You’ve Got to Be a Little Bad to Be a Good Samaritan
I write a lot of newspaper stories about people who help other people. The two most common reasons they profess to offer help are because it’s right, or because they feel a connection to someone who needs help. They’re good people, and I’ve got to tell you, they inspire me.
But in fiction, good people don’t necessarily help you.
But in fiction, good people don’t necessarily help you.
Let me give you an example.
A few years back, while reviewing some chapters in a high fantasy I’d written, I was vexed to find that it felt flat. It shouldn’t have. My poor, stressed out and emotionally beat up wizard was on a river, trying to elude pursuit and get to my heroine, who was in prison hundreds of miles away. In short, I’d tortured my wizard character the way a writer is supposed to do.
So why did the scene feel flat? Should I just cut it? That is what I tend to do when a scene goes nowhere.
I went through my writerly checklist to tell me what I needed this scene for, what it had to accomplish within the larger story, and concluded that I needed to keep it. There was action in it, too, so it should be interesting. Right?
Then it hit me where the problem lay. I’d given my wizard an older married couple to carry him down the river, and while she was a stitch, they were too darned skippy nice. They just cheerfully took him aboard their boat and oohed and aahed when he discovered a new way to work his magic.
They had to have their own agenda. I made them smugglers, although reluctant ones. They needed money. The wizard offered to pay for passage. But their need to hide something from my wizard, and their nervousness about it, added the necessary umph and tension to make the scene interesting.
So if a scene’s bugging you, and you have characters who want to help, give them an agenda. You never know where that agenda might lead you. In my current book The Jaguar Spell, for example, my heroine drops her work in South America to go to New York to help her friend. Well, she secretly loves him, but she’s managed to stay away from him for years. Why does she decide to help him now? She owes him big-time. She’s guilty and hoping for absolution, and knows absolution could only come if she helps him with something important, life-threatening. Figuring out why she owed him opened up a whole dimension to the story that I hadn’t anticipated when I’d sat down to write it.
But, you protest, some people really do help others from selfless reasons. For those folk, God bless ‘em. But while in real life we can thank these folk and feel inspired, in fiction we can’t let them be. A writer’s job is to figure out why that person acts that way. Do they help because secretly they hope the people they help will feel grateful to them? Do they help because they want other people to know they’re helpful? Do they need to shore up their self-image? Do they figure there’s a karmic payoff — God will see that they did good things and reward them?
If you’re still doubting the power of getting good motivations for helper characters, go see The Avengers. I’m not giving any spoilers to say that all of those heroes, those alpha males and women, had their own agendas. The tension of whether they would come together, how they would take turns helping each other, to defeat Loki and his horde drives the movie.
All these examples means there’re many helper motivations to choose from, from the heroic to the prosaic. It’s a veritable feast of motivations to work with.
I feel the sudden urge to give blood. I think a local church was having a blood drive. They had a sign out. Or maybe I should do that ad for the volunteer group that approached me. Hm…
Glenda Bodamer is the pen name of a multi-published author of romances that had nothing to do with jaguars, fairy tales, or warehouses. She's attended the revered Clarion SF/Fantasy Writing Workshop, taken a masters in rhetoric of all things, and worked as a professional writer for government, ad agencies, large and small companies, magazines, and newspapers. Glenda and her husband live outside Boston with their two wonderful teenagers—really, she means that wonderful most days—a sweet former shelter hound dog mutt, and more wild turkeys in her neighborhood than she would like.
When Glenda's not writing or driving her teenagers around, she enjoys needlework, making stained glass windows and boxes, and jogging, but not at the same time.
Great post, Glenda! And I couldn't agree more -- knowing the motivations of *all* of your characters helps not only making a scene work, but helps in writing it too.ReplyDelete
Thanks for a great post!
Hi Glenda! Welcome to the R8! Reading you post has me thinking about a scene in my book where two secondary characters meet, one trying to get the other to do something for the main characters. While the scene works okay, now I feel like I can go back and add in a little, "I'll do this for you, if you do that for me," to the mix and increase the push/pull tension by ten-fold. Awesome!ReplyDelete
Fantastic, I'm so glad!ReplyDelete
And I'm so glad you all welcomed me aboard!ReplyDelete
Glenda, thanks for spending the day with us here at the R8!ReplyDelete
I love your point that even minor characters have agendas. Right now, I'm revising my WIP--and I'm making lists for some of my minor characters. On that list I jot bullet points about the world from that character's point of view. I'm trying to include Events and attitudes that formed who they are before the entered the scene I'm around and what they want now.
I haven't got to all my minor characters yet since I'm working scene by scene. But it's been enough that I've sat back once or twice and said, "Huh! So that means he'll do X in this scene!"
My goal next time around is to do all this organically. Don't knot if that's possible, but it's something to aim for! Thanks, Glenda!
Love this take on character motivations, Glenda! And I just saw The Avengers, so I love the examples you gave. (Joss Whedon Rocks!)ReplyDelete
Joss Whedon does rock! I watch Buffy and Firefly to figure out stuff. It's great.ReplyDelete
And Nichole: good for you. It's so hard when you're writing the scene originally to figure out what all those other folk are thinking. I don't usually do so until I'm editing, but now barriers -- or the lack thereof -- are the first thing I look for when I revise.
Glenda, what a great reminder to make sure there's at least one ulterior motive in every scene! I love the example you gave of turning your older couple into smugglers. One little detail change and wham! Instant intrigue. Your instincts serve you well--thanks for sharing! And I really do need to see that movie! Hopefully soon! :-)ReplyDelete
Thanks! And the movie was a lot of fun, although I kept thinking, wow, this is the perfect example of that other experience I had with my own character. Isn't that often the way we experience movies and books?ReplyDelete