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Myth: This Will Solve Everything (part 2)

Photobucket [1]If you missed part one of author Skyler White’s [2] craft essay on myth and fact, click here [3], then come back. Skyler’s debut novel, and Falling, Fly, has been dubbed a “trippy urban fantasy” by Publisher’s Weekly. She was about to tell us how “developing a character by creating their reality in tandem with their mythology” may help solve all of your story problems when Therese rudely interrupted here in order to create a two-part post.

And that’s where we’ll pick up.

Developing a character by creating their reality in tandem with their mythology may avoid problems down the line, but it still doesn’t fix anything, and that’s what I promised. I believe almost all breakdowns in characterization come from over-balancing on one or the other side of this Myth/Fact continuum, so let’s do a quick run-down of some of the most common complaints leveled against characters:

She feels like a cardboard cut-out.” This is gorgeous code for “Your character is all meaning and no fact.” You’ve wheeled in a symbol and forgotten to dress her in specific detail. Your starship captain is the archetypical military leader – strong, decisive and resolute, but he just doesn’t feel real. One of the best tricks here is to find a tension in myth that plays out as opposites in fact and include both contradictory facets in your character. Perhaps his obedience to rule of law conflicts with his loyalty to his brothers in arms, and he looks the other way or even takes an active role in helping one of his men escape from punishment for a crime. Or he has to betray a guilty comrade to uphold the law.

I can’t relate to your character.” What are people asking for when they lodge this complaint? They’re saying they don’t recognize themselves in the person you’ve made. Relate-ability comes from that which is universal in your character. You need to come out of what makes her unique and specific and work in what makes her mythic. Your captain may be a green, gilled gorgon from the distant rim, but he’d rather bleed into his boots than reveal his webbed feet, we’ll connect to his embarrassed vanity.

I don’t like your character.” You still need to be working more in myth, but focused on meaning. Almost any despicable action is “likeable” if we understand why the character acted the way they did. The current literature, from Dexter to House, is full of these “bad” characters rendered forgivable by insight into why they do what they do.

But even the most character-driven of writers needs a plot.

If I start a novel with “Who does what?” I still need to answer the question of “What happens to whom?” What happens is a question for the Facts half or our box. To know what happened, you need details, specifics, color, facts. If these answers come more easily to you than character answers, we can make great use of Dwight Swain’s [4] Scene and Sequel construct to help us move across the boundaries in our box. If you start with what happens – with action – you start with the scene component. And what follows action? Reaction. Sequel sections are the places where the action that’s just happened is processed and interpreted – where the character makes a coherent story out of what befalls them and, based on their myth of self and explanatory style, determines what to do next.

The hero’s daughter is kidnapped. That happened. The hero is a police officer, and he believes himself to be smarter, if not stronger, than any bad guy. His myth of himself is heroic and brave. He goes into action planning a smart rescue. Now not only is his daughter at stake, but his identity as well.

Action without meaning gets boring very quickly. Even very plot-heavy stories can give us a tremendous insight into character by letting us see how different characters do the work of integrating what’s happened and explaining it to themselves. Frequently the only difference between a hero and a villain is that, although the same thing happened to each, one created an explanatory story that lead them to altruistic or productive action and the other to destructive action. How a character fits the facts of what happened into their myth both moves the story along and reveals character. Position reality against their goals, and then move them back again to action.

This is great for building a plot, but what plot problems can this solve?

Your plot doesn’t make sense.” When a reader complains they don’t understand your story, they’ve surfaced a problem on the Facts side of things. You need to provide enough facts, and they have to be internally consistent, or your reader will be confused and quickly lose interest. If you leave out action, your reader will be pulled out of the story. If you leave your character drowning in a well at the end of chapter two, he can’t be on the factory floor, dry and armed with ray guns at the top of chapter three. Narrative summary can get him pulled out and dried off if the process of rescue isn’t important, but you do have to give the reader enough to feel grounded in reality. Facts can’t be contradictory. A character can’t be both an ordinary human being and fly. Check your facts against each other first, but check them against the mythic arc too. If your character has wings but can’t fly, the inciting action that lets the take flight at last is a powerful point of storytelling.

Your plot is too convoluted.” Just as you need enough facts, you need not to have too many. Checking in with myth is an excellent way to determine what makes the cut.

Having interacted with myth and fact and plot and character, the final trick I want to offer here is to expand your two-box grid by dividing the right box into Fact and Plot, and the left into Character and Myth, and invite you to play with the diagonal lines. Once you’ve populated these boxes, they’re rich territory for mining. Pick a point on the line between Plot and Myth, and you’re likely to find high concept. Start in Fact and slide up to character, and you’ll pick up really interesting ways to build voice.

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In and Falling, Fly, I’m interested in the tension between myth as a force for integration and fact as a source of individuation, because I’m interested in my vampire (mythic creature) falling in love with a scientist (fact-driven mortal). As they negotiate this inherent tension, they are both forced to become more deeply integrated with one another and more fully who they are. They move across that polarity as building blocks to something higher. And as writers, I think we can do the same.

Skyler White [2] is author of dark fantasy novels and Falling, Fly (Berkley, March 2010) and In Dreams Begin (Berkley, March 2010).