Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Adventures in Time and Space and Writing Mentors

You may remember, I am one of the original Whovians. I've been with the show since 1963. I tell my students that I am as old as thirteen Doctors. Fourteen if you include the War Doctor. While mentor texts tend to be considered literature, I offer that it can be of anything that reflects “story.”   If we remember that fiction is primarily an emotional exchange, then plot can be understood as a sequence of emotional milestones. The viewer/reader stays connected to the hero because she feels the story. The reader wants to see the character succeed, or at least wants to see what happens next because of this connection.

Developing Character

Consider the character of Doctor Who. The very essence of thirteen incarnations (regenerations) reflects the complexity of a fully-realized protagonist. The First Doctor was an eccentric curmudgeon. The Second Doctor had a strong sense of humor. The Third Doctor had a love/hate relationship with authority. The Fourth Doctor was quite taken with his own charisma and cleverness, with a love for long scarfs and jellybabies. The Fifth Doctor was a pacifist. The Sixth Doctor was petulant. The Seventh Doctor was ruthless. When the Eighth Doctor changed, there was a profound shift in the character. This was the great moment in the plot when everything changed. He became the War Doctor, a warrior that committed genocide against his own people. His was a regeneration considered so dark, he renounced the title of Doctor. The hope and curiosity of the previous incarnations were ground away by the brutality of his choice. He became the brooding Ninth Doctor, the tragically lonely Tenth Doctor, the guilt-ridden Eleventh Doctor, and the self-doubting Twelfth Doctor.

When seen as one character, rather than thirteen  “regenerations,” the protagonist becomes a complex, dynamic character. A character, while racing through time and space, who remains anchored to his (and her) companions. They exert a force on him (and her!), changing him even as he changes them. That’s the very essence of a plot moving forward.

The two most common reasons why a manuscript is rejected is a plot without enough tension, and characters that are not fully developed.  I often use this workshop exercises in my classes, adapted from Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, to help explore character dimensions. First, write a small paragraph detailing your protagonist’s defining quality. What trait is most prominent in her/his personality? Second, being as objective as possible, what is the opposite of that quality? Third, write a paragraph in which your protagonist actively demonstrates the opposite quality you noted in the second part.

The Importance of Backstory

Important to developing a realized character is his backstory, the history that underlines the situation at the start of the book. Backstory drives the character’s motivations. It is primarily the character’s wounds that become the core of his emotive journey and drives his choices. Choices that move the plot forward. Such wounds are so deep and organic that they ultimately define how the character sees the universe.

And the Doctor has had 57 TV years of backstory, of accumulating a long lifetime of emotional wounds. As Amy Pond once said of the Eleventh Doctor,
“What if you were really old, and really kind and lonely, your whole race is dead. What couldn’t you do then? If you were that old, and that kind, and the very last of your kind, you couldn’t just stand there and watch children cry.”

Secondary Characters, otherwise known as Companions

At its core, the Doctor's story is about these epic relationships. These secondary characters helped to reveal the best and worst characteristics of the Doctor. The First Doctor was a know-it-all, prickly codger, but his two hearts softened whenever his granddaughter, Susan Foreman, walked into the Tardis. When Adric died during the tenure of the Fifth Doctor, the first long-term companion to die on the Doctor’s watch, the Doctor was stunned and reflective about his mad man in a blue box ways. By the time the Ponds died (during the time of the Eleventh Doctor), he was overwhelmed by his grief and hid away in the clouds. Only the mystery of the Impossible Girl was strong enough to compel him to leave the Tardis.

And these secondary characters were often the vehicle used to escalate the stakes while adding layers to the character, asking the question, “what if?”

What if we went to a museum to see the works of Vincent Van Gogh, and saw a monster in his painting? What if we went back in time to visit the artist, and met the monster lurking in the church?

What if we met a friend in a creepy old building with a garden filled with stone statues? What if these statues were really predatory creatures, and every time you blinked, they moved in for the kill?

What if there were giant whales swimming through space?

What if a broken but brilliant man, during the final years of a 1000 year war, genetically modified survivors to ensure his people's survival? What if these modifications were integrated into tank-like robotic shells, with every emotion removed except hate? What if this new species thought themselves the superior race?

Supported by the sweeping themes of love and war and redemption, grief continues to be a powerful, emotional theme that prevails throughout the Doctor’s story. As the Doctor learns repeatedly, honor your dead, but keep on living. He learned this with the passing of Adric, and the passing of the Ponds, even at the passing of his wife, River Song. His best friends, and even his childhood best friend who grew up to be his favorite frenemy, the Master, eventually they all left him. Throughout the course of his long life, he became defined by his losses.

In one story, the Twelfth Doctor saves a Viking girl -- at his companion's urgent request -- through a technology that makes her immortal. Her tragic saga spans through eternity. She outlives everyone she loves, witnessing  the end of the universe. And yet, her story doesn’t end. It continues unexpectedly after the Doctor endures torture for a billion years, forcing his way back to Gallifrey, in hopes of saving his companion, Clara. Eventually he pulls Clara out of her timeline, trapping her between two breathes. In their final goodbye, she wipes the Doctor’s memory of her before flying off into her own adventures with the Viking Girl. Clara chooses to let him go to save him. Yet, before the Twelfth Doctor regenerates, he remembers Clara.  The story comes full circle, a narrative device that frames the story to bring about resolution. At this point, the Doctor's inner and outer conflicts converge at the same time and place (all puns intended) for emotional impact. There remains intact certain kernels of emotional truth.

An old Ibo (Africa) proverb states, “all stories are true.” And what we learn in this wibbly wobbly journey through time, as the Doctor has learned, as all great stories exemplify,  is  what it means to be human.

--Bobbi Miller

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE thinking about plot as a series of emotional milestones.

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