Who moved my cheese?
I don’t know what it is with me and cheese, but since I seem to think in dairy-related terms, I’m going to go with it. I’m going to embrace my inner cow, and talk about showing a character’s personality through the props that are central to their lives. Moo.
The book Who Moved my Cheese? is all about dealing with change in one’s life, which is akin to what this metaphor is about for authors, too.
What’s your character’s cheese?
That is, what object in your character’s life is so important to them that if it gets lost, stolen, broken, or abducted by aliens, the character will be pushed out of equilibrium.
We’ve all heard about baseball players who go into a slump when their lucky bat breaks, or some ill-mannered fan steals their lucky glove. What that shows about them is that they have externalized their success on the playing field into an object. Rather than taking credit for their skills themselves (and ownership for their failures), they credit or blame the bat, the glove, the set of cleats they’ve had since high school. Losing the bat or the glove is a clear opportunity for them to internalize their success and reclaim it, or not to and wash out of the Majors.
What works in real life works in novels. If you’re struggling for a way to smoothly and believably show something about your character—their insecurity, their faith in God, their love for their family—consider building a relationship between that trait and a physical object.
You can relate insecurity to a comfort object, like a worry stone, a ratty old baby blanket, or 12 year old scotch. Whatever they use to comfort themselves. You can relate faith in God to a set of rosary beads, a crucifix, a Saint’s Medallion, or really anything at all if it’s something that the character’s backstory connects to an intensely spiritual moment in the character’s life. Love for family can be connected to the trappings of life that we use in taking care of our families. Like a mother who expresses love through food, but who believes that the secret to her cooking lies with the old fashioned cast iron skillet that belonged to her mother and her grandmother before her.
In my earlier articles on backstory and relating character arcs to story arcs, I described a character, Dr. Lisle, who had externalized her love for her mother through the making of cheese. I showed how that could be entwined with Dr. Lisle’s outer story arc, so that her cheese becomes central to the plot resolution. But what else can we do with it?
Move their cheese
Well, we could move her cheese. This is why I suggest that you relate the character trait you want to show to a physical object, specifically because it’s something you can take away. Make it a real prop. Ok, so cheese isn’t the most traditional prop, but it can still be taken away. I could have poor Dr. Lisle develop a dairy allergy so she can neither make nor eat cheese anymore.
Now how is she going to feel? Given the degree to which she has come to rely on cheese as an integral part of the emotional sense of order in her life, she’s not likely to take it well. She may not understand exactly why, in the beginning, but she’s probably going to find herself missing her mother more. Feeling somehow adrift in the world, less connected to other people than she wants to be. All because I moved her cheese.
Aren’t I mean? Yeah, but that’s an author’s job.
It’s ok, though. She’ll get over it. Eventually, she’ll figure out that making cheese was filling an emotional role in her life formerly played by her mother, and that nothing about how she feels about her deceased mother has actually changed. She can internalize those feelings, let go of the need for the cheese, and move on.
Making it work
Ok, so you’ve decided that this strategy can fit with your current Work In Progress. To make it work, you’re going to set it up. The character’s reaction to having their cheese moved won’t be credible to the reader if you don’t first establish a couple of things. First, and most obviously, what is your character’s particular cheese? Is it a love letter from a high school sweetheart? A beat up old penny? A deck of well-worn playing cards? Whatever it is, the reader had better know that it’s important to the character.
Second, why is it important? And here, I remind each and every one, it is critical to SHOW, not to tell. You could try tossing this somewhere in chapter one:
Joe’s father taught him to play solitaire at the tender age of nine with this very deck of cards, so after his father died Joe played it all the time and even now he still plays solitaire when he’s feeling stressed.
But it won’t carry any emotional weight in chapter seven 7 when the deck cards slips out of Joe’s hand and drops down a storm drain. No. You have to show it, which means letting us know how Joe came to have the deck of cards, but also showing him actually playing cards in stressful situations several times leading up to the point where you make him lose them.
Once you’ve set up the importance of the cheese, you can go lots of different ways with it. Is the prop something your character would go to great lengths to keep? How about getting it back if it were lost or stolen? What would they do? How far would they go for it? If they’d go to extreme lengths—say, sifting an entire beach’s worth of sand to find that old beat-up penny—your setup had better support that.
Another variation isn’t to move their cheese, but merely to threaten their cheese. Ask yourself if you can create tension and drama by putting the cheese in danger. If a swarm of rats represents a significant threat to a warehouse full of cheese, ask yourself what’s the equivalent threat for the prop you’ve chosen.
But remember, whatever flavor cheese you pick, it’s there to be an outward vehicle for showing some inner character trait. So long as anything you do with the cheese results in a response from the character that involves the related personality trait, your story will be the better for it.
October 30, 2009 22:47 UTC
How to make a great novel out of a cheesy premise
Last time we visited our cheese-making pediatrician, we looked at appropriate use of backstory. Today, I’m going to show how we can elevate a novel from good to great by relating the doctor’s emotional needs to the plot she’s embroiled in.
Good novels have good pacing, rising tension, and a satisfying climax, but they leave their characters essentially unchanged. Great novels change their characters along the way, too. The characters leave the book wiser or with a different perspective on life than on page one.
Note: you can’t do this merely by tacking a “So what have we learned, Jimmy?” scene onto the end.
A great novel gives its important characters an emotional need, and uses the events of the plot to explore how that need shapes the character’s choices and beliefs. That is, a great novel has a character arc as well as a story arc. The two are tightly inter-twined, often by forcing the character to confront the emotional need in order to resolve the plot.
Dr. Lisle is a pediatrician, the daughter of a French couple who moved to the states in the early ‘70s. As a hobby, she makes cheese—her specialty is Roquefort—a craft she took up to address her mother’s incessant complaints that she just couldn’t get a good wheel of Roquefort here in the U.S. Now that her mother has passed, Dr. Lisle still makes cheese as a way of maintaining an emotional connection to her mother.
We can discover a plot that supports a character arc from this backstory by alternating between analysis and plotting.
Analysis: We’ve got her backstory already, so what emotional need does Dr. Lisle’s derive from that? She longs for someone dear who is gone. She is lonely. What she needs is a new, deep connection to someone else. But she’s not going to be able to get that until she lets go of her mother. As a doctor she knows the reality of death, yet she hasn’t deeply accepted her own mother’s demise.
Plotting: Let’s say our basic plot, as hinted at in those earlier posts, involves saving the life of a politician’s child. Except we already know that we’re going to need to do something in the plot to force her to face her mother’s death. So maybe, although the life of a child is already pretty high stakes, we need to let the kid die. Sucks, but there it is.
Analysis: Now the politician, Governor Adams, has the same emotional wound as Dr. Lisle. Further, he’s probably pretty pissed at her for not saving his child, even though she did everything she could.
Plotting: Because he’s so angry, and naturally looking for someone to blame and punish, he uses his power to threaten her hospital’s accreditation. If the hospital closes, a lot more people will die because of lack of care, which is raises the stakes nicely. The hospital’s Chief of Medicine orders Dr. Lisle to fix the situation.
Analysis: How can she do that? Well, since they both have the same emotional wound, she knows exactly what he’s going through. If she can get him to see that she empathizes with him, maybe he’ll back off.
Plotting: She shows up at Adams’s office with a wheel of cheese as a peace offering. Naturally he is not thrilled to see her. That’s an obstacle for her to overcome, which she can only do by spilling her guts about her feelings over her mother’s death. When he learns that she actually made the cheese she has brought, rather than simply buying it from a deli, he lets her in.
Analysis: This is a critical spot for the story. Dr. Lisle is herself on the brink of a cathartic moment of healing, but must also guide the Governor through his own grief.
Plotting: They talk. He has some stale crackers in the office left over from a fundraiser the night before. They eat the cheese, share memories of their lost loved ones, and form a bond. He asks her “how did you get past it?” She admits that she hasn’t, except in that moment she realizes she has. In talking about it she can feel herself letting go of the hurt. Not the memories, just the hurt.
Analysis: The cheese has become a metaphor for her emotional pain. In sharing it with Governor Adams—and eating it—it has gone away.
Plotting: In the end, she helps him find a way to stay connected to his son by convincing him to take up his son’s baseball card collecting hobby. He drops his vendetta against her and the hospital. The book ends with the suggestion that the two of them may pursue a deeper relationship of their own.
Conclusion: Who knew that would turn into a romance novel? You follow the story where it takes you. But you can see how at every point we link Dr. Lisle’s emotional wound to the events of the story. We even took the Governor on a journey of his own; it’s not as fully developed as Dr. Lisle’s, but it’s there. He, too, is in a better place at the end of the novel than when we meet him.
That tight coupling between inner and outer journeys is what can elevate a good novel to great. By the time the outer plot is resolved, so is her inner emotional need. Readers are happy not just that the hospital has been saved, but also that Dr. Lisle isn’t so sad about her mother anymore, and that there is hope on the horizon for ending her loneliness, too.
I want you to take a look at your current work-in-progress to see whether you’ve done this. Ask what your main characters’ emotional needs are, and whether those needs are appropriately related to the events of the plot. Make plausible connections wherever you can and you can elevate your novel from good to great too.
October 02, 2009 18:31 UTC
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