April 14, 2019

Elements of Cron and Korea #7: A Protagonist’s Goal As a PART of the Story, NOT the Entire Sermon!

I may  have mentioned that one of my goals is to increase my writing output, increase my publication rate, and increase the relevance of my writing. In my WRITING ADVICE column, I had started using an article my sister sent me by Lisa Cron. She has worked as a literary agent, TV producer, and story consultant for Warner Brothers, the William Morris Agency, and others. She is a frequent speaker at writers’ conferences, and a story coach for writers, educators, and journalists. I am going to fuse the advice from her book WIRED FOR STORY with my recent trip to South Korea. Why? I made a discovery there. You’ll hear more about it in the future as I work to integrate what I’m learning from the book, the startling things I found in South Korea, and try and alter how I write in order to create characters that people will care about, characters that will speak the Truth, and characters that will clearly illustrate what I’m writing about.

“Remember when Luke has to drop the bomb into the small vent on the Death Star? The story writer faces a similar challenge of penetrating the brain of the reader. This book gives the blueprints.” – David Eagleman

“The reader expects that the protagonist will enter the story with a longstanding agenda – that is, something she already wants, which is what gives true meaning to her goal.

“As readers we assume that the protagonist has a story-long agenda before she steps onto page one, and that her goal – in every scene – will be to move that agenda forward. In other words: she enters already wanting something very badly, and the plot will force her to go after it.

“Ask yourself: What does my protagonist step onto page one already wanting? Why does she want it? What’s her agenda – meaning: how does she plan to get it?”

Even those of us who go to church regularly and who have “swilled the Kool-Aid®” so-to-speak, dislike being preached AT, though we return every Sunday praying that the pastor will be learning WITH us.

So readers – at least speaking for myself – don’t like stories where it’s obvious that the author is trying to tell me to do something. They’ve made no effort to hide their agenda and the “story” is a thinly veiled parable or morality tale. The “message” has become the purpose of the story rather than the story being the purpose of the message.

That reads like it’s the same thing, but it’s not. A particular speculative fiction writer I once loved reading started their career with story. The story had a subtle but still present message: intelligence implies responsibility for the living things that are not intelligent. In fact, the entire of galactic civilization was based on the importance of preserving not only the planetary environment, but the GALACTIC environment.

Reading that first book drew me into the author’s world and I was persuaded that the message was valid without them slapping me in the face with it.

This author grew more strident in their promulgation of the idea and maybe because they didn’t feel the message was being received, they became not only blatant, but demanding. So demanding that the story they were trying to tell vanished under the onslaught of propaganda. Not only don’t I read that author any more, their popularity has dropped to where their books have essentially dropped off the shelves and the used bookstore I frequent has several dozen of them on hand all the time…

Back to the advice though, Cron’s wisdom is illustrated exactly by what I was talking about.

Readers don’t want to enter a story in which the main character’s only reason for wanting to reach the goal is because the writer desperately wants ME to have the same goal as the character. That goal is whatever the writer’s current axe is to grind. When that happens, there no sense of history. The character is just a walking sandwich board:

When I read a story, I want to feel like this character has always wanted to…say, fight poverty…and that they’ve tried and been thwarted, and now have a chance to do it – at the possible cost of their lives.

This is the message I’ve been trying to integrate into the story I’m currently working on. In it, I’ve made Human charity a deciding factor in being able to enter into an interstellar union. But ARE we charitable? How charitable ARE we? I’ve been doing research, and my wife suggested I see if there was a correlation between charitable giving and homicide (the results of which are actually interesting, though the data don’t match up in terms of the years they were gathered…)

At any rate, I’ve gone over the beginning of the story for a couple of months now first altering the point of view from third person to first, and now trying to rebuild the character so that his life goal has always been to fight poverty (whether he THINKS he’s fighting poverty or not is a different issue…) It’s been frustrating, but it’s clear illustration of what Cron is talking about here. She writes: “…the protagonist will enter the story with a longstanding agenda…”

That means to me that the main character of a story isn’t ONLY a construct painstakingly engineered by the writer to be a mouthpiece of his or her (very, very important!!!) golden word, but is a person themselves. I confess to some irritation here – to me, this is what is “bad” about Hollywood. Actors have somehow taken on the importance of characters they’ve played and that the public has connected with and make pronouncements that have nothing to do with the characters for which they are known…but that we HEAR in the voice of their CHARACTER’S voice.

For example, if Patrick Stewart suddenly began to appear in commercials about adopting homeless chihuahuas, which is a passion of the ACTOR, I wouldn’t be hearing the actor. I’d be hearing Jean-Luc Picard, captain of the flagship of Starfleet in the 23rd Century. I would take him very seriously because to me, he’s a person worthy of my trust. I’ve seen him make difficult decisions, be brave, and be passionate. Captain Picard is someone I trust, therefore I will listen to his opinion and adopt a homeless chihuahua.

Readers are looking for characters to connect with – but they have to connect before they’ll listen to what they have to say. The writer I used to favor seems to have become an blatant advocate of their own (highly regarded) opinion and that’s all. I’m no longer interested in their writing because it seems that its sole purpose is to manipulate me.

And I don’t even like it when GOD tries to manipulate me! (I just realized I didn't talk about Korea this time, but I have a story in submission right now that DOES and that I tried to keep the message subtle, wrapped in an entertaining story...)

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