Motivated Characters

I got an email from an old writing friend recently with the subject heading, “Was cleaning out my closet.” The email contained a JPEG of a novel I had shared with him while we were in a writing group together. “That’s some pretty good prose,” he wrote. “You ever going to finish this story?”

It had been many years since I’d abandoned that project, enough years that, as I read the page, it was almost like reading someone else’s novel. He was right about the prose – by which I mean, while reading it, I found myself thinking, “Hey, that’s good stuff.” But a story is not just an assemblage of good prose, and I thought about his question. Why had I abandoned it?

As is often the case with memory, the first thing that came back to me was how it felt to write that story in the months leading up to the decision to abandon it. I felt lost, as if every choice was right and every choice was wrong. It’s awful feeling, a feeling no amount of craft can soothe. Then I remembered the two other novels I had abandoned after that one. The third of that trio was a great epic journey of a novel. Round about page 600 the characters started turning to one another frequently and asking, “Why are we on this journey again?”

Which, from a very practical standpoint, is why the novels were abandoned: I didn’t know what my protagonists wanted. As Kurt Vonnegut said, “Every character in every scene has to want something, even if it’s a glass of water.” Good advice that, yet even better advice for every writer – novelist, poet, memoirist, and screenwriter alike – is, “Pay attention to how you feel.”

I knew I wanted to write, but what I most wanted to write about did not lend itself so easily to fiction. Yet for years my identity had been that of a fiction writer. That’s who I was. If I abandoned fiction writing, who was I? It sounds silly now, but it wasn’t silly at the time. At the time, it was profoundly disorienting.

Fortunately, the same guidance system that helps me find the right word and the right story and the right life keeps speaking to me in whatever language I’m willing to hear: In my case, that lost feeling of writing stories with protagonists as unmotivated in their lives as I was in my writing. By and by, I decided that no identity was worth the suffering of telling stories I didn’t actually want to tell, and so I chose a different kind of story, and I found the motivation that never abandons me.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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Innocent Characters

I had a great conversation on Tuesday with the journalist-turned-psychotherapist Kim Schneiderman. Kim’s the author of Step Out of Your Story: Writing Exercises to Reframe and Transform Your Life, a handy little book that helps people apply traditional story arcs to their own life so that they might see themselves as the heroes of their narrative rather than the victims or villains. One of the very useful tricks Kim employs is writing our story in the third person. Instead of writing, “I lost my job and didn’t know what to do.” I would write, “He lost his job and didn’t know what to do.”

All at once that person on the page is a character, not me, allowing me to view him from the necessary authorial distance. I thought of Kim’s technique this morning as I worked on a scene in a memoir I’m rewriting. This particular scene wasn’t going well. I knew it wasn’t going well because of how lousy I felt. The more I wrote, the worse I felt, until I knew it was time to get out before I declared the whole book a waste my time.

After I’d exercised and showered and generally calmed down, it occurred to me that when I’m telling the story I truly wish to tell, I view the Bill on the page as a character. No matter what this Bill does or has done to him, he is innocent. When he is allowed to be innocent, so are all his friends and supposed foes. On the other hand, when I’m telling my story, which is really what you would call my ego’s story, no one is innocent. Now I am either justifying what I did or apologizing for it. It never feels good to tell this story, though sometimes it is the only story I can hear.

By and by I find my way back to innocence. It is easy for me to confuse innocence for the vulnerability of childhood, when all that I didn’t know about the engine of the world seemed to leave me unguarded against a vague but constant threat. That the threat never materialized did not dim its power. The strangest part of growing up is finding that same intact innocence within a storm of knowledge, and ready at last to tell a story about the world I’ve always known.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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Less Fortune

I used to enjoy a roleplaying game called Heroes. To construct a character in this system, players were allotted a set number of points to spend on things like strength, intelligence, magic spells, and swordsmanship. However, a player could choose to give his character certain weaknesses (a limp, nearsightedness, paranoia, a dependant grandmother) for which the character would be awarded additional points. The greater the weakness, the more points the character received. My friends and I joked once that we could create a super hero by making our characters deaf, dumb, blind, schizophrenics.

Which reminds me of the characters we create in our stories. Often our characters’ most interesting traits are their weaknesses. Just as often, the story is about our protagonist’s weakness – their insecurity, hubris, poverty, or greed. A hero overcoming an outside force is certainly the stuff of drama, but it is when that same hero overcomes an inside force, when the fog of fear is cleared from the mirror, that the reader not only cheers the victory but feels that victory as her own.

It is fun to choose our roleplaying heroes’ strengths and weaknesses, just as it is interesting to chose our literary characters’ phobias and charms, but it is often hard to imagine this same creative process at work in ourselves. Who would want to be born without legs, or into staggering poverty, or to drunken parents? It is easy—compassionate even—to attribute the circumstances of such lives to uncaring fate. Just as talent seems unfairly distributed, some of us are just dealt a better life than others. It’s called reality, Jack.

But whose life would you trade yours for, knowing that to trade your life means to trade all of it – every kiss, every dream, every thought, every love? It’s all or nothing. Can you not feel the absurdity of it? Can you not feel how somewhere in the unique confluence of consciousness that is your life something necessary and valuable and useful and hopeful and kind is looking to take shape? If it is true for me it must be exactly as true for everyone, from every pauper to every president. Now that’s equality. From this view there is no such thing as more or less fortunate, there is only life in all its variety.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.indd

Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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Good Advice

Here’s a character study:

My son and I recently watched a short documentary about a man known as The Jesus of Siberia. The story goes that in early 90’s Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop realized he was the Son of God and had a message to deliver. A lot of people wanted to hear that message. So many people that he created a kind of commune in Siberia (the warm part of Siberia – who knew?), to which the filmmakers traveled one summer.

Vissarion, as the prophet is now known, had not given interviews in many years. In fact, he rarely appeared to his followers, who lived together in a green valley, his Jesus-like image framed and hanging in every room of every house. He had written a book of wisdom, a Third Testament, which included much practical advice, such as that men should only do manly things like work with power tools, and that women should only do womanly things like cook and clean and so on. Also, it told what kind of detergent to use.

The filmmakers timed their trip around this commune’s High Holiday, the anniversary of the day Vissarion had his revelation. On the day of, every follower made a trek up a hillside to a kind of outdoor amphitheater, where they waited. Soon, He appeared, descending slowly from a mountaintop. Down, down, down he came while his followers waited, still he descended, step-by-step, until, at last, he took his seat on a high stage, cleared his throat – and the filmmakers were told to turn off their cameras. He would not appear to his followers for another year.

The next day, Vissarion granted an interview. The filmmakers climbed the mountain. Up, up, up they went, winding up the mountainside until they reached his mountaintop villa. They set up their cameras, and he emerged, dressed in a virgin white. The interview began.

I admit, I was holding a bit of judgment toward the fellow at this point, but I wanted to keep an open mind. I like spiritual teaching, after all; it’s been a great help to me in my own life. Also, I knew spiritual teaching is by necessity metaphorical and allegorical, since, like the best fiction, the truths toward which the teacher is guiding his or her students can’t be seen or touched or measured, only felt. Unfortunately, I found his answers impenetrable. Good metaphors, like good stories, are an open door; his felt like mazes in which he was happy to stay lost. Maybe it was just beyond me. Either way, I can’t remember anything he said.

Except, that is, his last answer. The filmmakers were told their time was up, and the interviewer threw in one last question. “If you could give the whole of humanity one piece of advice, what would it be?”

Vissarion thought a moment. “Do not put yourself above anyone else.”

Good advice.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
Follow wdbk on Twitter

The Innocent

I often ask the lawyer-writers I interview why there are so many lawyer-writers, but it has occurred to me recently that all writers are lawyers of a kind. Who are our readers but a jury of our peers whom we must convince of our character’s guilt or innocence by showing the facts we call events, dialogue, and action? After all, no lawyer would stand up in court and merely tell the jury, “Look at my client. I’ve seen a lot of guilty people in my life, and you can trust me – she is not one of them. I rest my case.”

The difference is you have no opponent, and the jury wants very much to believe you. They want to believe you because it is not your characters’ innocence on trial, but your reader’s. Your reader will become every character as you became those characters, and to show your reader guilt or innocence is to allow her to go within herself and feel her own guilt and innocence so that she might put a name and feeling to what she has beheld.

And your reader desires guilt every bit as much as she desires innocence. The guilty in your stories will eventually suffer and maybe even die. All the guilt within your reader is a story she has forgotten to stop telling. When your guilty character perishes, for a moment the story of your reader’s guilt will perish as well, and she will perceive within herself the reality of life without the story of her imaginary guilt. For a moment, she will be free.

Free to become your innocent hero. Innocence cannot be taken from us by mere actions. Only the story we tell about those actions deprives us of our innocence. We put our stories on trial and condemn the worst stories to prison where we hope they will never be told again. Meanwhile, the hero within us is always free because only the hero believes he is free. His freedom is the only story he can tell – freedom to choose any book, any career, any city – a freedom so complete he will occasionally put himself in prison so he might once again seek himself.

9781935961994-Perfect_CS.inddWrite Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.
A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!
You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com
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Equal Players

I was watching the Brian DiPalma film The Untouchables the other night, and it occurred to me that there was only one actual relationship in this story – that between Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness and Sean Connery’s Malone. Malone and Ness are equals in spirit, though not rank, possessing two equal but necessary perspectives on the same problem: taking down Al Capone. The evolution of these two men’s perspective drives the story forward. The other characters are mostly personalities that serve a narrative purpose within and around this central relationship.

It was a useful observation from a writing perspective. Malone and Ness’s equality was essential for the story, and without it the relationship doesn’t really exist. In the best stories I have read or watched this equality feels present nearly every time two characters are together. Nearly, but not always, of course. The prison guard opening the cell door without a line only exists so that the door is open and not closed. He is not equal within the story.

It is easy to forget as we write our stories or as we go about our day looking out from the first person present tense perspective of our own consciousness that the equality of true relationship is actually universal. It is present even with the cashier and the stranger at the bus stop, bit players and extras in my life, but humans nonetheless in full.

I am the leading man in the story of my life, and I can still be surprised when I meet someone new who does not recognize this, who seems to believe, in fact, that it is I who has stumbled onto the set of his movie. This happens only every single time I relate to another human being, and I am still getting used to it. This, I believe, is what the political among us really mean when they talk about the “struggle for equality.” It is the struggle to write our laws to reflect the reality in which we have always existed, just as we struggle to write our stories to reflect the life we have always lived.

Remember to catch Bill every Tuesday at 2:00 PM PST/5:00 EST on his live Blogtalk Radio program Author2Author!

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Left Unlived

As a journalism student, I learned to answer four important questions in my story’s opening paragraph: Who, What, Where, and When. Thus:

Police reported that at 2:00 AM last night (When) residents in the Royal Heights neighborhood (Where) complained of shouts and gunfire coming from the home of James and Melissa Cameron (Who). Upon arriving on the scene, officer Peter Fauntleroy (more Who, sort of) found the body of Ms. Cameron sprawled on the living room floor with a bullet wound in her chest (What: Murder!). Officer Fauntleroy then discovered Mr. Cameron in the basement of the house, cleaning his revolver and running a load of very bloody laundry.

Then comes the fifth W: Why? Why did James shoot Melissa? There is also a sixth W—Will, as in: Will James be convicted? But isn’t Why the most interesting question? Isn’t that the novelist’s question? All your characters are running around doing things—marrying each other, shooting each other, arguing with each other, buying each other presents—but why?

I wrote yesterday about life’s inherent mystery. In this way, aren’t we all mystery writers? Aren’t we all puzzling out the why of our characters? After all, motivation always precedes action, if only by a split second. The action is like the crack at the end of an unfurling whip of motivation, and the louder that crack, the stronger the motivation. We may appear to be writing action, but we’re actually only chasing motivation.

This knowledge has taught me well in my life away from the desk. When I find myself asking, “What should I do next? What should I do next?” I am often like a writer who is treating his character like a chess piece, moving this dead thing around the board of his story. There are thousands of moves I could make, and all of them seem right and all of them seem wrong. And so I ask myself, “What do I want?  What do I want?”

And as I do with my own characters, I must ask this question with an open heart, prepared to hear whatever comes. It’s so easy to think I know before I ask; so easy to think the mystery is already solved; so easy to leave unsaid what could be written, to leave undone what could be lived.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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The Present

I was guest lecturing at a writing class recently when a student asked a question about one of my seven rules of writing: Feel first. Write Second. What, she wanted to know, should you do if you’re trying to write a scene but can’t seem to feel it?

The first answer, of course, is we don’t actually want to write the scene, and our not feeling it is telling us so. More often, however, we do want to write a scene but are having trouble entering it. One of the best things to do in this instance is to find one detail that feels genuinely present in the scene – no matter how insignificant – and write it. The key is not to judge what you see. If you are trying to write a fight scene between your CIA agent and his nemesis but the only thing you notice is the pen in your agent’s pocket, write the pen. Perhaps the pen will be used in the fight; perhaps it won’t. Either way, it will serve as an opening, a crack through which you can enter the scene and then observe it, rather than try to make it all up from the outside in, to invent it with your thinking mind.

I thought of this the other day while having a meeting with my son’s teacher. It was a long meeting and there was a lot to talk about, not all of it the sort thing a father wants to hear. As the meeting progressed, my thinking mind, in its desperation to paint the world black or white and know with certainty whether this woman was capable of helping my son, began, as they say, to play tricks on me. One moment the teacher was a well-meaning professional with a heart of gold, the next a bumbling, taxed, depressed public servant just trying to get through a day without the children killing themselves.

Then I remembered what I had learned when writing, that I should never judge a scene through my thinking mind but behold it with my feeling mind, that it was my job to observe, not to decide. When I observed the teacher in this way, I was able understand, for reasons too many and too gray for my thinking mind to comprehend, that if she did her best, she would be fine.

It is the difference between a character and a caricature. The thinking mind must judge to draw its conclusions, but a true person is never all guilty or all innocent. You know this about yourself, and so you know it about others as well. The wholeness of life can never be known in thought. Yes, there are stories where certain characters, for narrative purposes, must wear their metaphorical white hat or black hat, but even here let the writer use these fictional poles to suggest what lies between. Whether we like it or not, we live within the wholeness of life – which is good news. A world without good or evil is the only place our heart will ever know peace.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Sad Story

If I had to ask one question of all my characters in my stories, it would be this one: What do you think you need to be happy, and why can’t you have it? That is pretty much the entirety of the human experience. Plus it’s the stuff of fiction.

As Carrie Fisher said, “No one wants to watch a movie about a mother and daughter who start out liking one another at the beginning of a film and wind up liking each other more at the end.” Still, one of my consistent challenges is that I would like everyone to be happy, including my characters. Unfortunately, they don’t get be happy while I know them. They may have been happy before I met them, and they may yet be happy when we say good-bye, but on my watch they will hopefully know only suffering and uncertainty.

Which requires, of course, that I both feel their pain and not. I must step into their shoes like an actor so that I can speak their lines and know their thoughts as my own. But the minute I feel for them, the minute I begin to believe their sob story about how the world has done them wrong or how the world is against them—I’m lost and the story dies. I must remain ruthlessly pitiless.

Which is actually the highest form of compassion. That last thing you want to do when someone is spinning a woeful tale powerlessness is to agree with this person. But the last thing a person who is spinning a woeful tale of powerlessness usually wants to hear is that they are not powerless and they never have been.

In my life I have argued vociferously for my own despair, laid out point-by-point why I had no choice but to feel the way I did. Somehow, I reasoned, if I could just get one person to admit that I’d had it somewhat worse than everyone else, I would be—if not happy—then tragically justified. It happened once. I had argued and argued my plight until this person broke down and said, “I’m sorry.” And I immediately hated myself. I had argued for nothing, because there was absolutely nothing for me on the other side of that sorry.

Which is why I remain as pitiless as I can with my characters. To love someone is not to know their pain but their strength, and the moment I take pity on my characters for being afraid I lose all sight of their strength, begin to believe their wretched story, and wind up hating not just my novel but myself.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Problems

Einstein famously said that we cannot solve a problem on the level at which it was created. Problems, of course, come in many forms. Writers must contend with writing problems, such as, “How do I get my character from here to there?” In truth, this sort of problem is not a problem at all but the reason we chose to write. Understanding why and how our characters will go from here to there is called writing and is presumably what draws us to our desk every day.

But sometimes the answer of why our characters do the things they do is not always so easily found, and this is when another problem arises, a real problem. This is when we might be tempted to think, “I will never know why my characters do what they need to do,” or, “No one will be interested in what these characters do.” There are a thousand variations on this form of grim fortune telling, but all the problems are really the same, and the operative word when trying to solve them is, “think.”

Which brings me back to Einstein. The level on which the problem of “What if?” was created was your brain. Brains can think anything at all. They are marvelously flexible and totally loyal. They cannot, however, predict the future. Asking your brain to predict the future is like asking your five year-old to drive your car.

So you’ve asked “What if?” and now doubt has entered your castle. You cannot argue with this doubt. That is the level on which the problem was created. Because the doubt is about the future and your brain, which you are using to argue the doubt out of your castle, does not know the future, you will only create more trouble. Do not try and think your way out of doubt.

To be rid of the doubt, remind yourself of this: The question, “What if?” does not exist. It is a phantom of your own creation. You cannot argue with a phantom—arguing with it merely sustains it. Dismiss it and doubt will disappear like smoke. It’s not always pleasant to be reminded that we are the source of all our own suffering, but better us than someone else. No matter how hard I have tried, everyone else seems to keep doing whatever they want to do. At least I can choose what I think or don’t think.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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