So what do you do when your creativity goes to sleep? How do you respond when readers tell you that your character’s actions and speech are inconsistent and erratic? How do you smooth out those kinks in your plot? When your creativity implodes, rolls over and dies; or when it’s buzzing along so fast on turbo-charge that your characters morph and change faster than Play-Doh being pummelled by a hyperactive four-year-old; when your plot has more holes in it than a rusty cheese grater—it’s time to stop writing, give the right side of your brain a rest, and reach for your internal Mr Spock.
Traditionally the right side of the human brain was where your imagination, creativity and visualisation skills lived. The left side was supposed to sort out grammar, language, literal meaning, calculation, and fact retrieval. (Psychologists also think you have a little man curled up inside your brain—so what do they know?) Modern psychologists now think that the lateralisation (your big word for the week) theory is too simple, but the fact is that writing fiction is a complex process involving both sides of the brain.
As a writer what you need(?) to know is that the right side of the brain is where your muse (no one knows what shape it’s supposed to be) lives—it’s where the engine of your creativity resides. Your left-brain is where the controls are, the place where your creativity is steered, given direction, and formed into words (ish). When your creative engine stalls or misfires, when Scotty cannot get the Plasma Infusion Doo-hickey to mesh with the Trans-Genderifier-o-tron in your starboard nassal, then it’s time to call in Mr Spock. To go where no other creative mind has gone before, you need to engage in the alien activities of clear thinking and logic.
Sometimes, breaking something down into bits is the best way of putting it back together so it works. Stories, and the story arcs that make them up, can be thought of as a string of events, responses and choices.
Event: something that happens to a character, or something being said to them—the trigger.
Response: What the character thinks and feels in response to the trigger.
Choice: What the character chooses to do as a result of how they think and feel.
Internal Factors: Things inside the character that can influence how they think and feel about the trigger, and affect the choice the character will make about what to do about it. These factors include things like personality, personal history (memories), morals, beliefs and values.
External Factors: Things outside the character that influence their thoughts, perceptions and actions. Another’s behaviour, who the character is with or talking to when the trigger occurs, surrounding culture, location, and many others—anything in the environment, but not necessarily physically present.
The trigger is what it is—just ask yourself if it’s plausible within the context of the story.
The middle stage, the response, is different from what the character chooses to do—human beings aren’t logical machines, and our actions aren’t always an obvious response to the trigger. It’s useful to think in terms of response as it helps a writer think clearly about their character’s emotional reaction, and how each different external or internal factor makes the character feel. It is also helpful as a check—to make sure that the character’s chosen action is consistent with their thoughts and feelings, and so believable for the reader.
TIP: Write a list of everything you know about your character and their history that could influence them as they face the trigger before you start.
An example may be helpful (or not):
Imagine a character, let’s call her Lily Livered. She is easily scared and has no confidence in herself. A drunk goes to punch Lily; there is no one else around. That’s the trigger.
The response is the complex part, and the most important. Are there any external and internal facts about Lily we need to think about? We could assume Lily would try to dodge and run away. But, as she lives in perpetual fear, let’s assume she carries a gun. So, what action would Lily take? The action comes from the choice, and the choices open to the character depend on how they think and feel—their personality, their beliefs, whatever else is on their mind at the time. Would fear drive her to use the gun, or just threaten the drunk? Lily certainly wouldn’t try to punch the drunk. Let’s break it down:
Drunk throws a punch.
Lily’s Response: I am scared, but gosh-darn-it if I didn’t see a drunk driver run over my favourite cat when I was six which my mom blamed on my dad and they got divorced and I was rendered timid and scarred in the battle over custody as neither of them wanted to keep me. External factors in Lily’s history give rise to a simmering resentment and hatred of all drunks—her internal factors. She gets ANGRY.
Lily’s Choice: she hates drunks, and is panicking and irrationally angry. She is so angry she cannot think straight to make a choice—Lily is compelled by her anger and fear to shoot the drunk.
Same situation, another character:
Bradt Wurst is a police officer, trained for combat and keeping a level head. He would probably leave his gun in the holster and try to restrain the drunk.
Drunk throws a punch.
Bradt’s Response: Little punk. I’m off duty, and I’ve just pulled a twelve-hour shift crammed with paperwork. I’m tired, annoyed, and physically frustrated because my wife isn’t putting out because I forgot our anniversary. He wants to go to and blow off some steam with his mates. Bradt gets ANGRY.
Bradt’s Choice: He’s trained to control his anger (external factor, leading to internal discipline), so he can make a choice. He could arrest the drunk and book him—another two hours of paperwork (external factor, leading to internal frustration). He chooses to hit the drunk hard enough to knock him out, and dumps him in a pile of garbage to sleep it off until the morning (external factor—no one else is around to see him). He can now go to the lap-dancing club with his mates.
In the examples above the story arc for each character influences the character’s actions in a way a reader can relate to. The actions of the characters are consistent with their personalities and history, and with the situation and the trigger. In a complex scene you may need to string several of these chains together and cross-link them for more than one character. It gets easier with practice, and it’s something most experienced writers do unconsciously as they write anyway. But even the best can miss something, and if you are really stuck then looking at the small-print can help you swing the deal.
Getting inside your character’s head, knowing how they think and feel, is essential to telling a good story. Snuggle up and get to know your characters. Let your character’s responses and actions drive the story and you will have something compelling. There’s nothing wrong with writing by the seat of your pants, but when your words get caught in your zipper sometimes a little logical problem-solving can prevent serious injury to your creativity.
There are as many different ways of writing a story as there are writers—so the suggestions above may be a lifesaver or completely useless—but I hope they may be of help to someone. If you have anything to add, or wish to comment, please feel free to do so below:
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