Monday, April 20, 2009

Gut Reaction

When my kids, individually or together, encounter a snafu, small or large, my first instinct is to swoop in and diffuse any upset or conflict. I like to kiss boo-boos, make them comfortable and ease their troubles.

The same is true with my fictional characters. At the first hint of distress, I rush in to smooth things out and fit them into a hunky-dory box. My mind likes things tied up neat and pretty, I guess.

And where does this get me? In a boring boat without the slightest movement. (Think about that, for just a half-second.)

How are my kids going to learn their way through life if I make every little thing easier for them? How will they learn conflict resolution or problem-solving skills, if I don't give them the chance to test themselves?

How will my characters create the right friction? How will their stories evolve into enough intrigue and emotion, if I don't let things play out at their worst on the page?

I'm learning.

With my kids, I'll sit back a little more often and let them try to figure things out. It's hard for this mom, but it's necessary.

With my characters, I'm working to create more depth and issue, raising the stakes, as Donald Maass tells us to do in Writing the Breakout Novel. Sure, it's more work for this writer. But it's necessary.

It'll be better for all of us, real or imagined.

32 comments:

Terri Tiffany said...

I'm trying to learn to do the same thing and it is hard! I'm a fixer and from my counseling background, I hate to have a lot of conflict so it feels weird but when we do it right--it's like a wow moment!

Kristen Painter said...

Whenever you have to make a choice in your storytelling, always pick the thing that makes the situation worse, not better. At least until you get to the end. lol

Rob-bear said...

I guess a male perspective on this is a bit different. I let our grandchildren try, and do, things which I'm sure would terrify my wife and daughter in law. A few bumps and bruises aren't going to kill these little people (I keep them steered away from really serious problems). And after a "misadventure," I check their latest bump or scrape (to make sure it isn't serious), and tell them, "Well now, that wasn't so bad, was it." And we'll sit and talk about what happened and why and how they feel. And after a bit we'll be on to a new adventure.

As I said, I think males have a different perspective on these things.

thedomesticfringe said...

Hmmm...very interesting. I guess it makes sense to treat your characters like your children. Not that I've ever written a book, but it must become like your baby.
-FringeGirl

Janna Qualman said...

Terri - You're right! :) I would say I'm the type to do everything I can before it gets broken. ;)

Kristen - This is hard! But I'm making it happen.

Rob-bear - I think that's my ideal goal as a mom, I'm just much more squeamish about the whole thing. ;)

FringeGirl - I've heard authors refer to their works as babies before, certainly. And really there are lots of similarities: the commitment, the responsibility, the "gestation" period and then seeing it to the light of day.

Pink Ink said...

Writing fiction with good conflict makes me feel like a sadist! :-) And that's on a good day.

Joanne said...

I've heard it said that the real writing begins when the characters take over. It sounds like that's what's happening here, as though your characters are about to take the story into their own hands. Have fun with it!

Brian and Kelly said...

This is so true! Another blog I read is all about murder/suspense/kidnapping/etc. Don't know if I could write about those kinds of things-- but I'm sure there are some minor catastrophies I could handle. Let's see... fender bender, no 2% milk at the grocery store, diet w/ no brownies. Yep. I've got this covered.

Melissa Marsh said...

Absolutely. I was just thinking about this during the morning commute, how I sometimes overly-comfort my daughter when she needs to learn those conflict-resolving skills. It's easy to do when they're young, too.

Janna Qualman said...

Jewel - I guess you're off the hook since it IS fiction. ;)

Joanne - I've definitely experienced that before, when characters surprise me with something. I just want them to stop being so sissy! ;)

Kelly - Oh my, there's quite a bit of horror in those things you mentioned! :) It's all a matter of putting yourself in the situation, in thought, and working your way out as you write about it. I mean, there's more to it than that, obviously, but you get the gist.

Melissa - It's too easy. Which in turn makes motherhood hard. Ya know?

Jessica said...

LOL Janna. Great tie-in. I love making things difficult for my characters and sometimes I let my kids fight. LOL I'm meaner than you. :-) YOu're so right though about our kids learning how to problem-solve, compromise, etc.

Cindy said...

What an interesting post! I didn't realize but I tend to do that with my characters too, sometimes. Or if they do something wrong, the character they wronged tends to forgive them so quickly and easily. Sure that happens sometimes, but it's not always that simple in real life. And even so, it helps to create tension in our novels and then show a great development in our character when they have to work through those issue.

Janna Qualman said...

Jessica, you big meanie. ;)

Cindy - Yes! My MC has been so passive and forgiving, in a sense, that she just lets stuff roll right off her back. I'm trying to make her more realistic - because none of us is that "perfect" all the time - and give her some dimension. Every circumstance shouldn't float by with no waves.

Turkey Lurkey said...

I was just thinking about this very thing with my WIP#2. I stopped half way through writing it because I was BORED. This morning I conjured up a whole new beginning. (Something more compelling.)

Lori Tiron-Pandit said...

That's a really interesting perspective. I never thought of it. But in real life I do tend to let the kids learn to solve their problems by themselves (whenever possible). Now, my characters... I have to ponder over that.

Janet said...

LOL. Yup, relieving discomfort as soon as it appears makes for comfortable living and boring reading. At one point my protagonist and his wife were making plans. Good plans. It was going to keep them safe and solve a lot of problems. And even I was getting bored. So I asked myself, what could go wrong here and really mess things up? And then I did that to them. It made for a much better story.

In real life I didn't try to create problems for my kids but I was a merciless mother. I refused to do homework for my kids (what's up with that anyway?), didn't even put a BandAid on most wounds (the medical community now shares my opinion that it actually slows healing - hah!) and let them play unsupervised. They all survived and do not expect their parents to pull them out of every hole.

Rob-bear, it has traditionally been the male role to pull children out from over-protective mothers. I think we need a bit of a return to that, myself. It was perhaps easier for me than most mothers because my own mother did not molly-coddle me. Good for her.

T. Anne said...

I am too always on the look out to create the perfect tension. Much easier stated by Mass than done, right? I'll be purchasing his new book as well, hopefully that will offer more clues. LOL

WendyCinNYC said...

I'm so mean to my characters! Let's see, what would really be horrible for her? I'll write that!

I'm not that way with my kids, I promise!

Melanie Avila said...

I adore that book and that is such good advice. Maybe I'll flip through it again this week.

I'm glad you've realized what you need to do for your characters. I've changed one big thing in my first chapter that makes everything more difficult for my MC, and I'm about to do something else to him in Chapter 2. Both are new since you read it. :)

The things we do for an interesting story...

Sharla said...

TOTALLY the same way! I have to fix everything for my daughter, and it drives her up a tree. And I never realized until reading your post that that's what I do in my writing too. Bells!!! Wow! I have so much trouble putting conflict in, I want to make their lives easier. I never put the two together.

Now, I had to laugh looking at the posts...Janna, look at how you have to answer each one... addressing each person... tieing up those ends neat and pretty just like you said... Isn't that funny?

Thank you for your insight! I'm learning too.

Janna Qualman said...

Turk - Good luck with your new beginning!

Lori - Any parallels for you?

And Janet, we absolutely need more merciless mothers! We'd be a better place if that were the case.

T. Anne - Ooh! I didn't realize he had a new one coming out. I'll have to check into it.

Wendy - Teach me your ways!

Melanie - I'm certainly intrigued!

Sharla - *snicker* I don't want to leave anyone out!

Woman in a Window said...

This is really interesting to me. Yes, a novel on the go (I use the word go with a great guffaw, 'cause it's not going anywhere right now) and all I seem to want to do is one day after the other. I know what will happen. I know the trama and all that. But it is difficult to put our loved ones in that kinda difficult situation, to see them hurt. Huh. Glad I'm not alone.

Now, bring on the pain!

Janna Qualman said...

Woman - I get stuck in that, too; just moving the MC from one scene to the next. I have to remind myself there needs to be more depth and more introspection, etc. All that interesting stuff.

scarlethue said...

I avoid drama and conflict at all points in my life. Sometimes that's meant avoiding change too, even when it probably would have been good for me and usually happens anyway. It's true that some conflict is good for us.

colleen said...

When I'm lonely for poetry and haven't written any in awhile I personify it and write to it as if it is a character.

Angie Ledbetter said...

Isn't the Maass book fabu??!

giddymomof6 said...

I love this post! And you're so right! I was totally babying my characters until I came across a blog that talked about writing an awesome book. the author said if you want to get the most out of your book you HAVE to put your characters in horrible situations. they said to just do it. Don't think about it, you have to be mean to help them grow and develop. After that, I stopped cringing when I come to a horrible part of my MS instead I just push them in. They always surprise and amaze me with how much better they are at handling the situation! Jenni

Janna Qualman said...

scarlethue - That's true of me, too, of fearing change. I like comfort. Good old-fashioned comfort.

Colleen - That's a great idea! And welcome. :)

Angie - Indeed, lady.

Jenni - It's a huge lesson, ain't?

Kathryn Magendie said...

Letting our characters fail sometimes or be vulnerable is important, yes -- if we step aside, they'll muck along just as we do in real life ! :) good post!

Lynnette Labelle said...

I like to make my characters suffer. hehehe

I nominated you for an award. Check it out on my blog.

Lynnette Labelle
http://lynnettelabelle.blogspotcom

Jody Hedlund said...

Thank you so much for stopping by my blog and leaving a comment!

I agree. It's hard not to step in when our kids are fighting and try to fix it for them! Same with our characters! Especially with our characters. . .they need to fight to the "kill." It's what keeps the reader turning the pages!

Janna Qualman said...

Kat - It's been fun learning that these last few days! It's opening up so much direction for my characters.

Lynnette - Thanks for the award!

Jody - And that's exactly what we want to give them: a page turner! :)