From time to time I need to pull back, take a break from the actual writing, and take a long hard look at the big picture that I’m trying to paint using nothing but words. I need to sharpen my focus so I can better see the intricacies and subtleties and nuances that are beginning to — to what? Come into being? Give birth to themselves? Decide to stop hiding?
That’s when I close the laptop and go to my library to study the structure of Story — its bones, guts, and muscles — and how they all work together.
An his article/essay, Where Can I find an Original Plot?, Richard Young states there are in fact only three plots. In the whole world. In all of human history. What we read in all of literature and drama and genre fiction are just the myriad, possible variations on these three original plots. He points out that it is a lack of whatever that sets things in motion —
John Truby in his The Anatomy of Story also stresses the importance of the concept of lack in creating genuinely organic [as opposed to formulaic or mechanical] storytelling:
Main Character Lacks Something; M.C. set abouts acquiring that Something; M.C. achieves that Something, and enjoys [genuine or dubious] Success — or, M.C. fails and faces or deals with consequences of Failure.
Joseph Campbell, in The Hero with a Thousand Faces lists that all-important lack as an absolutely crucial criterion in the hero’s journey. Something vital is missing from the main character’s life — the story is about the discovery of the lack, and the character’s attempts to remedy that lack, and how the character’s life is made better by filling that lack. Or, the reverse of all of that, which can also make for an interesting story,… though it might be a downer, in the end.
A lack is identified, its remedy is sought – acquired – deployed, and the lack is addressed. Truby states the driving or motivating lack identifies who is the true main character in the story — okay, cool. Now I have my own guidelines to determine whether a character, like a noun, is subjective or nominative.
Trouble is, none of the gents listed above make much mention about what happens once the remedy of the lack has been put into motion [I guess, because, that makes for another story entirely?].
Okay, except Campbell, who says the cycle of the journey begins anew and will continue to do so, until the ‘Hero’ has at last incorporated what he’s learned into his being and/or outlook,….
Wow. Sounds an awful lot like Samsara, to me.
In the movie Donnie Darko, the titular character disagrees with a teacher about human behaviour when she parrots the words of her feel-good guru that there are only two emotions: Love and Fear. Donnie argues that it can’t be so easily confined to such black-and-white terms:
I agree with Donnie: “There are other things that need to be taken into account here, like the whole spectrum of human emotion. You can’t just lump everything into these two categories and then just deny everything else — !”
But when it comes to human motivation — as a writer charting my own paths in ‘the world of the story’ as John Truby calls it — I kinda hafta disagree, as I’m coming at this all from a different angle.
I have to disagree, if I ever expect to into my characters heads, hearts, and instincts. I have to wrap my head around their psyches, and sometimes that’s genuinely painful.
When I began working [in earnest] on character creation and developing the character arcs, I took ‘the whole spectrum of human emotion’ and tried boiling it down to an absolutely minimalistic reduction, to its most basic of elements. In the very end, there were only three things remaining in that pot — once all the fragile veneers of civilisation, social conditioning, political correctness, and personality have all been boiled away — just three things:
Fear and Hunger and Pain. These are core. These are the animal instincts for survival, survival at any cost — a kind of default setting, if you will. The purpose of hunger and fear and pain is to protect and preserve the body.
And which of these three — fear or hunger or pain — will drive any one character? The one that overpowers all intellect and reason, the conscience, and love or hate, will be the one to dominate that inner struggle.
Which is the more powerful, at that particular moment in the story? Which is too strong for the character to resist?
Will it be fear? Or will it be hunger? Or will it be pain? Each of these is a lack of some kind, each of these demands to be addressed if the creature/character suffering the lack is to have any kind of relief, or assurance of survival.
Fear breeds contempt — a slightly less cancerous form of hatred, but it also manifests itself as anger and sometimes violence. Prolonged hunger leads to death by starvation, a miserable and painful process for any animal. And pain is to be avoided before it can mutate into intolerable agony.
There’s fear of hunger and there’s fear of pain, both extremely effective in manipulating either animal or human behavior. So maybe if I’d boiled that all down a while longer, only fear would remain in that pot.
‘Everything we do in life is based on fear, especially love.’
MEL BROOKS, filmmaker
After the character has succumbed to the most basic of all animal motivations, will a sense of Self be strong enough to re-assert itself, to keep that character from sacrificing all of her/his humanity? How hard will that character have to work to claw his way out of that pit?
It’s a trial by ordeal, that tests the Character of the character.
And we get to watch. That’s our job in the Story — we are the witnesses, to later give our testimonies of the character’s triumphs or failures.
Any minute now, some wide-eyed idealist is going to threaten me with eternal damnation [Which I Do Not Believe In, so save your breath] because I’m downplaying — if not contemptuously dismissing — the Power of Love.
I’m not. I do believe in the power of love, but this isn’t about that.
Remember, I’m not talking about emotion. I’m talking about raw motive [when the unpredictable element of love* isn’t part of the primary equation], that which motivates the character into wise or foolish choices, and wise or rash actions — or in some cases, timid or apathetic inaction — that propels the story forward, towards its inevitable conclusion.
Does the character fear that lack, or is he made to hunger because of it?
Fear might lead to starvation. But hunger can make an animal oblivious to any and all obstacles or dangers between itself and food. And pain has been known to drive men mad. At some point the balance tips, but will the character’s Character have any influence in which direction?
Where does personal integrity enter the picture? What of nobility?
Hmmm,… maybe this is more a matter of personal perspective, on my part. I have been told, repeatedly, that I tend to over-analyze things.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
*Love — like art — is inconveniently and confusingly subjective, and everyone is going to have a unique take on that subject. It defies rigid definition and pigeon-holing. It teases and thrills and intoxicates. It makes promises and leaves us shattered, devastated and stupidly begging for more. It soothes, it inspires. Maybe that’s why so many are in so enthralled with art — it’s love at a [more, or less] safe distance.
Or maybe that’s just me. I don’t know.
Dammit — !
There goes another bloody tangent,….