Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Sharon Wildwind

Whether you’re writing from Debra Dixon’s goal, motivation and conflict idea, Donald Maass’ raising the stakes, or other conflict-development theories, if you want a story to have depth and interest, give your protagonists and villains obsessions. Some characters may appear to have a passion rather than an obsession, but that’s just a nicer-sounding word for the same thing.

Being obsessed with marrying England’s Prince Harry would likely be thought a bad thing, especially by Prince Harry; being passionate about ending homelessness, a good thing. Watch those passions, however. When a good idea gets in the way of a normal, balanced life, it turned into an obsession. Remember that as writers, we want to stress, stress, stress our characters so passions that get out of hand can be a good thing.

Passion or obsession, the character can’t get away from the one grand and glorious thing they believe they must do with their lives. Lord Peter Whimsey became obsessed with proving Harriet Vane innocent of murder. Harriet, for her part, was obsessed with maintaining her independence. Those two competing obsessions carried through several books until both of them, passions spent, fell into each others arms.

There are a lot of theories about why obsessions/passions develop. For character development, I favor the traumatic event in the past situation.
1. Something happened to the character that planted the seeds of obsession or passion. Strangely enough, with Peter and Harriet, the sticking point was likely money. Peter had lots of it, but even all of that wealth could not protect Harriet from going to the gallows. He had to give more than money to save her. For Harriet, having to earn her own living after her father died set up that streak of independence.
2. It was an event with emotional significance and it occurred at a time when the character was either truly helpless or thought that they were helpless.
3. Something prevented them from getting counseling, medication, understanding, perspective, or hope after the incident.
4. Something happened to reinforce the victim’s story. The victim’s story says they did this to me. I did nothing/could do nothing to prevent this from happening.

Victim characters are often not very interesting. They tend to whine and that gets tedious. When Peter and Harriet meet, both have moved through the victim’s story to the survivor’s story, though Harriet has a bit more of a victim about her. Her line is that she allowed Philip Boyes to set the parameters of their relationship, that she was a fool to do so, and that her being brought to trial just might be what she deserves for being so stupid.

The survivor’s story says, this thing happened. While I couldn’t prevent it, I did these things to survive. Peter knows what he did to survive the Great War, and more important, what he is doing to survive being a younger son in one of the richest families in England. That bally-ho, fatuous man-about-town image is his survivor’s story, constructed so that people will let him alone.

Both of their survivors’ stories have crystalized around them. What makes their relationship work is that each can see in the other something that other people miss. They challenge one another to come out of their glass prison and be real, true, and vulnerable. Doing this takes time. It’s not a straight shot from survivor to thriver.

Remember that stress, stress, stress? Good fiction is one step forward, and two steps back. Whatever the character risks has to turn on them. This way, when they take a risk again, there has to be a whole lot more motivation, courage, hope, or love pushing them to take that second chance. And yet more for the third time, and so on until the reader feels that there is no possible way that the character will take that final chance, the one that brings them out of being a survivor and into being a thriver.

The thriver’s story says, “I wouldn’t wish what happened to me on anyone, but I’m a better person because I’ve come through the experience and participated in my own healing.”

That’s a great outcome for heroes and heroines, but alas, life never works out so well for the villain. Fortunately for the writer, a good villain remain stuck in the victim’s story. Life has been done to him. He has no way to participate in his own rescue and that warps his view of the world. Think of heroic characters as moving forward and villains as repeating a circle over and over, only the circle gets deeper and harder to move out of each time.

Want character development in one question? That question is What is their obsession?

If you’re interested in knowing more about victims’, survivors’ and thrivers’ stories, see Dr. Rob Voyle’s Book, Restoring Hope.

Quote for the week
Your biggest problems and your worst obsessions contain the seeds of your own growth and development.
~Sara Halprin, writer and process work therapist


Sheila Connolly said...

I love your characterization of the Peter Wimsey-Harriet Vane dynamic. That series (or at least the later books) remains among my all-time favorites.

Funny--the term "passion" seems to be in the air these days. In part it relates to Oprah's farewell, but others have echoed it. Find something you are passionate about and act on it.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

"Something prevented them from getting counseling"--that touches on one of my own obsessions, or pet peeves anyway. Harriet and Peter wouldn't have had this solution available to them, but it makes me nuts to see fictional characters in contemporary settings presented as if there's no escape from their demons--especially when the author includes a tirade on the inefficacy of therapy.

Anonymous said...

So, Sheila, is "bliss" out and "passion" in? I've never been quite sure what "following my bliss" looks like. Will it drop a trail of bread crumbs so I know where to follow it?

I agree with you, Liz. It bothers me that a reader might defer getting counseling because she read in a book that it didn't work.

Julia Buckley said...

Some excellent food for thought here! I need to take it to the writing table.