“An important way you keep your protagonist from wandering aimlessly about your narrative is to give him an intention in every scene—a job that he wants to carry out that will give purpose to the scene.”
Jordan Rosenfeld, Make A Scene
Character is key. How many times have you read or heard that? As I start to think about the prospect of NaNoWriMo, and the potential of writing a novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about the issue of Character, and how Jordan’s commentary reaches to the heart of an issue. To put my own spin on Jordan’s advice, to keep your scene from falling flat, you need to focus on the five W’s of writing: Who? What? Where? When? And especially, Why?
“The intention doesn’t come from nowhere—it stems directly from the significant situation of your plot and from your protagonist’s personal history.”
Jordan Rosenfeld, Make A Scene
This morning, I started my day around a quarter to five this morning. It’s not hard to do when a five-year-old climbs into bed with you and your spouse and then starts wiggling around. I'm not complaining, though. I needed to wake up eventually. Why not do it earlier, right?
After letting the dog out and starting a pot of coffee, I slipped into a sweat suit, tied on a pair of sneakers (some old-fashioned words should never die), and then stepped out through the garage. Like other writers, I have decided to give “walking” a try. So with nothing in the sky but the crickets and the constellation of Orion to keep me company, I set out with only one goal in mind: to listen to my characters.
On a note pad, I’ve already jotted down some notes about plot devices and potential conflicts—the “significant situation” as Jordan describes it—so now I need to work on my characters. Who are they? What do they want? How will they get it, whatever “it” may be? With one foot in front of the other, the cool air brushing against my face, it has been my hope that I might find the answers to these questions as I trek the morning route. I shouldn’t really call it a route, though. I’ve only been doing this for two days now, and both times I walked a different way.
Here’s what I’ve discovered. A funny thing happens while you’re walking along with an open mind. I could actually hear the characters talking. While I had some names, I didn’t have them all. Now I have a new name to add to my cast of characters. And here’s something else. While I didn’t know at first exactly why one of them was angry, I now have a page of explanatory notes, including snippets of the conversations I heard. I’m starting to know more about my MC. Where he came from. How he came to live where he now lives.
After two days of walking, I have gained a greater understanding of my characters and the story. There are more connections to discover—obviously there will be if I want to have three-dimensional characters and a believable plot—but I now feel more confident that I can actually plug the colored wires into the right slots. I’m learning the personal histories, which will lead to motivations, which will lead to additional intentions for each scene.
Of course, it doesn’t have to happen exactly this way. You can do it during the afternoon or the evening. It can happen while you’re driving your car or riding the transit. For all I know, you can even listen to your characters while sitting out on the back porch, coffee cup in hand, listening to the birds chirping merrily as the sun sneaks over the horizon. However, you do it though, there is one constant. You must have an open mind.