in pursuit of the story.

Finally, one little edit: it's "...my brother took me TO task..."
COME ON! WHAT THE EFF IS WRONG WITH YOU!!!

Barbara said...

It's hard to define all that motivates characters or even all of us in real life. Too often we take the shortcut, less threatening approach to a problem, or race into something full steam with no explanation. It all depends, I suppose what our synapses are doing at that very moment or, perhaps, what we had for breakfast! Edit away!

S R Wood said...

TO! TO Task. Hey, one difference between blogs and print is that you can get away with tpyos in bogls, right? Who's with me?

I can't keep track of my own ranked list of motivations day by day or scene by scene; trying to do so for a character is only slightly easier!