Sunday, November 22, 2009

First principles

I'm not planning on commenting much on the whole Harlequin mess (but if you're interested, here's a long blog colloquy/comment with lots of links and Nora Roberts :),

but I had a conversation about this with a friend, and she said, "90% of the time, people's problems can be traced back to a decision/choice they themselves made .. maybe not recently, but at some point they had a choice or made a decision that led to their current quandary." And it's true, and maybe it's something we might think about when we're creating (or rather discovering) our character's conflicts.

But if we do as my friend suggests and go back to the origins of a disaster or conflict, maybe what we'll see is that the start was a decision, choice, or action that went against "the first principle".

What's the "first principle?" Well, to me it's that sort of personal edict of value or morality or behavior that you've chosen as a guide to action and decision. Not everyone has this, and many would have it but would never have articulated it. In organizations, the first principle usually is stated in the mission statement, or is so essential a part of the corporate culture everyone knows it. Usually these are "positive":
Treat stakeholders (employees, stockholders, suppliers, customers) with respect
Be fair
Act with mercy
Be thoughtful and conscious of the implications of actions
Be generous
Know yourself
Be prepared

Let's try some which aren't so wimpy-good but are still action-edicts:
With your shield or on it
You can never be too careful
Never leave a man behind on the battlefield (and how many soldiers have died for this one!)
Don't hang your dirty linen out for all to see (notice this is the opposition to "Be honest")
Don't rock the boat
Never make a scene (how many "ladies" grew up with that as the dominating principle)
Beauty is truth
Always do your best
Always be your best
Always look your best
Don't let the bastards get you down
Don't sweat the small stuff

Some are more practical:
Be the first off the starting block
Avoid the generic (very good first principle for novelists :)
Focus on the bottom line
Winning is the only thing
There is strength in diversity
Concentrate on your strengths

Some are more likely to lead to conflict than others (fictional example supplied)
Expect and reward loyalty (Godfather)
Seek the truth no matter what (Oedipus)
Always think before acting (Hamlet)

Some of these might seem trivial, but we probably all know people who have what we consider trivial principles. "Always look your best" sounds like vanity, but don't we admire those grands dames who manage to wear the right scarf even when they're going to chemotherapy? Think about signal actions like that, and trace them back-- what's the principle that underlies it?

What's the difference between this and a value or strength? Hmm. Well, they're all related, certainly-- principles would be based on values, probably. But I think a principle is a CODE, an edict, not just a feeling or attitude. You'd identify a value as a comparison ("Loyalty is more important than truth to me"). You'd state a principle as an imperative. "Reward loyalty." So the first principle is more aimed at action from the start. Try making a value into a principle statement and see if that helps you imagine more action and conflict.

Anyway, it's useful, I think, to identify a first principle, because you can discover conflict in two ways from that:

1) What happens when you follow your first principle.
2) What happens when you go against your first principle.

A publishing company might, for example, have as a first principle "never forget the reader." Now of course, businesses are trying to make a profit, but that's certainly not the first principle for many companies, or they'd all be seeking new trends constantly rather than sticking to their original business. (In fact, one of the paradoxes of publishing lately has been that companies who have earned steady if small profits for 100 years by focusing mostly on getting books out have started losing money as soon as the focus came to be "maximizing profit". Maybe that's not so paradoxical, or at least, it shouldn't be.)

"Never forget the reader" isn't as immediately and uniformly positive as, say, "Act with love." What's involved in that? Oh, maybe "giving the reader what he/she wants" might mean less challenging books, or a greater reliance on focus groups and market surveys than on the editor's gut in determining types of books to buy. It might mean identifying some little meme readers seem to like and inserting it in book after book (remember the "makeover scene" trend? "Everyone loved the makeover scene in Pretty Woman! Let's put that in all our books!"). But a continued dedication to the reader would lead against an action that puts a lot of energy and work and corporate reputation into making money from making books readers will never read.

Double-edged, definitely. But that's where the conflict is. What do you give up when you concentrate on one principle? That's conflict. You can't innovate much when your first principle commits you to concentrating first and foremost on customer desires. You can't lay off half your employees for better productivity if your first principle is "loyalty". You can't maximize your investment income if "slow and steady wins the race" has been your guiding principle.

So there's conflict to be found in acting within your principle, or rather, in avoiding other possible actions. The older son offers the example of Roland, The Gunslinger in Stephen King's Dark Tower series. Roland is the very model of a principled character, and his principle is "Never give up the fight." This is a long series, so the choices and consequences are spread out over seven books. The first book shows him sticking to his principle of refusing to give up the fight, even when he's forced to choose to let Jake, his surrogate son, fall to his death. (The entire series deals with this theme of sacrificing love for principle and the reverse. King is a classical plotter-- his use, btw, of the gun as a motif is a masterclass in how to embed theme in objects.)

This conflict seems to lead to a more traditional heroic story. Here is the man of principle to whom bad things happen because he sticks to his core value. The husband offers the example of the Matthew Broderick character in Glory, whose properly soldierly dedication to the chain of command and following orders leads to him having to accept racist treatment (he is in charge of the black regiment) from his commanders. He kept trying to follow the rules, and finally he does have a bit of rebellion (when he raids the supply shop to get necessities for his men), he could say it was within the rules (he had been promised the supplies by his commander). He even goes against his own morality to follow orders when he orders the flogging of Trip. The conflict comes from obeying his first principle no matter what, and his journey is towards a more nuanced understanding of his duty and of the complicated politics of the military.

Another protagonist who sticks to his first principle and runs into conflict for it is Oedipus, of course. His first principle is "seek the truth"-- he is the riddle-solver, the one who figures things out, the one who isn't afraid of the truth. And that leads him to discover an unbearable truth, along the way pretty much destroying his family and his kingship.

When the protagonist sticks to the principle, uses that to guide most of his actions (and especially the early actions), the conflict might come fast and hard. After all, what use is a principle if it is easy to stick to, if there are no consequences to holding it? So stories that use this model might have front-loaded conflict (bad things happen pretty quickly).

(Talk about sticking to principles. I'm watching the Colts-Ravens game, and what an example. Now I'm in Indy, and we love our Colts, and Baltimore loves its Ravens-- won a Super Bowl!-- but Baltimore has never forgotten that the Colts owner in the middle of the night a couple decades ago moved the team from there to here. Anyway, this game is in Baltimore, and the announcer and the scoreboard guys do not refer to the "Colts" or the "Indianapolis Colts"-- they say, "The Indianapolis Professional Football Team." The scoreboard says, "Indy," not "Colts". That's principle!)

While I think we see the "sticking to principle" conflict coming more from truly heroic characters, Moby Dick is a good example of how it can easily become monomania. Ahab's intense dedication to the principle of getting revenge and his unwillingness to swerve from that principle leads to destruction, and Melville definitely doesn't present him as heroic.

Now what about #2? What happens when you act AGAINST your first principle?
I guess the first thing is to make sure that the first principle is established in early scenes. You are going to have him violate it pretty quick, so you won't have the luxury of setting it up over the first half of the book as you do with scenario #1. So how can you show that her first principle is to seek the truth or to be loyal or whatever early on, knowing that you're going to show her going against it pretty soon? If you don't set it up as important, as a principle, early on, then her violation of it will have no dramatic weight-- the action will be only a response to exigency, not a real conflict.

But I think it's also important to get the character acting against principle pretty early-- and to motivate that well. For example, one great cultural principle set up in many classical stories is "Be hospitable." It sounds sort of wimpy, but in fact, the Greeks made such big deal about this, even having myths where the vagrant who appears at the doorstep turns out to be a god. So every homeowner knew that he had to offer food and shelter and treat intruders as honored guests-- and in return, the guests had to treat the host with respect.
So this is the cultural backdrop of the great drama of the Iliad, and notice what happens. Paris comes to Menelaus's kingdom (the myths vary as to how this happens) and they should treat each other with the mutual respect required by the principle of hospitality. But here comes the greatest motivation of all-- he falls in love with Menelaus's wife (Aphrodite's doing), and runs off with her, violating the principle and starting a war.

Macbeth is shown in his first scene as a good soldier, brave and triumphant. But soon his wife's appeal to his ambition (and his male insecurity) turns him against the soldierly principle of respect for chain of command and he kills his king and usurps the kingdom.

The initial violation is usually done because of exigency-- some seemingly good reason, some goal that could be reached just by violating ("just this once") this principle. So maybe it's good to set up the principle and set up a conflicting (but understandable) goal. "You can achieve your goal if you just ..." Also, I think that the character might be quickly rewarded for this pragmatic choice, so that there is a postponement of external bad consequences (so you'll have more action in the second half of the book). But an initial reward for doing the pragmatic/unprincipled thing can also put the focus on the internal consequences that come from violating principle, with the costs of this choice coming from within primarily-- the guilt, Lady Macbeth's madness, maybe.

What are some other examples of this (early) violation of principle? So are there some principles that would lend themselves better to violation? Or rather to creating good conflict by violation? "Act with honor," for example?

I notice that the examples I can think of for #1 tend to be heroic, and the ones I can think of for #2 are not really heroic. That is, maybe we understand that heroes might have to violate their principles, but we want it to be a difficult decision in furtherance perhaps to what they realize is a higher principle. ?

Any other examples, like of characters who sacrifice the first principle early for some other goal, and you regard as heroic?

And how does this affect the trajectory of your plot?

And what would you identify as your protagonist's first principle?

Hmm. Thinking of mine... "Be responsible." I know there's a better way to say that, but I mean he thinks he should always do the right thing, that everything relies on his doing the right thing. That makes me think that I need to have him choose the first action (where he pretends to be someone else) because he thinks it's the right thing to do, maybe, that he has to do it to make things work. I realize now that "tell the truth" isn't his principle, it's more "do the right thing." I'm now wondering if I've made it too easy for him just to start pretending he's someone else. I wonder if he would do that right away, or if I need to make sure it's consonant with that first principle, or make it consonant anyway, change the circumstances so that assuming the disguise is the responsible thing to do. I'm a bit afraid of making him too saintly, so I'll have to check out alternate scenarios.



Anonymous said...

Wow, long post. Really shouldn't have read it during work time ;)

Def have given me a lot to mull over. You guys are cracking out some fine posts recently. Thank you.

Edittorrent said...

It was even longer before. I cut a couple graphs. Sad, huh?

Riley Murphy said...

How about principle one: integrity versus #2 duty/obligation. I think you could work some great conflict within this kind of framework.
One of my favorite quotes:
Character is much easier kept than recovered. (Paine)
That concept, paired with the idea of integrity being violated - gives me all kinds of ideas about future conflicts to be faced by a character who has sacrificed one for the other.

Great post, Alicia, thanks!


Edittorrent said...

Murphy, how would you define "integrity"? I know it usually means "honesty", but I keep thinking that it really means something like "holding together"-- wholeness. If a bridge has structural integrity, it won't come apart. If you're an integrated person, you know what's important to you.

Anyway, it's a great term.

Family vs. integrity-- that would be a good conflict.

Riley Murphy said...

Hi Alicia:
Hmm...I’m going to borrow a word from your meaning and say: I think integrity (the way I intended in my example) is ‘holding true’. Like a character who has certain ethical standards that are in place so that s/he consistently do the right thing. I was thinking that a sense of duty or obligation (and yes, I was thinking: as in family - isn’t that funny?) come to the forefront and challenge said character’s moral belief and force him/her to do something that goes against this. I thought there would be tons of great conflict because not only would your character have judgement from those around him/her to deal with - but, your character could possibly suffer greater pains because s/he hold themselves accountable to their own standards - so you have a lot of internal process that could be played with too.

em said...

I get it. For awhile I wasn't following the logic.:( The idea is to give your character something that he has to go against for a reason and work with the conflict that arises. Thanks! You guys are awesome!:)

Selah March said...

This post really resonated for me.

In my upcoming release (coincidentally with Red Sage) my hero and heroine each have a first principle. His is "duty above all," and hers is "home and family first." While these principles aren't necessarily in direct conflict, in order to get them on the same page by the end of the story, somebody had to compromise. In this case, it was my hero.

In your opinion, since I've read elsewhere that the protagonist of a story is the one who changes the most by its end, does that make my hero the protagonist of this story instead of my heroine, who has more POV/screen time?

Thanks. :)

Riley Murphy said...

Hi Em!

I'm glad you got it.:) Although, it isn't simply giving your character something for the sake of a later conflict - you must create your character with this tenet or principle in mind (and successfully convey this to reader - that’s the something you can give your character. A scenario that cements this belief in the readers mind.:)) . The important thing to remember is that s/he has to hold true to this belief as this is what dictates his/her personality and makes the ensuing conflict that much richer.:)

Hi Selah!
Congrats on your upcoming release. Your question got me to thinking of one of my own...

Jordan just did a great series on characters that arc. After doing a lengthy comment on her blog - I was left with a question that's been bugging me ever since. And the idea brought up by Selah, where she mentions that the protagonist of the story is the one who changes the most by its end - got me to wondering again. Since men and women process information, communicate and deal with emotions differently - can you plot a male emotional arc the same as you would a woman's? And, if so, does POV play an important roll in this? Doesn't POV have to switch at some point - to get the male perspective through? Maybe I’ve just never thought about it in those terms before. It seems clearer to me to think about it this way. They can face the same emotional issues - but how they choose to change because them - is the difference, right? And those different ways can spell ‘combustion’ between a hero and heroine. Of course, because the male population has a tendency to internalize everything the only way a romance writer could get it out and make sense of this is through POV.

Hey, I wonder if guys read a romance novel and think: Give me a freaking break!
Yeah, maybe our romance novel with the gorgeous, strong, well-built alpha male, is to them - the female equivalent of the mantasy! Yikes! That’s a scary thought.


Edittorrent said...

Selah, I can see a natural conflict there, but also both are focused on something other than "me", aren't they, so there's commonality. Neither is selfish.

Yes, usually, the central protagonist is the one with the longer journey. But the great thing about a romance is you do have two protagonists, and one might have a harder time of it, but they both grow in some way.

And (cough) the reason often that the male protagonist has the longer journey, changes the most, is because he has to. I mean, cuz he's a man. :) He is likely to resist change more, and also because he's more concerned with success or duty or whatever than love, love is a more distant destination. She's already starting with love, after all, love of family. His is kind of a love start too-- he loves his duty-- but he's got to move from the impersonal to the personal, and that's farther.
As to who gets most "screen time," part of that has to do with who is the more fun narrator. If your heroine has a fun voice and interesting POV, you might have more of her just because she offers the reader more.
But also, with men characters in a romance, sometimes familiarity and identification can actually decrease the allure. Keeping a guy a little mysterious can make him seem more alpha and all that. So being in his pov a lot might actually make him too much like a brother!
What do you think?

em said...

Thanks Murphy!:) I think I do this to a certain extent. Now that it's put in these terms I know why I'm doing it and can impove certain things. This is great. Great!

Oh, and I'm not commenting on your question about emotional arcs, (I'll leave that to the professionals:)) but your comment about the female equivilant to the manasy. That was funny!

Sarah Ahiers said...

This was a very great post.

Riley Murphy said...

Alicia, such a delicate cough when you should have been choking over that one...:D

But hey, I was the one choking imagining one of my male/hero character coming off as a brother! That would be a big HELL NO! I do share the screen so, I guess I should qualify that by saying, that I make my heros confident, able to handle difficult situations and difficult people (who is usually the heroine:D) One ‘must have’ for my hero? A base physical attraction to the heroine - that turns up at the most inappropriate times - you know, like when they’re having an argument he’d be thinking something like: Damn her tits look great heaving in that bodice...or, something like that :D - Therefore, I can honestly say that your comment gave me the Ewww factor. (insert Homer Simpson shudder here) A brother? Sheesh!

Murphy still gagging :D

Unknown said...

Brilliant post, Alicia!

Murphy, as usual some good insight mixed with a few laughs.

I learn so much here and it's fun.:) Thanks!
p.s: where would I find Jordan's post?

Ali said...

As usual, good food for thought.

I'm wracking my brain to think of a good example of a character who goes with #2, to "heroic" result. I'm thinking of the loner whose guiding principle is "stay isolated." Joss Whedon's Angel comes to mind, he breaks this guiding principle in the pilot episode.

The narrator of Fight Club also comes to mind.

em said...

I guess if you weren't writing a dirty book like Murphy's;) the brother thing is possible. In fact I read a book like that once. When the H/H went to consumate their relationship it was really uncomfortable. I can't remember who wrote it, though.:(

Dave Shaw said...

Murphy? The 'give me a freaking break' thing? Been there, said that. ;-)

And it's obvious that neither you nor Alicia have the good ol' down home attitude 'vice is nice, but incest is best'. ('Course, I don't, either, but I'm just an emotionally stunted male...)

Seriously, though, the principle thing is very interesting. Looking at some of what I've written, I seem to have a tendency to give my antagonists the same principles as my protagonists. Huh.

Edittorrent said...

Dave, it could just be our particular brothers. :)

So what about ants and pros having the same principles? Then it seems like what will make one "good" and one "bad" will be the difference not in principles, but what they do. Is one true to the principle and the other violates it?

Does one stay true but become monomaniacal about it, while the other comes up with a more balanced way to be principled?

What's the diff?

Leona said...

WOW, you always have the most intersting conversations when I'm being good and writing instead of blogging. insert sniff of martyrd righteousness here

This is great (I feel like a broken record sometimes, but this blog is like mana from heaven to me) as usual.

Um on the brother thing, yeah, um, not usually how we want our hero's to come out. What struck me is that would end up with our hero being too much the nice guy we all become best friends with and lose his exciting hero charm. You know the old saying that nice guys finish last? I wonder if you could do a spicy romance with the nice guy and keep it believable. Most of the heroes I've read about were always Clint Eastwood on steroids.

Okay I'm on a roll for word verification. this one - taillyp. I am not kidding.

Riley Murphy said...

Holy crapatola, Dave! I'm crushed.;) If you guys think the same way about a romance - that I think about a mantasy (when I read one) Which usually involves a lot of heavy sighs (not in a good way) teeth grinding (yep, in a bad way) and cringing (in a: I'm totally embarrassed for you type deal) - then the sexes do have some issues between them. Maybe there's a book in here somewhere. Translation for the urban Mantasy.
Yes, the working title: The Legend, The Myth the Mantasy translated for inquiring female minds:

Here's an example of what you may find inside::D
Line to be translated: The hero entered his mansion and was immediately flock by 12 adorning beauties - all of whom desired to seduce his overeager ass and screw his brains out until he fell into a sound sleep totally satiated.
In romance the equivalent translation to that is: The stunningly handsome, but brooding warrior, wouldn't take no for an answer as he swept her up in his arms and carried her into his magnificent castle where she'd live the rest of her life happy, sexually satisfied and totally guilt-free about never doing the laundry!:D notice how in the mantasy all the guy has to do is get laid then sleep - but in the romance translation the heroine wants something of substance that lasts a lifetime? Interesting.

And Alicia, I was onboard with ignoring his incest comment...
Murphy, who’s gagging again!

Unknown said...

Murphy? What do you have against laundry for heaven's sake. I'll take laundry over cooking anytime.
Want to swap? I know you cook I remember the ribeyes.:)
I like the mantasy book idea. I would include somewhere in there where the guy's perception of an hour long bedroom session is, in reality, ten minutes as the heroine has it clocked!;)

Riley Murphy said...

Does one stay true but become monomaniacal about it, while the other comes up with a more balanced way to be principled?

All kidding aside, I think this explains the relationship I have with my mother-in-law...

em said...

Murphy! ROTFLMAO!!:)

Dave Shaw said...

Alicia, I think I've seen examples of both of your scenarios, but my memory isn't cooperating at the moment, so I can't cite them, more's the pity. One case in what I'm doing is a little different than either, though. Let's see if I can describe it briefly.

Sally (protagonist) and Tara (antagonist) are both military officers in the same ship, and both believe their purpose in life is to protect civilians. Sally's extended family is wealthy and powerful, whereas Tara comes from a relatively poor (although long-time military) family. Tara believes that Sally can't be sincere about her principles, that her real purpose must be to subvert the power of the military for her own and her family's benefit. Tara's so sure of this that she's able to ignore all contrary evidence without a second thought, until they both come up against someone who really is the way that Tara imagines Sally to be.

Maybe a touch of monomania in that, now that I think about it, but it seems to me to be more prejudice and misunderstanding. 'Course, I'm just the author... (grin)

Word verification: basto - does this have to do with Thursday's turkey, or the result of too much vice? ;-)

danceluvr said...

Would this principle stuff apply to child protagonists/antagonists, too? When do kids develop their guiding principles that result in all these conflicts?

I'm thinking that my 10-year-old protagonist might follow a loyalty principle because she's always sticking up for her friends, even helping one fight a bully.

Hmm. Such intriguing issues to contemplate.

Selah March said...

What do you think?

I think you nailed it. :)

Anonymous said...

Alicia, I was lying in bed thinking of you last night ;), well actually how to link this first principle logic to your earlier post about the external action to internal motivation and back out to other external actions.

If characters have this internal thing which dictates what they do (how Johnny acts around Drago) then how do I fit in this first principle? or is it just a differest side of the same coin?

Jordan McCollum said...

I've only had a chance to skim this post so far, but I love what I read. The discussion in the comments is great, too—integrity is a personal favorite of mine for plots and IRL.

Interestingly, we use integrity in phrases like structural integrity to mean "holding together" (as Alicia and Murphy mentioned) because that's what it's always meant. The root of the word is the Latin integer which means, where we get the English integer (whole numbers), meaning "whole" or "complete." Honesty that is incomplete is no honesty at all—integrity requires us to always hold to that standard.

And my fave quote is from my mom's fave work of literature, "A Man for All Seasons" by Robert Bolt:
When a man takes an oath, he is holding his own self in his own hands, like water, and if he opens his fingers, then.... he needn't hope to find himself again.

Isn't family vs. integrity kind of the basic plot of the Godfather?

Oh, and Babs, if I may toot m own horn to answer your question, you can find the series here:

Edittorrent said...

dance, yeah, I think loyalty is a basic enough principle that it would work in the child.

The first principle would ordinarily be something that would dictate action. If it's "you can never be too careful," then the protagonist would generally act with caution. But some external event might make him want to throw caution to the winds... or maybe if the principle is strong, he'd still be cautious. I think the motivation would be whatever would make him want to do something different... but he might choose to still be cautious. Depends on what you want him to do. Hamlet would still be cautious; another man, however, might be so mad that his father was murdered, he'd strike out.

Riley Murphy said...

Toot your horn, Jordan. Your series gave me a lot to think about!:) I liked the links you had to Alicia's articles on the subject too.