Wow. If anyone’s still reading this, I’m amazed. I’ve been absent for a long time, and I am very sorry for that. There was a whirl of conventions, a bunch of rewrites, edits on the rewrites…
It’s all kind of a blur, to be honest.
I wanted to dive right back into things with a quick talk about fish. Well characters as fish. A fish out of water, as the saying goes.
If you don’t know the saying, it basically means someone’s unfamiliar (and usually a bit uncomfortable) with the situation they’ve ended up in. When the small town girl moves to the big city and has to find her place, that’s a fish out of water story. When the big city boy moves to a small town and has to figure out his place, that’s one, too. And when the special ops veteran has to babysit three adorable little kids for a month. The idea has a pretty broad scope. It can refer to feeling a bit awkward at a party where I don’t know anyone, or being dumped on the side of the road somewhere in eastern Europe and having to find my way home while dealing with ninja werewolves every night.
If you’ve been following my rants here for any amount of time, this idea may sound kind of familiar. It’s because I’ve talked about the flipside of this as a problem once or thrice before. It’s when a character is so completely prepared for everything that nothing is a challenge for them. They’re never worried about anything because they’ve got the skills and the tools and the weapons and the flares and the antibiotic ointment and the European voltage adaptor and so on.
If my character is always prepared, that means they’re more or less in control of things. And if they’re in control… well, there isn’t going to be any conflict, is there? He or she will just kind of amble around and face… well, no challenges.
I don’t know about you, but that sounds dull as hell to me.
Our characters thrive and grow when they’re forced to learn new things and deal with unexpected situations. This is basic character arc stuff. My character starts here and ends there. And I shouldn’t be talking about his or her position on the couch when I say this. Through the course of my story, my characters should grow and change. Circumstances should make them reconsider choices. Necessity should be the mother of invention.
And it’s not a solid rule, but I’d bet in a good three-quarters of our favorite stories, this growth isn’t something the character chooses. It’s a sink or swim situation. Going home to my normal life isn’t an option. I either need to make things better or they’re going to get a lot worse.
What’s my point with all this?
At some point in my story, my character should be a fish out of water. Pretty much needs to be, really. They should be gasping, floundering, unsure what’s going on and why, and how they’re going to get out of this situation. Maybe not gasping and floundering in a strict literal sense, but on some level they need to be baffled and looking for solutions. It doesn’t matter if my story’s about love, work, faith, personal discovery, computer simulations, alien invasions, terrorist attacks, or Lovecraftian horror. Some part of this needs to be something my characters have never seen before, something they aren’t prepared to deal with.
Y’see, Timmy, that’s how my characters learn and change. Which is how they get an arc. Which is one of the key elements of great storytelling.
If they’re never put in that unfamiliar, uncomfortable situation—or if it’s impossible for them to end up in one—what motivation do they have to move along that arc?
So pull your characters out of their comfortable fish bowl and toss them up on dry land. Or up a tree. Or into the most awkward family reunion ever. Especially if it’s not their family.
Well, since I’ve been away for a bit, I wanted to toss the floor open to all of you. Is there anything specific you’d like me to blab about? A character or structure or dialogue issue that’s been gnawing at you? Please let me know in the comments below and I’ll offer my best thoughts on it.
And if no one says anything… I don’t know, I’ll go back and look at some earlier stuff.
Until then, thanks once again for your patience.
Now… go write.