Tomorrow begins NaNoWriMo and this is an exceptional year for me: Not only is it my sixth consecutive year competing, it’s also my third and last year as Municipal Liaison of the North Carolina Triad region (formerly the Greensboro region). I have so many exciting things I want to get done, and one of them is continuing to build upon our sense of community. I know I’ll be leaving next year for Raleigh to finish my bachelor’s degree at NC State, but I want to leave our region thriving and strong.
One way I hope to accomplish this is through encouraging my fellow Wrimos to embrace their own inner potential–and my intent is to do this while teaching them how to unlock their characters’ hidden potential. This all sounds bright and lovely, and if I can tangibly create what I envision in my mind, this is going to be an incredible and stupendous year for our region and our writers.
Luckily for me, this year follows a lot of leadership development on my part, and although it’s hard to imagine how leadership training coincides with stronger writing, once the connection is clear, it’s an amazing revelation. Leadership is all about interaction and direction–and what’s a story but a collection of character interactions and plot direction? A good character is a good leader, or if not, can be properly distinguished from one–and when the author can tell the difference, the possibilities expand exponentially and even endlessly.
This is merely the first of hopefully many lessons, a short piece expanded upon from a recent email I sent out to my region. Nonetheless, the advice is worthwhile for any writer or any leader, and I hope no matter which you are, or even if you’re neither, you can find some worth in the words that follow.
This past weekend I went on a leadership retreat with my college. It’s an annual event that’s a lot of fun and a lot of effort. Last year we learned about True Colors, college resources, and what it takes to be a good leader, and this year we learned about rhythm and teamwork, ethics and integrity. Last year’s personality inventories were of course self-enlightening (understanding ourselves is a great path to understanding our characters and others in general), but this year I’d like to draw my writing lessons from the other two areas we were taught about: Teamwork and Ethics.
Specifically today I’ll be talking about teamwork. It might seem an odd way to teach about writing when writing’s largely a solitary effort, but if you’ve got any faith in me at all, I implore you to keep reading and promise you won’t be disappointed.
We’ve all got characters in our stories, and many of us will willingly admit our characters–not us–tell our stories, but even when they’re at the helm, we’re standing right behind them, able to give critical guidance whenever they (or we) need it.
Many times, our characters are not alone. They work in groups or have formed crucial relationships with other characters that are paramount to their reaching the conclusion, regardless of whether or not they make it out alive. In this sense, addressing some of the challenging situations that arise from giving our characters free reign, I’d like to talk about the importance of teamwork.
1. If your characters can’t communicate…
Kick them off with small-talk.
This idle chit-chat is challenging to write, but it can play an amazing role in characterization and showing rather than telling. Talk about the weather, current events (from your book, a great way to foreshadow what’s coming up or to add realness to your world), thoughtful compliments and more… Not only does this boost the wordcount (a goal during NaNo), it also gives you the opportunity to further characterize your characters. On a rainy day, does Samantha say she loves the rain because it’s refreshing, does Jonathan say he despises it? Small-talk is usually light conversation, but that doesn’t mean it can’t lead to deeper revelations. Use it to your best interest and you’ll find communication barriers will come crashing down.
2. If your characters can’t succeed…
Tell them to drop the ball.
Sometimes we must give up and start from scratch if we just can’t get something together. Other times we have to slow down and reevaluate our plans. Sometimes we even need to retreat to reserve our resources and build a united front. If you feel you’ve set your characters up for an impossible victory and you just don’t know what to write next, send ’em back. Having your leader pull the forces into momentary retreat allows you to add a few pages (or even a few chapters…) of interaction to your story while allowing yourself to hold off on that deus ex machina for at least a little while longer. Not to mention a possible feint could cause the enemy to take your characters for granted, perhaps giving them the essential entry that’s so desperately needed.
3. If your characters can’t get along…
Turn up the heat.
What?! Okay, sometimes we’ve got characters that are supposed to be great teamsters and awesome couples, but just don’t get along. Do we scrap their potential? Or do we use that tension to our advantage?
We are cultured into looking at our differences, into drawing lines between ourselves to assert our individuality and self-importance. But if we’re honest with ourselves and honest with each other, we’ll see we each share many of the same goals, dreams, hopes, experiences, tastes, textures, likes and dislikes–and what’s more unifying than shared hatred? If your characters can’t get along and you need them to, talk to each of them and look past their situational differences to their ultimate similarities, no matter what they are. And then, throughout the book or whenever you need them to get along, start slowly letting each of them know where the other’s coming from.
Change doesn’t happen over a page, so don’t expect to rush the process, but a little bit of enlightenment can take your characters a long way to becoming good friends–or at least enemies who appreciation each other.
The best part of all of this is that these strategies need not be restricted to our characters–as I implied before, you can use them, too. At parties, in interviews, when meeting new people–the great thing is that we all have the potential to better ourselves into something amazing. I see the potential so readily in all the people I meet, if only they’d reach for it and strive for it. It is possible to become the person we want to be, and it is possible to become the writer we want to be, and what’s most incredible is that sometimes, sometimes they’re the same person. And sometimes that person is you.