21 February 2010

And if we fail...

You are probably aware by now that I’m a writer and a publisher. In fact, everyone in my family is a writer. Just Friday night, DW rushed DD and me to a mailbox service to get our entries for a literary competition delivered before the 6:00 deadline. We barely made it before they locked the doors. And neither of us would have had our novels ready to submit if it hadn’t been for countless hours DW spent editing our material and pushing us to revise and clarify what we had written. Whether we win or not, both DD and I know that we have submitted quality work, perhaps our best ever, to this competition.

It was in the midst of this frantic revision cycle that I was inspired with the topic for this post. In my thriller, the heroes are driven in their quest to find a hidden treasure, pursued by unknown forces bent on preventing them from succeeding. There are explosions, injuries, mad dashes across country, biblio-terrorism (a term I coined for this story), and kidnappings. At some point—and I’m sorry I don’t remember the exact words—DW asked me why they were so anxious to find this treasure. What would happen if they failed?

You’ve probably read a book or have seen a movie at some time that sounds a lot like what I’ve described. The heroes have to overcome all kinds of obstacles to complete their quest, but someplace along the line you realize that if they just stopped running the villains would never find the treasure that only the heroes have the clue to. The secret would be safe from their enemy; or someone else would discover it.

As a by-product of this, we find that thrillers have to have increasingly cataclysmic risks. If I don’t pursue the killer in spite of being warned off by my superiors, the president will die. A nuclear weapon will be detonated in a major metropolitan area. World War III will break out. An asteroid will hit the earth and all life will end.

We start thinking that if the obstacles are there, then the result of failure is world-ending.

Unfortunately, in writing as in life, the level of the obstacles can completely hide the value of overcoming them. Yes, your hero should be thwarted at every opportunity. As a friend said once, "Steal his shoes." But there really has to be a reason for him to continue, and it doesn't always have to be the end of the world. Many times, the intense personal issue that the hero faces will motivate their actions more than the end result of actually reaching the goal.

For example, protecting or saving a loved one (common in thrillers) is often just as important as stopping the next world war. Personal obsessions, though legitimate motivators, are significantly less interesting to readers. High moral standards are the classic tragic flaw. Oedipus must uncover the truth, even though the truth causes the suicide of his mother/wife and the blinding of his eyes. He is warned not to pursue this line of questioning, but because he is essentially a just man, he must uncover the cause of the plague on his country. The thing at risk is not always the object of the quest.

I'm an amateur at making this happen, but realizing that it has to happen is changing the way I write and the motivations of my leading characters. What do you think would motivate a historical librarian to pursue the discovery of an ancient treasury of documents even when he is being threatened, chased, and injured at every turn? It has to be important enough for him to deny his own instincts for self-preservation. Otherwise, why go on? Just so he can call himself the discoverer? Most people don't really have that big an ego. If biblio-terrorists start chasing me I'm not going to the library any more!

Is your character's motivation believable? logical? sufficient to drive him past the obstacles?