Saturday, April 10, 2010

Workshop: Whose Story is This? And Why? And Are You Sure?

This workshop is being lead by Sandy Asher, a successful author who was also one of the keynote speakers at the conference. Check out Janine's live blog of Sandy's speech for more information on Sandy's career.

There's a nice mix of YA (contemporary, literary, mystery, paranormal, historical, fantasy), MG and picture book people in my session. I like having a mix in a workshop I attend because I think the different perspectives are really useful. I think picture book people--and even to some extent MG people--are wired differently and take a different step into the creative process than YA people, which I think can be super helpful.

We were asked to do some "homework" for this session and have a specific work in mind when coming to the workshop. People are explaining their issues with their induvidual projects and they're quite varied, which I think will make for some interesting conversation.

Sandy's given us a handout, a list adapted from an article she read in a 2004 SCBWI Bulletin about the core needs of children/people, and therefore, also the core needs of characters--real, fleshed out characters, that is. (Both main and supporting.)

Characters will tell you their stories if you look at them in the right way. It's important to look at your supporting characters this way as well as your main character.

The first grouping of things that all people need is love/acceptance/safety. These are the ones we work hardest on from birth to early childhood--Sandy says "these are the first jobs that we have."

Learning how to successfully navigate these first three things in the beginning stages of life builds--or doesn't build--confidence and trust, traits that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. When things don't work out, searching/desperation/obsession can occur in an attempt to fill holes in one's life--or a person can become closed off and don't want to take the risk to fill a hole when they could be let down.

Sandy explains that as a writer you never need to ask, "Why is this happening to me?" because the answer is, "It's happening to you so you can write about it."

The next group of needs independence/recognition/dominance (in the sense of being able to take control of a situation or your own life--more like empowerment than dominance)

Just like the first grouping, this is a grouping of skills/needs that you'll work on for your entire life--even if your first set of needs hasn't been fully met, the process of growing up will force you to focus on the second set of needs anyway. I.e.--how do teenagers meet these needs?

--High school social status/cliques--figuring out who you are, sometimes based on who your friends are, and how you can make yourself stand out in some way (sports, theatre, academics, etc.)
--Rebellion--A need to prove yourself in a way that perhaps your parents or teachers don't approve of or don't understand. This can manifest in ways such as hanging out with a "wrong" crowd and getting into trouble with drugs/alcohol/etc. or by drastically changing your appearance, or by putting on that ever-so-lovely teenage sarcastic voice.
--How do you reconcile feeling like an adult but not having the tools to live as an adult? You feel like an adult but you also recognize your limitations more viscerally than before, plus having an understanding that not all unfairnesses can be changed.

"To become an adult you have to become more like your parents, but to become an individual you have to become less like your parents." - Sandy Asher. How can you figure out how to do both at once?

The hardest part about life is conflict. The best thing about conflict is that is provides endless amounts to write about. Conflict is the basis for story, and often real life is the basis for story.

The last on the list is self-actualization, which is basically a bringing together of the first six--going from attempting to meet specific needs to attempting to put your life together and figuring out who you are. No more (or less) worries about people judging you, and you're able to get to the point where you do what you want because you want to do it. This is not a selfish thing, but rather a fulfillment of self. (Note: sorry, this doesn't happen to most teenagers or children, but they can reach a place of contentment/peace.)

Sandy likens this last one to the first Rocky movie--"it's not about winning, it's about going the distance," she says.

So what does all of the psychological mumbo-jumbo have to do with writing a novel?

Because we're not writing in a bubble, we're not writing on Mars, and we're not writing for aliens. We're human beings, writing (mostly) about human beings, for other human beings. So your characters need to be authentic. You can't think of them as existing just on the page--they need to jump off the page and become real for you. And that makes all these needs super-important, because if YOU don't know what your character needs, how are you supposed to help them get there?

The hard part about this is that the needs drive the story, but they're not the story itself. The character may not now what he/she needs even though the author does.

"Think of your characters as walking in a scene on stage. They're not going to turn to the audience and explain why they're there. They're going to interact. But you need to know why they're there," Sandy explains. It's our job, as the writing, to be the puppeteer and understand the strings pulling the characters. If you can pull the strings the write way then the audience will have an intrinsic understanding of what's going on in your story, without either feeling like they need to psychoanalyze or feel like they're being asked to psychoanalyze anything on the page.

Sandy uses a really awesome example of the play The Miracle Worker about all of this. She explains how she always thought that play was Helen Keller's story. But--if you think about it--if it were really Helen Keller's story, wouldn't the play be called The Miracle Child? Instead, Sandy says, from understanding more about Annie Sullivan and her life, she realized the play was really Annie Sullivan's story rather than Helen Keller's.

One of the workshop participants asks a really great question--How can make a believable conflict between a parent and a child? As in, not totally over-the-top awful parents and not an over-the-top blow out conflict, but something more nuanced and real.

Sandy's answer is "What does this character need at this particular moment in this particular story?" She goes on to explain that you need to look at the needs of the character, and figure out which one isn't being met and how that's feeding into the parent/child conflict. Maybe the foundation of the kid's life is solid--they've got the first three in place--and the conflict with the parent isn't coming directly from the parent but from a secondary source in the novel that you either have not recognized or realized. And sometimes, Sandy explains, you might know TOO much about your characters, and you need to take a step back and let the character guide you.

If you've got a great idea, but it doesn't apply to the driving need of the novel, then write it down, keep it safe, and use it in a different story.

The second part of the workshop is the "work" part. We're looking at our own work and figuring out what are the needs of the major characters in our story. It's a great exercise--doing it, I'm realizing that there are actually reasons for the ways my characters are developing as they are (i.e. why Rankin is the villain.) I also realized there are several characters that I've been writing that I don't understand entirely, and perhaps that's part of the reason some of my scenes feel so difficult to write. The most interesting thing is seeing how the characters group together--there are several characters that want the same need met, and I don't think I realized that until I wrote it down, although looking at it, it makes complete sense.

Sandy explains there's a difference between what we want and what we need--people and characters alike. Everyone (author & character) knows what the character wants. But YOU, the author, know what the character truly needs.

(Sandy doesn't mention this, but this reminds me The Princess and the Frog, and that wonderful scene in the bayou where the witch doctor woman character gives Tianna and the prince the exact same advice!)

Okay, back to the workshop. Now we have our list, and we need to look at in and ask ourselves:
--Who has the most to lose?
--The most to gain?
--Whose needs are so urgent, so intense, that they are driven to act and pull the entire story forward?
(Is it actually your main character?)

So...was it your main character? If not...why not?

So maybe your main character has what it takes. But maybe you need more to really drive your story forward. Or maybe it's time to fold and deal the cards again, and see what happens. That might mean following a character you didn't think was your main character. It might mean crossing genre--YA to MG, MG to YA, or maybe YA to adult fiction.

"The story the character wants to tell is not always the story I want to tell." - Sandy Asher.

Not sure what to do? Sandy suggests the exercise of trying an outline of the same general story with the other character.

For fantasy writers: "Why is this adventure happening to this character at this moment?" says Sandy. You can't just make everything that could possibly happen (fantastically speaking) because it's fantasy and it would be cool. You have to keep a tight grip on the reins. You need to make sure that the plot doesn't just happen and the character just happens to be there--it has to be the specific character FOR that adventure, and the specific adventure FOR that character. Neither can be happenstance.

"Make sure your character is creating a plot, rather than a plot happening to a character." - Sandy Asher.

Alright, so have you got your MC? (New or old.) Now we're looking at the other characters and going scene- by-scene (if you're an outliner or have a complete manuscript) and Sandy says to ask, "Which of the other major characters are aiding the MC's quest to meet this need and which are obstacles in his way?"

Then, you need to look at your list and figure out if there are any characters duplicating one another. If there are, can you combine those two characters into something strong and better? Or can you cut one? "One dragon to slay is enough," says Sandy.

Make sure each character has a unique way or reason for being for or against the character. I'm thinking about my own work with Rankin and King Roderick--Rankin is against Aranelle because he doesn't want to fulfill her needs because it would mean abandoning him and her ability to fulfill his needs, but the King is against Aranelle because he's already fulfilled his needs and she would--literally--knock him off this throne.

Now that you know who is against and who is for, is there anyone left over? If there's anyone who is neutral, they might not be necessary at all. You could combine them with another character, kill them off, or give them a bigger agenda--but they can't just float.

"These people, this world, your story, is real. You are the servant of the story. You have to do whatever is necessary to make this world come to life and give it to the real people, the readers," Sandy says. (SO TRUE!) Or, otherwise known as "successful schizophrenia."

Another great point: "Characters don't read your outline."

(BTW, I'm not some crazy transcriber, I'm in a double session, which is why this is so long. Plus so many things Sandy said were really helpful, I didn't want to miss anything!)

Fhew! Did you read this far down? If so, congratulations! I'm sure you caught all my grammar and spelling mistakes, because this whole live blogging thing is pretty crazy and I didn't have the time (or energy) to properly re-read and edit this post.

So what do you think? Is your character's story really their story? And are they really your character at all?

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