We search in many different places for ways to improve our writing of fiction: In “how to” books, classes, workshops, and writer's groups. But ideas that can spark improvement sometimes hide in curious places.
In M. Scott Peck's In Search of Stones, the late psychiatrist and author wrote “It is a great principle in psychiatry that 'all symptoms are overdetermined.'” They have more than one cause. He adds that “For any single thing of importance there are multiple causes.” He gives as examples, why he and his wife Lily traveled to Great Britian to search for ancient megalithic stones such as Stonehenge and why his and Lily's marriage works.* In our own lives, at least on the big issues, our motives are often mixed.
What does this have to do with writing fiction?
We know that our characters should have complex personalities. Does this mean only that they should have numerous and diverse traits? That is a beginning, but another way to create well-rounded characters is to give them multiple motives for each major thing they do, think, or feel.
In my novel, Boyd, the 14 year-old protagonist, becomes friends with Mr. Henry, an elderly man. Mr. Henry tells Boyd that “People rarely do anything for only one reason.” I didn't realize then that I'd stumbled on a truth about fictional characters. That didn’t happen until months later when I read Dr. Peck's book. I guess Mr. Henry was smarter than his creator.
Suppose you have a character you call Frank Burr who wants to get revenge on Ralph Stern. Stern murdered Burr's daughter and got away with it. A pretty good motive for Burr. But you give the character and the story greater depth by giving him multiple motives. Perhaps they went to high school together and Stern stole Burr's girlfriend. Or they'd been childhood friends and Burr always suspected his father liked doing things with Stern better than with Burr. Maybe Burr's dog was recently run over by a car and now Burr is just pissed off enough at the world to actually go after Stern. Dig deeply, find those motives.
In Peck's, A World Waiting to be Born, Civility Rediscovered, he writes “All blessings are potential curses.” By blessings, he means positive personality traits. He opines that “...a strong will is the greatest blessing...” because “...a weak will guarantees failure.” Still, a strong-willed person will be quick to anger. Peck says “It is strong-willed people who wrap golf clubs around trees because that damn little ball won't go where they want it to.”
Peck was writing about real people, but the same is true about fictional characters. We can add to the seeming reality of our characters by showing how a character's strong personality traits can be both positive and negative.
The thrust of my novel is Boyd's search for identity. Is he going to be like his parents, not such good people or like his grandparents who have given him a strong moral center? He’s driven to try to understand other people, a strong and usually good trait. But taken to an extreme, it could cause him to act recklessly, maybe hang out with people who use illegal drugs. The reader would be surprised if he did that, but it would also be believable because of Boyd’s personality. Boyd using drugs wouldn’t be believable however. Ideas for improving your fiction are everywhere. Stay alert and you will find that they hide where you least expect them.
* M. Scott Peck and his wife were divorced in 2003
- I've had two short stories and one essay published. I'm currently working on a "coming of age" novel set in the 1960's. I started this blog with the hope that I could share what I've learned/am learning about writing with other people and would get some of the same in return. If you know of anyone who might be interested in such a blog, please let that person or persons know about "The Writing Process." 7-8-12 I haven't worked on the novel for quite some time and doubt that I will take it up again. I'm currently working on a short story that I have high hopes for--or, if you prefer, for which I have high hopes. There is the possibility that I'll try another novel with some of the characters in this short story. Current and probable title: Not a Blind Date