Last week, I dreamed about a boy I loved in grade school. The dream was one of those lucid dream-states where your conscious mind hums along in the background, gently whispering here and there, this isn’t really happening, and that doesn’t quite make sense, and you didn’t even know him in high school, so what are you doing in a high school building that isn’t even yours?
When I awoke, I felt a pressing need to finish (i.e. start over from scratch) a short story I’d finished nearly four years ago, but never quite felt was ready to market. I retained little from the dream besides a few fleeting emotional impressions, the concept of home, and the opening line of the story.
I love it when a story wakes me up, begging to be told. As I quickly typed the draft, trying to capture the flow of the story, I noticed my characters begin to wander about, searching for something. After pondering it for a couple of days, I suddenly had a breakthrough: I finally figured out what the main character really wanted. And everything else fell into place.
One thing that distinguishes great writing is the development and expression of the story’s emotional core. What do these characters want? I mean really want? Deep in their subconscious minds, what is the resolution, the answer to the burning question, the goal they are compelled to achieve, the thing that won’t let them sleep at night? As writers, it’s easy to make our characters do things that fit into a logical progression of events. But in real life, we often are not aware of our deepest motivations for doing a particular thing. Human beings are not always predictable because the subconscious mind is not rational.
If we remain content to mine only our character’s ego and superego—his logical decision-making and his sense of morality—he becomes two-dimensional and predictable. To find a true character, we must make him lie down on our therapist’s couch and peer into the recesses of his soul to find the id lurking in the shadows.
People often do the opposite of what they really want. Why? Because they either aren’t aware of the want, they’re afraid of the want, or their sense of morality censors the want. It’s the same reason people rarely say what they actually mean. But to capture the nuances of human emotion, interaction, and reaction, we as authors must have at least some idea of the state of our character’s true, subconscious motivation. We must know what he should not know about himself at the beginning of the story, in order for the story to have a satisfying arc.
The art of showing through a character’s feelings, actions, and speech what his subconscious mind wants to express is one of the most formidable challenges for a writer. This curious blend of mind, body, and spirit must flow and mingle as a synergistic unit, like the three parts of Freud’s paradigm.
Novice writers often fill the pages of their novel with characters that have conscious, logical motivations, but whose actions lack purpose and passion. After you finish reading this type of work, you say to yourself, “Well, that was nice and fun and occasionally boring, but what was the point?” The point is that the characters must have something deeper driving them than what is readily apparent on the surface.
When we dig deep to harvest these inner conflicts in our characters, we often discover things about ourselves in the process. Perhaps this is one reason many writers simply do not make the effort to “go there.” After all, a fictional character is an expression of the writer’s subconscious.
If we’re not prepared for a little psychological self-analysis, how will we ever expect to unravel the mystery of a fictional character’s life?
Be brave. Delve into the emotional core of your characters, and the story will start to sing.Read More...