May 14 2009

first fans and character momentum

Published by at 7:15 am under beta readers rock,Life,momentum,Writing

I may very well have found one of the best “first readers” ever.  Bouncy enthusiasm along with insightful critique, in-between more bounciness.  And at least for this project, she’s exactly the sort of reader I’m trying to entertain with this novel.  I mostly mention it because I know she’ll blush and get all squirmy when reading this (insert evil chuckle here).

Onto the writerly chat for the week:  I was chatting with a friend the other day who asked about character momentum.  This friend felt that their story character was uninterested or unwilling to tell the rest of their story, that they had run out of steam.  We discussed a couple of more personal possibilities for why, but I spent some time after the conversation thinking and chatting in a more general sense with my local expert perspective on this topic and thought I’d share that here for potential wider writing discussion.

For myself, I find that I usually assume that a character who isn’t cooperating while stilll living in my head just isn’t ready to tell their story yet.  Once I figure this out (you’d think I’d get faster at it, but it varies), I let he, she, or it roam around in the back alleys and halls there while I go to work on telling a different character’s tale.  This becomes less convenient if I’ve already started writing the recalcitrant character’s story, and for now my easy answer to that is “that’s what ‘the trunk’ is for”.  Learning how to set aside a stuck or stale story into the trunk is its own lesson, and I also presume that when I start having to deal with contracts for books not yet written, my method of managing mewlishly mute characters will have to change to accommodate a storytelling time restriction.

Occasionally I’ve found that a character won’t cooperate because I’m trying to tell the wrong story.  I often approach my storytelling by crafting a character first, with a much more vague idea of specific plot, and then see what the created character does with a setting.  If one story path fizzles, I metaphorically turn the character loose to go walkabout and see if they bring back a better or more interesting story.  There’s one character that’s lived in a little nook in my mind since I was 8; I still haven’t found the exact story where she goes, though I think I might have at least figured out the genre.

Steve says that the number one reason he knows that a character would no longer want to tell his story is that the author has already told it.  It’s apparently the reason why many writers won’t talk about their in-progress work before a draft is finished.  This is certainly not a problem I share, given the peculiar verbal aspect to my writing process, and I wonder if that might not be one of the differences between storytellers and writers — whether telling the story once through causes one to lose interest or just see a different way to tell it next time.

Steve also suggests that a loss of momentum could happen if you are asking your character to do something that is not in their nature to do.  Asking them to behave “out of character” can cause them to become stubborn or feel unreal.  One trick he uses for when this happens is to have a “fallback scene” ready, some stock scene that your character can go and do while you-the-writer figure things out (and stay in your regular writing routine while you do).  Steve will often have Vlad go and eat a meal to figure out what to do next; when Vlad solves the current problem, Steve will delete the irrelevant parts of the mental noodling and get on with the story.

What are some of your found tricks for jump-starting a stuck piece?  Or do you have other questions about this topic we haven’t yet discussed?  I’m always interested in hearing about the processes of other artists.

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