Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Why do people do the things they do?  In real life it's sometimes impossible to unravel the reason some people do the things they do, but in novels the motivation is essential to the story. It's not good enough to have the hero do good things just because he's the designated "good guy" nor for the villain to do bad things because that's what bad guys do. The motivation for an action needs to be comparable in strength to the act committed. 

To be believable, writers need to be students of human nature.  They do this by being people watchers, reading news stories, and researching cause and effect through text books, listening to knowledgeable people in various professional capacities, and through drawing on personal experience.

As a journalist, I learned to question Who, What, When, Where, and Why, then found these Ws carry over into the fiction field.  It's the Why I'm concerned with today.  This past year I've undergone four major surgeries; the last just four weeks ago was the scariest and has left me with the most severe life altering after affects.  During my recoveries, along with a lot of physical therapy to learn to walk again and to adjust to becoming a total diabetic, I've done a lot of reading, including a number of books in genres I don't usually read.  Along with nearly a hundred books read, most of which I enjoyed, there were some that held little interest for me, three I couldn't force myself to finish, and several that left me wondering what was the motivation behind the actions taken by various characters.  There was even one that changed a character's motivation from financial greed to obsession.  Actually motivation can change, be enlarged, new factors brought in, but the change needs to be built into the story and made plausible to the reader. 

William Faulkner was a master at clarifying motivation.  Even his bit part villains rated a back story (not an info dump), leaving the reader with a clear picture of what made that character tick. Faulkner never wrote a dystopian novel, yet strangely two dystopian novels I recently read, A Nothing Named Silas by Steve Westover and The Witnesses by Stephanie Black, reminded me of why I enjoy Faulkner.  They both skillfully shared why their characters were in the predicaments they were in, why they continued to fight against the impossible, and why their adversaries were also motivated. 

Sometimes people do unexpected awful things seemingly out of nowhere, but a deeper analysis nearly always shows the factors that motivated the action.  It's usually easier to understand the protagonist's motivation, but author's often skimp on the other side of the coin. Envy, greed, hate, revenge, sense of inferiority, laziness, political zeal, religious fervor, lies, coverup, jealousy, control, and the list goes on and on for negative behavior.  Behind each word is an experience or philosophy that drives the villain and though these motivations are not usually the primary focus of the novel, they clarify the protagonist's dilemma and are important to the story.  It's not enough to know what the hero has at stake, when understanding what the villain has at stake clearly ratchets up the suspense and provides a more balanced story.  If the motivation is insufficient or weak the story loses credibility.  

Those of us who are news junkies and have a preference for printed news find ourselves frustrated with electronic news sources that don't answer all of the Ws.  We become even more frustrated with novels that fail to convey why the story matters, why the antagonist does what he does, and why the protagonist cares enough to fight back or escape.  Without motivation behind action, there is no story.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Hyacinths to Feed the Soul
I don't know John or Karen Huntsman on a personal basis, though I did shake his hand once following a stake conference meeting.  Yet over the past few weeks I've developed a deep respect for them and experienced a kindred touching of the minds. 
I returned home a couple of days ago following ten days at the Huntsman Cancer Hospital in Salt Lake City where I underwent a complete pancreatectomy.  As far as I know (the biopsies aren't all in yet), I don't have cancer, but my pancreas was behaving just the way my brother's did before his fatal run in with pancreatic cancer. My care was first rate and I can't say enough about the remarkable, caring staff at the hospital, but it's a slightly different angle than the medical care I want to discuss.
At a very young age I was introduced to a bit of poetry that made a lasting impact on me.  It's by Muslihuddin Sadi, a thirteenth century Persian poet.
            If of thy mortal goods, thou art bereft,
            And from thy slender store two loaves alone
            are left,
            Sell one and from the dole,
            Buy hyacinths to feed the soul.
Somewhere along the way of life I discovered there are a lot of dark, dangerous, difficult challenges that have to be faced, but that even at the darkest, most unhappy times something of beauty can make all the difference.
I spent months beside my brother's and sister's beds as they died of cancer and remember so well their anguish because they couldn't see the mountains or even a tree. My sister's room was so small it only accommodated one chair for a visitor and her window overlooked the rooftop of a lower portion of the hospital.  My brother's room was larger and its one narrow window provided a view of the parking lot.  I felt almost guilty to be in a cancer hospital that is open and beautiful, more like a luxury class hotel than a hospital dedicated to serving those suffering with today's horrifying monster called cancer.  John Huntsman has fought his own wars with cancer and determined that a hospital for cancer patients shouldn't cut them off from the world, but invite the world into their rooms.  Consequently every patient room has floor to ceiling windows.
With almost an entire wall of specially treated windows I was able to watch runners on the mountain trails by day or view the city lights spread out below me like a carpet of stars at night.
Karen Huntsman went one step farther.  She filled every hall, room, and foyer with some of the most incredible art work anyone could wish to see.  A stroll through the hospital is like a trip through an art gallery.  Those first stumbling walks following surgery are somehow easier with paintings and statuary to distract and lift spirits.  I began to feel like a painting of two geese was there just for me as a reminder of my childhood and of a group of friends who call ourselves the V-Formation.  I wish I had noted the artist's name.  A Japanese print reminded me that life doesn't always follow our plans, a group of native Americans camping beside a small fire in a mountainous forest echoed my love of Jack London stories, and an old woman with a bead necklace spoke to me of the continuity of life and generations.  With my love of horses, how could I not love a full size replica of a Spanish mare and her colt? Karen Huntsman truly understands that in our darkest times, beauty lifts the soul.
I'm tired and weak.  Today is the first I've attempted to write, but I wish to let my readers know I am healing.  I also wish to share the insight I have gained through this experience.  The soul needs to be nourished as much as does the body.  In a world that seems to glamorize darkness, ugliness, and evil there is a great need for beauty and kindness.  Today there is a great need for hyacinths to feed the soul.