This is the first post in what is going to be a series of posts titled “Beyond the Spark.” Every few days, I will be answering a question that explores the writing process from the first spark of an idea, to how to hold onto these ideas, and to how to flesh it out into a story.
I have never been someone who enjoys planning out every detail before I start writing, so this is not about that, but how to gain a sense of your characters, their motivations, and the trajectory of the story as you first begin to write.
“Hi, Lizard. I’m trying to find motivations for my characters, but I want them to fit in with parallels which I haven’t even conceived of yet. I can’t continue writing what I have so far if I don’t have motivations for my characters, and I can’t write without aiming for parallels, but I need motivations for parallels. What do I do?”
I’m not really sure what you mean by parallels, but I’m moved by your plight. Let’s talk through this.
Parallels & Theme
Parallels sound to me like a concept reminiscent of theme. I honestly don’t care much to talk too much about theme, since I think it’s something discovered and honed in revision stages if touched upon at all, so I’ll make this quick. If your story centers around a theme like “loss of innocence” there might be a few instances where that theme applies to different characters, or the same character, in different ways. You don’t have to force a theme upon your story. Usually it’s just there. Someone asks you what your story is about, and you say, it’s about “X” – that’s the theme.
Parallels, when I think of them, are parallel plot lines. A character might be telling a story that happened a long time ago, but it has parallels to something in their life in the present. In this case, it’s usually a story that has a similar emotional core, though it might otherwise be very different. For instance, the short story by Alice Munro, “The Albanian Virgin.” I won’t give too much away, but this short story follows not only the titular “Albanian Virgin” but also, the storyteller, divulging two narratives the author braids together.
The art of parallel plot lines though can be very tricky. The stories should support each other in some way, so they don’t read as two separate stories that have been crammed into the same book. This means that one should not distract from the other, and if it does, it should have a good reason.
I always like to start with the question: “What does this character want?” It doesn’t have to be a big want. They might only want something petty in that scene, but every character should want something. The protagonist’s wants are what drives the plot. What does this character want? In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss wants to win the games. It’s clear to the reader pretty much immediately. Though I wouldn’t say that’s the case with every book. Some books are a little more subtle, they invite questions early on and the character’s wants might lead to answers.
Like in We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. Merricat is not going to tell the reader outright about how her family was poisoned. Instead, we find out that most of her family is dead, that her sister was accused of murder but now lives with Merricat in their family home. We learn that their uncle, the third surviving member of the family, has been trying to write down what happened the night everyone was poisoned. Merricat doesn’t give away what happened though, because she believes that she and her sister are in danger, their estranged cousin has come for a visit. The reader is given enough clues and information to begin to piece together more of the family history that leads up to the mass poisoning. We know that the questions around what really happened to Merricat’s family will eventually be answered.
Merricat’s wants give us a window into her home life, her personal history, and without us knowing all of her motivations, we have a clear idea of what she wants from scene to scene. That’s another thing – it’s not actually essential that the reader know why the character wants something, just what the character wants. If a character is keeping a secret from the reader, then the reader isn’t necessarily going to know their motivations. That would give the secret away. What helps is if the reader understands clearly what they want, and this instead becomes a clue to the why, their secret.
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