The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Storytelling and the Three Arenas

There are, in general, only three arenas  that will ever involve your characters: their physical security, their emotional needs, and their career goals.  The trick to writing a story is to play these areas off against each other.  Hamlet, for instance, has no real ambitions in the career arena.  After all, if he sits tight, we can presume he will inherit the throne.  But his emotional needs are powerful—he must avenge his father, who was murdered by his uncle.  To do this will certainly place his life (physical) at risk, as well as destroy any hopes he may have of ascending to the throne.  The conflict is so powerful that I suspect the entire supernatural device of the ghost exists only to remove doubt that such a crime has taken place—after all, if his own father TELLS him he was murdered, there isn’t a lot of room for doubt, is there?
In “Great Sky Woman” I have two characters, a young hunter named Frog Hopping and a young medicine woman named…well, for most of the book, she has no name, and is referred to as “T’Cori,” a word which, in the “Ibandi” language, means “No Name.”  Their needs shift between these three arenas depending on the story flow.  The trick is to keep them in balance.
Because the more primal needs short-circuit the higher (hard to  solve a quadratic equation while holding your breath) we have to provide security on those basic levels, to allow the characters to blossom in their understanding and appreciation of the higher, more evolved needs.  Physical security and food come before, say sexuality and emotional warmth.  And our emotional needs will trump logic almost every time.  But while this is true, it is possible to create wonderful characters by deliberately violating the principle.  Consider the following characters:

an explorer who ventures deep into unknown territory at risk of his life.
2) A mother who sacrifices her own health or heart to preserve her family.
3) A saint who gladly accepts inverted crucifixion.

These are powerful stories BECAUSE they violate the usual pattern.  How can you use this principle in your own writing?

And more importantly, how can you solidify the foundations of your own life, to allow your creative flow?  If you care for your physical health and your emotional needs, your intellectual clarity will automatically increase, and with it your creative flow.  Start NOW to consider the ways you have neglected these arenas.  It takes only a few hours a month to set this straight.  Don’t rob yourself of the true passion and joy you deserve.  What can you do RIGHT NOW to re-connect with your creative spark?  Whatever it is, DO IT!

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