Saturday, April 9, 2011

Blogging My Process: Hero Vs. Victim

This is a continuation of yesterday's post. It's kind of a "live blogging" experiment in which I go into detail on my creative process as I plot out the beginning of my W.I.P. This was spurred by a question, which I don't think I'll quite get to answering even in this post, so there will likely be a third post next week. (Although maybe I'll do an "extra" midday-Saturday post to finish this up.)

(If you didn't read yesterday's post, then you probably won't understand this one, but hey, it's up to you whether you want to go back and read it....)


When last we left Alex the Misplaced Hero and Old Thorny the Drunken English Professor, they were laid out on the bank of a strange river, exhausted and confused after very nearly pulling a Lillian Gish. They were in Michigan only moments before, and now they are decidedly NOT in Michigan, and what the heck do they do next?

The story has come to a complete standstill. But the characters just came off a very exciting moment, and they can pause to catch their breath. But things have to move on very quickly.

One way to keep the momentum up is to simply pile on a lot more trouble.

Which is what I almost did. I was going to have soldiers waiting for them on the banks of the river to arrest them.

(Note about process: I have no idea which soldiers are waiting on the banks to arrest them. This is a country with many factions and it could be anybody. I'm plotting this by the seat of my pants. However, I'm not writing this by the seat of my pants. First I check out the options until I find a really good one, and then I write it.)

The advantage of having them arrested right off the bat is the same as the waterfall in the previous scene. Right now our heroes are still passive passengers on the journey -- one way to make them active is to throw problems at them. Furthermore, by having them arrested, they have an excuse for a certain amount of passivity while they figure things out. (Plus dealing with interrogation and such can give them the information they need to act, and it's always a good idea to bring human conflict into any story.)


You see this technique used a lot, where characters are swept along to keep the story moving while they get their bearings.

I don't really like this technique much, and I finally figured out why (just now, between writing the first and second draft of this post).

This is a thriller technique. It works very well within that genre. An ordinary guy is thrust into a situation far beyond his experience and at first he is helpless and overwhelmed. He might be passive, or he might be simply ineffectual, until he finally manages to escape by the skin of his teeth. Then things continue to get worse -- again out of his control -- until he manages to reach deep down inside himself and come up with the where-with-all to fight the Big Evil Badguys.

It works when Cary Grant is kidnapped by spies at the beginning of North By Northwest. It works with pretty much anything Jimmy Stewart appeared in.

However, it doesn't work for adventure. Not as well, anyway.

The difference is the premise. In a thriller, an ordinary guy is swept into a life where he doesn't belong. He may have the stuff of heroism in him, he may even evolve into a hero, but the fundamental problem of the story (the question asked at the opening) is "how does this poor schmuck get out of this and restore peace in his life?"

In other words, the character is thrown out of his element, and needs to get back to normal.

With an adventure, the hero is not out of his element. When James Bond is kidnapped, beaten up, shot at, chased and tortured, that's his job. He volunteered for it. You can combine both kinds of hero, but if you make him a victim rather than a volunteer, you confuse the premise. You weaken the story by making it harder for audience to see what they're rooting for.

This explains to me, at last, why I get bored in the beginning of many books and stories I actually like. I love stories in which ordinary people turn out to be real heroes. Very often, though, there is a very slow period at the beginning where they are swept up in the situation, go into denial, suffer confusion and angst, and then something kicks them into gear and the story starts. It can work, but if the writer is not a master who is fighting against this lost of premise the whole time, it stops the momentum of the story.

(Note: one way this can work in any kind of story is if it happens to a secondary character. Each character can have a different premise, as long as it's clear which is the main premise of the story. Maybe I'll write more about that next week too....)

But back to my story. Alex is an ordinary guy the way Don Diego Vega (Zorro) is an ordinary guy, or Sir Percy Blakeney (The Scarlet Pimpernel) is an ordinary guy. Or Rudolf Rassendyll -- the idle Englishman who takes the place of a king in The Prisoner of Zenda. These three guys, when you take them at face value, seem like they belong in a thriller. Silly, idle, party-boys who never have a serious thought in their heads. But when trouble comes their way, they volunteer to deal with it. "No problem, dude. I'm on it!"

In other words, when trouble arises, the main question that the audience is given is not "How does the hero get out of this and go back to normal?" but rather "How does the hero fix this terrible situation for others?"

Which is another reason why I like the waterfall problem for my story. It isn't just a situation Alex is thrust into, and he's not just floundering. He went into the water to rescue his professor, and though the situation got out of hand, he carried on with his duty.

So it's an adventure, but the waterfall was just a foreshadowing. The adventure story hasn't really begun. The heroes are there, but not with any raging need to be heroes. And I have two choices: I could simply present them with an adventure -- unrelated to themselves -- and let them deal with their own overriding problem as a subplot. OR I could find a way to make their central problem into the story, but I'd have to fight off that "thriller" aspect of it all the way through.

I got an idea for splitting the difference. And that, at last will get me to the part I was asked to explain more: how to compound complications rather than just letting them be like a string of beads. (And why stringing beads isn't good.)

I'll try to get to that last post early tomorrow (it should be shorter, but I don't guarantee it), because I want to continue with the "Sample Sunday" postings of fiction and excerpts.

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