Philip Brewer's Writing Progress


Monday, 06 September 2004

What a great WorldCon!

I'm back home. I'm planning to write a proper con report, but that'll be later. I had one interesting writing insight, though, so I wanted to write a bit about that first.

I think the biggest problem in my writing at the moment has to do with character motivations. As long as I've been getting critiques, one common critique has been that people don't understand my character's motivations. That's always puzzled me. I understand my character's motivations. By and large, they're my motivations.

(There's a certain psycho killer in one story whose motivations I don't want to claim, but at one level, even his motivations are something of a reflection of mine. He's believes in thrift and he wants closure. It's not so much that he wants people to die, he just wants the unfinished business of killing them to be seen through, the effort already expended not to be for naught.)

The critiques I've gotten have taken enough different forms that I hadn't really put together what the issue was. "Your character doesn't seem to care enough about what's happening," was one frequent comment. "Too subtle," was another. But attempting to make the characters feelings more explicit has not made my stories stronger. Now I think I can address these problems by making the character's motivations more clear. The key is not to state the overarching motivation, but to be a bit more explicit about why the character is taking each of the small steps he takes in his effort to achieve his goal.

What prompted this insight was attending a Kelly Link reading. She read the first part of "Zombie Contingency Plans." It's a wonderful story, and now I'm really anxious for her to get it published so I can read the end of it.

The main character of this story is an odd character with odd motivations, but he seems both real and compelling. The sense of reality comes from the use of telling detail. That's something that Kelly taught us at Clarion, and I think I understand it, even if I don't do it as well as I need to yet. The odd motivations, though, were a kind of a revelation. The character is compelling because there are things he wants to do. The fact that the things themselves are really odd doesn't make him any less compelling.

The oddness of his motivations don't seem implausible. If you summarized his goals, they'd seem really odd and unlikely. But Kelly's story leads us down the garden path of his motivations, showing us the small things he does and showing us the internal thought processes that explain what he's trying to accomplish. It works perfectly. The behaviors are odd, and yet very plausible.

I talked to Kelly about it later, and she added another piece to the puzzle: She said, "Everybody's motivations are odd." I think there's a lot of truth to that.

My characters tend to be laid-back. (This will neither surprise people who have read my fiction nor people who know me.) I've found it hard to work with laid-back characters, because the dramatic tension of a story comes from the character's desires. If the desires are weak, the dramatic tension will be weak.

Kelly's story made an impression on me because in "Zombie Contingency Plans" the main character is quite laid-back, and yet there's all the dramatic tension you could want. Some of the tension comes from the mystery: Will there be zombies? Will the character's contingency plans work? (I don't know, because I haven't gotten to the end of the story!) But the biggest source of tension in the story comes from the motivations of the character. Even though they're odd, even though they're small (as they would be for a laid-back character), the character cares deeply about them. Once we see how deeply the character cares, we care too. It doesn't matter that is motivations seem odd, as long as they seem real.

So, that's my writing insight from the con. I don't need to abandon laid-back characters, or shy away from odd motivations. I just need to make the motivations the character does have be deeply felt.

Tobias Buckell had one other good thing to add on the topic, which is that all your characters should have odd motivations that are in conflict with one another. If you set that up to begin with, it will pay off in all sorts of conficts, big and small, that will feed into the overall drama of the story. The tension arises naturally from the situation.

Now it's bed time. I'll try to get a con report done for tomorrow.


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