Friday, August 20, 2010

The Buck Stops Here!

I like catch phrases, slogans, sayings...maybe it’s because I spend most of my days working in advertising and it’s all I hear. And they’re fun to insert into conversations and sometimes I like to do so at inopportune moments just for reaction. (Bam!) But this week, this particular idiom came to mind.

Quick history lesson…

“The buck stops here” was made popular by President Truman who kept this phrase displayed on his desk in the Oval office. President Truman received a sign as a gift from a poker playing prison warden (say that three times fast!), an allusion to the phrase “passing the buck” which refers to a marker that was used to indicate the dealer. In poker, if said individual did not wish to deal, he could decline the responsibility and pass the “buck” to the next player. And so “passing the buck” became synonymous with placing responsibility for one’s own actions on someone else. President Truman displayed the phrase “the buck stops here” as a reminder that, as President, he had to make decisions and take responsibility for those decisions.

In other words, every decision you make has a consequence.

I’m a big fan of that philosophy, and I hold true to that even when the outcome of those decisions are less than favorable. My step-son learned that the hard way this summer and will be facing his consequences for not taking freshman year seriously. I hold myself even tighter to that philosophy. Maybe it’s my inner nerd still going strong from high school, but if I’m going to do something, I do it. I don’t half attempt it, nor do I pass along the problems I don’t want to deal with or the work I don’t feel like doing properly. Half the time, it’s my job to tidy up the information that passes through me anyways. I fix problems before they happen. The buck stops with me.

Awkward transition coming. Wait for it…

So how does this relate to writing?

Well, that’s easy. Plot is the consequences of the decisions made by characters, driven by their motivations. (See how that comes full circle?) My WIP has been on hold for over a month because one of my characters had a secret she refused to share with me. She’s a minor character, so she didn’t get a lot of my attention, something she didn’t seem to mind the past year I’ve been working on this story. After a few beta readers ripped apart WIP 2.0 (1.0 didn’t see the light of day), I launched the development of WIP 3.0, the Revenge. Same skeleton, different motivations, new ending. Excited for the new angle on the story, I hit the keyboard and charged ahead into the fray. Until that minor character had a discussion with my MC that sent me to a screeching halt with only one thought in my head. Why would she do THAT?

Certain characters scream at me, bare all and tell me everything that’s going on in the mind. Others playfully poke at me, make jokes and try to make things difficult for me. This character sat quietly in the background, not talking to me. In the shadow of my other more vocal personalities, she said her piece to the MC and then walked off screen, disappearing out of my head. Only then did I realize that I didn’t know jack about her and she wouldn’t tell. I tried to push forward through the story, but found I couldn’t. I needed to know why she did what she did to the MC. I ended up walking away from my exciting rewrite frustrated.

Time apart does wonders.

Thirty-some days later, out of the blue, the character in question whispers her secret to me. At work, I scrambled to jot it all down. Suddenly, everything makes sense, and why she didn’t want to share it. Now, not only do I have my answer, but I also have this neat little subplot.

Her actions are still shady and questionable, but they make sense now. The motivation is there. She’s just going to pay dearly in term of consequences for that decision she made. She tried to pass the buck, but fate wouldn't let her.

Ever have one character derail your entire process like that? Ever have the answer smack you in the head when you least expect it? Does the buck stop with you?


Ken said...

I had one screaming for more face time. I short-stroked him in the first dra... Okay that came out sounding all sorts of wrong. So, said dude is getting much more play this time around.

Ken said...

In the book, more play in the book.

Falcata Times said...

Characters can cause all sorts of mischief and at times, need either a good bitch slap to put them back into form or the threat with the provebial literal shotgun.

Whilst the buck stops with the author of the piece theres always something in the back of thier mind where the character does their best to get thier own way.

Thanks for this post about honesty and what you have to do to face it alongside accepting your own responsibility.

Angela Addams said...

I have the character who is talking to me now...very pushy girl at that. I've started her story but want to pitch the idea to my agent first before going forward...she doesn't like that too much.

daniellelapaglia said...

OMG, Ken, no posting w/o sleep first!

Kelly, a lot of times I'll get stuck on a story or a scene and not know what to do with it. I find that time and space reveal all. I'll be commuting or grocery shopping or blow drying my hair and BAM! the character or scene or whatever just falls into place. That's why I keep pens & notebooks handy everywhere - car, house, purse, you name it.

patriciahollett said...

That was a very good blog that left me smiling and thinking about characters and how they demand front and center time. Stepping away from it has obviously helped you see your way clear again and make the decisions you need to.
Yes, we do it in every aspect of our lives. Some people pass the buck, and some of us stop it and deal with it. People who deal with it such as yourself are people who take responsibility for the decisions they make. :)

Metz Photography said...

@Ken if you say so. :-p

@Falcata I tried the bitch slap and threats, she wouldn't listen! Guess it took ignoring!

@Angela I can't imagine she doesn't like it. If I ignore my screaming characters too much, they keep me from sleeping.

@Danni I've taken to keeping a notebook in my bag, and my cell phone on me at all times for the notes feature. Has helped so much!

@Pat Thanks!

Seleste said...

The story is always, ALWAYS the author's responsibility to tell. But to do it justice we have to listen to our characters. In the piece I'm working on currently, I was trying to pants it. I *thought* it was going to be a short, or a short novella. LOL about 10k in I knew I was screwed because I was already there and the story was just getting started. There were all sorts of secrets I didn't know, so I took a day to jot down some plot notes for the rest of the story and felt much better about it all. Damn characters all wanting to have a purpose :P