Friday, May 15, 2009

Tools, Not Rules

So this Orson Scott Card book is really working for me.

So one of the things I’ve had pounded into my head throughout my writing apprenticeship (and that I have in turn pounded into other people’s heads) is that stories are about character growth and conflict. Which can be true…

Except when it’s not

One of the things that Card explains better that I’ve seen before is the different types of stories. Sure there are character driven stories, but also event stories, idea stories, and milieu stories. And after years of focusing on one kind of story, it was helpful to be reminded of this. In fact, one of the things I’ve argued with some of my writing instructors (with varying degrees of success) is that the need for direct conflict in every scene pertains only to a certain type of story, that not all stories need that specific sort of tension to create a narrative drive.

Which I think goes a long way to explaining why some stories leave some readers cold while others rave about them, they’re not our type of stories.

In the same vein, just because stories with character growth speak to me more vividly than other stories doesn’t mean it’s the only type of story out there. (Although, Card does make the point that a greater level of characterization is currently the fashion now, just as “Dear Reader” was the fashion in the late 19th century, and that is true.)

This was yet another thing I needed to hear right now, especially as I ruminate on additional Theo books.

The truth is that Theodosia doesn’t have giant growth arcs in each book, but quieter, smaller episodes of personal growth. Card put it really well; he said, in some stories characters are revealed, rather than grow. Another aha! moment. Theo isn’t hugely unsatisfied with her life or needing to move out of the emotional place she was in, she just needs to understand it better and her role in it. With each adventure she faces she learns more about herself, but she doesn’t undergo some monumental change. I do challenge each book to go deeper than the one before or to shade different elements of her development; in Book II for example, she had to stand fast to who she was in spite of the formidable influence of her grandmother and a bevy of governesses. And in Book III, we see her “tribe” of fellow odd ducks beginning to coalesce around her.

Part of the reason for this less steep growth is that she started out strong to begin with. Nathaniel Fludd on the other hand, does have quite a lot of growing to do. His emotional scars are greater, partly because his life experience has been more extreme, and partly because he had a more tender nature to begin with. So the Beastolgoist books are very much about him growing into a different, healthier, more emotionally secure and balanced individual.

It occurs to me that I really need to have Tools, not rules, tattooed on my forehead!


beckylevine said...

You'll have to have it tattooed backward, so you can read it in the reflection off your monitor.

Okay, I clearly need to get this book. I think I had it years ago, but hadn't really used it. Now I'm thinking it's like the Maass book, and maybe the reader (me!) wasn't quite ready. As I grow, my writing grows? Or the other way around?

Thanks, Robin.

BTW, I LOVED Grandmother & the governesses! And Theo's handling of them. :)

Robin L said...

LOL! True, Becky!

And you know, I tried to read this book before, too, and it left me pretty flat, but now, as you can see, it's really speaking to me. I would have to agree that it must have something to do with the stage of writing we're in, definitely. Or maybe just a confirmation of the adage, When the pupil is ready, the teacher will come...?

So glad Grandmother and the governesses worked for you! I had a TON of fun writing them.

Dave Johnson said...

A very timely post, Robin. I've been struggling with this issue because I also have a character who starts really strong, and doesn't undergo huge changes. It's frustrating sometimes when agents look at a synopsis and say, "I don't see the emotional arc of the character." I've concluded that for my character to be who she is, she simply can't change much - she is a rock most of the time and the world changes around her. She is affected by it, and she has an effect on it, but she refuses to let it change her. I can't write her confidently if I try to wedge in "personal growth" moments artificially.

I really get what you mean about Theodosia. The thing I adore about her is that she is very self-assured without being precocious. I don't want her to change! It's fine that she grows - she has to. But the lack of earthshaking self-revelation is in fact what seems to make her such a dependable and consistent character. She already knows who she is, and I love her for that.

Robin L said...

Hey Dave! So glad you "got" Theodosia! (Although quite a few people have found her precocious, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.)
When we were shopping the mss around, there were a few editors who wanted her to be more vulnerable, but like you, it didn't feel right to me. It can, however, be a challenge to overcome some of those perceptions.

If your character doesn't change much, does she grow in the same sense that Theo does? Does she become more self-aware in same way? Because even if a character doesn't change significantly, there should be something in the adventure that changes her view of the world.

I'm wondering if you could identify that, maybe you could emphasize her new awareness in the synopsis? Kind of pretend it's a growth arc, for the sake the synopsis?

Another trick, although fairly useless in the synopsis, is to be sure you've layered the character really well so that you are revealing her character in stages, which will give a feeling of emotional movement in the story.

Dave Johnson said...

It's exactly as you say - the character becomes more self-aware. She discovers all kinds of horrible things about her origins, her strengths and weaknesses, etc. but the point is that none of those things changes the person she is now, in terms of her core personality. Obviously she grapples with these revelations and realizations (which might be considered "growth") but in the end, she succeeds because she remains true to herself regardless of these things that should change her (for the worse). That's really hard to convey in a synopsis - but I'm gonna do it!