We all have those ‘Doh!’ moments. That explosive instant when you realize Something. I always think of it as when an idea that has been tap dancing across my brain finally hits the right synapse and I Get It.
Sometimes what shows up in my head is something I have never heard of before yet it turns out everyone else in the world has always known. “Yogurt is made from carefully rotted milk? REALLY?!”
Occasionally information I have been told for years suddenly makes sense. My mother: “The sun can help you bleach fabric.” Twenty years later, “Mom, guess what! I hung some white sheets out and the sun bleached them beautifully!” My mother, because she is kind, laughs instead of giving me a dope slap.
This past month I took an Intro To Writing Graphic Novels online class taught by Bree Ogden over at LitReactor. It was a great class full of enthusiastic students. We had multiple lectures and homework assignments, all of it challenging and interesting.
One of our exercises was to critique each other’s homework. I was struggling with developing my main character. The character, Jem, lives in a town with a long history, interesting and occasionally scary things happen, and in the end she saves the day.
And she was dull. Dull, dull, dull.
It was then that a fellow student commented: “In good storytelling, the external threat represents the internal struggle. It’s only by overcoming that threat that a character is able to grow and learn.”
I can listen to people talk about the craft of writing for hours. It’s one of the my favorite conversational topics. I know I have heard similar sentiments many times. But it wasn’t until that moment that the bits of my brain decided to light up and go Bing!
Suddenly the character unfolded in my head. Now she doesn’t know who she is or what she can do. She’s from an interesting family and lives in an interesting town and she sees herself as normal and boring with the stupid name of Jemima. She loves her town, the forest that surrounds it, and her family but doesn’t think she has anything to give.
When there is an external threat to the town and forest she loves so much Jem is tempted to let things take their course. It’s when she steps out and and acts differently that things happen and the town is saved. She overcomes the external threat and thus she herself is able to grow and learn.
Why didn’t I see this before? Why did it take these two sentences at that exact moment for me to understand something so momentous about building characters? I have no idea, but I am forever grateful that it happened.
I’d love to hear if anyone else has ever had a ‘Doh!’.