Thursday, December 2, 2010

Question about character motivation and action

More sequence stuff.

Let's say your main character has some traits or is going to commit some actions that are likely to come across as unsympathetic to the reader.

For example, the heroine is a liar. Can't get around it. She resorts to puffing up her accomplishments whenever she feels inferior or is put on the spot.

Now assume that's essential to the plot, that one lie is going to get her in big trouble and thus pull her into the plot of political intrigue.

Also you see her deceptiveness as coming from her past, growing up with an alcoholic parent who required heroine to lie frequently in order to keep the family together ("My mother has bronchitis, Mr. Smith, and can't come to work," "Oh, don't worry, Ms. Social Worker. Daddy is still here and he's the one who gets us off to school in the morning."). That is, you have a scene with her mother planned, something that will show that in her childhood, lying was a defense mechanism.

So... anyway, you have three characterization revelators, and I'm wondering in what order you'd put them, and why, and what result different orders might create.

Here they are:
1) The backstory about the alcoholic mother and deserting father and the need to lie. (This could be revealed in a flashback or in the present, maybe a phone call or meeting with her mother or someone else in the past-- your choice.

2) The lie which drags her into the main external plot-- THE lie.

3) The pattern of lying that makes it clear that THE lie isn't just a one-time thing.

Imagine that each of these would be revealed in its own scene. (That isn't the only way to do this -- you could smush two into the same scene, or reveal one over several scenes-- but for the sake of simplicity, let's consider that you have three separate scenes.)

In what order would you have them and why? I don't mean they all have to be together, but if you have one a lot later than the others, tell us why?



Robin Lemke said...

3, 1, 2. You show that she has a pattern of lying. You create some tension with it to make the reader just a little uncomfortable (hopefully you're weaving in some scenes that make her really likable for other reasons). Just as the reader's getting a little tense about the lying, you do the reveal scene about her past.
AH! She's lovable! Poor thing, no wonder she lies so, and now she's more than ever committed to *not* lie.
But... now she *must* lie to do this very important thing to advance the plot. Just as she's sworn it off... and the reader wants her to grow and be a better person, but also really wants her to deal with this difficult conflict and there seems to only be one way...

Edittorrent said...

That's an interesting organization! I like this idea that she's forced to lie when she doesn't want to, and that's what gets her into the conflict. Hmm.

Leona said...

I'm with mystery robin.

Also, I would maybe have some internal dialogue about her misgivings, maybe some allusion to number one before the backstory is revealed, that way it's not a "total" surprise and gives readers hope that a reason does exist.

ie 'When would she ever stop her tongue before the lies popped out? If she had not told old Mrs. McGinty that her dog was the cutest thing she had ever seen, she would not now be stuck with a week of dog sitting a mean mongrel when she knew nothign about dogs.

One more thing to thank her mother for.'

Kiara Golding said...

My first thought would be 2, 3, 1. I would want to jump straight into the plot with THE lie. Make the reader question the character. At the beginning of the book, the reader should be finding out about the character as much as they are about the plot. It creates that building tension.

Number 3 for the same reason - it provokes more questions for the reader. While they may not love the character at this point, they will be curious as to why they feel the need to lie, and why they would continue to do so even after THE lie has made such a mess. Then we find out the backstory. Reader sympathy and understanding as well as a new aspect to the story.

But I can see where Mystery Robin is coming from. There are so many different takes you could have on the sequence. All it depends on is the writer.

Great post, Alicia.

Whirlochre said...

Since all 3 are presented as viable options, all 3 may be presented in a viable order.

Stella Omega said...

Hmm... I think I would establish a pattern of lying first, then the BIG one (because the reader would be wincing "oh no not again" if I've set it up right)

At some point when our hero was seeming especially shitty and unheroic, I might trot out the reason for her lying, either in exposition or a flashback, because knowing the reasons sometimes make us more sympathetic towards the ill-doer.

Good question! And I like Mystery Robin's take as well.

Jessica Silva said...

You can't assume a reader is going to keep reading once they're turned off by a character. Lying is a trait people really dislike because it's conscious. You know the truth but you choose to lie.

So it might be a bit more difficult to paint the character in a good enough light despite the lying that'll make characters continue reading. I think you'd have to establish a likable character first, lie for the greater good (get a friend out of trouble, make someone feel relieved/happy), and then slowly show the character lying in other less ways that're less desirable. Then they have to get caught by someone who asks them why they lied and the past can be revealed. THEN the big lie--in which we didn't want the MC to do but somehow understand why it was done (beyond childhood trauma--I think a necessity for a lie must also be present). Then a promise somewhere that'll be the last time, she's learned her lesson.

Just my opinion... but a fun exercise. I always love taking the time to think about a character's motivation. Is it ENOUGH? Could it be stronger? How could it be stronger--weaker? Should I reveal a scene that'll explain this strong motivation? Playing psychologist to my own characters sure beats playing psychologist to myself :D

Edittorrent said...

Good thoughts, everyone! I don't mean to be all wimpy and indecisive, but I have to say, you make good arguments for each of the different orders.


Tricia J. O'Brien said...

This makes me think of Justine Larbalestier's LIAR. On the first page the MC tells the reader she is a liar, her father is a liar, but she is going to stop. But when she says 'this time I truly mean it,' the reader realizes, not only is it habitual, she can't be trusted at all.
This might turn some readers off, given that most of us don't like liars, but I was intrigued, fascinated by this strange character. I love the way Larbalestier wove the Big Lie, the ongoing lies, the backstory of lies, into the narrative. It's an amazing display of craft.

Miss Sharp said...

One of the "rules" of writing (such as they may be) is to start with the inciting incident, the one that takes the protag out of the ordinary life and into the world of whatever the story is about.

So, if the big lie is the inciting incident it seems (if you follow the rule) that you'd have to start with it. The pattern of lying and the childhood background would have to be woven in after the story has started...and for the record, I'm glad no one has suggested using a prologue! lol

green_knight said...

Err, all of the above?

The order depends on how bad The Lie is, *why* she lies (embarassed, afraid, habit), whether she is working on the problem or not, and last but not least whether this is the grim story of a woman who sabotages herself and needs to get in *real* deep before getting out, or a light-hearted comedy where the protagonist finds that she's finally told a lie she cannot escape - maybe even inadvertedly.

Edittorrent said...

GK, as long as you don't mean we have to have them be happening simultaneously! :)

Yes, it all depends. I think that should be our motto. "Well, it all depends."

green_knight said...

Alicia, the usenet group I used to be a member of had as its inofficial motto a line from a Kipling poem:
There are nine and sixty ways
of constructing tribal lays
_and every single one of them is right_.

Good words to live by.

Anna Geletka said...

Hmmm. I would go with 2, 1, 3, and it has to do with a character being sympathetic.

I think sympathy in this case depends on the lie and why it happens. Does she tell mean lies? Lies to gain social status? Lies to cover her own insecurity? Does she lie because she's a little weak and doesn't like to stand up to people?

Does she lie because she perceives the world as somehow a threatening place, making the lie justifiable if it preserves her security? (this makes the most sense to me based on the back story.) This last motivation sets up, potentially, a very wounded character. And in deep POV I think the reader could see the world through this twisted lens - everyone's out to get me.

If the writing is good enough, the reader will buy into the paranoia. Then when the back story is revealed, the reader may question their acceptance of the main character's worldview. It could put the whole book in a different light.

I'd go 2, 1, 3, so that the reader is brought into the action immediately with 2, sucked into the character's worldview with 1, and then has the world explained with 3. I like to write in deep 3rd so this would probably work the best for my style.