Wednesday, December 15, 2021
Friday, December 10, 2021
Writing Process? It all depends... It's so interesting (to me anyway) to think about how we imagine.
>Hi, Alicia! I know everyone has their own writing process, but I am intrigued by the idea of starting with character. Do you think that it might be easier to work on the goal and motivation part as part of the character bio first and then use those aspects of what you learn about your protagonist (and to a lesser degree, the other main characters in a romance) to outline the story incorporating conflicts into turning points?
Well, I think one important step for authors is to find their own ideal writing process, and modify it as needed (different books might require different processes). At some point, most stories will benefit from being outlined or structured with acts and turning points based on character development study (including GMC- I do other analysis too). But that doesn't have to be in the beginning of the process.
For me, the sequence I do things is dependent a lot on what I "know" about the story ahead of time. There are books where I've known the characters in some guise for a long time. My last published novel's main characters have been in my head since... well, I was a teen, probably. The first book I wrote (never completed) had a mysterious Russian lady named Natasha (though she was mysterious in a different way than she turned out to be in the last book). The first book I sold had a cynical "best friend" character that was named John (later changed to Tom when I rewrote the book decades later-- complicated reasons to change his name). Now these two actual characters never "knew" each other in the jungle-story-world of my imagination, but I knew them. She was always Russian but spoke English with very little accent, and she was always sort of shadowy, always named Natasha, and usually married to a sea captain. None of those stories ever got written, but I kept trying her out as the star of a story, then usually never writing or finishing that story, or replacing her with some other heroine. "Tom" actually showed up in his original form in several books, always as Tom and always the cynical friend of the hero.
Anyway, I -knew- these characters. It's weird to say that because I kept changing aspects of them that might seem central, like their backstory and (with "Tom" -- who became Matt, see :) his profession and social status. But in my head, Natasha was always remote and yet vulnerable, and was a widow of a man who loved her but never knew her. In my head, "Tom/Matt" was always a cynic, a "scientific" man (this was always set in the Regency time, so "science" meant being rational and curious) who withal that was kind of a super-loving person who was cynical partly to protect himself.
I'd never tried to bring them together before in my head (because, see, Tom/Matt was always the best friend of the hero, never the hero), but then one day I just thought of them talking together, annoying each other, and I thought, "They don't even like each other much." I knew at that moment they were the only people who really understood each other..
So then I had to build a story ("Brighton") around these two characters who were -known- to me in their essence, but didn't have the right story yet, or pairing.. I already knew them, so doing exercises about their characters just helped me pinpoint more about what I wanted them to -do, rather than her just drift around my head being remote and vulnerable, and him in my head making sardonic comments..
Once I came up with the goal of them solving a mystery together, it all clicked. They could bring their disparate skills (hers intuition, his forensics-- oh, I'd transformed him from an Army intelligence captain to a navy physician) to this task, and of course, in the meantime, fall in love. It really helped then to think of their motivations to help me plot..... I already KNEW them as characters, see.... so his external motivation became keeping her from getting arrested (she was the prime suspect), and her internal motivation was to hide from her past (the murder victim was a friend from Russia who knew her late father).
After that, well, plotting a mystery is never easy, but the goal/external motivation/internal motivation helped me a lot. I knew that while Natasha also wanted to solve the mystery, she would still be concealing something about this victim/old friend until she trusted Matt, and that should happen right at the "reversal" or midpoint scene.
So.... point is, when I already knew the characters, I used the exercises to help me fit them into the plot (or more, rather, get the external plot to develop them and the romance).
And as for process, well, long before I got much plot done at all, I'd written several of the "romance" scenes between them, like the first scene where he comes to her aid when she reluctantly asks for it ("They don't even really like each other”) and the situation-setup where we learn that they were in-laws-- he was married to her sister-in-law, she was married to his brother-in-law (that is, their late spouses were fraternal twins who had died in the same flu epidemic years before), so they could be connected without, you know, really liking each other much.. That was sort of hard to explain, but I knew it would "fit" their emotions towards each other and the reason why she would ask him for help..
So I had several "romance" scenes drafted before I even knew this was going to be a mystery! Plotting then from the motivation became the way I made the characters have to open up to each other (they had known each other 13 years without doing that, after all) enough to fall in love.
Okay. So that was my-- and only mine, I'm not suggesting this as a MODEL, goodness knows—starting-with-character process.
There was another book (The Year She Fell), however, which very much started with plot, in fact, a story question-- why would the richest girl in town commit suicide (this happened in the small town when I was growing up--IIRC, she shot herself in her white Cadillac convertible, right in front of our high school, using the pistol her great-grand-daddy had carried as a confedrut gennel -- that's how we pronounced it <G> in the Civil War, or so the story went). That's all I had -- the richest girl in town. Suicide. Why.
So I started having to figure out "motivation," as that's the "why," right? (In the actual event, her motivation was never clear, though I -- who knew her and didn't much like her-- uncharitably assumed it's because someone finally told her "no" and she couldn't live with it. There was a really weird "only in rich families" twist where her parents had legally adopted her best friend when the bff's family was going to move away, so that Little Princess would never have to be sad for a single moment... and I ended up using that in a different way in the book.)
And from the external motivation-- the why she killed herself-- I worked back to what her goal was (what she was trying to hide-- you can tell "hiding information" is a favorite theme of mine), and then to the internal motivation-- why she had to hide this.. And that was the original storyline, but it was too... depressing, and I started playing around with a mystery plot on top of that goal-motivation-- her sister trying to figure out afterwards why this had happened. (This is actually kind of the story-structure of the Hitchcock film Psycho, though in that it's not suicide, but the sister is the one who becomes the "detective".)
Well, along the course of ten years or so of noodling around with this basic plot, I ended up changing most everything except that central story question of the richest girl in town and the odd twist of the family adopting the girl's best friend. I'd read a couple Susan Howatch novels where the story is told from several different (often opposed) viewpoints, and I wanted to try that for some reason, and I ended up deciding she had not one but three sisters, and each had some valuable piece of information about the death that they didn't know they had (and was irrelevant in isolation, until joined with the other two). And... well, it wasn't a romance, but I added the viewpoints of two of the sisters' fellas, because I wanted to experiment with first-person male POV.
In the end, what was there of the original idea? The suicide question, and the adoption, and that was about it.. The whole POINT of the book became experimenting with alternating first-person POVs, and the idea of the suicide just was the vehicle for exploring how limited any one understanding of an event is. And as I drafted each POV section, I realized that the REAL question (and that it should be revealed as the real question after the middle) was not "why did older sis commit suicide," but "why was younger sis ever adopted?"
In every book I've written, I think, I had a different sequence of processes. But usually I drafted some scenes or passages early to get a feel for the voice of the book. This is always "my" voice, but you know, is this book-voice curious or cagey or optimistic (I contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman said!), and sometimes to set down conversations which had arrived complete with inflection and tone of voice in my head that I didn't want to forget.. I'd usually draft scenes, just pieces of them, and completely out of order, scenes that woule arrive in my head or I wanted to work out, until I ran out of the glimmering scenes and passages. Then I'd stop and get to plotting or character work or whatever I could do next.
That is, I'd run through what was easily accessible- what I knew, the scenes I'd come up with those last few moments of semi-consciousness before the alarm clock rang--and draft those, sometimes just in bits, never fully formed. I might jot down the dialogue but not the setting, the emotion but not the description. And then I'd usually have to get more logical and analytical because inspiration had run out.
I'm not advocating this process, lol. But in every book, no matter how good I got at this, there was a point I had to get analytical, usually when I couldn't avoid plotting any longer, or when I had to figure out the why—like why does Natasha ask Matt for help rather than someone else? OR I had to have a good reason why they were stuck together long enough to overcome their conflicts and fall in love.
Or I might finish a whole draft and know it wasn't really working, that I'd missed the point somewhere, or that it didn't evolve into some strong theme, or there were long stretches of nothing happening, or the romance didn't cohere. And then it was time to outline the whole story and go through and figure out how to fix. Often that would be when I'd start re-inventing -- come up with a better goal that allowed for more external action, make the internal motivation something worth fulfilling in the end, and so on.
Again, this is just me, but this "character-plotting" of goal/motivation/conflict can be really useful over and over again in the process of a novel (and how and when it's useful might vary with every book), not just at the beginning. I use that process to help explore the characters, to build a plot around these characters, to give the characters a reason and way to change, to turn motivation into action, to make the internal manifest externally, to make a more logical sequence of plot events.
So developing the character goal and motivation is very useful, but it's not the only development task, and you don't have to do it the way I suggest.. Mine is a way of tying character development into plot structure--making "deep structure"-- but there are other ways too which might be more effective. This is more about "deepening and intersecting" character and plot than, say, creating a more dramatic and exciting plot.
Well, that doesn't answer your question, probably, but that's what you made me think about! I'd say- different writers, different processes. There's no one way to do this. When does inspiration fail for you, when does the basic raw material you started with run out? Maybe then it's time to start looking at character development. Or maybe you need to do this first to jumpstart your inspiration, and later to fix plot problems or understand the romance.
It all depends. ;)
And I think most writers who have written a lot of books will say, it depends on the book too.. Some writers evolve one type of process, one sequence of tasks, and use that for every book (this is useful when you want to write several books a year- wish I did that). Others meander around a story idea until they find the process which works for this particular story.
So …. well, stay open. Experiment. Be unsparing with yourself and yet generous. Figure out when you need to let creativity flow, and then when you need to step back from the flow and get analytical. Most of all... experiment. There isn't any one way to write this story, or any one way this story can develop. Try things out. You won't lose the essential seed of the story by experimenting with the soil and water and fertilizer combinations. To mix another metaphor!
What about you? Can you think back and track the process of one of your stories?
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Monday, November 15, 2021
Shakespeare's world view and voice
Shakespeare's world view is contained in his voice, in his
particular gift for ambiguous and ironic passages. He was writing plays, where
there's dialogue and action and little else, so his voice isn't concentrated,
as it might be in fiction, in the narration. Rather his voice comes out in how
he treats characters and how they speak and act. (Playwrights and screenwriters
must allow room for the actor and director to have voices too!) This is
especially clear inJulius Caesar, which explores some of Shakespeare's
favorite themes-- the nature of heroism, the danger of charisma, and the
contradictory wisdom and foolishness of the mob.
Of course, Shakespeare is the great characterizer. Sure, there were characters before that, as there was some perspective before Brunelleschi, but Shakespeare so advanced the presentation of multi-layered characters that, well, we're still studying them. He's also a bit of a trickster-- Julius Caesar is not the protagonist ofJulius Caesar, but then, I bet Marcus Brutus wouldn't have sold that well. :)
Where does Shakespeare's voice come in? Here's where: in his great poetry, in the tossed-off comic lines, in the skill at writing high-flown sentences that actors can render as conversation. But his voice is more than his words. His voice is much more in how he regards the characters and the world they inhabit. (Of course, we know nothing about Shakespeare's personal world view, but we do know how he viewed the world in his writings, because we have them. :) His genius was in, I think, regarding the world and humans with skepticism, but also moving beyond cynicism. It would be cynical to present (as he does in the beginning of Caesar) that perceptions can't be trusted, that they (like the omens in the play) can be misinterpreted and manipulated. But he doesn't stop there. Yes, perceptions can be deceptive... but the truth will always out-- in the actions and the words of the characters.
So a character's real intent is shown subtly in his words (sometimes not so subtly). But that doesn't mean he speaks his intent necessarily, rather that the truth has such power that it will influence the speech and action is ways that we can understand. That is, Shakespeare's voice "gives voice" to the truth, but not in some obvious way. His world view is not transparent-- nothing is clearly clear, and he starts, I think, with acknowledging the complexity of humans. They are not one way. In fact, in the very end of the play, Mark Antony looks down at his enemy Brutus and acknowledges his nobility (which Brutus's own actions cast into doubt), and says:
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world 'This was a man!'
That is, the measure of a man is the mixing of elements-- the depth is in the contradictions. Shakespeare's skill, however, took contradictions and never allowed them to become incoherence. That's because, I think, his view was that the contradictions made the character-- he respected the contradictions as having meaning.
So, for example, Mark Antony was a libertine, a cynic, a manipulator. (I admit to being overly influenced by the performance of James Purefoy, not in the play but in the TV show Rome-- he did an amazing job of showing Antony's complexity.) But there was one thing noble about Antony-- he actually, truly, deeply loved and esteemed Caesar. That was not an act, and not just a triviality. It was the core of him. He loved Caesar. Caesar's murder fired him to revenge-- but his way of revenge was characteristically manipulative. The nobility, however, was what fired him to action.
Now Brutus was a noble man. But he had a single ignoble quality, and that was that he was easily flattered, especially about his own honor. In fact, his reputation for honor was more important to him than acting honorably, and both Cassius and Antony make subtle and successful use of his need to be venerated. This single ignobility fires his actions in the play.
That privileging of the single "off" characteristic is, I think, part of Shakespeare's approach-- that "off" trait might actually be closer to the center of the character than all that nice consistent stuff. Antony, for all his faults, is a lover. He loves life, he loves Caesar, he is soon to love Cleopatra-- and all with an abandon that shows that love really is the most important thing to him. So while his willingness to shake the hands of the murderers might seem to show his cynicism and corruption, a deeper view might be that it shows that love is more important than his self-respect and honor, for this is the only way he'll be able to insure that Caesar gets an appropriate burial (and it also sets up for his vengeance).
In the play I saw in Stratford, young Antony insists on shaking
the hands of each and every conspirator, thereby covering his own hands with
Caesar’s blood. But as he goes from one to the next, their glee at killing
their enemy begins to change to something not quite shame, but at least
embarrassment, at being so clearly revealed as conspirators. This was, even
more than the great funeral oration, the pivotal moment in the play, when these
little men symbolically confessed to killing a far greater man.
And Antony's speech is, of course, highly manipulative. But there are moments of such love and anguish:
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
You all did love him once, not without cause:
What cause withholds you then, to mourn for him?
O judgment! thou art fled to brutish beasts,
And men have lost their reason.
Bear with me; My heart is in the coffin there with Caesar,
And I must pause till it come back to me.
In Shakespeare's world view, the truth always comes out in one way or another, usually in a character's words and actions. And so even here, when Mark Antony is trying his damnedest to manipulate the mob, the anguish keeps coming out. So there's always a "bursting out," even in as careful a speech as Antony's funeral oration. (That the emotional burst outs help his cause doesn't mean they aren't real.) So think of that as an aspect of S's voice-- that characters reveal, whether they want to or not. Dialogue in Shakespeare is never on one level, meant simply to convey external information. It's also meant to conceal and deceive, and while it's doing that (with the other characters), it's also revealing (to the audience) the truth about this person. This is part of his voice, part of his world view-- humans are complicated, but they are not incomprehensible.
Notice that Cassius pretends that he wants to kill Caesar to save Rome, but his own words tell a different truth, that he is envious of Caesar's charisma and resentful that it isn't his-- a real narcissist, and that slips out when he speaks of why Caesar isn't qualified to lead Rome:
I had as lief not be as live to be
In awe of such a thing as I myself.
I was born free as Caesar
But that narcissism actually teaches him how to appeal to Brutus, because he can sense that beneath Brutus's undeniably noble qualities is vanity:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that 'Caesar'?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with 'em,
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.
(Notice also Shakespeare's characteristic preoccupation with names-- "Romeo, oh, Romeo, wherefore are thou Romeo?" Another aspect of voice is what we emphasize and repeat.)
As with Antony, Brutus reveals what matters to him, what drives him, in his speech. He might be trying to save Rome from the man he thinks might be a dictator, though he also seems to want to save Caesar from becoming just another ambitious tyrant. But he's truly getting played by Cassius, who knows just how to get to him-- Here's Brutus, reading an "anonymous" note ostensibly sent by a common citizen:
Opens the letter and reads
sleep'st: awake, and see thyself.
Shall Rome, etc; etc. Speak, strike, redress!
Brutus, thou sleep'st: awake!'
Such instigations have been often dropp'd
Where I have took them up.
'Shall Rome, etc; etc.' Thus must I piece it out:
Shall Rome stand under one man's awe? What, Rome?
My ancestors did from the streets of Rome
The Tarquin drive, when he was call'd a king.
'Speak, strike, redress!' Am I entreated
To speak and strike? O Rome, I make thee promise:
If the redress will follow, thou receivest
Thy full petition at the hand of Brutus!
Cassius appeals to his vanity, his sense of himself as the last in an illustrious line. They were, all of them, the "First of Rome," but Caesar somehow got ahead-- and Brutus is easily led to thinking there was something uniquely unjust in that, especially if all of Rome were sending him the anonymous requests to rebel.
So Brutus uses his friendship with Caesar to set up the murder, and his reputation for honor to sway the Roman mob to his side. But Antony is clever-- or maybe Brutus is easily used, for Antony maneuvers him into allowing Caesar a decent funeral and a loving eulogy. Brutus has to agree, if he's going to be an honorable man, and Antony makes great use of that term in his eulogy:
He hath brought many captives home to Rome
Whose ransoms did the general coffers fill:
Did this in Caesar seem ambitious?
When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept:
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff:
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.
You all did see that on the Lupercal
I thrice presented him a kingly crown,
Which he did thrice refuse: was this ambition?
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;
And, sure, he is an honourable man.
The crowd turns on the murderers, and Brutus never quite catches up after that. But Shakespeare doesn't stop there. The last acts deal with Brutus slowly coming to understand what has happened, what his vanity led him to do, when he finds out that Cassius, the one who proclaimed Caesar to be corrupt, is selling public offices:
Remember March, the ides of March remember:
Did not great Julius bleed for justice' sake?
What villain touch'd his body, that did stab,
And not for justice? What, shall one of us
That struck the foremost man of all this world
But for supporting robbers, shall we now
Contaminate our fingers with base bribes.
Notice that first line, referring to the day (March 15) that they killed Caesar-- this quintessentially Shakespeare line:
Remember March, the ides of March remember:
Its tragic wail, the anguish of it, is not about the words (although, wow, he could put together words), but about everything that has been Brutus in this play-- the honorable man, the one who admired and envied Caesar, the naive Brutus, the disillusioned Brutus caught up now in a war against the city he loves-- caught up in a loop of self-recrimination and self-doubt, and how does that come out? In repetition. Brutus isn't repeating words because they're pretty, or because it's Shakespeare's habit, or because he's read some book about how to be poetic... he's repeating because he can't get past it. He can't get past what he's done:
Remember March, the ides of March remember:
You can feel that in Brutus's March/March/Remember/Remember (Shakespeare
was writing for theater, and he had to write lines in a way to convey to the
actor how to speak this, so it's no surprise we can hear Brutus's anguish in
Yes, Shakespeare uses repetition ("Out, out, damned spot!") but not because it's good "voice"-- it's because it's good character, because when you're caught up, as some of his characters are, in events they set in motion but can't now stop, your mind just goes round and round and round, obsessively repeating what you regret.
We have only words. But words are more than just words. In story, they are everything-- and so your voice is everything. Your voice is how you convey it all-- what's happening and who these people are and why it hurts so much. And if you know all that-- if you are in the story and it's in you-- the words will come. But the words only matter because they convey the story-- and yes, they convey the story in the best way. But if you start with words-- if you think that your voice is about alliteration or punctuation-- you're starting where you should be ending.
Shakespeare has a voice that transcends genre. He doesn't "sound" the same in the sonnets as in his tragedies and comedies-- but he's always trying to convey more-- sometimes the opposite-- of what's on the surface. His voice shines with jewel-like facets not because he was so adept at assembling words as shiny surfaces, but because he believed in the depth of human beings, believed that in their self-deception you could find their truth, and in the end, the nobility was in the possibilities:
So mix'd in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world 'This was a man!'
If you know yourself and your story, your characters and your meaning, then your voice will come through, Think about what your attitude is, what your sense of the world is, what truth means to you... those really are (or should be) a more important factor in your voice than words and punctuation.
Saturday, August 7, 2021
CONCRETE THE CONFLICT
Here’s an example (from the wonderful Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier) of how theme and conflict can often best be conveyed by character action and interaction with concrete elements of the setting.
Here, the new bride finds a book that Maximilian’s late wife had given him as a gift, with her name scrawled on the frontispiece.
The book is a concrete object that can be handled and moved. It’s a stand-in or a symbol for the dead wife—the one that Maximilian won’t speak of and obviously can’t forget.
Read how the new bride interacts with the book, carefully cutting out the page with Rebecca’s writing, as if this would be like cutting Rebecca’s memory from Max’s mind.
There was the book of poems lying beside my bed. He had forgotten he had ever lent them to me. They could not mean much to him then. "Go on," whispered the demon, "open the title page; that's what you want to do, isn't it? Open the title page." Nonsense, I said, I'm only going to put the book with the rest of the things. I yawned. I wandered to the table beside the bed. I picked up the book. I caught my foot in the flex of the bedside lamp, and stumbled, the book falling from my hands onto the floor. It fell open, at the title page. "Max from Rebecca." She was dead, and one must not have thoughts about the dead. They slept in peace, the grass blew over their graves. How alive was her writing though, how full of force. Those curious, sloping letters. The blob of ink. Done yesterday. It was just as if it had been written yesterday. I took my nail scissors from the dressing-case and cut the page, looking over my shoulder like a criminal.
I cut the page right out of the book. I left no jagged edges, and the book looked white and clean when the page was gone. A new book, that had not been touched. I tore the page up in many little fragments and threw them into the wastepaper basket. Then I went and sat on the window seat again. But I kept thinking of the torn scraps in the basket, and after a moment I had to get up and look in the basket once more. Even now the ink stood up on the fragments thick and black, the writing was not destroyed. I took a box of matches and set fire to the fragments. The flame had a lovely light, staining the paper, curling the edges, making the slanting writing impossible to distinguish. The fragments fluttered to gray ashes. The letter R was the last to go, it twisted in the flame, it curled outwards for a moment, becoming larger than ever. Then it crumpled too; the flame destroyed it. It was not ashes even, it was feathery dust... I went and washed my hands in the basin. I felt better, much better. I had the clean new feeling that one has when the calendar is hung on the wall at the beginning of the year. January the 1st. I was aware of the same freshness, the same gay confidence.
The door opened and he came into the room.
From Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
See how much more effective that is than just telling about her jealousy and insecurity. Notice how meticulously the action is narrated—how carefully she cut the page, how it burned. That helps bring the scene to life, and dramatizes the conflict.
Then the use of the page helps build the theme of the inescapability of the past. The book and writing become motifs (the recurrent images or patterns which help create the theme) of the permanence of past and memory.
Also, using an actual object as a symbol allows for all sorts of tricks like subtext and foreshadowing—the fire destroying the page foreshadows the fire that destroys their house and lives later in the book.
So think about a scene where you have a complex emotion or conflict. What is an object in the scene which can be used as symbolic or thematic in some way? What’s a plausible way the character can interact with it and make use of it?
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Tuesday, May 25, 2021
What Harry Potter Can Teach Writers about the End of the Character Journey
By Alicia Rasley
Want to create an intense experience for the reader?
Start at the end! Craft the emotionally right end of the character journey.
Consider this: If your readers have gotten all this way to the end of your story, they know your characters and they know your story about as well as you do. Well, maybe not quite as well (but in some ways, maybe better!). Consciously or subconsciously, they know what the characters need. And they know what the story needs for a satisfactory ending, though they might not be able to articulate this.
But if you give them the wrong one in the end—an ending that does not complete the main character’s journey- their disappointment and dissatisfaction will be evidence that you did it wrong. So the ending – well, you have to get that right to know you’ve achieved a satisfactory experience for the audience.
Let’s examine this “journey” idea in a very long story that most of you know: the Harry Potter series. Each of the seven books of course stands on its own. In each book, young Harry has a journey, but also the entire series works together as what they call a coming-of-age story –a bildungsroman. So there’s also a “series journey” for Harry, so that each of the books becomes a section of the longer journey.
In this pair of articles, we can discuss Harry’s journey, first through the initial book, and then through the entire series.
As you know, Harry starts out in Book 1 being raised in the household of a family of "Muggles," non-magicals like us ordinary people. But most importantly he's an orphan, who like one of the orphans in a Charles Dickens story is abandoned and neglected. He's not really abused—his aunt and uncle take care of his basic needs. But he is neglected, and he knows that no one loves him. The parents who did love him are dead in a shady and perhaps shameful way, so no one will speak of them. In fact, he doesn't actually even know if they loved him. All he knows is that they died.
And then—in this important first act of the story—Harry meets a talking snake and a cake-carrying giant, and he embarks on a journey to find himself and his place in the world.
Here are some lessons novelists can learn from Harry’s first journey.
1. The first “journey” lesson from Harry Potter: Identify the journey, and use that to provide a structure for the whole story.
In this first book, his journey starts in invisibility. In that first book's opening, Harry is so invisible that he sleeps under the stairs. He is so invisible the neighbors don't even know exists. He's so invisible that his aunt and uncle who take care of him won't even acknowledge that he's there, don't send him in to school, don't celebrate his birthday.
But during the book, Harry has to make the journey from invisibility in the ordinary world to belonging in the wizard world. In the end, he takes up his rightful place in that world—which, because he is “the boy who lived,” an almost mythical creature, is as something of a star.
- Show the journey start in the opening of the story.
That is crucial. At the start of the story, the reader doesn't know your character and can't intuit what the journey start is. So show it, as JK Rowling shows his invisibility, how he is hidden away, how he almost doesn't exist. Make it concrete for the reader. How invisible is Harry? Well, he's so invisible, he has to sleep in a closet! He's so invisible the neighbors don't know he exists! That's showing invisibility, which we all know is more effective than telling.
It’s a good idea to start this first stage of the journey early. When the Harry series opens, there’s only a short prologue where Harry is a baby, then the Dursleys take him and effectively disappear him. Don't spend more than a chapter or two setting up the start of the journey. Then create an "inciting incident" which either forces the character to act, or gives him/her a reason to start changing (the snake at the zoo speaks to Harry and makes him realize he’s got some secret power).
- Have the plot lead the character further into the journey and force change.
Once you come up with a character journey like “from this starting point to that destination,” you can deepen the story by connecting the character’s emotional/psychological changing to the events of the external plot. So: While Harry’s family desperately tries to keep him invisible, the wizards enforce their rule that wizard children must go to Hogwarts for school. That’s the beginning, and that’s when Harry starts to realize maybe he’s not “no one”—he’s someone, and he’s got a place here.
There’s a brilliant scene that really plays with “invisibility”, when Harry uses his father’s invisibility cloak not to disappear, but to explore Hogwarts and learn more about his new home. On this venture, he finds in the Mirror of Erised, which shows him his greatest desire—the first image of his dead parents. Very clever-- the cloak of invisibility lets him see without being seen—and then the mirror reflects back what he doesn’t know he wants—an essential step on the journey of taking OFF his invisibility and joining into the wizard world. Notice this scene is placed in the middle of the journey—that is, when Harry should be growing away from that starting point. When he realizes he can be invisible and then take that cloak off and be himself, he has taken a major step to the destination of belonging to this new world.
4. Then let the ending show in some concrete way that the character has achieved the destination of the journey—and what has changed in life.
Here, the first book ends with Harry certain that he belongs; in fact, he and his new best friends have won Gryffindor the coveted annual cup, and he knows he will be coming back here for his second year.
But he has a new realization, that with this new life come new responsibilities. When he was “invisible” at the Dursleys, he didn’t matter. No one depended on him. He could go through life as a mopey and secretly defiant pre-teen. Now here at the end, he belongs, he has a place in the world, and he also has responsibility. What he does matters, and now he can’t be careless and apathetic.
In fact, he’s realizing that with his visibility as “the boy who lived,” he has a special role in fighting against Lord Voldemort. While he was invisible, hidden with the Dursleys, he was safe, if unhappy and lonely. But now at Hogwarts, he has a home, friends, a purpose—and a new, lethal enemy.
Let’s try that with your own story! Think of your central character. You might have more than one main character, but let’s just concentrate on one for the moment. Creating a character journey will help unify your story and also deepen your texture by developing the character along with the plot events.
So here are just a couple questions to help you focus on your character journey and how it will work, especially in the opening and ending of the story. I’ll use the Harry Potter example to illustrate:
1. So where does your character start, and where does he/she end up?
Harry starts out
unwanted, invisible even to himself, and ends up belonging in a new world and
truly knowing who he is.
2. What internal resonance does this have-- how does the journey change who this person is?
Harry learns who he is—a wizard- and what he can do –magic-, and also that he was and is loved. This gives him confidence and meaning.
3. List a few steps your protagonist will have to take to complete this journey:
- He must leave his home and venture to Hogwarts.
- He must learn who and what he is.
- He must make friends and allies.
- He has to also learn about his parents’ death and who caused it.
- He has to show how he has earned his new place in this new world.
a. How is the starting point shown in Act 1?
foster family has been hiding him for years. No one acknowledges his birthday
or tells him about his parents.
b. In Act 2, what event(s) force the character into rising conflict around this journey issue?
Harry confronts several challenges, both the mundane (school) and the exotic (the troll), and can only surmount them by gaining friends and trusting them to help him. But then he finds that the true danger is hidden within the school itself, and in his own past. So he must figure out what this all has to do with him by going into his own past and learning about the tragedy of his parents’ death.
c. In Act 3, how does the completion of the journey help this character resolve the external problem (and/or vice versa, how does resolving the external problem help the character complete the journey)?
Harry completes his journey to belonging and knowing himself. This allows him to use his powers and his new alliances to defeat Voldemort (temporarily) and rid Hogwarts of the enemy hidden within. Once he has done all that, he is truly accepted into his new world.
4. Any other thoughts or questions about your character’s journey?
It’s important to SHOW the journey, not just explain it. So there are concrete and immediate ways to show Harry’s journey start (hidden under the stairs, neglected by guardians) and ending (winning the “cup” at the end of the school year, cheered by his schoolmates).
Now of course, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone is just the first book in a long series. And Harry has a longer journey to travel, for which this is just the first step. So in Part 2 of this article, we’ll look into the journey of Harry through the series of stories, which is a deeper and more universally important journey—from Denial of Death to Acceptance of Death. A philosopher might even say that this isn’t just Harry’s journey, but the journey of the whole human race as we strive to deal with the knowledge of our own mortality.
This might be helpful to you if you plan a series of linked stories and want to create a thematic unity from Book One to Book Last!
Harry Potter’s Journey, Part 2, will be coming in a couple days. In the meantime--
Here’s my exploration of Journey, with several good examples from students and stories you’ll know!
Also, if you’d like to learn more practical and yet sophisticated techniques to deepen your story and intensify your audience’s experience, you might be interested in my new course Building Bolder Scenes.
You can sign up here to get notified when it’s ready to launch in a couple weeks!