Tuesday, July 5, 2011
What Concerns You?
Last night I dreamed I was awakened on America’s Top Model by a 4am call to a surprise modeling gig. I’d slept in my clothes, my hair was a mess, my breath probably worse, and we were leaving NOW. The girls and I had partied in our model’s apartment the night before and I was badly hung over. And because I was still the age I really am (shouldn’t I have been younger and better looking? It was my dream!) and the other girls were young and beautiful and probably handled their booze better than I do, I was already at the back of the pack. America’s top model? Please.
Soon I was hanging out on the sidewalk in front of a designer’s studio and I got to assess how bad it was. I had on blue jeans, the I’m-about-to-paint-the-house kind, with a t-shirt bearing some rude slogan I refuse to share, and flip-flops, which — according to my friend who was subtly gloating because she’d done everything right — was something designers absolutely hated. Hey, they were wedgies and in a tasteful black, so how bad could that be?
I woke up defending my flip-flops, if you can imagine that.
But it wasn’t a bad dream. How many middle aged women get a chance to pretend they’re hot models? And, of course, I’m still a writer and a writing teacher and in no time I noticed that my dream was an inciting incident. My character had a (barely) achievable goal, a worthy motive to prove that old broads had a chance, and a conflict revolving around overcoming not only age, but being fully unprepared that morning.
If I were to actually take off with this unlikely premise what else would I need? After all I have this huge goal, a good reason, and an obstacle.
What’s missing is focus. Having caught a few episodes of Top Model, I discovered these girls have lots more to worry about than just looking good. They’re expected to be versatile – looking like an angel in one shot, sultry in another. They’re expected to be outgoing. Graceful in movement. Adaptable. And to never, never complain, no matter that the boning in that gown is threatening to give you an unscheduled mastectomy. x
It’s true — who would have thought it? — and it was the breadth of the demands that made me see what rich material this reality show provides. One girl, well, actually a woman — me — would worry about wrinkles, stamina, whether that roll around the waist was too big to hide. Another is too shy, someone else is not classy enough, another’s boobs are too big, another is too thin and suspected of being anorexic.
These are their concerns and are the core of unique characterization. You can make your character an Amazon or a cherub or a tough-as-nail cop but what makes this person behave like an individual are the things/people/events/desired images that concern her/him. Does she strive to be thought of as competent, then her concern is to do things correctly. Does he think of himself as fearless? Then his concern is to keep alert for frightening things to stomp on. Do his children mean everything to him? His concern is to keep them safe and happy.
This is a self-evident truth writers easily forget. Partly because concerns stem from external demands.but we tend to think they're internal. If one person is a go-getter who is hell-bent-for-leather after success, and another is a laid-back party-hearty guy, their concerns would be different. Character A is intent on impressing the boss. Character B is more interested in keeping beer in the fridge. They seem motivated by widely different things, but it is their concerns that drive them. If Character B got kicked out on the street, with no fridge, and no bucks for beer, he’d suddenly become intent on impressing the boss, any boss. Likewise, given enough bad luck, Character A could end up a beer-guzzling slacker. External demands and expectations drive the concern.
So, back to my dream. Although I risk making a fool of myself, I’d like to go into what my concerns might be if I really were on America’s Top Model competing with a dozen women young enough to be my daughters.
Well, I’d probably be the first one to hit the gym each morning, making sure that nothing sagged. And I’d watch my diet more closely than the younger ones. I’d also make sure everyone liked me. I’ll need the support since I’m already one down.
If I’m smart and actually hope to be a winner, or at least snag a modeling contract, I’d make sure I didn’t lead with my weaknesses. Nope, I’d be up first in the morning, getting the makeup on perfectly, styling my hair (gosh, I’m getting exhausted thinking about it). All of these concerns, these efforts to make these little things right, create events. I, for instance, might need my particular curling iron to get my hair just so. Another girl keeps borrowing it without asking. Micro-conflict coming up, which could possibly get bigger depending on the concerns of the other girls.
Now this is the most important thing to remember when you strive to give character’s individuality: each character has their own concerns, which blends or clashes with other characters, or make that person seem weird. But it doesn’t take much backstory to make the weird believable. All you need is a reason. I want to win the modeling contest. If I’m reasonably successful at hiding my age, my insecurities will seem weird. But as soon as the reader know the reason, it no longer does. Concerns are the outward evidence of motivation and when used effectively they make every character unique.
Which leads me to think, with this much concern would I have partied hard enough to have a hangover? It looks like I did. What’s up with that?
A new concern, one not yet revealed. One that derailed me. What could it be?
Well, the dream ended so we’ll never know, but if you think of something include it in your comment and maybe share what you would do if you found yourself trapped inside a reality show. What show would you be on? What concerns would reveal your motive?
Until next month, follow your dreams,