Thursday, May 3, 2012


Get your character up a tree. Throw rocks at it. Then get it back down.

I remember someone teaching that to me during a lesson on plot. The idea was that your character had to face obstacles along its journey. (Yes, I'm referring to my character as "it" today. Epiphanic, I know.)

But I'm currently in the middle of a story where that very thing is happening. There aren't any trees, and there aren't any rocks per se,  but there is a character, and she is doing something, and things are getting in her way. For this particular story, though, it doesn't feel like enough. The metaphoric--metaphoric, not metamorphic--rocks aren't really big enough to leave any damage. Or at least they're not being thrown with enough speed or accuracy.

You know how in Anna Karenina, you know who does you know what? And in The Great Gatsby you know who you know whats into you know who? And in Romeo & Juliet, you know who thinks that you know who is you know what and so you know who you know whats and then you know who you know whats and sees you know who and then you know whats? That's what I'm talking about today.

I'm also talking about Aron Ralston losing his arm and Ada McGrath losing his finger and William Miller losing his virginity.

I think it's important to get your character up a tree. It's important to throw rocks at it. But I'd argue that it's also important to have one of those rocks hit the character and leave some sort of scar that can't be easily concealed by makeup or plastic surgery. The rock doesn't have to kill the character. It just needs to leave a permanent mark that ushers that character into a new stage in its life or nudges it into seeing the world through a different lens. Don't make it easy for your characters to recover from the challenges they face. Otherwise the story doesn't feel significant enough, and the drama doesn't build.

What's Peanut eating? A dry leaf. He didn't swallow.


  1. Yeah, if the consequences are inconsequential, there's no real purpose to the action at all. I've come to think of character and dramatic arc as processes of constant change, usually changes that happen against the wishes of the character. The characters must constantly renegotiate their relationship with themselves and the world. And in my stories, anyway, all the individual actions/consequences must in the end add up to a larger character arc; they all need to point more-or-less in the same direction, and have to do with where the character ends up at the end of the story. In my current novel, the two main characters basically try the same actions over and over in different contexts. One character adapts to the consequences while the other one becomes more rigid and stubborn. I didn't notice that until just this second. Huh.

    1. In The Pagani Project (aka Cyberlama, possibly aka The State of Living) I had my main protagonist's storyline interspersed with stories told by and about my fictional Dalai Lama. I was about 80% of the way through the book when I realized that the Dalai Lama's stories could help support the protag's story if I was more selective about them. I ended up throwing half of the old stories out and coming up with new ones that emphasized physical journeys and the acquisition of wisdom. I think this is like what you're saying about making sure everything points in the same direction.

    2. Yeah, that's what I mean. It plays into my ideas about narrative unity. All the 13 or so character sketches in "The Last Guest" point to the idea that relationships (love, even) come without guarantees and that we're all fools to love, but we can't live without that foolishness. Or something. "The Last Guest" is all about love and what people do for love, and how love (or I really here mean relationships, maybe) changes as one's life circumstances change. Maybe an exploration of Shakespeare's "Love's not love that alters when it alteration finds." I ended up adding more character sketches and throwing others out and rewriting others when I revised, to make them all point in the same general direction. So I'll claim that I know what you mean about Moby-Cyberlama.