Friday, August 24, 2012

Are you trying to get Fresh with me?

Writer's Mantra #21:
There are no new plots, but there are plenty of fresh characters

Let's talk about Romantic Comedies for a moment. I'm not your expert in Romance, but I have a soft spot in my head for movies of the Romantic Comedy persuasion. Generally, I have to watch them in Hindi, because Bollywood does them best.

There is invariably an airport in the 3rd act where he's leaving town, or she's leaving town, or they both leave town. Or something like that. And rain. And there's a dark moment. The audience is lead to think that they're not going to get together (but we know they will) and then one or the other lovers Does Something Unique to overcome that final obstacle preventing them from falling into each other's arms.

Note in that formula the underlined part. The key is that the character does something unique. Maybe he's a dashing young lawyer/doctor who mastered the slingshot as a child. You can count on him using the slingshot to knock out the air-traffic control radar to delay the flight just long enough for him to say, "I love you" to the girl before they haul him off. The doctor/lawyer part is pretty standard stuff, but the slingshot--not everyone does them.

Aristotle cataloged plots in Poetics thousands of years ago. Shakespeare and others have devised categorizations of all dramatic situations, such as this one by Georges Polti. I started with the Romantic Comedy because it is so narrowly constrained plot-wise.

The way you prevent your story from being like all the other stories is your characters. When you populate your story with characters, you must be aware of archetypes. Because there are a finite set of archetypes. Dashing officers. Brooding lairds of the manor. Doctor/Lawyers.

Cheap escapes from archetypes are obvious variations, like making the girl the Dashing officer and the guy the impoverished Governess. Obvious substitutions are less creative than subtle variations or characters who completely avoid the archetype, like a dashing Accountant with a penchant for Guns.

People can be stereotyped. And you shouldn't do that. People are as complicated as the truth. You make one blanket statement about some part of a person, e.g. good or evil, and then you can find bits about the person that falsifies that statement. Oh, the person is good, s/he's just not perfect. Or the person is evil, but his mother loves him. And after you go about finding those exceptions you find exceptions to exceptions. The person is good, except for his alcoholism, but he doesn't drink on Sunday. And the exceptions upon exceptions get smaller and smaller. The distinctions get finer until the portrait emerges.

I was taught and I believe that mankind bears the image of deity. This is not a religion blog, but this is a religious premise for something you may agree with even if your faith totally contradicts mine: People are all different. In a world of 10 billion people, there will be 10 billion distinct individuals. I come to this conclusion based on the notion that an infinite deity will be projected onto humanity in as many different ways as there are perspectives of that infinite deity. You may toss out the why, but I hope you'll grant me the what.

As people are all different, your characters can be all different, too. Not just different from all your other characters, but different from every other writer's characters.

Even if all you do is write a roman à clef whose characters are all your friends and enemies, your characters should be distinct from every other character devised by the mind of mankind.  You just have to give the characters more depth than cardboard.

Suppose you've got a dashing doctor, but that dashing doctor did some things other dashing doctors didn't do. Like clean up after his dad who used to come home drunk. Or become an expert in the slingshot. Think through your character's backstory and imagine the events that distinguish him from all the other doctors. Such thinking is scaffolding and you will do well to do a thorough job of setting up scaffolding and take notes.

Just as you want to avoid stereotypes, you'll also want to avoid Mary Sues.

Finally, you need to make your characters deep enough to be clearly identifiable as distinct individuals. After that, plug in your favorite plot and go to town.

Let's look at an example of this in action. I got an idea from Brenda Clough after I read her story May Be Some Time--that she expanded it into a novel here. (You should buy it.) The premise of her story is that polar explorer Titus Oates of the doomed Scott Expedition to the South Pole is rescued by time travelers. He is brought to the near future and adventure ensues.

I love that story. I loved it so much that I latched onto a historical tidbit: The Nazis set up clandestine radio broadcasting stations to spoof the radio navigation systems of aircraft being ferried across the Atlantic. This resulted in at least one lost squadron. I told her about it, but she didn't want to write it.

So I imagined a lost squadron misled by the Nazis and forced to ditch in Greenland's Icy Mountains. And I imagined someone with a time machine to rescue them. Why would someone go to the bother of rescuing the pilots? I wondered. He's got something the future boys need. What? The only thing I could imagine of sufficient value was theoretical math smarts, because math tends to lead the rest of society by a couple centuries. Thus I invented the character named Carl Galt, a mathematician of Gaussian proportions.

Once I him in hand, he had to have an American boss and a couple Brits to round out a squadron of four P-38s. Then I needed someone to do the rescuing. Let's have a stuffy engineer, science type and someone his opposite: a smoking-hot, historian, Indiana Jones babe. With Sid Feynman and Nell Playfair we had our cast.

So, I plugged in my favorite plot and went to town. The result is the short story "From Greenland's Icy Mountains." After that, Sid & Nell took on lives of their own and demanded that I write more stories with them that I have collected in my anthology of time travel stories, Finding Time.

Gentle reader, I hope you'll read Brenda's fine story, and then mine. Please tell me how well I did at coming up with a fresh story.


Those more worthy than I: