Monday, August 23, 2010

Character Priorities and Story Jet Propulsion

I have been thinking this morning about how stories begin. And I don't mean how they open, because that's a whole different discussion, one typically involving rules like "No 'waking up' openings!" and "No 'first day of school' openings!", rules that strike terror into the hearts of writers everywhere as they frantically revise their first five pages. No, I mean how they begin. Here, check out my chart:



This is an extremely basic map of a story. Generally speaking, most stories match up with this map. A character is living in his or her state of equilibrium-- Harry Potter is in the cabinet under the stairs, Frodo is living in the Shire, Elizabeth Bennett is chilling in the Bennett home, and so on. Then an inciting incident occurs that thrusts the character out of equilibrium-- Harry finds out he's a wizard, Frodo discovers the ring, Elizabeth lays the smackdown on Mr. Darcy-- and into The Story.

I'm really only concerned with the first part at the moment:


Right. So it occurred to me today that this chart/map/thing is misleading. Because it isn't really the incident that propels the story into motion, it's how the character responds to that incident that launches us into the story. I'm thinking that the story begins when a character responds to an incident in an unexpected way.



I say "unexpected" not because you're always surprised by the way that a character responds to The Incident, but because there are two kinds of fictional people: normal, average people, and the kind of people that we write about. (I say "fictional" because I'm not convinced that anyone is really normal or average in real life.) And normal, average people have a certain set of priorities. They go something like this:

1. Survival
2. Good health
3. Safety/Security ($$$, Family, Home, etc.)
4. Status (social, mostly)
5. Sensual stimulation (Look at the pretty colors!)
6. Mental stimulation
7. Altruism
8. Suspended action (or "rest")

(I'm going to credit Dennis Hensley with those, although I'm sure variations of that list are floating around everywhere.)

Want to get nerdy? Because that list of priorities loosely fits into Maslow's hierarchy of needs, a (debatable) psychological theory of human motivation. Yeah, that's right. We're getting FANCY on the blog today.

Basically, normal, average people want to survive more than they want mental stimulation (which is why you would choose food over television, given the choice) and they want safety more than rest (which is why you work for an income), et cetera. But the people that you write about aren't like that. When presented with an Inciting Incident, those people rearrange normal, average priorities. And that's how stories start.

Take The Hunger Games as an example. The story of The Hunger Games starts when Katniss decides to take her sister's place in the Games in order to save her. Basically, she places altruism (Priority #7) above survival (Priority #1). This leaves a tiny corner of my brain asking: what kind of person does that? And: how can she possibly survive this? And I am sucked in. Success!

Harry Potter places mental stimulation above security.
Frodo places altruism above security.
Achilles places status above health/survival.
Bella Swann sticks sensual stimulation above survival. (That's how I see it, anyway.)
Jonas (of The Giver) chooses mental stimulation over safety and status.
Hester Prynne places sensual stimulation above status

And the list goes on.

Thinking about this can be helpful, I think, when you're writing your own stories. I wasn't consciously thinking "what priorities should my character rearrange?" when I wrote DIVERGENT, but when I consider what made Beatrice so interesting to me, I realize that that's what it was. Beatrice has to decide whether to put mental stimulation above security, or to put altruism above mental stimulation. Sort of a complicated decision. And I had to write about it.

Sometimes we writers find it difficult to get the character out of equilibrium, or to figure out what happens after the inciting incident. And if you can ask yourself what your character's priorities are, and figure out what that suggests about how they will behave throughout the rest of the book, you can propel yourself right into the story.

Consider the squid. Squid are my favorite animal for one reason: they move by sucking water into their body cavities and squeezing it back out again. Jet propulsion. It's the coolest thing ever.

Rearranged character priorities are the water to your story's inner squid. If you give them a squeeze, your story will go shooting forward into...the ocean of...ideas. Okay, this comparison totally fell apart. I really just wanted to talk about squid. But you get what I'm saying.

Will Katniss continue to choose altruism over survival, or will her priorities change? And what does that say about her character? Will Harry Potter discover that he values safety a little more than he thought? (The answer to that is, of course: not really.) And what is UP with the girl who has the hots for the guy who wants to freaking murder her? All valid questions. Fascinating questions.

Do your characters re-order their priorities in a weird way? And how? Inquiring minds want to know.

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