Monday, October 13

Twelve Dancing Princesses and a Steamroller

As time winds down, we are left with one last perspective to examine for our besieged father and his stubborn girls: the successful candidate.

Even though this story is a fairy tale about girls who dress up and go dancing every night, the soldier-of-fortune's perspective is the easiest and most familiar choice for a single point-of-view. Of all the people in this story, he is the only dynamic character. (Read here for more on static and dynamic characters.) Nobody else changes. And even the soldier-of-fortune's “change” can be debated.

He is, unarguably, the most interesting of all the characters in the story. Everyone else is stuck in a rut, only digging themselves in deeper with every revolution of the broken record of their lives. The king's tied hands. The eldest princess's schemes. The youngest princess's fears. The soldier-of-fortune at least shakes things up.

As writers, these are the characters we prefer to write about. J. Alfred Prufrock doesn't eat that peach, after all. Walter Mitty's active fantasy life never changes anything (original story, not the recent film). Thoreau, for all his abstract optimism, left Walden Pond because the work of living interfered with his writing. He wrote about the time there, not about his decades of mooching. Brilliant writers may write about “everyman” and his indecision, but most writers and readers would rather follow the adventures of a “doer.”

Just because you, young writer, are telling a story about active conflict does not mean that your character must be active, extroverted, or loud. All of these character traits make for an interesting journey, certainly, but none of them are necessary. What your dynamic characters do need, however, are small OODA loops.

No, I'm not just making this stuff up. Silly rabbits. John Boyd of the US Air Force developed this cycle—Observe, Orient, Decide, Act—to help people find a way to quickly move forward in a situation. Making good use of this concept does require someone to know what information is important and what should be done about it, which takes study and practice, but a strong dynamic character should not be sitting on his hands. Hopefully, he is busy making good decisions, but dynamics are not just about internal changes like a heart growing, or a vengeance coalescing. Dynamic characters need to be functional in active conflicts, too.

For the soldier-of-fortune, his external GMC is easy to spot. Makes good use of his own OODA loop, too. Goal: solve the mystery. Motivation: new job title/NOT getting his head chopped off. Conflict: active hostility from the princesses. Wonderfully straightforward.

The readers' trust in his ability to handle these physical conflicts is based on the internal conflicts he first handles with efficiency and kindness. When he meets the old woman, he does not hesitate to help her. So when her response is to provide him with the wisdom and the tools to take on the princesses, the reader is not surprised that he accepts the help quickly and moves on to his next challenge. Each decision the soldier-of-fortune must make is done with a minimal of dithering. Very small OODA loop for our hero.

Writing from this perspective doesn't require you to study military strategy. The soldier-of-fortune, however, doesn't come with a lot of internal conflict. Writing him with inner demons means dragging out the story, but it also lengthens that OODA loop. Which means you're now writing a different story. Young writer, feel free to write the story on your heart. But let your characters be true to themselves. Not only to the things you already know. You don't have to research yourself to death when writing someone or something new, but making it real is worth the time and effort.

Let your men be men. Soldiers who doubt themselves don't survive long on the battlefield, so they learn to either ignore their internal issues or resolve them to the individual man's satisfaction. Ignoring an unresolved issue can lead to a whole host of other problems, of course, but that's a story for another day...

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