Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Wing to Great Deeds

#22 In every scene, every character should want something.

Contentment is a pleasing state of existence. If you can be content with what you have, you can be happy without any of life's unnecessary distractions. You can pass serenely along untroubled by the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eye, or the pride of life. Can't you just feel the tension flowing out of your body as you contemplate such an existence?

Just lie back and relax, because YOU'RE BORING. IF YOU WERE IN MY NOVEL I'D PUT A BULLET IN YOUR BRAIN BECAUSE YOU'RE HALF DEAD AND DON'T KNOW IT. In an episode of the X-Files, the guy gets Aladdin's Lamp and wishes for "world peace" he goes out of his office and discovers the world is empty.  Peace is better in real life and worse in fiction.

Discontent is something that makes characters interesting. Let's suppose you've got a detective who's perfect in every way, a British Lord, rich, handsome, athletic, and smart. I think Dorothy Sayers was designing the fellow she wished she could marry when she devised Lord Peter Wimsey. Trouble with someone with all those advantages is that he can be a terrible bore. Give him an itch he cannot scratch, like a hankering for Harriet Vane--who doesn't hanker back.

All the Marvel superheroes have something wrong that makes them discontented, like Tony Stark has his heart ailment. When you design a character for your fiction, you can put in something like to fall back on. 

My depiction of Mycroft Holmes relies upon the fact that Mycroft has secrets that he wants to keep from his younger brother, Sherlock. That introduces tension in any scene where the two brothers are together. When Sherlock is absent, Mycroft is still haunted by the expectations of those around him to be "as good a detective" when that's the last thing he wants.

When we narrow our consideration to a single scene, there are the particulars of that scene to take into account. Suppose a body's been found in the library. Somebody wants to be told what to do. Somebody is going to want to minimize damage to his reputation. Somebody is going to want to solve the legal problems attending its discovery. Somebody is going to want to preserve the scene. And somebody is going to want to know how it got there!

The universal appeal of mysteries stems in part from the fact that for every detective who wants to nab a murderer, there's a murderer who wants to get away with it. These contradictory desires are the fuel that powers these stories.

When you write a scene, ask yourself: who's in this scene and what does s/he want?

In my anthology Finding Time, I have a scene where the parties in attendance at supper are time travelers Sid & Nell and ancients King Solomon and Queen Makeda (also known as the Queen of Sheba). Sid & Nell want to get a bit of treasure. Solomon wants to have sex with Makeda. Makeda wants to prove she is as good a ruler as Solomon. Put them in a room together and these desires will pull each of the players along paths that may make the characters uncomfortable, but interesting nonetheless.
"Love and desire are the spirit's wings to great deeds" Goethe

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