I wrote earlier that the way characters are challenged is by knocking them out of equilibrium. Specifically, something vital to them is put into jeopardy. And it is so threatened, they need to act, make a decision, say something publicly (which is really a kind of act), and/or reevaluate their position on something.
What are those “somethings that are vital to them”?
Here’s my list:
- Status. How do I rank among others and what privileges does my rank give me? What responsibilities must I fulfill to keep my rank?
- Identity. Who do I see myself being in terms of my moral code, my roles, and, most of all, how I am valuable (or valued)? What is the story I tell myself about myself?
- Plans. This is not my to-do list. This is what I see myself achieving that matters to me. This is who I see myself (or those I care about) in the future.
- Hopes. This reaches beyond concrete plans. Often hopes are unexpressed, longings that might be within reach. Expectations I might not dare to expect.
- Opportunities. Where is the door open? More importantly, where might doors close permanently? Impending loss, even for things that might have been claimed (and weren’t) years ago, can drive change. Think of what happens with couples who’ve lived together for years when one of the pair says it’s time to get married.
- Relationships. Both the ability to form (or deepen) a valued tie and the possibility a connection might break require responses.
- Survival. Get through this ordeal or life-or-death moment or there won’t be any more moments ahead of you.
I began this series with four scenes I was developing. Here’s one I’ll look at this time:
The heroine must listen to the confession of her best friend about how she betrayed her.
Jane’s best friend, Mary, has posted her picture and a cooked-up bio to a dating site. This was done without permission in the face of Jane’s losing someone she cared about. Mary just wanted to end Jane’s loneliness.
Unfortunately, Mary didn’t know that site had evolved to be THE place for kinky hookups. Something Jane is not into. Now Jane, who’s made-up bio had unintended double entendres, is being swamped with requests. Some of the online folks are invading her real life, causing her embarrassment and wrecking her reputation. Since Mary has control of the post, she must confess so the two of them can fix this.
It’s already a fun scene (I hope), but let’s see what pops up with the seven dimensions above. I’ll focus on Mary, since, even though she’s not the protagonist, she is the one facing the most pressure.
- Status. Though Mary is treated as an equal by Jane, her friend is a wealthy celebrity. And her boss. Mary has gone to a lot of fun parties and gotten good tables at restaurants by having Jane along or mentioning her name. Losing Jane would cut a lot of glamor out of her life and possibly lead to her losing a job she loves and needs. If she really messes up with the confession, Jane could strike back and make her life miserable.
- Identity. Mary sees herself as helpful and kind. What she did was not helpful. Accepting that she overstepped to the point of causing harm means maybe she isn’t as kind as she thought she was. Maybe her ego got in the way. Or, perhaps, beneath it all, jealousy.
- Plans. The life Mary assumes for herself is staying close to her friend, maybe getting a bit more of the glitter to rub off on her. Certainly, she hasn’t worried about basic needs since she entered the celebrity orbit.
- Hopes. Could Mary become a celebrity in her own right? A Gayle to her version of Oprah? Or at least marry one of the men who ends up on the cover of People? This mistake won’t help.
- Opportunities. A whole lot of possibilities could be closed off. It’s hard to visualize this conversation ending with more opportunities. The pressure is on to create as little havoc as possible. (Of course, as a writer, I’m looking for havoc.)
- Relationships. Clearly, the friendship will take a hit. Will it emerge stronger? Will Jane ever be able see Mary’s good intentions as she lives in that special hell Mary consigned her to? Oh, and what will Mary’s mom and friends think if they find out about what she did. Will anyone ever trust her again?
- Survival. Okay. Mary is lucky Jane is not a mobster. No one will rub her out. They won’t even break her legs.
This is what I want when I write, especially when new scenes need to be inserted into a long work that is already drafted. Being reconnected with renewed passion for the project? I’ll take that.
I could just write immediately, and that might be best. But, if I think it will help, my process offers for one more step: generating character choices. That’s what next week’s post will be about.