The Character Driven Novel – Mark An X On The Map

mapI’m starting the planning process for my next novel. This time I’m trying on Elizabeth George’s excellent and comprehensive outlining procedure, which includes doing a perceptive and searching analysis of each major character. Wouldn’t you know it? It’s working.

A novel is a nebulous thing when it first starts out – an opening scene, maybe two strong characters colliding, maybe an idea for a bang-up action climax. It’s all nice to have a handle, but then you have to dive into the thing. Find out what it’s all about. Who your characters are, and how (and why) they go from here to there.

Treacherous Terrain

Your characters are allowed, even encouraged, to stumble around in the dark, but you are not. (I’m talking to the planners here, not the pantsers, which is a different adventure entirely.) You have to know the map. You have to know where your protagonist is, where he is going to end up, and the treacherous terrain he needs to cross to get there. This is true on the level of physical action and circumstance, but also internally. Your protagonist – and all your major characters – need to change and evolve personally during the story. And you have to know how, and why, and how to get them there.

It all starts with the character analysis. What is my main man’s psychological crutch? Why does he have it? What does he do when someone knocks it out from under him? What’s his biggest hang-up? What does he most love, most hate? What do others see when he walks into the room? Questions like this, and the others on Elizabeth’s Prompt Sheet, are already revealing to me what struggle my protagonist needs to go through in this story. From there it is easier to figure out what obstacles to throw at him to facilitate the change. Poor bastard.

Only One X

Note I said struggle, and change. Singular. Novels are intricate and complex beasts, but I believe that my protagonist should only go through one major change from beginning to end. The main thrust of the story, the theme, the one brick wall he must climb to be a better person at the end. Knowing what that one struggle is, and limiting it to only the one, makes for a strong story that will pull the reader along. When your reader can stand at the start of the map and dimly perceive one clear and decisive X marked on the opposite side of it, then they can charge off on the protagonist’s harrowing adventure with a will.

This won’t make for a simpleminded story. I’m talking the protagonist’s journey here; you still have other characters, and side plots, and of course there is always the bad guy. They have their character analyses, too. They have their own struggles, their own changes they must make (or refuse to) by the end. Their stories are the weave and twist around the strong line of the protagonist’s journey that make things intricate and rich.

So here I am, carving out my characters, and furiously jotting down notes of discovery and exclamation on the side – this is the past incident that gave my guy a twist in his gut, this is what he needs to work out in this story. Which will need this scene, and this struggle, and would reflect nicely in this character’s plotline … well, like Elizabeth says, I’ll end up with far more ideas and inspirations than I can use. But I will know my starting point, and I will know my X.

The rest is simply the wilderness. And that’s the fun part.


Massage Therapy Case Study: The Case Of The Shifty Spine

beautiful nude spineBilly sure had us puzzled. I was working in a clinic with two other massage therapists, a naturopath, and a chiropractor, and he’d seen us all. Billy had a peculiar problem – he was shifted to the left, and couldn’t get back.

Billy was healthy – early twenties, easygoing, a lanky six feet and slightly more proportioned to the trunk than the legs. Billy was strong from his work as a labourer, no previous health problems. He simply woke up one morning and found himself standing crooked. He had no pain of any kind, but his entire upper body shifted to the left at L4, just above his hips. “I feel like I’m always walking in circles,” he said.

The Amazing Adaptive Spine

Lots of people stand with their shoulders lateral to their hips, for many reasons – a short leg, a torqued pelvis, a locked facet joint, compressed ribs, to name just a few. Almost all of these produce subtle but characteristic changes in the amazingly adaptive architecture of the spine. Each vertebral block will sit a little bit sideways, and twist a little bit to the outside of the resulting curve, all the way up the column until the offending misalignment is as neutralized as it can be – until the head is once again being carried as level as possible. Almost nobody is without some level of lateral correction in their spinal column, and it is a testament to the adaptability of the human form that so few of us even notice.

Lateral spinal correction is supposed to be a gentle, gradual thing; Billy’s was like one block – L4 – was trying to divorce L5 and move out. His lumbar paraspinal muscles, quadratus lumborum, and erector spinae were in solid spasm all around the area. I spent three sessions using thorough neuromuscular massage to remove all the tightness, and sure enough Billy would be straight again when he stood up. For about a second and a half. Then clunk, he’d be crooked again.

The Answer

Two months after Billy finished with all of us he came back for a visit, walking normally. Detailed scans had finally revealed the culprit – a chunk of the L4-5 disk had broken off and was floating inside his spinal column. Disks have few sensory nerve fibers, thus the lack of pain, but his spine couldn’t tolerate the wandering invader. A good surgeon plucked it out, and Billy was immediately fine.

Published in: on September 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm  Leave a Comment  
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