Article of the Month


Changes and Choices:  
External Action and Internal Reaction

c. 2003 by Alicia Rasley


Character-driven fiction is about internal change. Paradoxically, external action is usually needed to bring on this change.  External action is the surest catalyst for both internal growth and reader interest.  Sure, your protagonist could overcome his distaste for intimacy and his dread of family by going to a psychologist twice a week for ten years.... but who wants to read about that?  Even psychologists, probably, would put down a novel about therapy sessions to pick up a novel about a woman who learns to trust by being blackmailed into joining a secret team to rescue the kidnapped clone of  Thomas Edison. (Hmmm... why didn't I think of that?)

The problem is, external action can be intriguing enough (and hard enough to write) that the author might forget about that internal component altogether, or realize it only at the end and so pack that ten-years-of-therapy-change into the last two chapters.  Better to use the story's entire chain of external action to inspire gradual and graduated internal change.

So whether you start with plot or with character, it might help to chart the external action/internal reaction chain of the story.  You might do this before you start writing (if you're the type who can plot ahead of time), or in the middle of a draft when you're worried you've gone off track, or a way of revising and refining after a draft is done.  The essential task is to make sure that every major external action sparks internal reaction-- and in the direction you want this character to change.  

So let's start with a guy who is a loner, who doesn't think he wants a family-- who looks at children and sees conflict and mess and unhappiness.  Now as a parent, I have to say he's got a point.  And I don't think there's anything pathological about choosing to forego the dubious pleasures of parenthood (sorry, I have teenagers right now <G>).  But with this guy, let's call him Tom, his antipathy to family and kids isn't just a rational response to two years' managing a Chuckie Cheese franchise (the surest form of birth control!).  Let's say deep down inside he does long for connection, for commitment, but his reaction against the very concept of family comes from a traumatic childhood, where maybe he had to take care of an invalid or alcoholic parent. Or maybe he was in foster care for years, and was forced as a teenager to take charge of a bunch of little kids he barely knew and were always getting into trouble, with him getting most of the blame-- some kind of past that gave him too much responsibility too soon with little emotional reward.  He sees no value in family because he's had no experience with the pleasures of family life.

How would you teach him the value of a family if he generally thinks of kids as "dirty little rugrats"? 

1.  You need to pinpoint the lesson he needs to learn. (I'd say that he shouldn't reject his future because of his past, through the other lesson that families bring rewards as well as responsibilities.)
He needs to learn this gradually.

3. He needs to learn it through the experience of the plot-- through the external action.

This means the plot situation has to be designed to help him learn this lesson.  I can think of a lot of plots that could work, but I want to go with an extreme situation, just to increase the fun.

Let's say this guy Tom who has no use for family finds himself shipwrecked on a desert isle with a schoolteacher and her 5 little students. (Wasn't there a movie like this? Geez, it's eluding me. Cary Grant and Leslie Caron? Father Goose, maybe?)  

What's the first major external action?  The shipwreck?  Remember, if he starts out and does "the right thing" (I mean, what -we- think is the right thing-- the family-affirming thing) right off and succeeding, story's over. He's going to say, hey!
That worked! Let me try it again! End of conflict.

But that's not the way human beings work.  What is much more likely to happen is that when first faced with the external situation, whatever it is, he would do things the way he usually does it.  He'd resort to his default action of resisting family and avoiding kids.  Why change? It's always worked before to keep him protected and safe from emotional damage (though I'm sure he wouldn't put it that way :).

So when the external event of the shipwreck happens, what's his internal reaction?  (Terror? Heck, no! This is a man's man. ;)  He might feel excitement and physical thrill from the challenge of saving as many people as he can-- then dismay when he realizes his only fellow survivors are a schoolteacher and her five little charges. 

The default internal response of resistance to family/kids, then, is shown right away.  Maybe he thinks (ironically, I hope), "One island. Five kids. I can't let them drown. So maybe I should let ME drown."

This leads to his external reaction.  He probably helps get the kids to shore--
he's not a monster-- but then, when Julie the schoolteacher (standing on the beach and seeing little prospect of survival) suggests they join forces (second external event), he says, "Nah. I'm a loner. Don't have no use for women and kids. Well, maybe for women." (leer )

So he takes up residence over there under the banyan tree. The first real decision he has to make, he makes the "family-denying" decision that he'd always make.  This decision can either succeed (he really likes it there under his tree) or fail (he's sort of lonely), but whatever it is, he's not going to give up the pattern of a lifetime in a single moment. He's tougher than that.

So what's the next external event? We want to design the events to confront him with choices-- and change the events so that each choice he makes is a change away from that initial default response.  But there's a danger here.  If the choice presented is too stacked in one direction, then it's not a choice.  So we can't just present a choice like "help them survive or watch them die."  He's not a devil.  In a case like that, he will choose the "right" choice-- but without any real growth.  If every decent human being would make the same choice, it's too easy.

So we need to avoid the tendency to weaken one character to make other strong or to
force them into some kind of nurturing companionship.  This is called the "Mary Sue syndrome" in science fiction, I think. (Mary Sue is the woman who nurses the commitment-phobic but injured Captain Kirk back to health, thereby winning him over because she's so -good- and he needs her so much.)  A variant of this requires the resistant character (often the fella) to nurse the sweet character through some illness and almost lose her, thereby realizing that he really does love her, etc.

These are, quite simply, an invitation to lifelong hypochondria.  "You're not paying enough attention to me, so I'm going to go out bareheaded in the cold and catch pneumonia. Then you'll remember you love me!"  Or even worse:  "Captain Kirk, you're not paying enough attention to me.  I better break your leg so you can need me again."

How about taking a little longer road to intimacy? One that owes more to strength than to weakness?  One that relies on choice and not duty?

So make Julie the schoolteacher the resourceful type, and the five schoolchildren willing (if not efficient) helpers.  They could have used his help, but if he doesn't want to help, they'll manage on their own.

There's the next external event-- Julie's building project.  Think of how the "family" building its own compound across the stream can be both threatening and appealing to him, thereby offering a new challenge to him.

Threatening-- the kids are so loud, they disturb his slumber. Or they scare away the fish he's trying to catch. And Julie, of course, is building that hut in the wrong way, he just knows it.  It's driving him nuts because he's a carpenter and he knows how to build things and she's just letting those kids put up planks willy-nilly and ....  and it's sort of working-- ramshackle but sturdy, thereby depriving him of chance to disparage it.

And appealing... she has a beautiful voice when she sings the kids to sleep and it carries across the water. And the kids sometimes do things that make him laugh because they really are ridiculous, like they try to catch fish barehanded in the stream-- and sometimes they succeed, and the fish flop onto the beach and the kids fight over who gets to take it to Julie.  That's funny.  And he doesn't like to laugh.  Life is serious, after all.

So we can built these events -- maybe 5 or 6 after the initial one-- that force him to
face, again and again, but in different ways, the issue of "will you join the family?"

Don't let him say yes! Yes! Yes! until the very end. Instead let him say no and be punished for it-- no, he won't help the littlest one bait his hook, and so he doesn't get invited to eat the huge fish the little guy catches without his help. Okay, so the next time he grudgingly does something helpful and the kids are ungrateful, and he
thinks, I knew I should have ignored them...

Then give him an incentive to change.  A goal comes in handy here, something that makes him decide to sort of maybe change a little bit, only, of course, to further his own agenda, not because he wants to be with those little monsters.

So we get him and Julie working together, maybe damming up the stream between them, and he enjoys it.  Of course he thinks it's because she's a woman and the streamwater plasters her blouse against her breasts, and he plots to seduce her.  It's clear that the way to this woman's heart is through the kids, so he starts being nice to the kids, and next thing he knows he's sitting with them and singing camp songs around the fire at night, and... 

And then, of course, he has to have some rebound. This shouldn't come too easily. It's only human nature to take a step back with every couple steps forward, because  committing to forward motion is painful.  So when he gets too close-- when he finds himself -singing-, it scares him, and he retreats into hermithood. Now, because he's facing real change-- no longer just incremental, temporary, goal-oriented change-- it's  going to take something drastic to get him going again.  And it's just in time for the big plot crisis-- when the worst that can happen happens.  

Say one of the kids comes to him asking for help finding a fishing hole Tom had discovered upstream.  He's still in hermit mode, and he's annoyed at his own weakness, annoyed that he sort of wants to go and be a mentor and get admiration from the boy.  So he turns his self-annoyance on the boy, and tells him to get lost.  And that's just what the kid (who admires him greatly and is very hurt) does... he gets lost. He goes off by himself looking for the fishing hole, and doesn't return that night. Julie is anxious, and comes to ask if Tom has seen the boy.  And Tom heads up into the hills to look for the boy and remedy his own mistake.  But his great challenge is not tracking the boy down, but admitting that his curmudgeonly anti-social behavior caused this-- even harder will be admitting that despite the worry and the anxiety and the responsibility, finding the boy and restoring him to the family is the most important and fulfilling thing he has ever done-- and that he wants to experience that feeling again.

If we keep presenting him with the choice to move closer or farther away from family, and make each choice an authentic one, then his growth will come out of his own actions and decisions.  It's best to make every response somehow different, and then assemble them in the order of emotional risk (no big deal to build his own house instead of one with them... but very big emotional risk to decide he's responsible for the kid's welfare at the end).  But they have to be real choices, and he has to make real decisions and take real action.

So the end scene shouldn't just be his rescuing the child.  (Most adults, I hope, would do that.)  Rather the ending should confront him with the choice of acknowledging his own need.  Maybe Julie grabs the boy and hugs him and then demands, "Why didn't you wait? Why didn't you ask Mr. Tom to take you up there?"  

Now if the boy says, "I did ask Mr. Tom!" we're depriving Tom of the choice to come clean about his own part in this.  So better that the boy say nothing, taking the blame rather than implicating Tom.  Again, however, this is a stacked choice (how many of us would let a kid take the blame?), so we have to go further.  He doesn't just say, "The kid did ask me, and I told him no."  He squats down in front of the kid and says, "Look, the reason I said no is because-- heck, kid, you remind me too much of myself as a kid.  And that scared me.  I didn't like it back then.  And so it was hard for me to be around you and the other kids.  But-- but you know, that was then.  I'm not that kid anymore. And I'm not going to be scared of you anymore."  That is, the real choice is not just to  tell that he told the kid no, but to explain why he told the kid no.

One last tip-- readers will believe in the internal change only if they see it manifested on the external level.  So we need some last little event that affirms the choice he made to become part of this family.  Maybe the last sight we have of him is surrounded by the kids as they work together move his hut across the stream into the family compound-- and Julie helping to set the hut on a new foundation.


Alicia Rasley is a 16-year member of Romance Writers of America and Indiana RWA, a writing teacher, and a RITA-award winning Regency author. She teaches at Painted Rock Writers Colony.

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