It’s been a while since I talked about storytelling outside of the podcast. It’s also been a while since there’s been a podcast or any content on this website. As usual, Rogue-Penguin ebbs and flows with my interest, and that is directly influenced by how busy I am with my job and caring for my family. I don’t necessarily have a lot of time right now, but I’m making a small amount to make sure this site doesn’t go a whole month without meaningful updates.
Characters in Motion
I’ve heard variations of this theme all over the internet: Drama is characters in conflict. I like it, generally speaking, but it draws your attention towards what you should be focusing your story on in any given scene. But I feel, generally speaking, that it’s a little too confrontational of a topic, and subtly can be lost. I prefer the mantra: Drama is characters in motion. My version requires a little more explanation though.
What I don’t mean is the literal interpretation. There is nothing interesting about simply walking and if you try to turn that into a scene, you are trying too hard. There are plenty of ‘travel’ scenes in stories, film, and TV, but the general trend over the last half-century of writing is to cut back on these. Many films these days just jump from local to local, with the implicit assumption that some form of travel took place. It’s a time saver, for the most part, and literary convention has filled in the blanks for us. Now, sometimes stories do show the act of travel, but typically in concert with a conversation or introspection and that falls into what I do mean.
The motion that I speak of is, of course, character development. Characters enter your tale in one state and should exit in another. Sometimes the distance traveled is short, sometimes, it’s enormous. But at every moment, those characters should be moving towards that new standard. This is really the crux of the difference between my version of the ‘Drama Mantra’ and the one I’ve seen. Conflict is entertaining, we’ve got years of shoot ‘em up films to prove that, but meaningful conflict is even better. This is why so many of those shoot ‘em up films are about revenge. Revenge is the simplest meaning we can assign to direct confrontation: reciprocation for the previous conflict.
But, at least to me, that’s boring. Revenge is boring. There’s no surprise in it. Either the character gets their revenge and they feel closure, or they fail to get closure and keep searching. Which is not to say you can’t tell a good story with this as the central conceit, I just would like to see something more evolved.
Also, I should add, it’s not like there aren’t people in the real world who are involved in such flimsy pretexts for action.
Real World Bias
I am rather obsessed with introspection. I believe most rationalists are. I want to understand why I do the things that I do and to try to exercise control over those actions. Even when I believe in the moment that I have a singular motivation, I still go back and reflect because often I find that the motivation isn’t as simple as it seemed.
As a result, I actually do tend to have travel scenes in my stories, but they not simply observations of the scenery as it passes. I use travel scenes to expand on character motivation and provide avenues for growth. Since I tend to put strict deadlines on my plots (within the story) most of my characters can’t afford to sit in a room and think about life, the universe, and everything. They have to keep moving! (After all, drama is characters in motion.) But they can’t teleport from place to place, to the time spent travelling is an excellent opportunity to do those time consuming introspective sequences.
It’s worth nothing, for anyone who is out there writing characters, that a lack of self-awareness doesn’t preclude complex motivations. Idiots have have just as arcane and complicated reasons for doing things, they just might not be aware of them.
The brain is an amazingly powerful computer, but it’s strength is not in memory — which it obviously fails at storing without significant loss — or in comprehension — which 12 years of primary schooling proves it’s a trait that needs to be trained. No, what the brain does so amazingly well is optimize processes. It takes the experiences of everyday life, strips them down to the minimal necessary amount of information in order to get through those experiences quicker and easier next time they occur, and eliminates most of everything else. This is, in fact, why that our memory is so shoddy and why we have a hard time figuring our things we don’t directly observe: our brains just don’t think those things are necessary.
Consequently, the reason why we act the way we do may be lost in this optimization process unless we consciously recall that rational to keep it in memory. This is why I believe EVERYONE has complex motivations and goals, even if they don’t realize it.
So why am I going on and on about this? Because when writing a story, the author HAS to understand all the motivations of their characters, even the ones the characters themselves are no longer aware of. And the way that an author demonstrates this is to show how those invisible motivations affect their character’s journey — their motion. Because those unseen motivations are bound to be the hardest to change and have the more lasting effect on the character’s growth.
Even if you don’t necessarily subscribe to the basic Rationalist ideals, it is worth adopting a few of their practices, if only to understand the myriad of ways a character gets from point A to point B.