Ever run up against a scene that just doesn’t work? Perhaps it seems lifeless or is so disorganized that it can’t take shape. You can’t get the images and words to work together. Well, you’re not alone. I’ve been there and done that many times. As a matter of fact, I have the problem right now.
I’m in the initial stages of creating a major new novel, one set in Old London. My protagonist lost his right arm to a cannonball aboard ship during a sea battle. My problem envisioning my character is that I keep saying that it is his right arm that’s missing but visualizing it as his left. The image is working against the words. I believe I know how this came about, and my problem illustrates not only what can lead to confusion in a narrative but also the degree to which we sometimes associate our characters with ourselves, to the detriment of the story. But it can also lead to deeper insight into your characters, who always of course force the action.
The visual image I have of the event that cost my protagonist his arm is of him standing on deck, seeing a puff of smoke from an enemy ship in the distance, being thrown backward by the concussion when the cannonball hit, and then seeing his arm lying on deck with the ship’s cat licking blood off it. The images are very specific, and it is his left arm that’s blown off, not his right.
But the words keep coming out that it’s his right arm, and I have difficulty relating to it being the right instead of the left, which the images keep telling that it is. Now, I’ve been having some problems with my right arm. My elbow has a lot of pain when I use it and keeps me awake at night. I have been taking aspirin to decrease the inflammation in my elbow and not using the arm whenever possible. I believe my personal situation is trying to override the images that have been spontaneously generated by the Unconscious.
If you’ve read much of Story Alchemy, you realize that images are the most basic function of the creative mind. The author takes those images and listens for words associated with them and shapes this creative material into a narrative. All authors do this even if they work from intuition and don’t have insight into the process.
Once I realized that the initial images of the scene that had spontaneously come to me didn’t agree with what I was trying to do with the story, my first inclination was to reimagine the scene with it being my character’s right arm rather than his left. After dealing with my story for a few days with these new images, I came away thoroughly confused. Neither seemed right. What to do?
Today I had another thought. And this one comes about because of resistance I got from my character himself. It has to do with him not wanting to deal with having lost his right arm. After all, he was right-handed, and losing his right arm just seems to be more than he can bear. I now believe that it really was his right arm that he lost, but he just can’t believe it. It can’t be. In the Old World, being left-handed was a bad thing. As a matter of fact, in many instances adults wouldn’t let their children be left-handed because you cleaned your butt with your left hand, and did assorted other unsavory things with it. Having only one arm and that being the left was a humiliation with which my character does not want to deal.
My problem with my right arm may have been crucial to me decoding what is going on, and it may have nothing to do with my story. It seems to only have been a catalyst that allowed the true story to precipitate out of the chaos that is the Unconscious. If I’d been successful at changing the scenario, I would have crippled the story.
But for an author, all this character mental anguish can be a mechanism for going deeper into the character. Now I know that he still has difficulty believing it was his right arm he lost. He still has dreams that it was his left. He’s willing to accept the fact that he lost an arm, but it has to be the left. As a matter of fact, the image of his severed arm lying on deck with the ship’s cat licking blood from it is purely his imagination. I’ve known from the first that the arm was blown overboard. They never found it. The cat never licked blood from it.
My protagonist was the ship’s bosun. He had command of many seamen, and although he knew how to take orders, he was used to controlling the action. This is also a big part of his problem — no longer being in control. This also tells me that he’ll have difficulty accepting events as they unfold in the story. He’ll be at odds with what’s going on in his life — conflict, the essence of story. And this one is internal but plays out in his external relationships. How he learns to deal with this will be his character arc. I can already see his “Five Types of Deep Awareness” formulating in my peripheral vision.
This is the essence of character. I would have never located the defining element of my character if I hadn’t paid attention to the contradictory elements I was getting from my Unconscious and decoded what it was telling me.