Saturday, January 5, 2013

Goal, Motivation and Conflict: Phoebe North

As a recovering poet, words come easily to me. I've long been able to luxuriate in scene descriptions, laying out the intricacies of my world for readers. And yet no matter how beautifully written my early novels were, readers of them were often puzzled. Though there was some semblance of a plot present in those books--my characters moved from one scene to the next--there was often a sense of narrative disconnect. It was years before I realized why: my characters lacked clear motivation and goals, and so my stories were therefore lacking in forward momentum.
To writers who are plot-driven or character-driven, the idea that one's protagonist and even secondary characters must want things might seem to be self-evident. But for me, it wasn't. Asked to describe my characters, I would often say something like, "She's shy, passive. More a listener than a doer." That's not to say that one can't write passive characters, but even shy people want things: to be understood, to make friends, to talk to the cute boy in the band without turning red as a beet. In truth, I was using these passive characters as a shield to avoid areas of narrative that challenged me. My wallflower characters kept me in my comfort zone, the place of pretty words and places. But they didn't lead to good books.
Now I try to keep my characters' motivations at the forefront of my mind in drafting. In any manuscript, your protagonist, particularly, must have overarching desires. These are often grounded in familial background or childhood. Your character might want fame (because they were ignored); they might want love (because they were an orphan). In each scene, these desires will manifest themselves in different ways. In one, your heroine might want to steal a magic ring from an evil wizard--but this is probably rooted in her desire to liberate her people from an evil empire. In every case, awareness of a character's macro desires over the course of a novel informs a character's micro desires in any given scene.
And it's through these micro desires that conflicts arise between characters. Your evil wizard might want to hold on to the ring because she's power hungry (perhaps due to feeling powerless, always standing in the shadow of her more powerful sorceress sister). Knowing this will add life to your narrative--depth. These character conflicts are what keeps a narrative moving and developing organically, and what persuades a reader to stick with you through the novel's climax.
It's a funny thing; now that I've learned to focus on character motivation, I don't have a lot of time to let my characters chew the scenery any more. I'm too focused on telling their story to fritter my wordcount away.

PHOEBE NORTH was born on her sister’s fifth birthday–December 26th, 1983. She spent the first twenty-two years of her life in New Jersey, where, in the shadows of the Watchung Mountains, she lugged innumerable library books home to read in the bathtub, at the dinner table, in front of the television, and under the blankets with a flashlight when she should have been asleep.

She was a dork: obsessed, variously, with Star Trek, Star Wars (who says you can’t love both?), renaissance festivals, The X-files, Andy Kaufman, Alien Nation, dragons, and Mystery Science Theater 3000. In high school, she dyed her hair every color you can think of–but a Tenctonese can’t hide her spots.

After college, she departed for warmer climes, enrolling in the University of Florida’s MFA program to study poetry. But it was in Gainesville that she learned to embrace her inner dork. After studying children’s literature with scholars Kenneth Kidd and John Cech, she started writing books about magic and love and aliens for teenagers. And realized she loved it almost as much as she loves Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

She now lives in New York State with her cat, her husband, and many licensed novels. She likes to cook, watch Degrassi, sew, take her cat for walks, and, of course, write. Despite many soaked pages, she still loves to read in the bath.

She is represented by Michelle Andelman of Regal Literary. Her first novel, STARGLASS, is forthcoming from Simon and Schuster in July of 2013.

My darling daughter,
Know that I never would have left the Earth if it hadn’t already been doomed.

The generation ship Asherah coasts through space, bound for a planet its passengers have never even seen. On the eve of their arrival, sixteen-year-old botanist Terra discovers that her orderly society has fractured. Walking home one night through the long-abandoned engine rooms, she witnesses the murder of an innocent man. Now, called on by the Children of Abel, a group of rebels intent on destroying the High Council, Terra must prove her mettle–assassinate the ship’s rising captain. In order to carry out her task, Terra must betray her father, deceive her teacher, and challenge everything the Council has ever taught her was true.

The rebels think that Terra has nothing left to lose. But when she falls for Silvan Rafferty, the boy that she’s meant to kill, Terra learns that “doing your duty” isn’t always as easy as it seems.

Advanced praise for Starglass:
Murder, rebellion, and spaceships done right: Phoebe North’s STARGLASS gave me the best kind of chills. I can’t wait to see what the sequel has in store.
-Jodi Meadows, author of Incarnate

Preorder STARGLASS from the following retailers!


Katrina L. Lantz said...

Thank you for writing this. I have the same inclination to write poetry in my prose and neglect the story/character arc. You just nailed the solution so well. I'm sharing this with all the new writers I know. Wordsmithing is fun, but storytelling is what it's all about! Thank you, Phoebe! Now that I know you're a poet-writer, I want to read STARGLASS even more!

Angelica R. Jackson said...

I write both poetry and prose and there is some definite crossover. One interesting experiment was taking a short story and converting it to free verse--lets you see how much impact even a few words can have.

And yes, without motivations you get characters that are hard to connect with. I tried to make my MC all mysterious/unreliable in one book, and it was just confusing to readers.

Unknown said...

I have never written any poetry worth reading, but I still have this issue with my prose. I think that thinking through character motivations and goals before starting a novel and before writing each scene is key; sometimes I start letting my characters run around willy-nilly (or run around following my own whims as a writer) and forget that they have their own goals in each scene. If you just think about their goals, the plot part's much easier! Thanks for the post!