Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Mmm-hmm, and How Does That Make You Feel?

DISCLAIMER: I have made and will make no money off of this post, and this is just my own take on one small part of the process outlined in Write Away. If you want to know more about Elizabeth George's methods for writing novels, I recommend that you buy her book

Ah, psychoanalysis. Great for people AND characters. For those of you who have never been to therapy - WHY HAVEN'T YOU BEEN? Seriously. It's amazing. I'm going to agree with Dar Williams on this one. 

Anyway, I ended last week by introducing a small piece of the book-writing process author Elizabeth George uses, which starts with characters instead of plot. In other words, instead of brainstorming what's going to happen in your book, you instead first figure out who is in your book. Think about it this way: let's say you decide, "I'm going to write a book about a bank robber lady who is involved in the biggest heist of her life. It takes months of planning and tons of work and at the last second, when she's standing inside the open safe she's just cracked, staring at 3 million dollars' worth of pure gold, she decides not to go through with it!

Ok. Why doesn't she go through with it? Is it because she has sudden stomach pains? Because she gets bored? Because she realizes that the bank she's stealing from is owned by her lover's terminally ill father, and her long-hidden moral compass suddenly kicks into gear?

You have to know the answer to that question, because you have to set it up throughout the book, or else your big climactic moment won't make sense. And even if you know the answer, you have to know the why of that answer: does she have a strong moral compass that's been hidden because she was raised by nuns in an orphanage, and she's blocked out that sad, cold experience? Or were her parents renowned thieves, and this morality is a way of rebelling against them? The choice you make here will completely change the kind of book you're writing. And if you don't choose, you might end up at that pivotal plot point, with your bank robber standing in the safe, and she won't cooperate and walk away. She wants to take the damn money. And then you fight with her.

I've been there. Not fun.

So, instead, George recommends something she calls character analysis, which is a lot closer to actual psychoanalysis than you might think. You make a list of important information, including the basics (name, age, etc), and fill in the blanks for each important character. This list includes: Core Need, Pathological Maneuver, Sexuality, Essential Past Event, and Core Desire. I'll take a brief look at each of these.

Core Need: this is, quite simply, the gas that powers a person's engine. This is the one thing they need, that, as George says, "when denied, results in whatever constitutes his psychopathology." Examples might be the need to be good at everything you do, the need for excitement, the need to always be right, and so on.

Pathological Maneuver: this is directly related to the Core Need. When a person's core need is denied - or when they are under serious stress in general - how do they respond? The person who needs to be good at everything would turn that stress inward on themselves; they would never act out. Internal core needs usually have internal pathological maneuvers when that need is denied, and vice versa. This behavior can be a ton of different things, though, from addictions to phobias to delusions and so on. 

Sexuality: this is more than just sexual orientation. This is how a person sees and approaches sex, and a person's sexual history. You may have a character who is heterosexual, but that doesn't tell you anything except the gender of that character's partners. Does this character like sex? Is she addicted to it? Does she think it's shameful? How does she view her own pleasure? How many partners has she had? And so on.

Essential Past Event: exactly what it sounds like - an event that was instrumental in shaping this person's life. Now, in real life, we all probably have at least a handful of these. But for the purposes of creating characters, it's helpful to choose just one or two. Did your character lose someone important to them? Did your character witness a crime, or was she a victim of a crime? Did her parents split up in a messy divorce?

Desire: this is always going to be related to a character's Core Need, somehow, but it's also much more immediate, and much more changeable. It's really what a character wants at any given moment. You can have a character's Desire for the novel as a whole, and then Desires for each scene (very helpful when writing those scenes, actually). Our bank robber's Desire for the whole novel might be to be insanely rich (or safe for life, which could lead back to her Core Need...), but her Desire in one scene might be to get out of an awkward conversation, or find out the code to the bank's safe, or just get some sleep. 

To this list, I added two things when I was working on Cloudland: Religion and Spirituality. I did this because 1) I had a feeling that they were going to be important in a book about loss (which means a book in some ways about death, and the soul), and 2) for some people, religion and spirituality can be very, very different. And like Sexuality, these are about more than just what kind of church a person does or doesn't attend: they're about how that person feels about religion and spirituality in general. Is your character a dutiful Christian who attends church every week, but secretly feels there is no God? Is your character someone who distrusts organized religion, but prays to a higher power all the time anyway? And so on.

See? Pretty heavily psychological. It helps to have some familiarity with basic human behavioral psychology.

Next week: concrete examples of how this process worked when I was writing Cloudland.

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