Sunday, June 24, 2012

When is WHY where it's at?

Short answer? Always.

This is a writing post about Character Motivation.

If you prefer not to wend with me along the writing way, jump here. You'll find:
A) a cute picture of baby ducks clustered around a momma duck. I phone-snapped them on a day-trip to San Diego with my poet friend, @ColleenRunyan, who blogs poetry. Must-read, take-your-breath-away poetry.
B) a picture of my, er, lower trunk region sporting the vibrant hues apropos to a cautionary tale about wearing sunscreen if you value your skin!

Back to Character Motivation.

I'm currently editing a literary adult book I wrote for MFA on sex abuse.

One of my crit group members is "right there with ya, sista"; she's walked that oogie road herself. Another woman comes to the table full of sympathy and ideas, but she doesn't quite see eye-to-eye. A third crit partner has no idea what my main character is doing. Or rather, more importantly, why.

So my critiqued pages look like this. Chock-full of why's.


This is my crit partner's pervading, ubiquitous question.

Why does 17-year-old Seta drive an hour from school to find a "home away from home"? Why, when she gets there, does she don a new persona, calling herself Sarah? Why does she sit in the Children's section of the bookstore, on a goddamn beanbag of all places!? And why oh why is she trying to seduce this 30-year-old man who looks so much like her biological father?

I've been receiving this sort of feedback for the last 50 pages, while the other gals are gushing.


It smacks me upside the head: This reader doesn't share my associations. I'm a fish trying to describe water to a land mammal. It's innate to me, but she can't understand. These reptilian brain responses are foreign to her, untappable, on the page as they are. I need to tell a little more, not show. I need to "out" my Undercover Oogie. I gotta throw her a frickin' bone.

The problem is, I don't always know why. I just know that Seta has to do what she's doing.

So. Time to roll up my sleeves, snap on the latex gloves, and dig deep.

WHY is where it's at. WHY is the part of character that makes a story relatable. And really, how can you root for a character -- especially a CrAzY(!) character -- if you can't fathom the haphazard way she's bobbing about in the world?

I know now what my story needs: a First Round of Edits that strictly answers the question WHY. Every thought, every blush, finger-tap, shiver, every mote of dialogue, every tongue-cluck, lip-lick, sniff, snort, silence -- every action in this book needs scrutiny.

Why? Because this is a book about childhood sex abuse and a transient lifestyle, both of which have formative qualities on behavior

Perhaps the degree of scrutiny applied to character motivation is directly proportional to the degree of trauma being explored.

Perhaps not.

But I wonder, nonetheless.

With Love and Respect,

P.S. Enjoyed this post?
Consider reading @mooderino's thoughts on character:
"Writing Great Characters"
"What Makes Your Character Think That'll Work?"


<3   San Diego Getaway!  <3

First, the momma. And as we were starin' all enamored from our
hotel window, out toddled Baby 1, then Baby 2, etc, until there were
seven waddlers. And just after I snapped this pic,
the eighth came blundering beak-first into the convocation.

The 1st and 2nd day, I was popping 600 mg of Ibuprofen
every 4 hours, no joke. You'd think a person would learn...