Morgan St. James is the author of Writers’ Tricks of the Trade: 39 Things You Need to Know About the ABCs of Writing Fiction, numerous award-winning short stories, some of which are in her new anthology The MAFIA FUNERAL and Other Short Stories, and she co-authors the comical Silver Sisters Mysteries with her sister. The third funny crime caper, Vanishing Act in Vegas was released this past September. Morgan also writes columns for the Los Angeles and Las Vegas editions of www.examiner.com, edits Writers’ Tricks of the Trade E-Zine and is a frequent speaker. Learn more about Morgan at her two websites, www.morganstjames-author.com and www.silversistersmysteries.com and her blog.
Morgan is offering a copy of Writers’ Tricks of the Trade: 39 Things You Need to Know About the ABCs of Writing Fiction to one of our readers who posted a comment to the blog this week. -- AP
PROFESSIONS DON’T HAVE TO DICTATE THE STORY THEME
How a character’s training and profession can be used in different ways
As an author, it is important to consider your characters’ professions relative to the story you want to tell. What do these people actually do in their day-to-day lives? How could it affect the progression of your story. To lead your characters where you want them to go, you have to know them inside out. That way you can use their profession in keeping with their personality strengths or failures, and they might do unexpected things.
Selecting professions for your characters is one of the most important decisions a fiction writer can make. Will they respond in a way normally expected of someone trained to do what they do? Will they go “over-the-top” or perform in a scared or devious manner? Each reaction is the basis for an entirely different story, but once the theme choice is made the character still operates under the umbrella of their profession, whether it is positive or negative.
Maybe they act totally outrageous while doing something they must in order to move the action in a certain direction. If that’s the case, be careful not to lose the believability factor. If the author goes too far afield, it might work, but that means taking a great risk. Considering the storyline, perhaps they need a different profession for the reader or movie-watcher to believe what happened really was possible.
WHY MATCHING PROFESSIONS WITH REACTIONS IS IMPORTANT
I can think of many instances when I’ve read a book or watched a movie and either thought or said something like, “No way. A [fill in the profession] would never do that!” A good example is the TV series “House.” It has beaten the odds and is quite popular, but a hospital would never keep a prescription-addicted doctor on staff who behaved like House. My friends in the medical profession insist the hospital would be too afraid of malpractice suits. The scripts are developed by a team of writers and Hugh Laurie carries it off and makes it work. Reading the same scenarios in a book without a great actor to mesmerize the reader, something that off-base could backfire. Worse yet, they might tell their friends how unbelievable it was.
Doubts could cause them to lose confidence in the entire story. Things that aren’t 100% accurate, still have to have a ring of believability. The reader has to trust that the author knows what they’re talking about.
Themes play a big part in the credibility of a story, because more often than not they are related to the profession or professions of main and supporting characters. Take any given situation and the characters would all probably have different reasons for acting a certain way, despite their training. So, whether the story or the characters come first, be sure you know what would motivate them to do what they do, how they would do it and why.
Take a cop for example. A cop might be more compelled to aggressively force order than a hair stylist. Maybe he is fighting an inner rage, and let’s face it—his weapon is a gun, not a hair dryer. But then, maybe the hair stylist holds a black belt in karate. It’s always good to have a surprise, and the characters’ professions can help to create it.
Sometimes ordinary people wind up in extraordinary circumstances, and that is often the fuel that fires the story. You know how a character in a given profession is expected to act, consider what would happen if he/she doesn’t react as expected.
Here are two examples of characters in the same professions and same circumstances, but their reaction dictates the rest of the story.
Two thugs assault a middle aged man as he enters an alley, ultimately killing him. A cop witnesses the incident.
Theme 1 – Rage triggered by doing what he was trained to do:
A cop who has only been on the job a few months exits the back door of a restaurant into the alley and he sees two thugs assaulting a middle-aged man. He reacts like Rambo, springing into action, gun drawn. This is what he’s trained to do. His adrenaline takes over when he realizes these guys are about to kill the man. He jumps right into the action. However, despite his quick response, the man dies. Now he spins out of control and becomes an abusive cop. His inability to save the man unleashed long-buried rage emanating from a different source.
Theme 2 – Fear triggered by the necessity to do what he was trained to do:
The cop enters the alley from the restaurant’s rear door and witnesses two thugs assaulting a middle-aged man. He watches for a moment, frozen with fear. He darts behind a dumpster, quaking in his boots while the man is murdered in front of his eyes. Unable to face what he’s done, he sinks deeper and deeper as he tries to cover up his cowardliness with a series of lies. He paints himself as a dedicated servant of the people who tried to save the man. Only he and the thugs know what really happened, and they sure aren’t about to come forward. Unable to reconcile what he did, the bottle becomes his solace as he struggles through life.
SEE HOW THEY DIFFER BECAUSE OF THE THEME AND WHAT THE CHARACTER DID?
Both stories were affected by what someone in that profession is supposed to do. The themes were what he should have done vs. what he didn’t do, and in both instances a less than perfect ending. However, both suggest believable scenarios.
Writers have a certain amount of creative license, so it’s okay for things not to be 100% accurate, but totally unbelievable situations just don’t fly. Believability is an essential element that allows the reader to trust that the author.
Thanks for joining us today, Morgan! Readers, don’t forget to post a comment for a chance to win a copy of Writers’ Tricks of the Trade: 39 Things You Need to Know About the ABCs of Writing Fiction. -- AP