I set out this morning to write a post about monsters. I make up weird creatures all the time as part of my writing, and I thought it would be fun to turn some of them loose here on my blog. Then a friend pointed me to this post, where Lauren Fleshman, a professional runner, tells the story of how she published unflattering photos of herself to give context to her “fantasy” pictures from a NY Fashion Week runway show. Her story made me think about fear and courage. It also made me think about how the real monsters in our lives aren’t always easy to spot.
There can be any number of villains in a story, but most good stories have one real monster. This monster is the primary entity that keeps the hero from getting to her goal. For me, one of the hardest parts about writing a story is figuring out whether I’m focusing on the correct monster. I’ll start detailing a man’s terrible hobby of encasing live frogs in melted glass only to realize that I’ve blamed the wrong bad guy; my protagonist is actually fighting against the ghost of her father. This can create large problems. If a hero doesn’t know which monster she’s facing, it’s nearly impossible for her to defeat it. A marine who brings a machine gun to a fight with a ghost isn’t going to have much luck. But if I as a writer don’t know who the correct monster is, it’s even worse: my overly-armed marine will never find her ghost to begin with. And I’ll write in circles for weeks, trying to figure out why my story isn’t going anywhere.
If I realize I’ve got the wrong monster in a story, how do I find the right one? The first step is the same one I use to find the center of a problem in my own life: I look for behavioral footprints. Has my protagonist changed the way she does something for no apparent reason? Does she get defensive when someone mentions it? Is there an the emotional live wire hidden under that behavior that makes her jump away when someone touches it, something she’s avoiding? In Fleshman’s story, she wrote the blog post with pictures of her “thigh cheese and belly roll” a week after the runway shoot, but for months, she could not make herself press “Publish.” Bingo: the footprint of a monster.
But once I find footprints in my hero’s behavior, how do I find the monster? That can be tricky. The next step is to follow the emotion.
Negative emotions can come from any number of places. Fleshman knew that if she put unflattering photos of herself out on the Internet, she would permanently shatter the public illusion she had built about her perfect body. She was afraid. You could pin the blame for her fear on Photoshop, on the media, on unrealistic standards for women in our society–and each of these parties deserve some responsibility. But what was she really afraid of? That Us Weekly would call her a fat slob? That her sponsors would withdraw their funds? That her fans would abandon her for someone who seemed flawless? That people would think that she was a fraud?
Or was it internal: was she afraid that she would have to give up on the idea that she actually WAS that too-perfect person on the runway–or that, if she kept to her training regimen and only showed the flattering photos, she could eventually become that uber-athlete, that superhero that she pretended to be?
Following the negative emotion has led us to several potential villains: a mocking bully, capricious corporate wallets, fickle fans, the faceless crowd. But are those the real monsters in Fleshman’s story? Not really. Each of those villains merely invokes a bigger monster. Look more closely at the bully and you see him waving a wand and summoning something we all know well: our fear that others will think poorly of us and that they’ll be right. Rummage through the closed corporate wallet and you find a fear of poverty and a fear of losing the economic ability to do what we love. Inside the worries about fickle fans and the faceless crowd? For a professional athlete, some of this fear could be economic and tied to sponsors, but I think the bigger piece is the same one the bully invokes: the fear that others are right to think badly of us. The fear that we are really nothing, that our accomplishments are a joke, that our friends will abandon us and nobody will ever love us or support us because, really, we’re not worth it.
And that internal grasping for the superhero’s cape? It masks the fear that we will never be that person we dreamed and worked so hard to be, coupled with the fear that, since we are not superheroes, we are worthless.
The real monsters in our lives are sometimes tangible things: death, injury, starvation, disease, sexual assault, loss of people and things we love. But, often, the monsters are the fears themselves. The fear of injury shapes our lives more often than actual injury does. The fear of losing loved ones leads people to do crazy things–including running away from or even killing said loved ones. Fears can be powerful monsters, and they drive both sides of many conflicts. The villains we face are motivated by their own monsters, and they fight us by invoking the monsters inside our minds. Once we find those monsters–our fears–we can face them down, see the situation for what it is, and deal with the villain. Many times, the actions we need to take are simple. In Fleshman’s case, they came down to pressing one button.
The monster keeping Fleshman from pressing that button could have been any of the fears I outlined above. It could have been all of them. It could also have been something I haven’t thought of. I’m not her, and so on some level, I can’t know. But, when it comes to my own characters, and especially when it comes to my own life, I can find out–if I dare to look.
Up next Coming up on Monday: Monsters, Part II: One of My Own Monsters