There are two kinds of writers. Those who love writing first drafts, and those who love revising. I love writing first drafts. The first words of a new idea open a hidden door into a new world. Writing the first draft is exploring it, breathing foreign air, seeing new places unfold, and strange characters share their secrets.
I write fast, excited, and as I’m prancing along in a euphoric state (“These are the BEST four paragraphs I’ve ever written! I LOVE the concept of steampunk dirigible pirates! That’s TOTALLY never been done before!” and other delusions) I leave huge knowledge gaps in my wake.
In my last post, I talked about novel writing as a process of sifting and identifying of the unknown. Fiction in any form does not allow anything to be unknown to the writer. What you don’t know always shows on the page.
The first time I submitted a short story to a workshop, my peers discussed my protagonist’s apparent ambivalence to what happened in the story. They couldn’t tell what he wanted or how he felt about events as they happened. From what they read, they couldn’t define his central desire. So they asked me. I didn’t know either. I hadn’t even thought about it.
This discovery proved valuable, and frustrating.I have a consistently difficult time understanding and developing my protagonist’s central desire. Even if I attempt hyper-vigilance as I write, I don’t see into characters’ hearts; I see their actions.
Not knowing a protagonist’s central desire or motivation is a huge vulnerability to any story. Protagonists push plots forward by making decisions based on a central desire. What they want, how far they’ll go to get it, and whether or not they succeed define the scope of the story.
If I let my protagonists make decisions before I understand their desires, I steer them into situations that do not serve their desires, and therefore undermine the plot and the story as a whole. The same thing happens if I lose sight of my protagonist’s central desire or change it partway through the story.
This is part of the reason I’ve had difficulty in plotting to the end of a novel I’m working on. I have tried a couple of different trajectories, but they weren’t right. They didn’t fit the story. I had tried to move forward without taking the time to understand, define, and prioritize my protagonist’s central desire.
Many times I have tried to sit down and verbalize what a character wants and map their actions forward from there. But I’ve found a character’s desire is almost never immediately accessible to me. Maybe a better way to say it is, my characters’ motivations are never complete, or static. They evolve. They clarify in incrementally advancing waves. Each revision, each new, better draft, lets me dig one layer deeper and see one click more in focus. Like at the optometrist’s. Two is better. Three is great. Four is like I’ve got bionic, telescopic eyesight.
And it is my knowledge of character motivation that develops, not the character’s motivation itself. Flannery O’Connor wrote,
You would probably do just as well to get that plot business out of your head and start simply with a character or anything that you can make come alive. … Once you have done a first draft then read it and see what it says and then see how you can bring out better what it says.
I see what my characters do, not what they feel. But in what they do, characters reveal what they want. Their motivation is already on the page in a gesture, an offhand remark. Even when I can’t articulate what a character wants, the character already knows, and is showing me on the page. It’s up to me to notice it, interpret it, in order to “bring out better what it says.”
So, what if we want to understand our characters more fully, but the page doesn’t seem very willing to help? Here’s a few things that I’ve found useful in the past.
- Think outside the page. Switch up your process. You may be too trapped inside the page to see what it says. Make lists of things like character desires or objects in a scene. Draw flow charts of timelines, emotional reactions, and potential character choices. The goal is to get your brain thinking about the story from a new angle, one that might let you glimpse what you don’t know.
- Take a break. Put the manuscript away, even for a weekend, but the longer the better. Sometimes time is the best thing you can give a story. Your brain will forget the exact sentences and you’ll come back to it fresh and ready to REVISE. (Ugh.)
- Get some feedback. Give the manuscript to a trusted friend, ideally another writer, or a very well-read reader. Ask specific questions about your work. Things like, “Are there any places that seem fuzzier than others?” and “What do you think my protagonist’s motivation is?” You can also have them tell you what the story is about so you can gauge their understanding for things you’ve left out.
I’d love to be able to say that I have conquered my writing weakness, that I always know what my protagonists want, but I don’t. I’m working on it. As they say, admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery.
In my case, “recovery” is that brilliant work I envisioned when I wrote the first draft. The work that will share the thrill of discovery with a reader.
With or without the steampunk dirigible pirates.