Do you have a game face? Is your personality different at your desk, on a date, and in the stands at the baseball park? Are you hard-charging at work but relaxed on weekends? Are you foul-mouthed in the privacy of your car but eloquent when making a wedding toast? Can you be patient with children but not with fools? When are you at your worst? When are you at your best?
You are different depending on the day, right? Maybe even the hour. Who isn’t? There are times when you are great to be around. There are other times when the world should quietly tiptoe backwards away from you, palms raised. You no doubt feel that way about others, too. There’s the friend who’s a riot on one drink but blistering to be around after three. In your family there’s the complainer and the saint. There are colleagues who are great company and others who at six o’clock you’re happy to wish a great evening, see ya tomorrow.
Generally speaking, we choose company that is pleasant. People who are warm, open, curious, compassionate and interesting are good to be around. We gravitate to people like ourselves, who share our outlooks, interests and values. It’s nice to spend time with nice people, isn’t it? We want that from others and hope to be that in return.
So, question: What kind of person are you asking your readers to spend four-hundred or so pages with? What sort of company are you providing for your readers to keep? I don’t mean just the temperament of your protagonist but your own. What sort of spirit are you bringing to your fiction? What vibe are you putting out on your pages?
[pullquote]What kind of person are you asking your readers to spend four-hundred or so pages with? What sort of company are you providing for your readers to keep? I don’t mean just the temperament of your protagonist but your own. What sort of spirit are you bringing to your fiction? What vibe are you putting out on your pages?[/pullquote]
In manuscripts I meet many protagonists who are sour, snarky, bemused, self-pitying, singly-focused, disconnected or, frankly, just plain dull. This would seem to fit the framework which says that protagonists should be yearning, obsessed, suffering, isolated and in need of change.
It also means spending time with people who are a drag. Even more, these authors are promising their readers that their every new title will be a slog. The spirit of their fiction is negative. Many would say “redemptive”, since everything comes out great at the end, but the far off outcome isn’t the point. It’s the experience of reading that can either be burdensome or inspiring. It can engage readers’ hearts or turn them off.
The solution isn’t necessarily creating characters who are relentlessly chipper and nothing but fun, though that might be a relief. Yearning, need, struggle and change are essential to good story, yet all of that can be accomplished in a spirit that invites us in more than makes us run screaming. The difference lies in how you, the author, feel about your characters, the story world and everything in general, and how that finds expression on the page. You are what you eat. In the same way what you write is you.
What is your best self? I will bet that your best self is generous, curious, compassionate, understanding, insightful, prescient and large. You are humorous, have an eye for irony, and rue human nature even while you are tolerant of it. You are far-seeing, wise, and grasp truths that others do not see but should. You’ve learned from experience and value days that throw you curves. You see life not as a problem to solve, a feast for the senses, or as something to survive. For you, life is material. It stuff to shape in service of a greater good.
Story for you is not just a plot to wrestle to the mat or a journey to take but a celebration of our endurance, a forgiveness of our sins, a bountiful grace to bestow, a freedom to roam, a greathearted kindness, and a high-minded call to our better natures. You tell stories with purpose but without judgment. You trust yourself to create, your characters to act in ways beyond the ordinary and your readers to bring their hearts to situations that are tough and troublesome.
In a word, you are magnanimous. You are the best our human race has to offer. I know that because you write.
But I ask you, is that spirit truly shining through on every page? Let’s face it, some writing days are a dog. Sometimes it’s a struggle to get through a page. That shows. The process of writing a novel is long and deleterious and too often we can feel that in the read. When you’re cranky so is your novel. On the other hand, when you shine your novel does too; that is, it can if you allow it to and know how to make that felt.
Here are some approaches to help your magnanimous self shine on the page:
- Stop at any point in the story. What’s funny here? What’s ironic? What’s peculiar, crazy, wrong and out of bounds? Why is that somehow just perfect right now?
- Stop at a point of pain. What’s beautiful despite the darkness? For what can your POV character be grateful? If this had to happen, what’s the saving grace?
- Think about your story world. What’s wonderful about it? What’s the greatest good? What should be shared? What would we love about it even more if we knew?
- Think about your protagonist. Find one way to set this character free. What’s a gift you can give your protagonist? In what unexpected way can he or she be fulfilled? What dream experience could come true?
- Think about a time of pressure. What is excellent about this challenge? What’s cool, awesome and exciting about being in this situation? How can your protagonist be creative? How can your protagonist exceed his or her own expectations, and even your own?
- Pick a secondary character. What potential does your protagonist see in this person that others miss? What façade can your protagonist see through? What flaw is forgivable? What strength can be admired?
- Who in the story can rise above a situation? Who can forgive when forgiveness isn’t earned? Who is high who can show humility? Who is low who can muster dignity? Who can open their home? Who can impose tough love? Who can sacrifice? Who can inspire? Who can admit wrong? Who can show love when damnation is deserved?
- Pick any page in your manuscript. What’s happening? Who in this scene can act more noble, strong, just, fine, generous, loyal, or principled?
- Pick another page. What is unseen, surprising, symbolic? What demonstrates a principle or proves a point? Who gets that?
- Pick another page. What do you enjoy about anyone on this page or anything that’s happening? Find a way for your feeling to shine through. How would you sum it up? Who on the page can think, say or show what’s in your own mind?
We all have perspective on our lives so it’s puzzling to me that in many manuscripts characters do not. It’s easy to get caught up in a story’s conflict. It’s hard to remember that characters have a life apart from what’s happening. However, when characters see no farther than their noses then neither do we. When the spirit of a story is timid, bleak, defensive, showy, judgmental, coldly realistic, or self-absorbed, what chance is there of rocketing readers to the heavens and exploding their hearts like fireworks?
Magnanimous is a quality but also a practice. It’s something to embrace every writing day and on every page. When you do not only will readers be caught by your spirit and transformed themselves, they will forget that it’s happening and attribute the buoyancy they feel to the story they’re reading. Actually, it’s coming from you.
So, what is your best self and how is that spirit shining in the scene you’re working on right now? Go on, be generous. You’ve got heart to spare. Spread it around. When your spirit is large your stories can be too. Make magnanimous your goal and when you get there we’ll cheer.
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