I was talking about writing with a lovely friend tonight, and we were discussing how to build the world of a story. We agreed that one of the most terrifying things is the sensation that you’re writing yourself into a corner and you’ll never be able to get yourself or your characters out. We talked about taking risks, making false starts, and all those other fun adventures books tend to take us on.
Then we started talking about how to move forward in a story when we’re not sure what happens next. There’s a lot of buzz about character-driven stories and letting the characters lead, and I completely agree with that. But something I realized through this last round of revisions I did was that usually, in order to write a character-driven story, we must explore the unknown through the eyes of the character. That can be frustrating and confusing, though, when you don’t KNOW how a character might see something, not to mention why. So I thought I’d share a little trick with you that I’ve only just started using in my writing, and you can tell me how it goes!
My education is in social work, and one of the myriad theoretical foundations for the practice of social work is something called systems theory. Systems Theory is a way of viewing the world with the idea that people exist in a series of systems, both internal and external. These systems act on people who in turn act upon the systems, and the more people and systems involved, the more complicated both the problems and the solutions. This theory is summed up by the phrase, “Person in Environment,” which is a solutions-focused concept that suggests problem solving begins by recognizing that a person is influenced by everything from their country down to whether or not they have a stomachache, and that solving the problem requires recognition and analysis of systems first. It’s a way of understanding not just what has happened but the nuances of why and how, and a way of recognizing that certain solutions to problems may only create more problems in other systems.
This gets much more complicated, and I’d actually encourage you to research it if the idea is interesting to you, because I rely heavily on it both in my day job and in my writing. But hearing about theoretical concepts can get confusing, so let’s give it some legs.
Parks and Rec is one of my favorite TV shows ever, and the episode where Leslie is trying to keep the Parks budget from being cut is an excellent example of systems going awry. Leslie convinces a councilman not to cut the Parks budget, but because the money must come from somewhere, she learns the animal shelter will be closed to obtain the funds. She doesn’t want that to happen, so she does some research and finds some unnecessary jobs to get rid of which will make room in the budget. However, when she does that, her best friend’s job gets cut.
I won’t tell you more because some of you guys might be crazy and not have watched every single episode eighteen times, but you can already see the issues. Leslie wants to solve the problem right in front of her, and she sees that problem only from her perspective as a Parks employee. She makes her decision from a position where the systems exterior to her are the state, the city, the local government, the parks department, her immediate friends, her neighborhood, etc. Interior systems are her passion for the parks, her loyalty to city/government, her drive to solve problems, etc. Because of her unique perspective and relationship to the systems around her, Leslie doesn’t see the problem or her first (or even second) solution clearly which causes a whole string of new problems.
This is where it benefits you as a writer – your character exists within some kind of array of systems, and every one of them exercises some level of impact on your character. When you get stuck and don’t know what happens next, or you’re having trouble figuring out motivations or who your character is, think about systems. How is your character impacted by her geographic location? The times in which she lives? The political, religious, cultural surroundings? How do these things shape her reaction to your plot events, and how does it shape the choices she makes in response to those events?
I recently used these ideas in my own revisions. I realized that most of the book as it used to be was just my character being acted upon by the other characters and floating along, always reacting to other choices and not making her own. I knew I didn’t want that and I read everything I could get my hands on about making characters more active, but I still struggled because I felt like I didn’t know enough about her to know what she might do when NOT just reacting. It wasn’t until I thought more about her background of poverty, and how that might cause her not to trust the systems around her, to distrust sources of help someone else might naturally turn to, and to view the world as being against her, that I could begin to understand how she might think and act. Revisions were still difficult – are they ever not? – but I finally understood my character, and that moved the story forward. I understand how my character saw the world until I figured out how that world has shaped her view.
Maybe this’ll open up a flood of new ideas for you and maybe it’s just confusing, but if you decide to give it a shot, let me know how it goes!