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Homework Assignment at the End
One of our writing Workshop students has been discussing how to characterize a romantic hero:
STUDENT: Geez...no one really believes that the heros in romance are real life people---or I have never met anyone who does. It's 'escapism' reading.
COMMENT: Well, actually your heroes have enough flaws and problems and stubborn wrong-headedness to be real, if they just weren't such holier-than-thou boy scouts.
STUDENT (quizzically, not defensively) I like my heros with flaws and good guys. There aren't enough good guys in the world....what would you suggest I do..not make them boy scouts? I try to portray them as men just trying to get by in life...and where I live..that is how men are...yes they have problems, but yes, they try to do what's right.....
Commentary by Jacqueline Lichtenberg on this exchange.
The solution to this problem of the "boyscout" perception lies in a fairly advanced lesson in writing that I call PLOT/CHARACTER INTEGRATION. It's not that your heros are boyscouts -- but that you don't know HOW to integrate their character with the PLOT.
When commentators perceive your characters as "goodytwoshoes" or "boyscout" instead of adult heros, it's not your Characters that are at fault, nor your ability to Characterize. Nor is it your storytelling ability. It's a simple technical trick that's lacking, and all the THEME stuff I've been stomping on the workshoppers about is the foundation of that advanced lesson -- where you have to walk and chew gum at the same time, it gets hard.
THEME is the foundation of this skill. Learn how the theme creates, delineates and drives the plot. Then learn how THEME dictates the POV character, and his/her INTERNAL and EXTERNAL conflicts. When you've grasped all that, THEN you start to "integrate" them -- to weave them together into a tapestry that nobody but you can ever take apart again.
You know how a better printer gives you better "resolution" with more dots-per-inch? Well, you do the same thing with the PORTRAITS of your characters that you paint in words. When you increase the resolution of that portrait's details, you increase the reader's enjoyment. You control that "resolution" of your character's portraits by the close and seamless INTEGRATION of the plot and the character -- so that the reader isn't "seeing" two images with blurred edges fighting each other -- so that the reader is seeing only ONE IMAGE - the one you have chosen to project to exemplify your theme.
The reader doesn't object to your characters being "boyscouts" but that the EVENTS OF THEIR LIVES don't match the "boyscout image" with clean, sharp edges. Like an inkjet printer on its last legs -- the colors smear and blur around the edges.
Faced with those two blurred overlapping images, the reader does what your eye does when trying to understand a blurred image -- focuses on ONE outline. The "whole picture" then becomes only that one outline, and the comment is "get rid of the other outline to clean this image up".
But that is a comment of a reader with mental eyestrain. What they're really asking you to do is to sharpen the image, to focus it for them -- and as a Writer with a full Craftsman's toolbox, you may choose any one of dozens of appropriate tools to sharpen that image. You may pear away the "other" material. Or you may choose to bring the two overlapping images into allignment on top of each other, so their edges coincide exactly and suddenly the IMAGE is sharp and clear.
In this case, one image is the Character's INTERNAL CONFLICTS, his problems. The other image is the Character's Life generated by his Life Choices. And your commentator is telling you that a person with THESE CONFLICTS isn't going to "BE A BOYSCOUT" -- at least not all the time. He won't always try to "do the right thing" -- he won't always take a woman's "no" for an answer. And therefore the choices he makes and the things that happen TO HIM as a result (choices=plot-action and things that HAPPEN TO HIM are plot events) will not be the kinds of things that would happen to a "real boyscout."
When commentators who aren't writers tell you that your characters are 'goody two shoes' or "boyscouts". It's the plot/character integration that's gone out of focus.
The character's reactions, feelings, responses to their situation are "unbelievable" because the CHARACTER and WHAT IS HAPPENING TO THAT CHARACTER are two separate, independent things.
For a story to make sense to a reader, (for characters to seem both real and realistic) the plot and the character must not be two, separate and independently chosen things. They must be one, indivisible WHOLE -- they must be integrated like the warp and woof of a fabric.
That integration is PHILOSOPHICAL, and philosophy is another word for THEME. Theme is a statement of a Life Philosophy. If you state your theme clearly, then even people who flatly disagree with your philosophy will enjoy reading the story. A writer must be fully in touch with their own subconscious philosophical assumptions about reality to be effective at integrating plot and character.
But that doesn't mean that you have to be fully, consciously aware of your whole philosophy before you start writing. Many writers who are very successful are unaware of their own philosophy -- those writers, you will find on study of their work, have somehow acquired a coherent personal philosophy. And they use that to write with - and in the process discover what their own philosophy is.
When a commentator complains that your characters are "too this" or "too that" -- too good, too evil, too insipid, it's not what you intended to say that's "wrong" -- but HOW you went about saying it.
There are two basic tools for solving the problem of that "your characters are too -- " response. 1) Analysis and 2) Integration.
I've demonstrated Analysis at some depth in my column, Recommended Books. And I've been harping on it beyond all reason in my posts to the Workshop on the mechanical pieces of fiction -- protagonist, antagonist, beginning, middle, end, conflict, resolution, theme, setting, etc.
Once you've disassembled a piece of fiction into its components, you must then re-integrate it into a seamless whole -- and paint and polish until nobody can tell it was ever made out of modular components. When you don't get the integration done properly, readers (and editors) will squirm and complain about things that have nothing to do with what actually went wrong in the constructing. They're seeing double-images, they're seeing seams, they're seeing the stitching. Learn to "blind-stitch" your fiction together, and people will be impressed.
What does this really mean to a writer in practice?
Take the Hero who is a "Real Man" -- he's not only a hunk, he has a long list of respectable achievements behind him, even though he's young. He has credentials. He has community respect. From the female Protagonist's Point of View, he appears to be PERFECT.
What does that tell the reader? It depends on the reader's Philosophy of Life and personal experience. Most people know that people who appear perfect are hiding a flaw. The more perfect they appear, the more ghastly the flaw that shell of perfection must hide. So a rich, powerful, young man must have a terrible, secret shame hidden within.
The female protagonist is "In Love" -- and therefore doesn't consider that "hidden flaw" -- or if she does, she brushes it aside.
In an Action Genre novel, that 'brushing aside' of the hidden flaw is the pivotal point upon which the climax and resolution must turn. That one SECRET SHAME is the weapon that the female protagonist uses to defeat the Antagonist (for example, by whispering piercing words that will shame the Hero, she gets him mad enough to go out there and wipe the floor with the villain).
In a Romance Novel, the "terrible hidden shame" comes out at the middle of the book -- (the low point, since a Romance must have a happy ending) and destroys the couple, separating them. The END sees the terrible hidden shame overcome at alst, which brings the couple together to live happily ever after.
In a Murder Mystery -- The Hero is accused of the murder, and the "terrible hidden shame" comes out at the END where it exonerates the Hero, and the female protagonist melts in love while dying of shame that she ever doubted him.
The "boyscout" Hero appears to be perfect, and really is. He has no hidden flaw -- and therefore, he has no story.
STORY happens where conflict is being resolved. This Hero's story is "Xavier strives to live up to his father's high standards and always turn a cool, well groomed, gentlemanly exterior to the world. But he knows that he is a seething pit of raging passion inside. He reads porn magazines in the bathroom at midnight. And he has no respect for women. His true Self as he knows himself is loathsome to him. He is revolted by his behavior but he keeps doing it and none of the expensive therapists have been able to help him. He's given up.
"Then he meets a woman. And he Wants her and lets her know it. But she wins his respect. So when she comes on to him, he finds himself completely impotent (because he has no sexual interest in women he respects). She, on the other hand thinks he's a 'boy scout' -- too well behaved for his own good and that's why he doesn't take her to bed immediately as all the other men she's ever met would. This totally changes her attitude toward men. Suddenly, for the first time in her life, she's ready to comitt - and she asks him to marry her."
That's the opening scene of Xavier's story -- a woman proposes to him with passion in her heart because he's a 'boyscout'. The background about him is filled in as you go along -- keeping the Situation (Situation is one of those mechanical components of fiction) EVER CHANGING in a direct line toward the Resolution of the Conflict.
That is an example of PLOT/CHARACTER integration. The Character's internal nature and behavior DICTATES what happens TO HIM as a result of WHAT HE'S DONE.
It works just as well in reverse -- where the EXTERIOR image of the Man is terrible, horrible, wasted, worthless -- but the inside is the boyscout. The Man's terrible-wasted-worthless behavior impacts on a girlscout type Woman to corrupt her horribly. And the boyscout-within cringes in horror. That story starts where the Man witnesses the Woman doing a Dirty Deed because of his influence on her -- perhaps murder if it's a Mystery, Adultery if it's a Romance, Cheating at Arms Dealing if it's an Action saga. Or taking a drink if it's a story about alcoholism.
HOMEWORK: Write three stories summarized in this condensed fashion. Use only ACTIVE VERBS, no passives at all. Focus on getting the Nature of the Character, the philosophical statement about the Nature of Life, and the EVENTS that happen TO the Character to come into sharp focus.
Test your work to see if what happens TO a particular character is what SHOULD or what WOULD happen to them.
Finally, test your work by extracting from what you've written a single, clear, declarative sentence that defines the THEME of the story. What does it MEAN that these Events happen to THIS PERSON as a result of THESE ACTIONS? That "meaning" is your theme.
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