Sunday, September 5, 2010

Losing touch

I've been absolutely dreadful at remembering my day to blog lately- my apologies! I missed Thursday again this week, so given five spare minutes on Sunday, I thought I'd make up for it and write a post anyway.

At the moment, only one thing is occupying my mind when it comes to writing- I've lost touch with my main character, Bill.

We haven't been speaking for a couple of months, really- I've been too busy with his brother. But I thought that once Len and I worked through our issues, I'd have a better understanding of Bill, too.

Not so. No, now that I've finished writing half a novel's worth of Len's scenes, Bill is further away from me than ever. Part of the reason is that Len's motivations, desires, fears and actions were so clearly defined. His stakes were easy to raise. Stakes, by the way, have been the topic of much rather heated discussion at the Forum this past week, and the September toolbox will be all about ways of raising them.

Raised stakes come from knowing what a character wants, desires, needs more than anything else, and throwing roadblocks in their way. The story is how they get around the blocks. I won't go into the debate about whether continually raised stakes are appropriate in every story, but I'll just say that I know they are in mine. For Len, it's simple. He's reliant on his physical strength to achieve his passion in life (playing professional football). He knows what he wants (to get away from the boring farm life and make a name for himself). And his flaws are obvious (impulsiveness, meanness, jealousy). Those things combine in the first place to kick off the story when he attacks Kit in a fit of drunken jealousy and anger.

And they're the easiest things in the world to mess with, because Len is so singular in what he wants. First step: he loses his leg to the war. Now he can't rely on his physical skills as he's always done.

Second step: He gets guilty. Now he's fighting against his own flaws as much as anything else, and he's got a new, strong driving purpose in life- to make amends for what he did before the war.

And on from there, but it's that simple- his strengths, flaws, needs, desires, losses- they're all in perfect alignment for ultimate conflict.

Bill, on the other hand, is nowhere near so clearly drawn at this stage. The reason is that the story has shifted and evolved over the last couple of years, but Bill has never changed. And it means he's at odds with the story as he is now. He gets depressed, he stays depressed. Instead of fighting to overcome his grief, he becomes an alcoholic and sinks into darkness. He's what Don Maass calls a "dark protagonist", who always has the potential for positivity but never shows it until the end- by which stage the reader has more than likely given up on him long ago.

This is fine if he's going to take second string to Len and his active determination.

But if he's going to be the main character, he needs more fight. And at this point in time, I'm not struggling to find things he's passionate about- I'm struggling to figure out which of them is the most significant, and how they each impact on each other.

My point: He's passionate about the family farm, and he's passionate about Kit.

They go together- in pushing for the farm to thrive, he's trying to make a future for he and Kit. He takes some big chances, some of which are disastrous. But in the end, I don't have a great handle on just how these desires mesh or don't mesh.

This month's exercise at the Forum is about using description to convey emotion- it's an excellent exercise, and one I thought was going to be easy for me, because unlike many participants, I have the required barn and the exact situations set by Barbara in my story. But I've tried to start writing the scene in which a man waits for his lover, and I just can't do it. It actually happens in the story- Bill and Kit meet in the stables- but this keys directly into the problem I'm having.

Reconciling farm, and family. How these two desires relate to each other. And how they come together to cause Bill's downfall, and how they bring about his revival, too.

At the core of it all is understanding Bill as a person. So, now that I've figured out his brother and his wife, I need to spend some time going back to basics- stream of consciousness exercises, writing backstory scenes that won't see the light of day, even doing a "diary" entry or two.

Sometimes to regain touch, you need to take a big step back from placing actual words on the page, and consider the people behind them.


  1. I sympathise with you Claire! I'm having a slightly different problem - trying to figure out all the plotting issues of the first 1/3 of Rose's story has suddenly stalled my writing flow.
    Thanks though - for reminding me about SoC exercises! I think that's exactly what I need to try :-)
    Hope you figure out Bill to your satisfaction soon!

  2. What a predicament, Claire! I do hope Bill will get a move on for you. As for this month's exercise--I'm with you! It's kicking my butt, too. ; )