Tuesday, September 29, 2009

What is the Character Doing?

When we write, it’s easy to get caught up in all this stuff about the emotions of the character and the details of the what he sees, hears, smells, tastes and feels. We don’t want flat writing. There’s a place for all of that, but we must not lose sight of the most important thing. What is the character doing?

No story is about how a woman feels when she looks into her lover’s ice blue eyes or smells his cologne or feels his hardened biceps. No story is about the pain she feels when she remembers her former lover, presumed lost at sea, or whatever. I won’t say those don’t have a place in writing, but they are unimportant if we don’t do well in telling what the characters are doing.

The place those things have in writing is that they explain why a character does what he does. A character places his hand on a pot and quickly pulls it away. Why? Very likely, because he is in pain. The pot may be very hot. But its his reaction to the heat that makes the story, not the pain he feels.

When we consider the actions of a character, we must consider his motivation. Every character in every scene has a motivation to do something. We might have two characters talking. That is a great way to convey information to the reader, but the motivation of each character will determine what he says and what he does.

Good stories are often those in which characters do interesting things. But why does he do those things? In The Best Man by Grace Livingston Hill, the main characters leave the train they are on and decide to walk. Since this book is a romance, it makes a lot of sense from a writer’s point of view, since there has to be some alone time for the characters to get to know each other, but we have to wonder what would motivate these characters to get off a train and walk across country. As it happens, the leading man is carrying the MacGuffin. A private detective is also on the train, trying to recover the MacGuffin and the leading man is trying to get away unseen. But the woman, who knows nothing of this, sees the leading man leaving and decides to stick with her man. We could spend a lot of time talking about the emotions involved, but the actions are all we need to get it.