Monday, October 17, 2011

Action and Desire and Character

The structure of my work-in-progress is, at least so far, chapters which alternate between the male lead character (David) and the female lead character (Catherine). David works at a university in Seattle, Washington. Catherine is currently doing missionary work along the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Catherine gets the even-numbered chapters, and I'm now facing off against Chapter 4. With me so far?

During Chapter 2, I realized, we learned very little about Catherine. The setting is so rich and the characters are so particular that we mostly see Catherine as a person surrounded by interesting things and people, though Stuff Happens and Catherine takes a couple of strong positions. Taking a strong position is a form of action; ask Aristotle if you don't believe me.

But her strong positions aren't enough in the way of action to carry a story or even tell me what happens in Chapter 4, which means that I needed to have Catherine doing something in Africa for a reason. Not the missionary work with the nuns, but the purpose behind that. As my old agent used to say, "Your protagonist has to want something." Luckily for me, there were already clues about that in Chapter 2 where Catherine took a stand. No more about that, though (spoilers). Suffice it to say that my female lead has a particular desire which will color her actions and so define her character.

I am pleased with who Catherine is turning out to be. She's a complex character and I'll have lots of things to do with her purposefulness and this purpose might, maybe, show me how to have her story mesh with David's story somewhere in the future when their plots intersect. So that's good.

Reading all that Chekhov has been good for me; the appropriate groupings of character traits and contradictions were more readily apparent for this character than they've been for anyone else I've written. Mr Chekhov was all about grouping narrative elements properly. It's a pity he didn't write more about writing.


  1. I'm glad writing is going so well for you. I have to jump back in, and am finding, after re-reading what I wrote, I now have to give the heroine something to "want". Hmmm. Tricky. Perhaps money. Everyone wants money, right?

  2. Right, but money is too simple. What's money represent to your heroine? What does she fear will happen to her if she doesn't get money? Of what does she secretly accuse herself that money will salve? Where does she think she's weak or in danger? What does she think she'll lose, what loss will devastate her unless she gets money? What secret about her will become public unless (she thinks) she has money? Et cetera. Look beyond mere money to find her true desires.

  3. Sounds yummy! Readung Checkhov just couldn't go wrong, now could it? :)

  4. Actually, in this case, money isn't that simple. Remember I'm writing in 1811, and women had nothing. Money is the one thing that will get her out of the mess she finds herself in. A husband who wants to divorce her (or at least have the marriage annulled) and if he does that, she'll have nowhere to go. She can't go back to her father's house. She has no skills other than watercolor painting, and spinning her own wool. The secret that would come out (which binds her to her husband) would make her a laughingstock in Society and she would never find another husband.

    So she really needs the money he's going to give her in exchange for the annulment, unless she can convince him to stay married to her.

    Hey, thanks for making me think this out further. It's all coming together now.

  5. Anne, that's all great stuff. I might (if you haven't already) have her consider some options to money, even if money in the end is the real solution. You know, to increase the desperation for a while. That's always good.

    Michelle, I have to read some Virginia Woolf soon, too. But the Chekhov Experience has been really good to me, really instructive.