Why is it when we’re most muddled, under the greatest pressure that we see most clearly?
I ran into this with one of my characters in my current manuscript-in-progress yesterday. By all rights, the woman should be nose-diving into a hole and pulling it in after her. Mounting pressures have attacked from all sides and yet rather than being overwhelmed or out of sorts, she’s not only coping but exhibiting strengths that hadn’t yet been seen in her–and yet the strengths didn’t seem like devices or convenient fixes that weren’t natural. That made me think, and ask questions.
Why wasn’t she overwhelmed at these mounting pressures?
Because when pressure is exerted, we focus intently on the problem. The more intense the pressure, the harder we focus. We don’t think about other things–issues, challenges, and/or problems. We focus on that which has our attention. And intense pressure draws intense focus, our intense attention.
These inner strengths. Did she really have them all along, or did they manifest because they were required for the story to retain credibility?
She had them all along. Hints of them were there, in the work. But until the pressure grew intense, the obstacles she faced were insufficient to warrant those untapped strengths showing up on the page. They stayed hidden, remained inner strengths.
Up and until this point, the character had no reason to summon those inner strengths to deal with the challenges she faced. When circumstances required them, they showed up. But when they did, were they credible?
We’ve all heard the “necessity breeds invention” saying. But necessity also breeds the courage, discipline–the character–to rise to the occasion to do what must be done.
I looked back through the preceding pages of the manuscript to see if it was logical that this woman in this situation would have these strengths. We don’t manifest skills and abilities from thin air, after all, and to stay “admirable” this character must be credible. Were these manifested strengths credible?
For the most part, they were. As a reader, I could see how “this” skill could translate to “that” strength. One strength, however, lacked a foundation. There was nothing in the manuscript that hinted or prepared the way for this character being able to do this thing in this way. And that breached credibility, which immediately called into question the veracity of the event and her doing it much less doing it successfully. Yes, mentally she was sharp enough. Yes, physically she was strong enough. But the act was not consistent with the personal philosophy of the character. It wasn’t consistent with the way she thinks and processes challenges. So it had to go.
Because once credibility is questioned on one front, it is questioned on all fronts. Readers assign human attributes to characters. If a reader doubts the act/actions of a character, then that opens the proverbial bucket of worms and every act/action is called into question. The reader is less apt to believe what is said, what is done, without proof that is also logical and credible to him/her.
Take the old issue of someone lying to you. They lie. You believe. You discover the untruth (either by their own admittance or through a third party). Regardless of how you learned the truth, you naturally wonder what else this person lied to you about. It’s no longer a matter of the one lie. It’s a matter of everything ever said or done. Motivations are called into question. Credibility is shot. Like I said, a bucket of worms.
This human response makes it apparent that you, the writer, don’t want to open that bucket of worms. You want the character of your characters to remain intact and credible. And if their veracity should be tested, then you want to make sure the character’s character stands up to the test and passes with flying colors.
Human beings are allowed the imperfections in character. Some consider them endearing–until they cause challenges. Then endearing becomes unacceptable. But with your story people, imperfections are more innocuous. When they exhibit abilities, skills or insights, the foundation for having them should already be in place in the work. So that whatever they’re doing seems like a natural outgrowth of them–who they are (mentally, physically and spiritually).
For more information on preparing these type foundations, see the RULE OF THREE article in the writer’s library.