It may sound like simple advice, but "Act, don't react" is one of the most powerful things I know about writing.
Characters who are motivated by a negative desire are very difficult to motivate and move through a book as you write it. When I say a "negative desire," I mean that the character wants an absence of something in their life. He wants to not accomplish something, or he wants to avoid something. Maybe the character wants to avoid being fired. Maybe she wants to avoid a divorce. Maybe he wants to not get behind in paying his bills. She wants to not argue with her mother. He wants to not go back to his home town. She doesn’t want to work with her ex-husband on the big case. He wants to not have problems with the remodeling job he’s just contracted. She wants to not fall in love ever again.
So what's wrong with that?
Simply this: These people are reactors, not actors. Even though they’re very much like a great many real people, it’s extremely difficult to build reader identification with these people because they are not in control of their lives, and they are not really making any attempt to be in control.
The fact is that if my hero really and truly wants to not return to his home town, it’s extremely difficult to make him go and still convince the reader that I’m telling the truth. If he really doesn’t want to go, he won’t go. Period. End of question. It won't matter what reason I throw at him. So if I toss a reason at him and he caves in, all the pages I spent blathering about how he didn’t want to go now feel dishonest to the reader.
And that breaks the one and only real rule I have when it comes to writing. Never lie. Never ever lie.
I have found, through much struggle and hours of bashing my head against brick walls, that the best way to build reader identification is to give your character a goal that she is actively working toward. To make her sympathetic, regardless of what that goal is, she must have a plan for reaching it. It’s not enough to want. It’s not enough to hope. It’s not enough to dream. The character must have a plan and be brave enough to take the steps required to achieve it.
To tell the reader that the heroine desperately wants to keep her book store open, but then allow her to be buffeted by the winds of change, making her someone who reacts to people and events around her instead of someone who acts, is to be dishonest with your readers. If she is truly desperate, she will be the one to take action, and each time she runs into a setback, she’ll change course and try again.
People whose motivation is to avoid something will avoid it. If they don't want to go to the company Christmas party, they won't go. If they specifically (and honestly) want not to fall in love again, they will go to any lengths to avoid anyone who might make them change their minds.
Sometimes we mistake this struggle for conflict -- but it's a "conflict" on the surface only, and it’s not one that works well over the course of a novel because it's one-sided. Conflict isn't conflict without two sides of equal strength. The guy who honestly doesn't want to meet women will not start up a conversation with the flame-haired beauty by the punch-bowl. It’s just not going to happen. If you try to force him to do it, the scene you write will ring false to the reader. Either the character is being dishonest with the reader about what he wants or you are being dishonest in what you tell the reader. Either way, once the reader feels that you have veered from the truth, you’re in trouble.
Now turn that guy into the last bachelor in his group, someone who longs for love and commitment as much as he fears it or believes himself incapable of sustaining it, and you have real internal conflict. Both sides of the question have an equal pull on him, and the ensuing internal struggle is real and honest. This guy will step up to the punch-bowl and have a conversation with that stunning red-head, even though he argues silently with himself after every word he speaks aloud.
When we give our characters negative motivations and then force them to act against their will, we make victims of our characters. No person who is really made into a victim can feel strong and sympathetic to the reader. Maybe the Woman In Jeopardy is victimized for a few minutes, but what makes us like her and keep reading is the way she fights back.
Think about which of these two people you identify with most, and which you feel most sympathetic toward:
Deirdre is a 32-year-old woman who has been beleaguered by debt since her mother’s funeral. She has tried everything to get a loan, but no one will help her. After a particular harsh weekend during which she dodged bill collectors and process servers, Deirdre closes up her apartment and drives across three states to move in with a friend. If she’s lucky, she’ll find a job and maybe earn money before the bill collectors catch up to her.
Belle is a 32-year old woman who has been beleaguered by debt since her mother’s funeral. Belle has tried everything to get a loan, but no one will help her. After a particular harsh weekend during which she dodged bill collectors and process servers, Belle becomes desperate and takes a part-time job as a belly dancer in the evenings. She’s embarrassed and she doesn’t want anyone to know--especially not the members of her church group--but if she keeps her nose to the grindstone for six months, she’ll be debt free and able to concentrate entirely on her law career.
I think most of us like to believe that we’re the take-charge type who act instead of react, who move forward instead of stepping back when challenges arise. Because we want to believe that about ourselves, we are more likely to identify with and cheer for the character who takes charge, even if we don’t agree with the decisions she makes.
Before THE CHRISTMAS WIFE (Harlequin Superromance, November 2003) became an actual book, I struggled with the story for a year or more -- not with the actual writing of it, but with the conceiving of it. It's a reunion story, and the seed germinated when I was listening to the Toby Keith song, "How Do You Like Me Now?" There’s a book in that song, I said to myself, and I decided right then and there to write it -- but not the story Toby Keith told, and not until I could find an honest plot and people who felt real to me.
For months, I toyed with having the hero leave town shortly after graduation and stay away for years because of some incident. The hero was, of course, in love with the heroine all through school, but he never told her. Sound familiar? Well, it should. There have only been about a million romances written with that identical plot. And while there's nothing wrong with that, those of us trying to write the tried-and-true plots today had better include something that makes it different.
I spent months (on and off) searching for the one thing that would make my story different. I tried to stay away from the tried-and-true story where the hero was a bad boy who got in trouble with the law. That’s been done. Besides, my own personal past just won’t allow me to find a convicted felon attractive no matter how tight his jeans are, or to believe that the kid who was in serious trouble all through high school has turned out to be a productive member of society. Could happen, but not in my personal experience, and I wasn't interested in hanging around any hero who fits that bill long enough to find out.
My personal truth is that bad boys are a whole lot of trouble with very little redeeming social value. I can’t write something I personally believe to be untrue and make a reader believe that it is true, so that particular plot was out for me.
I took the hero through many different incarnations during the months I struggled with the story's concept. He was a boy raised by loving parents, a boy raised by foster parents who were mean to him, a boy raised by foster parents who were nice to him, a boy raised by a loving aunt, a boy raised by grandparents. In every incarnation, I searched for the Inciting Incident that drove my hero away from Serenity, Wyoming in the first place (not so tough) and kept him away for 15 long years (big, big trouble!)
In every incarnation, my hero felt selfish and childish for refusing to set foot back in the town where he was raised -- and in every incarnation, every word I wrote felt like a lie because Beau/Nick/Jonah/Mark/Wyatt was actually not a surly vagabond who avoided Serenity like the plague. In reality, he was a friendly sort of guy who likes people and is well-liked in return. He proved that to me every time he came on stage, and each time I tried to force him to be something he wasn’t, I was being dishonest -- with him, with myself, with my readers.
After much gnashing of teeth, I decided to let the hero be what he is anyway, and to send the heroine away instead. (I wish I could come to these brilliant conclusions much faster than I do, but if wishes were fishes . . .) Anyway, I worked on that idea for at least a month, writing and re-writing scenes in which Emily/Kate/Annie/Libby/Molly comes back to town for some reason. I created an abusive ex-husband to keep her away, but that didn't work. She was too jumpy, and (again from my own experience) women who are too recently out of an abusive relationship are not heroine material. I created an abusive step-father to keep her away, but that just made her even more determined to not come back to Serenity where he was living. So weeks passed and I kept running up against a huge brick wall and getting nowhere.
Finally, I resolved once again to start over. I spent most of one day re-plotting the book with yet another scenario in mind, yet another set of circumstances, yet another motivating emotion. And then it finally occurred to me for the first time what my mistake was. I'd been trying to work with a heroine who was reacting rather than acting, She didn't want to come back to Serenity, but I was turning her into a victim over and over again by coming up with ideas that would force her to return.
But let’s say I made her come back -- why would she attend the homecoming parade? The game? Why would she go to the dance? The truth is, she wouldn't. Either she's lying about not wanting to be there, or I was lying when I said she did all these things. But I needed her to do all those things. I needed her to walk with the hero and spend time with his kids. If she didn't, how could I convince the reader that they would all be emotionally safe together by the end of the book?
The only way my story would work is if Molly wanted to be in Serenity and wanted to take part in every activity that came along. Anything else would have been dishonest, and the reader will always feel when you’re being dishonest with her. Always. You simply can’t hide a lie when you write one. It’s impossible.
Once I discovered the true reason Molly left town, I didn't have to force her back home again because she went willingly. She went because she was curious to know what happened to her old friends. She went because her recent divorce left her feeling adrift and she was searching for a place to belong. She went because in the process of being unhappily married, she forgot who she was. She’d lost her dreams, and she wanted to find them again. And most of all, she went back to Serenity to find out what really happened the night her mother died.
My advice to you is to look at the people in your current work in progress. Are they working actively toward something, or are they just busy trying to avoid something? Do they begin each scene with a specific goal in mind? Something they can accomplish in this moment? Or do they begin each scene with the same old desire to avoid the same old thing? Are they strong active characters, or are they victims of their own circumstances?