Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
This approach to writing is so loaded with implications, I could write five posts about this one concept: Figuring out why you like a story. I don’t know where I’m going with this because figuring anything out can lead anywhere.
So let’s begin with the unwinding of a plot for clues about why it works. What does Emma mean when she tells us to look for what we like? What does “like” mean? I think Ms. Coats is suggesting that, as readers, we must be concerned about the hero. Without that concern, we won’t care about the story.
Okay. How do we build concern for protagonists?
It happens when we respect and admire his or her persona. The character either reminds us of ourselves or an improved version of what we’d like to be. Consequently, we’ve invested our interest in the outcome of the story, hoping he or she succeeds and isn’t appreciably harmed. In the real world, we want proof that good guys can win and we seek role models who make that happen.
If your future more evolved self becomes your own role model, that much better! Self-respect is everyone’s goal.
So how do we gain self-respect? Through two means: proactive and reactive ways of living. One is more productive than the other. Let’s examine proactive lifestyles first.
Living PROACTIVELY means we make choices that avert bad things…or cause them! Either way, we’re not waiting for the next shoe to drop before we take action.
If we take action that manifests positive results, we become role models. Positive results imply we’re doing noble acts. If written characters encounter danger while striving to do the “right” thing, as in noble acts, that makes them heroes. It’s the same for you and me.
Of course what constitutes a hero depends on what we think doing the “right thing” is all about. Edward Snowden, the man who leaked the NSA surveillance programs, is an example of hero/traitor status. He’s not only both, but neither. Everyone has a different opinion about the merit of his revelations. This is why his story is so compelling. It breaks apart the illusion of absolute right and wrong or good and evil.
Complex stories explore shades of gray.
So when pulling apart an intricate scenario to find out why we like it, we’ll discover there are many layers to look at using many layers of thinking. There is much to grasp and we should start by asking the question:
If we’re all unique in many ways, what are the universal narratives and character traits we all agree are worth reading and watching? What makes a hit movie or book?
It’s no secret. A gripping yarn starts with an admirable proactive character – someone who takes risks for our benefit.
Last night I saw Man of Steel. The movie was fantastic. Everyone loved it and the audience invested in Superman saving the world.What made him a noble hero? It’s the combination of his immense power coupled with a sweet humility. Add a dash of vulnerability, a pinch of sensitivity, a sprinkle of Gee whiz, what do I do?, season with sacrifice, and we’ve baked the perfected American pie hero.
That’s a “basic” of good story telling – describe acts and principles we all admire, place them in jeopardy, and eventually have them overcome evil for the good of all.
But remember what Emma says: We must recognize the reasons for respect before we can use it. And to recognize admirable thoughts and actions in stories, we have to recognize admirable thoughts and actions in ourselves.
Should we question our thoughts and actions? You bet. We should question their validity and admit our cool ideas may be soggy toast with our boss or best friend. Knowing that, if we’re still using our personal standards to model likable characters, we better be absolutely sure WE are likable!
Are you hero-like, even in your imagination? Can you FEEL like a hero?
It’s easy to create an angry character. But can you write about forgiveness and tolerance when you think you’re defeated? Can you describe a tender love scene when your own bed moments are All About Me? Can you detail a generous personality when you feel poor and powerless?
Maybe some writers can. I couldn’t. I had to mature and punch through frustrations before I could write a truly optimistic scene. This is why Emma’s advice about uncovering what you like about a story, and yourself, is so important. You need to clear your desk of unhappy junk before you can build something fun, with ease, and have the confidence to experiment and fail.
Taking risks, or not, brings us to the second way of approaching life: making choices based on REACTING. It’s a wait-and-see policy…or avoidance…or denial.
It’s better to do nothing than make a mistake, so the wisdom goes.
I’ve written about this issue before, but it can’t be stated enough. We have to give ourselves permission to fail – to miss our mark, to discover the dead ends. It’s part of success.
The only way you can give yourself permission to take risks and try new things is by knowing and believing that YOU are not a failure when something doesn’t work out.
But you ask, “How can I believe I’m not a failure when I’ve made serious mistakes – when I’ve hurt others, when I’ve hurt myself?”
Good question. Everyone messes up and if you’re learning from those mistakes, positive results are down the road. But if that’s not happening…
- Are you dodging bullets with the same crippling moves?
- Are you blind to proactive alternatives?
- Have you lost hope?
- Have you painted your hero into a corner?
If “yes” applies to any of those questions, then you have come to believe that unhappy choices mean YOU are a failure. Would Superman ever think that? Maybe. But he’d soon figure out feeling-like-a-failure is a choice too and that this attitude was covertly placed by the bad guys in act one.
Babies don’t come into the world thinking they messed up!
So become your hero or heroine. No matter how hard the fight, never, EVER allow someone to define you as a failure! Or worse…not good enough! Anyone who demeans you doesn’t love you and is bent on control.
Manipulators demand veneration and devout loyalty to validate their own doubts of worthiness. It’s impossible to be creatively yourself when you’re trapped in a one-way relationship like that. It won’t let you respect yourself.
So when following Ms. Coat’s Writing Basic #10 and you’re figuring out what you like about yourself, take a look at what you don’t like, especially those times when someone convinced you you’re not good enough. Realize missing the mark today doesn’t mean you’ll miss it tomorrow. Keep trying until you succeed, at least in part, baby step by baby step, for the good of all. Be your version of Superman.
And when you’ve faced your foes who are intent on degrading you, when you’re respecting yourself because you’re fighting for your soul, honoring it, and loving it, I promise you your writing will soar! And so will you.
Superman still – copyright Warner Brothers Pictures Superman cover – copyright DC Comics
Originally published on Curiosityquills.com.