Therese here. I’m so happy to bring you today’s returning guest, A. Victoria Mixon, a professional writer and independent editor with over thirty years’ experience in both fiction and nonfiction. She is the author of a successful craft book for writers, The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual, and recently released a companion book called The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual. She is also blog mama at her own site, A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, which was named–along with Writer Unboxed–as one of the top ten blogs for writers by Write to Done. I’m so pleased she’s allowed us to excerpt part of her new book for you here today. Enjoy!
Rethinking Motivation for Character Arc
Cause-&-effect. Needs. Choices.
The things that make us human.
We’ve created a protagonist with two or more intensely powerful, intensely conflicting needs. Those needs have forced this protagonist to behave and speak in quite specific ways. And the ways in which they behave and speak have created for them a variety of situations that, once they were in them, they desperately wanted out of, situations they couldn’t get out of without making things immeasurably worse.
We’ve put that protagonist in a room or garden or culvert or on a street or island or mountain or under a thundercloud or tent or blanket with some other characters, who also have their own needs.
We’ve thrown in a stick of dynamite and leaped out of the way to see what would happen.
And it was brilliant.
We kept this up for a good, long time, until that protagonist’s conflicting needs collided in a life-changing shower of fireworks and we forced them to choose.
And eventually, footsore and weary-worn but with a gleam of well-earned satisfaction in our eyes, we’ve fetched up here alongside everyone else in Revisionland. We’re a bit surprised to see the others looking quite so footsore and weary-worn. But we’re gentle souls and would never dream of mentioning this. Not out loud, anyway.
Now we’ve taken a big, full, satisfying rest after all that hard work, and we’re ready to get back into our story, to begin the second phase: revision.
So the first thing we’re going to do is take out a notebook and ask ourselves, “How well do I know this protagonist?”
And we’re going to dig for the answer—to that and to a few other pertinent questions.
What is this protagonist’s primary overwhelming need? I know we wrote this down way back in the beginning and stuck it up on post-it notes over our desk (you didn’t?), but I want to ignore that at this point, and we’ll apply ourselves solely to the protagonist in the Climax that we so recently and brilliantly wrote. We’ll pretend that Climax is a short story (flash fiction even), and we’ve come to it cold without knowing any of the rest of this story exists. We’ll put on our thinking caps to analyze what we get out of reading that Climax as though for the very first time.
What’s the fire in this strange new protagonist’s belly, the death-defying drive that makes them forge straight into that Climax and fight there tooth-&-nail for everything they love and believe in? What makes this protagonist go?
We’ll write the answer at the top of a fresh page of a notebook.
We’ll draw a box around it. Spend some time inking in the lines of the box, making them thick and dark and really remarkably straight. Doodle in three-dimensional sides for the box. Add shadows. And dents. And cracks. And travel stickers. Add a cat sitting at a distance with one of those inscrutable cat expressions, not saying or even thinking anything, just looking at it. That’s the witness.
Now, what deep inside this protagonist is pitted against them in that Climax? Not external forces—internal. What do they love and believe that’s irreconcilable with their first need? What’s the equal-but-opposite fire in their belly in this Climactic scene that’s fighting back?
Remember to focus only upon the climax scene of the Climax.
We’ll write it down on the middle of the page below the box we just drew. Decorate it with its own little box, its own light and shadows, its own dents and cracks, its own evidence of having traveled a long and painfully difficult road. If the first cat is looking too directly at the first box, we’ll give this one a cat of its own. Otherwise, one cat will suffice.
We’ll doodle some lightning bolts between the two boxes.
Now we’ll ask ourselves, “Exactly how could these two needs have gotten this protagonist into this dreadful calamity?”
We’ll take copious notes on this, fleshing it out as fully as necessary. We won’t re-tell the story. We’ll forget we ever even knew that story. We’re not looking for surface issues, we’re diving beneath the wave, re-envisioning the story from a completely different perspective. This is essential in order to know that the story we’ve told is, in fact, the story we meant to tell.
We’ll ask ourselves, in all honesty, “What do you suppose happened here?”
Then we’ll ask ourselves, “And how could these needs have led somewhere else?”
We’ll write about that for awhile.
We’ll draw circles and brackets around especially important points as they come up in our notes or as we notice them afterward, using arrows and asterisks, scribble little comments to in the margins about things we forgot to mention. We’ll fill up pages. Keep our hands moving. (When we scratch our cheeks, we’ll try not to draw on our own faces.)
We’ll always be wondering, “What do those two needs imply about this protagonist? How could my character have responded to their problems differently, given their fundamental, driving forces?”
We’ll write sideways on the pages if we feel like it. Write at an angle or in loops or upside-down. Write in a fake accent, if it helps. Nobody’s ever going to see this stuff. (By the time we send it to someone like me, it’ll be all cleaned up and back in its public disguise again.)
Then we’ll ask ourselves, “What would have been the perfect compromise to this Climax, the best possible way for a protagonist with these particular needs to convince themself they weren’t going to have to choose between those needs after all?”
It doesn’t need to be a scene or even an event. Just an idea, a possibility—some way for them to wriggle out of their nightmare right before it happens.
We’ll deliberately avoid thinking about the original solution to their dilemma. If we can’t avoid it, we’ll think about its opposite. Pose the question as if for the first time ever.
We’ll take notes.
And we’ll keep in mind that a Faux Resolution is a negative Climax—where the hook of a Conflict or Climax is jarring, the hook of a Faux Resolution is soothing; where the conflicts of a Conflict or Climax are increasingly full of conflict, separated by momentary lapses only to catch the breath, the conflicts of a Faux Resolution are increasingly resolved solutions separated by momentary lapses, one at least of which pokes the reader out of their comfort zone; and where the faux resolution of a Conflict or Climax is a clear, kind, writer-to-reader respite, the anti-faux resolution of a Faux Resolution is a bear. That makes the climax of a Faux Resolution a truly fake resolution.
We’ll create a diagram for the relationship between the Climax as we have newly perceived it and the Faux Resolution we’ve just illuminated, a flowchart or family tree sort of thing, tracking our protagonist with their burning internal fires from the Climax backward into the effects that caused it, all the myriad possibilities branching off in all directions.
Think about how many second or third or fourth cousins we must have who have never even dreamed of our existence. There are simply dozens of distant cousins to our protagonist’s choices populating the parallel universes of the story inside our imagination.
We must ask ourselves what they are.
We’ll continue to back up all the way through this story in this manner, working backward from the Faux Resolution through Development, addressing each Conflict as it comes up.
We’ll always keep in mind as we do so: what does this protagonist need? and what else do they need? and how does the mutual incompatibility of those two needs keep banging them against themself, striking sparks?
And what if something else happened instead?
We’ll uncover the hidden aspects of our protagonist’s internal conflict. and record them in great, whacking, glorious detail.
Eventually we’ll arrive at the Hook and write long and copiously about that. And finally—sprawling all over the pages of one full notebook or more—there will be a whole multitude of deep, intricate roots to this Climax, as developed backward through the Faux Resolution and Conflicts and Hook and as defined through the lens of our protagonist’s internal conflict.
Take a long breath and admire it. You had no idea a story contained such depth, did you?
Then we’ll go through it all slowly and thoughtfully, doodling circles or boxes or pyramids or stars (we can use different colors, if we like colors) around only those most special, magical roots at each, separate layer, the ideas with the freshest, most amazing potential.
“She remembers the abyss between her parents.” “They’re forced to collude against their will.” “It becomes clear they’ve made a terrible mistake.” “He begins to fight back against himself, but in a funny way.” “She first intuits that it’s not going to work.”
It doesn’t matter how many there are. All we care about right now is that they’re different, surprising, magical. And it doesn’t matter where they might lie in relation to the scenes we’ve already written. Some might be spot on, and some might be a million miles away. It’s okay. We’re not outlining something we’ve already outlined before—we’re searching for those hidden potentialities that vibrate with the greatest possible tension and significance.
We’ll know them. They’ll make our fingertips tingle when we pass our hands over them.
We’ll copy them onto a fresh sheet of paper under their headings: Hook, Conflict #1, Conflict #2, Conflict #3, Faux Resolution, Climax. The most special, magical roots of character. We’ll dink around until we know they’re right.
We’ll make sure, as we group them under their general headings, that they increase in tension from Conflict #1 to Conflict #3, from beginning of the story to the end. Then within each general heading, we’ll number them in order of increasing tension.
Now we’ll take out another fresh sheet of paper (you didn’t know revision took so much fresh paper, did you?) and draw a sweeping curve skewed toward the far end, and letter in extremely small letters each of those special, magical roots in chronological order according to their numbers and general headings, beginning at the Hook and finishing at the Climax.
Our protagonist’s real character arc.
Thanks for a fantastic excerpt, Victora! Readers, you can learn more about Victoria through her blog, her Editing Services, and via Twitter. Take a look at the inside of her latest book, The Art & Craft of Story, HERE via a PDF. Write on.