Wednesday, March 9, 2011

But, Why?

One of the symptoms that you have a case of "great writing group," is that members will ask you questions that challenge you in a way that makes you want to address the issue.

Usually, these questions are pretty simple. 

Almost always, they are open ended.

From my Traveling Java group, Val (who's pagan column you absolutely need to read!) asked me why my protagonist, Heather, is insistent on keeping the whole kelpie issue secret from the adults in the story when, per my own copy, there are reasonable hints that said grown-ups won't necessarily think she's crazy… and might actually listen to her!

A very good question.

If you've read much children's or YA fiction, it's a fairly common trope that kids just Don't Tell Their Parents… well, much of anything.  Even when Anything is something pretty horrible, or even deadly.

Now, from the beginning of my drafting process, I knew I would address that issue anyway.

But still, why doesn't Heather chat with, say, Mr. McInnis who nailed iron crosses all around the barn after the first kelpie attack?  Obviously he knows a thing or two about fae.

Well, Mr. McInnis is a scary curmudgeon who feels she's too strong-willed for a child, especially a girl, and that she's brought on this fae curse.  Heather doesn’t quite know that much about Mr. McInnis, but like most kids, she can sense he's not particularly fond of her.  And grumpy.  And angry.  All. The. Time.

Ok, but her parents seem to be pretty open minded. 

She adores her dad and is truly guilty that she worried him so much in the first place, sneaking out with her best friend.  Dad's bipolar disorder is acting up, though, and he's worried about her older sister, Lily, who's a whole continent away with her biological mom, a woman less than esteemed among Heather's family.  Heather doesn't want to make Dad's life any more surreal or difficult.

Her mum, however, has written articles, fiction, and scripts that include magic and faerie.  When Heather's younger brother, Rowan, was scared that goblins would kidnap him (per Lily's teasing), Mum even did a spell from one of her books - and Heather swears it was more than just show.  At least talking to Mum might be a good plan, right?

But she doesn't.  And even though I'm writing in first person POV for Heather, she doesn't even bring up the idea of telling her parents the truth as an option. 

Now, I know why she's secretive, but it's not particularly easy to show.  It's doable, and something I have to go back and enhance - obviously because both Val and Marlys agreed with the need for clearer motivation - but a good part of it is who Heather is, and who influences the person she wants to be.

The primary influence on Heather's character is, despite being a Daddy's Girl, her mum, who she perceives as someone she wants to be like.  (Heather's not a teenager yet, so her parents have not quite descended to the levels of über-uncoolness.)  Heather's mum, like most of the women I know (including the character's namesake), is also not especially good at asking for help.  In fact, she has a bit of a goddess-complex; of course she can save the world!  Heather's Dad usually is the one who has to figure out if his spouse is getting in over her head.

Yeah, that's Heather's primary role model.

And then there's Heather's best friend, Prince Joseph ("Joe" to her, and her alone) who happens to be a prince, third in line to the throne of England.  His parents met while both snuck away from their families to fight in a war and, long story short, ended up saving a lot of lives.  He's got pretty big role models to follow, too.  On top of that, he's, well, a prince who's smothered with attention, so he's constantly trying to accomplish stuff on his own, without a whole flipping retinue that wants to help and protect him.

Heather, of course, thinks he's pretty cool.  She's also not much of a leader, and he is, so she tends to let him take charge… even when an idea (like trying to be heroes by finding kidnapped kids before the police do) is hers.

Now, I've always known about Heather's Mum's character flaw; I've know Heather's Mum longer than I've known Heather - character creation wise.  I didn't know about Joe's influence, though, until I really started thinking deeper about Heather's motivations (thanks to Val's question).  I'm also in the middle of writing a bunch of Heather/Joe scenes, so that part of his personality is starting to show.  I'll probably have to tease it out and reveal it even more for readers, but now that I know it's there, I have something more to work with.

Because, currently, Heather's Mum is under an especially difficult and unusual kind of stress, so she's not showing her "I can save the world!" personality so much in this book. (Sorry for the vagueness; spoiler land.)

Another of Heather's personality points, which comes from her mother (and is based on my own experience), is that you don't ever want to make someone else's life more difficult by asking for help if you could, possibly, handle something yourself.  Now, drawing the line of judgment of what one can handle by oneself is not easy as an adult, let me tell you!  It's less so for a kid; I remember that well.  So, you focus on the not wanting to make someone else's life difficult, no matter what.

I might be able to bring that out in writing more, adding more of Heather's thoughts.  The not-so-easy part is detecting how obvious or subtle those things are.  Unless you were raised in a family that valued family secrecy (which I was) and extreme independence (albeit very open, supportive parents), it's hard to break that down; it's ingrained.  But it must be done.

So, this seemingly simple question about Heather's motivations for this little secrecy detail is pretty important; it's not just a children's book trope I'm using.

And because it's so important, it's important that I bring it out more.

If you haven't got a fabulous writer's group that will ask "But, why?" for you, make sure you do for yourself.  I love Debra Dixon's book, Goal, Motivation, & Conflict; it's a great tool for doing just that.  She maps character goals in plots and subplots for major novels and movies to show authors how they can apply it to their own work.  The exercise is important at many levels, because every choice a character makes is a conflict affected by the goal and motivation. 

So, go question your character's motives!  (Trust me, you can't trust those characters on their own!  Any of them!)


Aimee Weinstein said...

Trish, I love Heather and I trust that she knows what she's doing. I cannot wait to read more about her! Thank goodness for great writing groups!!!

Anonymous said...

from Julie, OMGs! I have had some questions lately about the Norse Faith. The link to Valerie's interview with Drew answered some questions and so did the article's link to The Asatru Folk Assemblies. Enjoyed learning about the the World Tree. Rune stones fascinate me, too.

I'm following along with the development of your speculation/fantasy fiction story. That takes great imagination and a willingness to work hard, too! Best wishes on it.

Trisha Wooldridge said...

@ Aimee. I'm so glad you like Heather. I can't wait to share the whole story with you.

@ Julie. Thanks for your great wishes. I have two, maybe three scenes left that are getting typed as I wait for car repairs. And I'm so glad that Val's column was helpful. I've found it a good resource several times! (And she's another great fiction writer.)

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