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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Thursday, August 11, 2005

solving motivation problems

Argh. I just wrote almost a whole post, then lost it--actually while I was trying to save it in draft form on blogger.com. I'll try to reconstruct it from memory.

Today is warmer, sunny. I've just come in from a run. I'm in my shorts, sucking on a water bottle.

Morning notes: From Eden to Exile, Alexander the Great.

I had a better writing day today, and was surprised to find myself closing in on the end of this chapter. I have a hard time estimating chapter lengths sometimes. I write dozens of pages of notes, then find that the chapter comes in light.

One of the main causes of resistance to writing, for me, is fear that I won't be able to solve my problems. In a certain sense, any work of writing is just a long list of problems to be solved. For me this fear is especially strong when starting a new scene, and I face the problem of figuring out what a character's motives and objectives are. It looks like it should be simple, but it's not.

It's not simple even in life. Often, when I look back on things that I've done, I have a hard time saying exactly why I did each thing. Quite often the answer is, "because I felt like it." That's fine for life, where you (usually) don't have to account for your actions, but it's not OK for storytelling. When a character's motives or objectives are fuzzy, the story suffers. And the more complex and lifelike your characters are, the harder the question becomes--the more like answering for your own decisions.

Stories are about people who try to achieve things. In life, people's focus is often vague; we drift into jobs, into relationships, into old age. Only where our intentions crystallize into something definite do we become characters in a story sense. When you wake up one morning and realize that you intend to become a member of that golf club, even though it won't have someone like you as a member, you're now a character, in story terms. You've become interesting. Someone looking at you wonders, How are you going to pull that off?

A storyteller would pile up obstacles for you, if you were his character. The club's restricted, and you're a Jew, or it's male-only, and you're a woman. Or it's only for certain founding families, of which you're not a member--yet.

And so on. Each scene in the story needs to have that same quality, of a tension between intent and reality. You try to take another step toward your goal, and the world makes it difficult for you. How do you meet these challenges? Your decisions reveal who you are--they reveal your character.

Well, figuring that stuff out is hard. The lazier you are about it, the crummier your finished product. If you respect your characters, then you want to do them justice. Readers need to be able to look at them and seem themselves mirrored. Whether the character is doing something noble or base, wise or foolish, impulsive or planned, it needs to resemble the way we see ourselves.

How'd I do? Not bad. I discovered a simple motive for my character that worked for me, and also that let me revise the ending of the previous scene to make it stronger and lead into my next scene. I was pleased.


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