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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Treatment Tuesday - Strong Heroes, Even Stronger Motivations

[You have until Friday for a chance to win Deborah Vogts'
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This week's assessment is from Jaime. She's writing in a second time about her historical suspense to tap the psychology well about her hero, Seth.*

Seth is a strong, silent, brooding man haunted by past war crimes he committed alongside his nemesis. Seth, whose background is the US Calvary, confessed to his crimes and took his nemesis down with him. He still feels like he owes penance, though, so when a new crime is committed by the bad guy, Seth turns himself in to appease his guilt (and thwart the bad guy by pulling such an unexpected card). He's currently on the run from the nemesis, but when the bag guy threatens the woman he loves, he decides to face his past.

* Names have already been changed to protect the fictional. Gotta love that!

Jaime wants to know: Is there a different psychology behind Seth's "guilt factor" that could bring a different spin to Seth's reaction? Why would a military man consumed by guilt not just face his opponent and end it rather than continue to run away and then take the blame for something he didn't do? How do I make Seth look strong while not losing my entire story?

Reading your sketch brings up some questions for me, not just as a therapist but as a reader. You wrote that you have a hard time believing yourself that he wouldn't just face his nemesis, fight him, and get it over with. You even wrote that turning himself in for a new crime he didn't commit almost seems weak to you, which makes you like him less as a hero.

I say you need to stick with that reaction! If you, as the author, aren't so keen on his behavior--and ultimately his character--then you have two options:

1) Change the behavior (easier way out)
2) Change his motivation (harder, but will pack more psychological punch)

If you change the behavior, you have him fight the guy, win, and then have what might be a very run-of-the-mill novel. Good guys fighting bad guys. Not a bad formulaic equation, but nothing special, either.

If you change the motivation, then you give a new twist that old plot line. My brain started turning as soon as you said the good guy "turned himself in" to thwart the bag guy. (Yes, yes, you also said to appease his guilt...but the thwarting is much more interesting. Guilt is a powerful motivator, sure, but the type guilt he's carrying around is more of a deficit in his Esteem Needs, which is pretty high up on the Heirarchy of Needs pyramid.)

I'd consider a lower needs deficit for his motivation, probably Social Needs. Why on earth would Seth turn himself in for the bad guy? This question led me to the next, more important question: What is the relationship between Seth and the bad guy? Is it simple (i.e., good guy v. bad guy) or is it more complex (i.e., good guy v. former best friend or half-brother)?

I don't think you need to change Seth's character so much as you need to layer it more (which is the psychological punch I was talking about). Characters usually tell us how they want to be written. You've got the strong, silent type who likes to brood. He's former military, so we can all imagine he's a muscular, "git-r-done" kind of guy. So make his motivation for steering clear of the conflict greater than his desire to even the score or fight.

What would keep him away, keep him running? It doesn't have to be a weak, pansy reaction for him to have. Could the bad guy be holding something over him, like a terrible secret? What if Seth doesn't want the girl he loves to find out, and only when the bad guy threatens her--and the secret might come out and "ruin" his life--does he feel the need to stand up and fight (that, and he loves her).

As your sketch reads right now, it's pretty vague why he's not wanting to stand up to Bad Guy. Could he not want to go after the bad guy because to kill him would be to kill the only family he's got left--or even knew he had? (Seriously leaning toward something like this personally. Man....think about the possibilities!) Then he'd be running to protect the guy from himself, from his guilt-infused anger, possibly? What if running was the more noble thing to do? No reader alive would think him weak if you made the motivation for his behavior more solid and something people can relate to.

These are just a few of the brainstorming ideas I had while thinking about Seth and his behavior. It makes sense for him to stand up to Bad Guy when Bad Guy starts threatening the woman he loves. If you give him a great motivation prior to this juncture in the novel, then the showdown will be just that: a showdown! Pitting his motivation to run with his motivation to protect the heroine....good stuff, Jaime. Good stuff.

Hope this helps. As always, if I'm totally off or have misunderstood in some way, please comment! I love running "sessions" between authors and me (and others!). :)

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Jaime Wright said...

IT helps! It helps! :) :)

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

So glad, so glad!

Raquel Byrnes said...

What if running is the more noble act...I never looked at it from this point of view but your comments really are helping me with my own WIP. Thanks so much Jeannie!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

thanks for sharing that encouragement, raquel. are you writing on the same story you wrote in to me a few months back?

Linda Glaz said...

Have a crit partner dealing with this very thing.

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.