Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Crossing the Line

Sharon Wildwind

The line we will not cross, an ethical or moral action that we believe violates our most sacred beliefs, turns out to be a very porous barrier.

In July 1961, Dr. Stanley Miligram at Yale University, set up a complex experiment involving three people. The heart of the experiment was a simple question. Would an average person, directed to do so by a second person, administer what they (falsely) believed to be a harmful or even fatal electric shock to a third person? Doctors and psychologists had assured Miligram that very few people would deliver the shock. In reality 26 of 40 test subjects (65%) administered repeatedly increasing shocks up to the test maximum. Why? Because someone told them to do it.

Ten years later, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, of Stanford University, stopped a proposed two-week experiment after only six days. Two groups of volunteers had been recruited: one group to act as prison guards and the other to act as prisoners. By day six, guards were using psychological torture and prisoners were rioting and attempting to escape. What stopped the experiment wasn’t that Dr. Zimbardo had an ethical awakening, but that his girl friend, who entered the experiment to pretend to interview prisoners, took one look at what was going on and blew her stack.

The line she will not cross is part of my quick-character-development starter kit.

A lot of the character shorthand (dominant impression, tag line, emotional baggage, flawed life view, and dangerous secrets) is nice to know, but it’s often more of an overview. Crossing the line is where the character, and often the story, gets interesting.

First, the transgression has to be a biggie. We’re not talking photocopying a book on the office copier, or shoplifting a candy bar. Not that I’m in favor of either of those actions, but they aren’t strong enough to carry a storyline.

The character has to be absolutely certain that she would never, ever cross the line. I try to dig deep enough into her background that I have a good idea about where that belief about herself came from. What will it mean to her when she does cross? Not if she crosses it, because I know darn well that she’s going to cross it.

How can I connect her belief directly to the storyline? What if there is no connection? In a few cases, I’ve changed a storyline rather than give up a great belief.

It helps if I can set up her belief early in the story, often with a minor incident. It’s important not to try to explain what is happening. Just let the reader see her behave in a given way, so that it sets up an idea that this is part of her usual behavior pattern.

If I’m writing a series, I set up a line-crossing arc for the series. In each book, my protagonist will cross one more line, so that by the last book in the series, she can face a real dilemma, and commit an act that she wouldn’t be capable of committing in the first book.

Take Harry Potter as an example. Perceptive readers twigged to the idea while reading The Philosopher’s Stone that, by the final book, Harry will ultimately confront He-who-must-not-be-named. But I’m not sure any of us, myself included, had a clue that he would demand such sacrifices from his friends, in fact, from the entire wizard world, in order to win that conflict.

Do I know what that last act will be when I write book one? No. I just know that it will be something big and horrible and leave it at that.

I also don’t usually know exactly what the character will do to cross the line in the current work in progress. As I write I look for ways to force my character into a funnel where, at the climax, she has no choice but to cross the line. I won’t permit her to excuse herself once she crosses it. None of this she did it because someone told her to do it will be allowed.

But I will allow her to forgive herself. However, her life must be changed forever by crossing the line. She has to lose something and gain something, and whatever the gain and loss it has to spiral the story up to the next level.

It’s much better to do this to a character than in real life. I have no illusion at all that there is a single thing “I would never, ever do”. I am just a fragile as those test subjects at Yale and Stanford.

Quote for the week
I will be a cruel goddess. I will stress out my characters to the breaking point. A non-stressed character is a useless character. Great heroes/heroines make you shiver and tingle.
~Jo Beverly, romance writer


Sheila Connolly said...

The problem is somewhat different for those of us who write ongoing (I hope!) series, in which you can't plan for a single critical turning point or final crisis. But even so, I think we want our characters to grow and learn through the course of the series, as any thinking person should do.

And another issue is how to deal with an editor who wants everything spelled out, which leaves little room for the protagonist's voyage of self-discovery. Maybe he or she isn't even aware of his/her own motives, at least at first--hence the individual learning curve. (But sometimes trying to be subtle about it passes right over the editor's head.)

Sandra Parshall said...

If the character crosses the line in one book, what do you have to work with in subsequent books? The fallout?

This concept perfectly fits stand-alone thrillers, which show a protagonist at the single most dramatic time of his/her life.

JJM said...

In a series, it's a progressive set of lines, Sandra, until that final line is reached.

Excellent article, Sharon. Gave me a lot to think about, thank you.

Anonymous said...

Sheila, I agree with what you said. Often I have a general idea in mind. "She's going to compromise her honesty," or "He's going to fail to recognize true friendship." Aren't editors who want everything spelled out a pain.

Yes, Sandra, you do have the fallout to deal with, as well as what JJM said about moving along a progressive set of lines. Often those two things complicate each other wonderfully well.