On Monday, I talked a little about how I work at my day job. I hope you noticed one important thing about my approach--it's systematic. I really hate to waste my time--and I especially hate to think I'm wasting my clients' time. As a result, I am pretty much against the approach characterized by RANDOM ACTS OF INTERVENTION.
Random acts of kindness are cool, but random acts of intervention? Not so much. Basically, they'll make somebody feel good in the short-term, but because they're not well planned out or systematic, the benefit will be short-lived and narrow. It's easy to get carried away by the random-acts approach in therapy--it's the one where you go with your gut and do what feels right in the moment. Usually it means you're putting out fires or focused on getting rid of immediate distress (and the thing is, in a lot of effective therapies, you actually feel worse before you feel better).
Here's a guaranteed truth of therapy: if your interventions aren't based on some coherent theory or working model of what's causing the problems and what it will take to fix them--you're digging a trench with a teaspoon.
I believe this approach applies to writing as well. Remember my diagram of what was causing Johnny's noncompliance? With that technique, you can take a problem, a conflict, or a triumph, and analyze what caused it. You can use this same technique for your characters.
In one of my stories, the main character (MC) is a tough girl who doesn't trust others, and I wanted her decisions to make sense in the context of what she's been through and what she's facing.
So, applying my little working model technique from Monday:
In the boxes you see the reasons she doesn't trust people. And for each of those boxes, I can identify an experience or pattern of experiences that led her to that belief. In the story, each of those beliefs is apparent at some point, and each leads her to make key decisions--or, when she makes a decision that is incompatible with one of those beliefs, there are emotional consequences.
If I take a bit of time to map this out for my character, then I can understand her better. Her behavior, her thoughts, and her feelings in response to each event within each scene will be clearer to me. It will keep me from having her do something that's too easy or convenient for ME, as the author. If I act in accordance with my working model, I'm forced to be true to HER, as the character. In other words, this technique keeps me away from RANDOM ACTS OF INTERVENTION that will conveniently help me slide through a scene or plot point, but that won't be satisfying, deep, or true.
This model also gives me the path for her to develop trust. Remember how, for each of those causes of Johnny's noncompliance, I had an intervention strategy? Well, for my MC, if I want her to learn to trust someone, we have to tackle those beliefs. Her trust shouldn't be magically or cheaply gotten--it should be earned, through modification of those beliefs with new experiences. So now I have a major element of my character arc.
You might have a character who doesn't trust others, too. But will all your boxes (causes) be the same? Probably not! That's what's cool about this. You can have the same outcome, but different causes (that's what we call equifinality). You can have two characters behaving in similar ways, but for different reasons. They'll each have a unique path to redemption (or ruin, depending on your genre ...).
OK, please tell me if any of that made any sense at all. What do you think? Do you engage in RANDOM ACTS OF INTERVENTION? Is your authorial hand heavy on your characters, or do you force yourself to respect their complex personalities and histories? It's harder than it looks, isn't it (it is for me)?
And it's Wednesday, so for the Sisterhood of the Traveling Blog, Deb answers the question: "If you're querying now, or have in the past, how do you develop patience to wait for responses?" Lydia's answer is here, Laura's is here, and mine is here.