The first thing any acting student learns in terms of creating a character and building a scene is to ask the question: “What do I WANT?” – n every scene, and in the story overall. When I was directing plays (yeah, in one of my mutiple past lives) and a scene was just lying dead on the stage, I could always get the actors to breathe life into it by getting them to clarify what they wanted in the scene and simply playing that want.
This is something that starts in the writing, obviously, and should always be on the author’s mind, too: Who wants what in the scene, and how do those desires conflict? Who WINS in the scene?
But even before all that, one of the most important steps of creating a story, from the very beginning, is identifying the protagonist overall desire and need in the story. You also hear this called “internal” and “external” desire, and “want” and “deep need”, but it’s all the same thing. A strong main character will want something immediately, like to get that promotion, or to have sex with the love interest. But there’s something underneath that surface want that is really driving the character, and in good characters, those inner and outer desires are in conflict. Also, the character will KNOW that s/he wants that outer desire, but probably have very little idea that what she really needs is the inner desire.
One of the great examples of inner and outer desire in conflict is in the George Bailey character in IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. From the very beginning George wants to see the world, to do big things, design big buildings – all very male, external, explosive goals. But his deep need is to become a good man and community leader like his father, who does big things and fights big battles – but on a microcosm, in their tiny, “boring” little community of Bedford Falls, which George can’t wait to escape.
But every choice he actually makes in the story defers his external need to escape, and ties him closer to the community that he becomes the moral leader of, as he takes on his late father’s role and battles the town’s would-be dictator, Mr. Potter. George does not take on that role happily – he fights it every single step of the way, and resents it a good bit of the time. But it’s that conflict which makes George such a great character whom we emphasize with – it’s a story of how an ordinary man becomes a true hero.
In SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Clarice’s outer desire is for advancement in the FBI. And Harris conveys this desire in what is a brilliant storytelling trick: He has Dr. Lecter tell her so. “You’re sooooo ambitious, aren’t you?” He purrs. And “I’ll give you what you most desire, Clarice. Advancement.”
It’s brilliant because it makes Lecter all-knowing, but it also clearly spells out Clarice’s desire, which the audience/reader really does need to know to commit to the character and relax into the story. I’m a big believer in just spelling it out.
But what Clarice REALLY needs is not advancement. What she needs to save a lamb – the lamb that haunts her dreams, the lamb she hears screaming. In the story, the kidnapped senator’s daughter Catherine is the lamb, and Harris uses animal imagery to subtly evoke a lamb and the scene of the slaughter of the lambs that haunts Clarice.
And again, Lecter is the one who draws this deep need out of Clarice.
Also Clarice’s need and desire come into conflict: what she WANTS is advancement, but in order to save Catherine, she has to defy her superiors and jeopardize her graduation from the academy.
It’s usually true that the external desire will be a selfish want – something the protagonist wants for him or herself, and the inner need will be unselfish – something the protagonst comes to want for other people. This is a useful guideline because it clearly shows character growth.
So I bring all this up this morning because I’m looking for good examples of inner and outer desire, especially inner and outer desire in conflict, and I wanted to throw that out to the collective brain, here.
On another topic entirely, the lovely and talented Michelle Gagnon made a comment a few days ago that I thought was worth following up on.
She said that she wasn’t convinced of the usefulness of drop-in book signings – and cited that clerk we all have met – young and clueless, who couldn’t care less that a real live author is standing in front of her, offering to sign books.
Well, it so happens I’m on a mini tour, yesterday and today – my friend, paranormal author Jenna Black and I drove from Raleigh to Virginia Beach yesterday to do a signing at the grand opening of the Virginia Beach Books-a-Million. We hit four other area bookstores on the way yesterday and are doing another eight today. Is it useful? Oh, hell, yeah.
Even though the very best time to do this is when you have a book just out and the stores are more likely to have a number of your book in stock, this trip has been gold for me. Virginia Beach turns out to be a very bookstore-heavy town, they love the supernatural and paranormal, and our reception has been fantastic. The stores that didn’t have the books ordered them in on the spot, and we’ve had multiple requests for signings when our next books come out in December.
I feel like I’ve cracked another market that wasn’t particularly aware of me (I’ve never done any events in Virginia before) and I have a new buddy to make these drop-in trips with.
I do want to say that the key is NOT to rely on the first clerk you talk to but to ask to speak to a manager or CRM. Most will be thrilled to see you, really.
So my other question of the day is – do you do bookstore drop-ins, and do you have helpful tips for those on the fence about it?
We’re off on the rounds now, but I’ll check in later today.