Monday, September 6, 2010

Heroic Traits and Scene Development

Okay. I've been stewing on this one for about a month and, as with other complex writing topics, haven't really hit on a simple and lucid way to blog it. So bear with me. I'll do the best I can. The main concept is something about character-based plotting at the scene level and how to manipulate change in heroic characters. We'll build an example and work from there.

In character-based plotting, we start by deciding which trait we want to have highlighted in the scene action. Let's say our heroine is a volunteer at a convalescent center, and she sometimes tends the hero's grandmother. Let's say she's an artist in a small-town setting, trapped there temporarily for personal reasons, and that she's taken to yarn bombing as a way of satisfying her creative urges and funkifying the town.

So she has nurturing traits, important in a heroine, which can be brought out through scene action in many ways. She's creative and playful, and she thinks yarn bombs are beautiful and funny. She's proud of this activity and thinks of it as a form of urban art. (Which it is. But I might be biased.)

The hero's grandmother is feeling a bit mopey for reasons of her own, so our heroine decides to involve her in a yarn bomb inside the center. The heroine is full of giggles and high spirits, and the grandmother plays along. Together they sneak into the physical therapy room and wrap the supply cabinet in a wild green and yellow and purple striped knit. Then the heroine wheels the grandmother back to her room and goes about her business.

A few minutes later, she sees the hero wheeling granny down the hall, smiles and giggles, and gets polite nods in response. Something about this doesn't sit right with her. She expected a more friendly response at least from the grandmother after their recent adventures.

So she slips down the hallway after them, trailing them from a distance, and watches them enter the physical therapy room. She peeks through the door and sees the hero and his granny have snipped the yarn bomb free from the cabinet and are winding and gluing the clipped strands around cardboard coffee cup sleeves. "Much more practical than a cozy for a supply cabinet," Granny comments, and our heroine feels the world tilt sideways. Practicality was never the point. Whimsy and art -- and cheering up granny -- were the points.

She reminds herself that making Granny happy really is the most important thing, and if coffee mug sleeves make her happier than yarn bombs, then so be it. She enters the room, and with a smile to cover her lingering dismay, helps Granny and the hero finish their task. "What a great idea," she says. "Granny, maybe you can teach people how to make these in arts and crafts on Friday."

The traits that put the heroine in conflict with her environment are creativity and a certain disdain for practicality, and maybe a touch of pride or high-spiritedness. All those conflicting traits are undermined by the action because she sees how little they're valued by the others in her environment. She can no longer feel that she succeeded in her attempt to cheer up Granny by exposing her to this form of removable graffiti.

But she's still capable of nurturing, and that's the heroic trait. So by letting the heroine react fully to the negatives, but then steel herself to remember the more important underlying goal, she's able to enter the room and demonstrate the true depth of her heroic trait.

Do you see how this works? When obstacles and problems throw a character into conflict with the environment, it's okay to attack the non-heroic traits but we still want to leave the heroic traits intact. In fact, we want to be left with a suspicion that the heroic trait has taken on additional importance because of the scene events.

So here's how you do a scene check for this element. First, identify the dominant emotions or traits being expressed by the characters in the scene or scene sequence. (Here, we had creativity, pride, etc.) Then check how many of those traits have been attacked through the scene action. Then identify the heroic trait and check whether it has been amplified as a result of the scene action.

Do we all know which traits are heroic? Can you name any in the comments?



Kelsey (Dominique) Ridge said...

Thanks. I found this post really helpful. It's good to remember that the characters can have moments of weaknesses or non-heroicness before being their heroic selves. It makes them human.

green_knight said...

Would you consider another post on *finding* scenes that illustrate those traits? I have no problems finding and highlighting the protag's traits when I know what's happening - but I am finding the opposite much more difficult, and have a tendency to tell rather than show them, so any hints and tricks would be much appreciated.

Edittorrent said...

Yes, Green Knight, that's basically character-driven storytelling, and I can blog about it. We're all so steeped in plot-driven techniques that we don't always know how to go about it the other way. It's useful to learn it even if we default to plot.


Unknown said...

Thank you for saying, "start by deciding which trait we want to have highlighted in the scene action." It seems so flippin obvious but I really needed that simple sentence!It has brought me back down from that annoying realm of too many ideas at once. whew!

Perri said...

Thanks, this is a really helpful post. Sometimes I find my characters take over and display traits I really didn't know they had. It's good to stay focused on what moves the plot forward.

Kaitlyn R. Miller said...

This is a really helpful post, thank you! I never thought of identifying which traits are heroic but it makes just as much sense for fantasy as for romance, if not more. (It probably makes sense for other genres too ;).) I think this will really help me with my current novel WIP, especially since the heroine is not terribly sympathetic to start out... and I'm eventually going to have to make the main villain more sympathetic as well.