Thursday, January 7, 2010

He who hesitates is found

Does everyone know about Project Gutenberg? It was the first attempt to digitize the major works of literature, and it's still my first destination when I decide to read the classics I somehow managed to avoid in college. I'm not saying this project came about because of me (because, well, that would be a lie :), but I remember in 1989 or some dark-ages year being on a usenet list for Shakespeare profs (I didn't qualify, but I was teaching Hamlet that year in my freshman lit class, and needed help), they were discussing how this could be done-- all the works of Shakespeare digitized. Eventually it just grew and grew, and while of course there is now Kindle and Googlebooks and all that, none of those new-fangled projects would have happened without this one. So if you've begun the year with a surplus, give some love to this labor of love.

Anyway, I'm reading The Aeneid there, and once again I marvel at how even the earliest (great) authors understood the need for motivation, but also the importance of hesitation. Here's the very end, where Aeneas has his enemy on the ground before him, begging for mercy:

Lifting up beseechingly his humbled eyes and suppliant hand: 'I have deserved it,' Turnus says, 'nor do I ask for mercy; use thy fortune. If an unhappy parent's distress may at all touch thee, this I pray; even such a father was Anchises to thee; pity Daunus' old age, and restore to my kindred which thou wilt, me or my body bereft of day. Thou art conqueror, and Ausonia hath seen me stretch conquered hands. Lavinia is thine in marriage; press not thy hatred farther.'

Aeneas stood wrathful in arms, with rolling eyes, and lowered his hand; and now and now yet more the speech began to bend him to waver: when high on Turnus's shoulder appeared the sword-belt with the shining bosses that Aeneas knew, the luckless belt of the boy Pallas, whom Turnus had struck down with mastering wound, and now he wore on his shoulders the fatal ornament. As his eyes drank in the plundered record of his fierce grief, Aeneas kindles to fury, and cries terrible in anger: 'Mayest thou, thou clad in the spoils of my dearest, escape mine hands? Pallas it is, Pallas who now strikes the sacrifice, and exacts vengeance in thy guilty blood.' So saying, he fiercely plunges the steel full in his breast. But his limbs grow slack and chill, and the life with a moan flies indignantly into the dark.

Now what has happened is Turnus has challenged Aeneas to single combat, and lost. And Aeneas is about to kill him, but hesitates when T begs for mercy and mentions his soon-to-be-bereaved father. This plea almost works-- Aeneas also had a beloved father (Anchises-- notice that Turnus mentions him).

The hesitation is what tells us what matters to Aeneas enough to still his vengeful hand-- the mention of his father. Without that hesitation, we would not have gotten that glimpse of what he values more even than victory.

The hesitation is important, as it shows him in conflict-- his empathy gets in the way of his goal. When there's conflict, it should come out in the narrative somehow, maybe in his inner thoughts (as here), but also in his actions (he lowers his hand).

I think this is an important lesson we should learn-- it's the hesitation that tells the reader there's conflict. The hesitation indicates there's a choice that must be made, but there wouldn't be a choice at all if there was no conflict (Aeneas would just kill him without considering an alternative, if there was no conflict). It's important to SHOW the hesitation when there's a conflict.

And it's important to give characters choices. It's only through making choices that they grow, and it's only through seeing those choices that the reader knows the character (this character values family more than vengeance; this character cares more about money than his daughter -- "my daughter! my ducats!"). The hesitation tells us that it takes some thought to choose.

But just as there's something that happens externally in the scene that shows motivation for the hesitation (Turnus's plea), there should be something external that motivates the action that shows what really matters.

In Aeneas's case, his gaze falls on the belt that he knows once belonged to Pallas (his protege), killed by Turnus. Turnus is wearing the belt as a trophy of war, which isn't outrageous, given the customs of the times, but still is enough to remind A of why Turnus should be killed-- he is the enemy, and he gave no mercy to young Pallas.

That belt is the external manifestation of his motivation (it's important that it's external-- real, powerful, concrete, not just in his head), and serves to remotivate him. In fact, it actually intensifies his motivation to the point that no plea is going to make him waver. Notice how neatly the remotivation fits with Aeneas's values AND Turnus's plea. It's all about fatherhood! Turnus begs him to consider "my aged father" and mentions Aeneas's own late beloved father. But Aeneas is a father too, a surrogate father to Pallas-- he promised Pallas's own father that "I will treat him as a son." So Turnus's plea is about fatherhood, a father's grief, and Aeneas hesitates because he thinks of his own father. And the remotivation is also about fatherhood-- a father's vengeance. This of course amplifies the cultural subtext (Virgil was writing to Romans, presenting Aeneas as the "father" of Rome).

So both steps here-- the hesitation and the remotivated action-- are linked because they each show (in different ways) what Aeneas really values.

I notice that Aeneas's intended action actually gets fulfilled, that is, before the plea he intended to kill Turnus, and after the remotivation, he does kill him. So in a way, that passage of hesitation and remotivation changes nothing-- Turnus still ends up dead at Aeneas's hand. But see how much more interesting the scene becomes when the new conflict (pity) is introduced. And it also serves to deepen the characterization of Aeneas, as we see that he is more than just a single-minded warrior.

Usually a scene changes or obstructs a character's agenda, because it's that sort of interference that really changes the character and impels the plot forward. (I mean, if Mary starts out the scene planning to get out of work on time so that she can meet her buddies for happy hour, you would usually make things happen that mean she can't get out of work on time.) That's pretty standard scene design, and usually works well by focusing on change.

However, sometimes the scene protagonist's agenda just has to be fulfilled. (This is especially true in the last two scenes of the book, because you are aiming at resolution there!) Who this person is and what he wants -- his agenda-- might, sometimes, have to be fulfilled, just because, well, that's necessary for the story. However, as Virgil shows in fulfilling Aeneas's agenda of killing his enemy, the scene doesn't have to show a straight line between plan and fulfillment. You can put obstacles in the way to make the scene more active and dramatic-- and to make the character work for whatever he wants. AND, if you challenge yourself, you can even come up with obstacles that are external, but also reveal something about the character and also amplify the story's themes. :)



Wes said...

Marvelous post!!!! And thanks for jump-starting e-publishing!

Eva Gale said...

Dd and I are reading The Iliad together now, then The O, then The Aeneid for homeschooling (ancient history) this year. This is wonderful on many levels for me.

Dave Shaw said...

Aw, come on, Alicia, if Al Gore can claim he invented the Internet, you can claim to have invented e-publishing. (grin)

Great post. It's too easy to forget that a lot of the time what goes on inside a person (character or real) is triggered by outside things. It works so well for fiction because we recognize it from ourselves, I think.

Andrew Rosenberg said...

I actually hate it. Whenever this happens in a movie or TV show, I start yelling, "just kill the f-ker!"
I understand why it's done, to increase the tension/suspense of the moment, but I prefer the heroes that just go ahead and shoot, like in "Unforgiven" when William Munny (Clint Eastwood) just goes ahead and shoots everyone, even the somewhat likable Little Bill (Gene Hackman) who begs for mercy and Munny says "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." Bang!
Then again, I pretty much like anything Clint Eastwood does. :)

Edittorrent said...

Dave, I was also Virgil's inspiration. :)

Jami Gold said...


It's great to point out that many internal motivation changes are "triggered" by external things. This is a great technique for introducing back-story-type stuff as well (memories, flashbacks, etc.).

Jami G.

Dave Shaw said...


In another life, of course. I just realized, you must have been about 5 when you invented Project Gutenberg.

May I make a plug, while we're on the subject of Project Gutenberg? The best Windows reader I've seen for downloading and view PG books is Simon Haynes's yBook, which is a free download at Install it, download the PG catalog, pick out the book(s) you want, download them, and read them without worrying about PG's sometimes interesting (ahem!) formatting of the text files. Disclosure: Simon is NOT giving me any of his profits on this. Of course, I'm not sure what his profits consist of, since he gives it away, but regardless, I don't get any. :) said...

honestly, this is one of the best sites for writers on the web. that was great.

Mary E. McCall said...

What a wonderful post regarding motivation and obstacles to goals. I enjoyed it all the more because The Aeneid was the first full-length saga I translated and got a perfect score. It's still one of my favorite reads.
Thanks so much. This really is a must site for writers.

Edittorrent said...

That's amazing, Mary! I had to look for a translation I liked. I'd rather have just prose than rhyming British verse, but most of the translations were in couplets!

Riley Murphy said...

but also reveal something about the character and also amplify the story's themes.

Great post, Alicia! I'm kicking around this idea. Let's say, a character's motivation is established at the beginning of a story (first scene) by a brutal external force. It's a given that the reader understands that MC wasn't always this way, but it's understandable and expected (as in the reader is going: oh yeah, kill the bastard!) This would introduce another layer, because in essence, isn't this a false motivation that has been cultivated and trusted by the reader from page one? Maybe false is the wrong word - maybe temporary is better? Because the MC didn't wake up with revenge in mind - s/he was forced to it and once 'revenge' has been served, then what? Does the MC feel better and go back to who s/he was before? No. The external dominos that have fallen during s/he's journey to get to the point of fulfilling that motivation have permanently affected them. So, tying in how those changes have, in some way, been beneficial to the character's growth as an individual is one more thing to establish for the reader in the end, right?

Edittorrent said...

Murph, I'd mostly think that the journey is back to whatever she cared about before the need for vengeance or whatever distracted her. She's not exactly the same, but she still values whatever, so maybe you can integrate that towards the end?

Like maybe she was a nurse whose goal was to get into med school and become a doctor. Then Mom is murdered or something and justice/vengeance becomes her overriding goal. Well, consider towards the end, making her nursing training be important (she saves someone's life). You could even pose in conflict her need for vengeance v. her training/value-- like the bad guy she wants to kill is bleeding, and will die, and she becomes the nurse again and saves his life. Just a thought-- that could be really fun, to think of what USED to matter and use that to pose a final conflict in the climax, say.

Not sure that answers your question, but I don't know your specific story, but thanks for making it my blogfodder anyway! :)

John H said...

Nice one Alicia. I love it when you post brilliant things that instantly click in my head and I think 'I can do that!'

One question though: What if the scene had ended with the life being spared? Would that be a 'un-motivantion'? Would it again have to be something concrete/physical which makes him finally change his mind? or would you just go with the thinking of the fathers and lay down the sword?



Alicia said...

John, if he saw the belt, felt the desire for revenge... I think there would need to be something else happen so that A would choose to spare Turnus. I don't know if it would have to be external, but I think maybe Turnus should do something, like see him looking at the belt, and take it off and hand it over, showing his repentance.

That is, I think it would be disappointing if Aeneas just spared Turnus without any external event inspiring the change. What do you think?

Riley Murphy said...


Yes, I was thinking that all the external forces (stumbling blocks) the character must go through to get to the point of final resolve of their main conflict - will create internal growth and change ( say, a caring woman out for vengeance, will no doubt learn strengths that she never knew she had during this journey and that could be a good thing) - and what would make that more interesting in the end, would be interweaving what used matter to that unenlightened or naive character (strictly wanting to save lives) with what (because of forced change) is now important to that enlightened and wiser (maybe some lives don’t deserve to be saved) character she’s become. You could make that forced growth - an ironic secondary conflict upon the main conflict itself. As in the case of your nurse example. This is what I meant about it being beneficial to a character’s growth as an individual. I mean, could your nurse truly understand the value of life and loss without having first experienced the bad guy killing her mother? Then maybe - through her journey from her initial ‘naive' state to a ‘wiser’ one - she becomes strong enough to resist the urge - when opportunity presents itself - to culminate the revenge she’s craved from the beginning and which brought her to this point? Thus she realizes how well suited she is to this profession - as you may not always like the person you have to care for - type deal - but you must rise above your personal desires to do your job. That’s what I was thinking.

Of course, if it were me writing the nurse scenario - I’d have her save the killer’s life - accepting that revenge wasn’t right - but then when she sees his latest victim clinging to life hours later, she makes a conscious decision. She won’t kill him, instead she’ll let him live the quality of life he deserves. She’s practical at this point - she values life, but she’s resolved to the fact that she can’t kill him, yet neither can she allow him go on killing people because, well...she values life, right? :D So, he’d live - but that traction board they had him strapped to - so that no more damage was done to his back - would unfortunately come loose when she was arranging his blankets - and gosh, darn - it was too bad that he somehow shifted on it and severed his spine - quadriplegic - such a shame...good thing she was there to see that he was properly fitted on a respirator and didn’t die.

You see it's like a third option that makes perfect sense, so that she doesn't go against the fundamental principle of her one true goal - a nurse saving lives. And it's the secondary irony (the fact that she values life and therefore can't let him take another one) that causes her to get creative. Hey, isn’t it ironic that she can get creative because she's succeeded in her primary goal (a good nurse who values life) that she has this power to wield over him now. How else could she have 'covertly' made this quality of life decision for him - free of censure or prosecution - if not for being that nurse who is known to value life above all else? And as a trained professional isn’t she responsible for limiting risk? In this case, all those innocent women who may have become future victims - just as her mom was? Well, I’m sure when they talk about limiting risk in health care - they didn’t have this in mind, aren’t you glad I’m not your nurse? Hehehe

Murphy - who says: Thanks for the inspired thoughts. ;) Oh, and as an aside note? I was predicating this all the fact the bad guy had diplomatic immunity and could never be prosecuted in the traditional sense in her country - so the MC had to do something, or else he’d go free - once he was recovered, and would in all likelihood - kill again.

em said...

Murph, I'm glad you are not my nurse!;) After reading your last comment though, I got a headache and might need one. You are not related to Alicia, by any chance, are you?:)

sanjeet said...
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