Home    Workshops    Members Only    Contests    Join    Contact us                       RWA Chapter

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Focal Motivation and the Transformational Character Arc

Please welcome guest blogger Jodi Henley

While you might know a character's stats, childhood and what she's supposed to do—numbers and facts aren't "flesh." Stories driven by emotion are stories driven by character, because emotion can't exist without real people to feel them.   

While a story can be "plot-heavy" and still get emotion across (The Silence of the Lambs), it can't be plot "driven" (The Stepford Wives). Plot-driven stories work with the thinking part of your brain (wow! How horrible is that??) (Figure out the Code or die!)  

A story laden with emotion is a story driven by character, because people care about people. Characters shouldn't simply exist to serve the needs of the plot because they get slapped down when they rebel (my characters won't do what they're supposed to do) or just sit there. Although it's an easy fix to "write" them through the motions, you get the emotional connection between your story and reader by finding out the reasons your characters act the way they do.

Let's give our character, Kim, a cliché job. Kim is a struggling bed and breakfast owner who is taking care of her child after the death of her husband. And conveniently make the hero useful. Jason owns a small construction company and in his spare time he's an amateur chef.

Kim needs to add a bathroom to the "Honeymoon suite" and hires Jason. He was the low bid because he just relocated his company and he needs to show people what he can do. Jason hits it off well with Cleo (Kim's daughter) and since Kim can't boil water without burning it, invites them over (he's the single dad down the street) for dinner. Cleo and Tyra connect and become friends. He lost his wife because she refused to settle down, and Kim lost her husband. It should be a marriage made in Heaven—or is it?

It "sounds" like there's an emotional component and that there is a transformational arc but because the writer doesn't understand how the arc impacts the story, it's just set-up.

1. Kim hires Jason, the new single dad down the street to fix her bathroom.

2. He likes her kid (and her!) and invites them over for dinner with his kid.

3. Their kids get along.

4. They fall in love.

Although a story can be life-like, it needs a reason to exist. It needs conflict, which means it needs motivation—not motivation in the terms of GMC where the character is trying to get to a goal. Kim's goal is not to win the hero. The writer's goal is to get Kim and Jason together. Kim just wants to take care of her kid. 

This is motivation as a focal point for the character's actions and reactions in "this" story—in other words, the starting point of Kim's transformational arc. Focal motivation is a story driver, which is why a character focused story is called character-driven, because something pushes Kim from pt A to pt B.

Motivation is specific to your characters. If I can remove Kim and replace her with Tiffany, then I don't have emotions in my story or the right people and arcs. A well-thought out, multi-dimensional character with the proper motivation and strong arc can't be removed without damage.

In a plot-driven story, the story events drive the characters--so if I remove Kim and insert Tiffany, a childless twentysomething, her "Tiffany-ness" doesn't matter. What does matter is the "weight" of the plot.

To carry Tiffany, the plot would have to override personal details.

For an example, let’s talk about First Blood and the Rambo series. First Blood, for those who haven’t seen it, is the first Rambo movie. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Blood

Loosely based on the David Morrell book of the same name, it’s the psychological study of a Vietnam vet.

In the movie, Rambo is a drifter. Everything that happens in First Blood builds on both his backstory and who he became because of that backstory. When he heads up into the mountains and does his whole poncho-survivalist thing, it's understandable because he was Special Forces. When he refuses to leave town, it's because he was controlled (former POW) for such a long time, he refuses to let anyone control him.

All actions are based on who he is, what he did, what he became, and what's happening to him because of that. Because he was a prisoner of the North Vietnamese he refused to leave town when told to get out. Which made him turn around and walk back in, which made the Sherriff arrest him, which made the jailor try to give him a haircut and shave him (it's a 70's thing. It's an old book) which triggered Rambo's PSTD which started the story going.

Motivation is a bull’s-eye of concentric rings, each spreading out like ripples from a central event that drives your story. Not general backstory or the fact that Kim is a single mom with a cute kid.

While the first Rambo movie is character-driven, the later "Rambo" movies are plot-driven. Although Rambo is still at the center of each movie, he could easily be replaced by Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal because the scriptwriters forgot the simple incident Morell based Rambo's reactions on—he was a POW, he has PSTD and control issues.

In the movie, Rambo is at the end of his arc, which means that arcs can also be other than a full-fledged transformational "arc", and what you use in terms of an arc serves the needs of the story you're trying to tell. In this story, Rambo can't be removed.

Kim needs a reason she can't be removed from her story—something so overwhelming and gut-wrenchingly personal that the idea of falling in love with Jason tears her apart. She needs to "feel" the emotion, instead of be driven by story needs. She needs a transformational arc.

Showing the Transformational Character Arc, presented by Jodi Henley, runs from March 12, 2012 through March 25, 2012

Jodi Henley is a long-time member of the popular on-line writer’s forum "Romance Divas" where her craft of writing articles have been archived as downloads in The Place for answers, Romance Diva’s on-line library. Highly sought after for her plain-English approach to problem solving, Jodi spends her time dissecting the craft of writing. Her obsessive Myer-Briggs INTJ personality drives her to explain her findings, and she considers herself lucky to have a receptive audience. A long-time blogger, her blog, "Will Work for Noodles", is a popular writer’s reference for people in fields from play-writing to Christian magazines and newspaper journalism. Praise for Jodi Henley: "I'm so glad this story is FINALLY going somewhere! I've been working on this thing for like 4-5 years and then Jodi came along with her organic structure and BOOM! I always felt like this story could be something special but I just never felt I was ready to work on it. Jodi is a wealth of information"--Lauren Murphy, author of Cara’s Christmas Fantasy

No comments: