September 7, 2008: Ohhhh! I Get It Now!

I didn’t end up adding anything to the wip last night, but it was a productive night anyway.

A couple of weeks ago, I won a critique from an agent through my local RWA chapter. I got the critique back earlier this week and while it was generally very positive, one comment stuck like a burr: “the main character doesn’t seem as well developed as I would like her to be…I don’t understand her motivations and I don’t have enough information to like her.” Yesterday, I showed the whole critique to some writer friends and in the course of sharing it, I said, “I don’t necessarily disagree with what she has to say about Ilsabet.” I didn’t really think much more about it, but I think that sometimes saying things out loud makes them real. At any rate, the Girls picked up on this and started working.

I say the Girls started working on it because in the middle of flossing my teeth, I found myself wondering what Ilsabet’s ambitions were, what the direction of her days was. Basically, I started asking myself what she wants. I thought about her world and her place in it, and it occurred to me that what she wants and how she goes about getting it are as much about her world as they are about Ilsabet, so I can use her external goal and her approach to it to illuminate her world and her character.

I know she wants to make a good marriage, but I asked myself if that’s the only goal allowed for aristocratic women in her world. After a little thought, I rejected the idea, partly because the women in this world aren’t limited that way (as, say, women in the last few centuries have been limited — for many women, making a good marriage was the only way to survive), but mostly because actively pursuing that goal doesn’t work in this particular story.

In the beginning of the story, Ilsabet wants to repair the damage done to the Tamren family name by her parents’ irresponsibility and fecklessness. Making a good marriage is one way to make up for her parents’ bad behavior — she’s doing what’s expected of her in an entirely appropriate way — and for most of the time I’ve been writing Dragonfly, it’s been the only avenue she’s pursued. Last night, considering things, I asked myself if there might not be some post of some kind she’s trying to be named to. Maid-of-honor to the empress crossed my mind, but there are a bunch of reasons that doesn’t work.

Then the sanctuaries came to mind, the complexes devoted to worship of the saints, and the idea of big annual festivals popped up, and church committees were suddenly there too. All of those things came together and I thought, “What if there’s some kind of committee she’s trying to join, either a committee connected to a prestigious sanctuary, or perhaps a committee to do with the planning of a big celebration, perhaps for the empress’s personal saint, St. Serranesso, or perhaps for the imperial family’s patron, St. [I don’t know who yet]?” That resonated; that sparked all kinds of ideas, ways I could use it on so many levels.

And when that happened, I finally got it. I finally got why it’s important for the protagonist to have an external goal s/he’s working towards. I understood how passive my main characters have been in the past, and I understood why I keep getting, “But I don’t understand what she wants” in critiques.

What I don’t have at the moment is how I’m going to use this insight in the opening of Dragonfly. Right now, that’s okay — I think I’ll be in a better position to fix the beginning once I’ve finished the whole book.

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