Friday, June 18, 2010

Oh Me Aching Head!

Okay, so I know I have to prevent historical events and personages from swamping my main characters, but the knowing is the easy part. It’s the HOW that gets tricky.

Once again, I find I am cutting characters right and left and combining them wherever possible. (Keep in mind I’ve done this twice already.) I’ve eliminated two major secondary characters and about eight extras with speaking parts. And combined two antagonists into one, and taken a role filled by a secondary character and given it to my hero. My new goal is to have all the actions that were being done by those extras performed by existing, more important characters. For the first time in the four years (off and on) that I’ve been working on this book, I finally feel like I have a manageable cast that won’t woefully confuse the reader. Phew.

But now the harder part: the historical events themselves. How to weave them in without letting them take over the story and make it feel as if the characters are being bowled over by history, or worse, leave my characters feeling like human flotsam carried along by history.

One of the first things we learn as writers starting out is that *it really happened* is absolutely meaningless. You have to let go of what really happened and create a cohesive story out of the useable parts of history (or reality, for that matter.) The truth is, history ISN'T satisfying in terms of climax and resolution and catharsis, all the things we look for in a story. History isn’t coherent and doesn’t make sense, or provide closure or any of the things we expect a STORY to do. However, historical events DO rule our lives (just ask anyone who lost their jobs in the last recession!) So the challenge is to pick a portion or thread of history that has the potential to be presented in a way that satisfies the needs of the story, or be willing to alter it a bit.

So what I'm going to do is block out the major historical events in the story, then use them mostly as a backdrop. This will allow me to zero in more closely on how my main characters are reacting to those events and, more importantly, what actions those events cause them to take. Because character is action.

And really, that’s the story. Not the historical events themselves, but how ordinary people react under those extraordinary circumstances. How the crucible that is history, molds them into new, stronger versions of themselves.

But even knowing that, it can still risk feeling like a string of pearls or episodic. How to make it hang together?

And with a resounding duh, I remember, It’s the character, stupid.

It’s the characters goals or motivations that will provide the dramatic throughline for the story, tying the events of history together so that, for this one person whose story it is, they create a cohesive, integral story. They do that through the choices they make, the actions they take, and the way they come to terms with the historical events, either emotionally or intellectually.

So maybe it’s a story about a romance in a war torn country and the historical events are pretty much just one hit after another, the chaos of war, not just the attacks launched by enemy, but the random cruelty that causes among people on the same side trying to survive.

In order to keep it from feeling episodic or string-of-pearls-ish, the character has to provide that cohesion and use the chronology of unfolding events to feed her own motivation, goals, and growth. Each of those unfolding events has to increase the stakes for her in some way, or cause her to try to find a new way to reach her goal, which is the one thing that *does* stay constant throughout the plot. Maybe in each of the disasters that befall her she is able to find some small reason to believe in love rather than give in to despair, or each historical event carries her farther from her love interest, but regardless, she gets up and tries to make her way to him again. Or the unfolding events strip one loved one after another away from her, making the reader all that more invested in seeing the lovers united in the end.

It’s about how those historical events shape their emotional growth.

That's the story. Duh.

This is the painful part about picking up an old project, trying to recollect all the good stuff  you need to know, but not carry forward any of the unnecessary clutter that was mucking up the story.


Katy Cooper said...

You know, reading this, it occurred to me that in the middle ages, they didn't have the 24-hour news cycle (never mind the internet), so that they knew what was happening halfway across the world almost as soon as it happened. So historical events that we can look at in their entirety would probably appear less cohesive to your character, and whole chunks of what happened would probably be unknown to them.

Which makes me see that if the history my character experiences is different than the history I know now, it's not necessarily that I've changed things: I've just allowed my character her ignorance and allowed her to interpret things differently than 20th/21st century historians might.

Hunh. I never thought of it like that... (Because it occurs to me that allowing my character to see things in his own personal way makes him more vivid. Hello! Vivid characters = good things...)

Robin L said...

Wow, excellent point, Katy, on the lack of current news! I've been trying to reduce historical events down to personal actions for exactly that reason. But I hadn't thought about that absolute lag time for any sort of accurate news...