The Saturday Creativity Quote — stuck on what happens next?

“If you are stuck and asking what should happen next, head straight for what cannot happen. That’s the direction you want to go. The goal is not to play within the rules, but to break them. Story is not about what is realistic, reasonable, safe and ordinary. It is about the extreme things that happen to people who are not ready. It’s about the dramatic things that people like you and me might do-but do not-under duress.”

– Don Maass, Writer Unboxed: It Can’t Happen Here, 3/4/2020

I first heard Don say this years ago when he spoke at the Flathead River Writers Conference held by the Authors of the Flathead, a multi-genre writers’ group based in Kalispell, Montana. I remember the moment clearly. “What is one thing your main character would never do?” he asked. “Wear lipstick,” I wrote in my notebook, clueless enough not to realize what he would say next. “Now make them do it.”

photo of welded sculpture of a heron, with a mountain lake in the background

And that’s become one of my most important tools for unfolding plot from the characters themselves. Not wearing lipstick might seem trivial, but in that unpublished manuscript, it led me to think about where my MC, a deputy sheriff, might feel she had to wear lipstick. Another character is a national news reporter who’s just been fired from her job and retreats to her summer home in Montana where, naturally, she responds to her lover’s unsolved murder by filming a television segment, including an interview with the deputy sheriff.

In my Spice Shop mysteries, Pepper Reece would never ask her ex-husband, a Seattle cop on the bike patrol, for help — until she has to.

What would your character never do? Betray a friend? Betray a confidence? Fire a gun? Run into a burning building? Run from a burning building? Take a welding class? Wear pink? Eat a sweet potato? Make it matter. Make her do it.

Well, except maybe for that the sweet potato.

Saturday Writing Quote — on characters

01_Barn_Pastel_WEB“A story is finished when the mystery of the character has been revealed. That’s what Flannery O’Connor wrote at least, and she tends to get it right. And no mystery can be revealed if the character isn’t challenged to come to terms with what makes her alive: the desires that get her up in the morning in the first place, whether she understands them or not.”

— Michelle Hoover, in The Duplicity of A Character’s Desire, Writer Unboxed, 3/20/16

(Illustration: pastel on garnet paper, by Leslie)

The Saturday Writing Quote: on regret

“No regrets? Really?” asks author Richard Power. “I have regrets. They are sacred to me. They inform my character. They bear witness to my evolution. Glimpses of lost love and treasure are held inside of them; like small beautiful creatures suspended in amber.”

In his Breakout Novel Intensive writing workshop, literary agent and teacher Don Maass works hard at getting writers to think about all aspects of character and how our characters’ emotions drive their action. One tool he uses is to ask students to think about a specific experience they’ve had of an emotion. “What do you regret?” he asks. Invariably, students say “Just one thing?” The same thing happened when I asked that question to students in a class I taught, which answers the question “Does every character need to have a regret?” quite nicely, doesn’t it?