Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A technique to avoid random acts of intervention

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.

In quicksand.

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.

21 comments:

  1. This is a brilliant idea, Sarah. I'm going to try the mapping approach with my new WIP. :D

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  2. Yes yes yes!!!! Awesome sauce--I like your mapping idea--kind of how my brain works anyway. But putting it down on paper helps a lot! It's hard not to want to save your characters (or save them too quickly)!

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  3. If I was ever going to revise the second MS, I could see this being totally useful for the MC and the best friend/love interest. Both have issues with getting close to people: the MC because her parents divorced and dad stopped showing up for her and BF/LI because he's an army brat and thinks of all relationships as transitory. Could definitely help to smooth out their arcs. I'll have to use this in future!

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  4. This made sense and was really helpful too. Very interesting.

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  5. So true! I thought this way about a character in my last WIP. Though I didn't have it mapped out (I need some of your organization) I hit a lot of the same ideas. Whew. Good to know I was on the right track!

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  6. I see by your chart that you've somehow read my ms., Sarah. Take away a couple of those boxes, and you've got a pretty good explanation of my MC's trust issues. I think it's really hard to let all your characters by as messily complex as they really are and still serve a sleek plot line, but I'm workin' on it!

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  7. What a fantastic idea. You can really grow characters that way. Will use this with the next novel! :)

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  8. This is awesome! I use this method for general brainstorming, but I've never applied it to my characters and their behavior. You can bet I will now. Thanks!

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  9. Great post! I'll probably be using this technique sometime soon in the future! :)

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  10. LOVE how you applied that same model to writing. It's an almost guaranteed way to make sure your character is multidimensional. And much like the model where you can substitute other reasons, we can get to that same place with our characters through various means. This is a great one!

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  11. That totally makes sense. With my first novel, I did a LOT of random acts of intervention, and my characters didn't come across as authentic. Now, before I start a book, I create my characters ahead of time. Their backstories and experiences, which REALLY helps to know the correct way to write their reactions to things that happen in the WIP.

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  12. My characters always let me know when I am trying to force them into random actions that don't fit their background or nature. The writing doesn't gel, the plot starts to fall apart, and as soon as I realize I'm trying to pound a square peg into a round hole, I throw away the hammer and listen to the peg. :D

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  13. Great approach. You'd avoid behaviors that just don't ring true--something I find in stories sometimes. Something I've probably written in stories sometimes. (Ha!)

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  14. I officially love your blog posts. This is so genius. BUT you have to know your character is distrusting first...

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  15. I agree that random acts of intervention are short-term.

    The school I *help* believes in short-term kindness even though the kids need more. If only I could hire someone like you--if i was in the position to do so. Reading your blogs is a blessing and a curse: a blessing because you are so knowledgeable and a curse because we don't have you in our district.

    I hope wherever you are realizes what a great resource they have in you.

    Have you ever thought of writing nonfiction how-to? Dunno of K.O. reps that but I think you would be awesome in that genre.

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  16. I love the boxes. Reasoning and motivation behind a character's belief is important for us writers to understand. Your background helps you write characters realistically, I'm sure.

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  17. Thanks so much for sharing your character map, Sarah. You always have such helpful posts. :D

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  18. wow. You're so down with character development, yes? That is very cool. And not fair at the same time... LOL! J/k~ Thanks for posting this! <3

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  19. What a BRILLIANT idea! I love how it helps write the scenes/character arc for you, by figuring out ways she can realize her conceptions were misconceptions. You are so very SMART. I can't wait to read your books. They must be so emotionally satisfying.

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  20. Surfed over from Stina's blog! I went to grad school for counseling psych as well so this is a GREAT reminder for me and especially a kick in the butt to be more mindful of my MC's characterization.

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