One of the great things about my online writing community is the way we keep each other motivated, often in ways we don’t expect. Last week, I shared how it had motivated me to re-set my 2014 goals after I shared a brief excerpt of Wake and gotten feedback that pushed me to think, to have confidence and above all, “Keep going.”
Today’s post is sort of Jeff Goins’ fault, as the day 19 prompt at his 500 words challenge was to write in another voice. So it is I spent the day evaluating a process I have been going through in deepening internal motivation of a novel character.
This post serves as follow up to several novel revision articles posted over the past year. I’ll include the relevant links to individual revision steps for anyone looking for more on the revision process.
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Revision in Process: Internal Motivation of a Main Character
Throughout my series of posts on Novel Revision last summer (this link takes you to all posts on Novel Revision, or find links to individual skills within this post), I revealed how deeply I felt the need to push my main character, Carinne (Revising a Flat Character).
Motivation for the male protagonist, Michael Roonan, was clear from the get-go. He’s killed people; guilt and loss compel his self-castigation. But, in early versions, Carinne’s written motivation was only that she was getting out of a bad marriage and she fell in love with Roonan.
Truth: as I wrote about in Can Literary Fiction Be Hot, the romantic element is often the most compelling and memorable aspect of fiction that sticks with us. Still… My gut told me there had to be more to her motivation than “failed marriage” and “he’s hot.” Kind of lame motivation, right? Too thin, too predictable, too linear.
Many of my novel revision posts have shared the ways I’ve challenged my own understanding of Carinne and character motivation because, one way or another, my gut told me that I knew something more about her than I had written. (Did you pick up on that when I distinguished her “written” motivation, above?) But I needed to go deep to put it into words, and part of that included distancing the character from my own experience.
The eye-opener was in an exercise I completed (October Challenge: Raising the Stakes on Character Motivation), where I kept assessing and re-assessing stakes for the internal conflict of the main characters. For Carinne, the written stakes were only whether she raised her son alone or if she could get her lover back with her. Then I realized it wasn’t her own stakes that drove her, but those of the little boy, Liam, she had conceived with Roonan. The driving motivation to go find Roonan had to come from a place beyond romance — she was off to find him so that her son would not grow up without a father.
Along the same time, I wrote last summer that I had come to understand a crucial backstory for Carinne that distances her from myself.
This is something I have not written about, but have felt deeply in the year and a half since a young photojournalist went missing on assignment. His last tweet — from a birthday celebration with friends — and the pride in photographs he shared in his online portfolio — have stuck with me as an eerie, disembodied voice over the months his parents and sister worked through international channels to discover what happened to him. As much as the news speaks of military or civilian losses, lost journalists has been a major piece in international affairs of the past 20 years.
The thing with this novel I am writing is, it has to do with why people get involved in violent international affairs. Roonan became a murderer while doing everything he could to avoid involvement in paramilitary activity in his family’s Irish border town. Carinne meets him years after the violence, finding the ghost of the man. A failed marriage is not her motivation; I quickly wrote that out of the early draft. Carinne came to life for me last summer when I stopped apologizing and making excuses for her and let her behavior be entirely contrary – then let the missing reporter be the loss that drove her chaotic behavior.
True Revision Can be Messy
I began last summer’s revision-series with a post titled Work is Messy, Book May Bite.
What a mess new motivation makes of a draft, but slowly the 2 internal storylines have been laying themselves out clearly in parallel to one another, as the external conflict brings the story to resolution that genuinely resounds with meaning, as Carinne unites father and son. Yeah, okay: it can be romantically hot, too, but the resolution now resounds on a more universal level.
I once watched my stepmother unravel a month’s worth of knitting to correct a missed stitch in a complicated fisherman-knit afghan, and I couldn’t believe the patience and insistence on perfection it took for her to do that. Taking apart this main character, Carinne, has felt like all that unraveling — pulling the whole novel apart and putting it back together. But I knew in my gut that it wasn’t “there” yet. I love the characters and their story, but I just knew that the resolution of an international conflict could not be just romantic happily-ever-after. The little boy was symbolic of something in the opening, and he had to be the core of the resolution, as symbol of something greater for the novel to resound.
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The Work in Process
That’s a lot of thinking out loud. How does it play out? One approach that brought me closer to understanding the mother’s motivation was to write scenes from the child’s perspective.
In final revisions, I’ll be deciding between a close-omniscient or alternating third person narrative structure, which means I am not yet sure if I will keep the boy’s voice or just let it inform the mother’s perspective. But, for the sake of sharing a piece of the writing process, here is the scene I shared at Gae Polisner’s Friday Feedback last week.
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Excerpt from Work in Progress, Where the Wolves Find Us (nicknamed Wake)
Context: This excerpt is from a rough draft rethinking an opening scene from the son, Liam’s, perspective. The novel opens with the mother (Carinne) finding her son burying something in the back yard. As Carinne is in the process of washing mud from his hands, he asks, essentially for the first time, if his father is dead. This becomes the inciting event; by the end of the chapter, Carinne is searching for the missing father. The drafted scene below is from a long riff that came out when I took time to see “life with his mother” from Liam’s perspective. What would he see, hear or feel, growing up with a mother isolated and obsessed with missing people?
His mother’s shoulder was warm against Liam’s back, the water glittering beneath the sink-light as she sudsed his hands. He clapped his hands so bubbles sprayed and he tracked them, her voice murmuring in his ear as each iridescent orb floated up and sideways and down, each at its own rate so that his eyes measured them as if racers toward a finish line. Plik! Hope. Plik! Each popped, no matter he’d resisted the urge to touch them. Each, in its own path, flicked a mini explosion of its membrane and ceased to exist in the vacant spans of light.
Carinne’s voice reached a pitch – Liam’s feet had kicked dishes stacked in the sink – then went silent, replaced by the constant curt voice of men and women from the television playing in the next room. News. Always the news, and he hated it.
He patted suds onto her cheek. She took it as a joke, laughing, her eyes smiling at his. He hit her again, harder, wanting it to stop: the man chopping news into his head. An airport. A warning. A plane stopped along a runway. Heads talking. The plane. More heads. A fire truck. She would look: study the stream of words at the bottom. Flip three channels forward, pausing on each. Each, more news. Then back. Even she didn’t care, he could tell. She took in what was happening the same way she studied the noise of trash men arriving for the blue bins or the neighbor’s garage door motor starting: look to the noise, see it for what it was, and disregard it as not affecting them. But most hours of the day, he could not make her change the channel. “Just let me see what’s happening overseas,” she would tell him, “Then we’ll change it.”
She corrects him now, “We don’t hit!” gripping his hands together in her own as if for prayer. He twists his head away and pulls his hands. “Hands are not for hitting,” she recites.
He says very quietly, as if to an unseeable friend, “I hate the news.”
She lets go, relieved. The smack makes sense, as it hadn’t a second ago. He leans into her shoulder, his dried hand reaching along the back of her neck to where her hair is softest, her baby again. “I hate it, too,” she says.
She will change the channel, this time, but he doesn’t believe she hates it. The firemen spraying foam on the plane by the runway did not interest her, but other times she has watched the same repeating footage, over and over. A black uniformed policeman being interviewed in a mist of rain, dark clouds rising behind him. A white SUV driving between sand-colored buildings in a cloud of dust behind a reporter cloaked with a checkered scarf. Over and over, she might watch these. Study the images to the corners of the screen. Study faces blurred in the background. Over and over. Then flip channels in hope to see the same scene from another angle. Not notice the stack he’d made of his cars: three tall, now four, his eyes widening, willing them not to topple. His mother frozen silent, remote clenched in her hand. Sometimes tears. He hated it as she did not. So easily, she could have flipped to another channel. Thomas the Train. Even Dora.
“I hate the men,” he said once.
She had turned away from him like she did when he broke something and she was mad even though she said she wasn’t. “Never hate the men,” she said. She left the room, crying and trying to hide it from him, as if these men were her own friends, her family, as the empty house of the two of them showed no sign of.
Of course this piece is in draft form and out of context, but constructive feedback is welcome. I am on the fence whether it is helpful to actually use the child’s voice, as I think it would be tough for a toddler to carry the opening voice of an adult novel. Would you try to use his voice, or just let his insight inform the mother’s POV? Hmm.
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What About You?
Are you revising fiction this week? What challenges do you run into or what has worked well for you? If you’ve also been sharing your work or revision strategies, feel free to add your links or comments below.
Are you exploring issues of conflict or stakes in a character you are writing? What challenges or obstacles do you find? Or, what tactics have you found that get you more authentically or deeply into your characters’ motivation?
For more posts on this site related to character development:
- Writing Character – The Challenge of the Character Most Like Yourself Part 1 and Part 2.
- Novel Writing: Grace Paley – How Internal & External Conflict Build Story
- Writing Character: Sometimes the Work is Messy
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