Monday, March 17, 2014

An Insanely Useful Way to Develop Character Actions ... and a Weekly Writing Update

I was happily chugging along, revising in the last quarter of my book when I discovered brief notes for 24 pages (6000 words) that I had forgotten to write in the first draft. It required two full writing days' worth of thought to decide how to write those scenes. I now have 5735 words' worth of notes/ideas that I will use when I write the scenes, and writing them should be a snap. Does it seem odd that my notes are almost as long as the final scenes will be? It happened because of this statement (which writers need to be asking themselves constantly):


I've read over the years that the first two or three ideas that pop into our heads are almost always not very good. They're stale. Writers have suggested that the remedy is to list up to ten additional ideas, and to select from the best.

I do that, but in a different way, I suspect, than anyone on the planet.

For example, in one of the unwritten scenes, the hero's mother (antagonistic character) must convince the hero to take her to visit her friend (who is the same age as the hero) who Mother had tried to set up with her son earlier in the book. He's in love with someone else at this point, although they've (temporarily!) broken up, thus he has no interest in his mother's friend. It will take some doing on her part to convince him. Her scene goal is to convince him. His scene goal is to resist ... all in one page. (This is really only a small movement in a larger scene.)

Prior to the scene's opening, he'd gone down a rung or two of emotional health, due to the breakup. Briefly and crudely put, he is unhappy when the scene begins.

Prior to the scene's opening, his mother's gone up a rung or two of emotional health because of the breakup. She'd been trying to keep John and Rose apart from the beginning. Briefly and crudely put, she is happy when the scene begins.

I could have each character exhibit the attitudes and behaviors of "happiness" or "unhappiness" according to their Enneagram personality styles. John is Style 1. Mother is Style 2. Each style experiences the attitudes and behaviors of "happiness" and "unhappiness" in very different ways. They also behave in highly different ways while trying to get what they want.

So, they could react according to their Enneagram style, at a default level of emotional health. The default level for all Enneagram types is Level 4. Levels of emotional health range from Level 1 being so emotionally healthy, you're godlike, all the way down to Level 9, when you are so emotionally unhealthy, you are psychotic and possibly criminal or suicidal.

Usually, people move only a notch or two above or below the default level in their lifetimes, depending on their circumstances. My people, except for the arch-villain, aren't that emotionally unhealthy. John, who is unhappy, has dropped to Level 5. Mother, who is happy, has risen to Level 3 within their types.

But behaving according to their Enneagram style is not what is needed at this stage of the book. This final quarter is where character transformation, which has been happening in dribs and drabs all along, now picks up speed. Behaving according to their types and even employing Levels of Emotional Health is not going to cut it. When a character always behaves according to type, they may've gotten a little healthier or unhealthier emotionally, but their personality still hasn't changed AT ALL.

Almost all of us act like robots 99% of the time, as we fall back on familiar attitudes and ways of behaving. Think of the movie Groundhog's Day, and you'll understand what I mean.

So, if I want to come up with fresh ideas for what can happen in the scene, I need to explore other more interesting but still believable behavioral options for my characters. Some options will work better and be more likely than others, but all are possible. 

I can have John's attitudes and behaviors be that of either of his Enneagram wing styles. In his case, he could behave like a Style 9 or a Style 2. Or, he could behave according to his "integrating" style, which would happen if he were feeling really great, which is Style 7. Or, he could behave according to his "disintegrating" style, which he would default to if he were feeling really bad. In John's case, it's Style 4. Because he's feeling unhappy, I'll bump him down to Level 5 of emotional health in each style.

His mother's choices are to employ the attitudes and behaviors of Enneagram styles 1,2,3,4 or 8. Because she's feeling good, I'll bump her up to Level 3 of emotional health in each style.

Then I get out my Riso-Hudson Levels of Development charts and see what the attitudes and behaviors would be for all of the listed possibilities. The charts show the attitudes and behaviors of each enneagram style at each of the nine levels of emotional health/development from emotionally healthy to emotionally unhealthy.

After comparing the varieties of how they could behave, I select the attitude and behavior possibilities that would work best, and be most interesting, for the particular scene I'm working on.

It's almost as if I'm using a slide rule, isn't it? It sounds ridiculously left-brained and like way too much work, doesn't it? It sounds like I've reduced my characters to concepts, rather than living, breathing people, doesn't it?

But wait a minute. They are only concepts. Can a book, even a long one, ever capture ever facet of a human being? Heck no. We capture only a limited spectrum of possible attitudes and behaviors.

And right-brained thinking does indeed come to play, when I translate the descriptions of these attitudes and behaviors into actual behaviors. What does someone who is feeling melancholy, misunderstood DO? He withdraws, he broods, he acts touchy and temperamental.

The easiest way to write a scene is to "wing it" and have my characters reacting according to how I would feel, and what I would do in that situation. That takes no work at all.

But if I were to do that, I would come up with a seriously bland, unimaginative book. If sent to an editor or to a contest judge, the terminology they might jot next to a bland passage is, "dig deeper."

It's another way of saying, "think up ten ideas about what the character could do now, and throw out the first three or four ... or eight or nine."

That's what I'm doing when I go to all the trouble with the Enneagram Levels of Development Charts. This tool enables my imagination to "dig deeper."

It's time-consuming, but I always come up with ideas that surprise and delight me, that I would not imagine, had I not painstakingly used this information. It's my genie in a bottle, my magic dust.

Anyway, that's how I come up with my list of better ideas for writing a scene than if I were to use the first idea that popped into my head, and an insanely useful way to develop character actions.

So I'm working at completing those 6000 words, and then I'm pretty much done with my first-round revision. I'll let the manuscript cool for a couple of weeks, and then I'll do what I hope will be a final pass before taking the next step. It it's a "go," that means looking for an agent.

Here's what I'll be doing at the end of the week:

1 comment:

  1. You've helped me see the workings of the enneagram concept more clearly with this, thanks :-) And yes, it does seem like a lot of work. But the idea of going deeper is so important, and it looks like this tool does that.

    Enjoy the conference!


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