Friday, February 22, 2019

Adventures in Time and Space and Writing

Me and My Favorite Companion, watching Who

Carmela began a new round of discussion, how we Teaching Authors use "mentor texts" as part of our writing and revision process. She explored the definition of mentor texts as published books we study to learn how to become better writers.

While mentor texts tend to be considered literature, I offer that it can be of anything that reflects “story.” After all, we are homo narratus, story animals, suggests Kendall Haven (Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, 2007). We have told our stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture has developed codified laws or written language, but every culture in the history of the world has created story in the form of myths, legends, fables, and folk tales.

I’ve written before, exploring how Doctor Who – yes, that Doctor -- can explain the complex definition of historical fiction. In the blending of invention with well-known and accepted facts, a better way to understand historical fiction is to remember that: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause and effect…but actually, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.

A longtime Whovian and dear friend, Cynthia and I have often used Doctor Who as a means to explore literary devices. Consider the character of Doctor Who. Human beings are complex beings, and emotions are dynamic. If we remember that fiction is primarily an emotional exchange, then plot can be understood as a sequence of emotional milestones.

Developing Character

The very essence of thirteen incarnations (regenerations) reflects the complexity of a fully-realized protagonist. The First Doctor was an eccentric curmudgeon. The Second Doctor had a strong sense of humor. The Third Doctor had a love/hate relationship with authority. The Fourth Doctor was quite taken with his own charisma and cleverness, with a love for long scarfs and jellybabies. The Fifth Doctor was a pacifist. The Sixth Doctor was petulant. The Seventh Doctor was ruthless. When the Eighth Doctor changed, there was a profound shift in the character. This was the great moment in the plot when everything changed. He became the War Doctor, a warrior that commited genocide against his own people. His was a regeneration considered so dark, he renounced the title of Doctor. The hope and curiosity of the previous incarnations were ground away by the brutality of his choice. He became the brooding Ninth Doctor, the tragically lonely Tenth Doctor, the guilt-ridden Eleventh Doctor, and the self-doubting Twelfth Doctor.

When seen as one character, rather than twelve (and now thirteen!) “regenerations,” the protagonist becomes a complex, dynamic character. A character, while racing through time and space, who remains anchored to his (and her) companions. They exert a force on him (and her!), changing him even as he changes them. That’s the very essence of a plot moving forward.

The Importance of Backstory

Important to developing a realized character is his backstory, the history that underlines the situation at the start of the book. Backstory drives the character’s motivations. It is primarily the character’s wounds that become the core of his emotive journey and drives his choices. Choices that move the plot forward. Such wounds are so deep and organic that they ultimately define how the character sees the universe.

And the Doctor has had 54 TV years of backstory, of accumulating a long lifetime of emotional wounds. As Amy Pond once said of the Eleventh Doctor,

“What if you were really old, and really kind and lonely, your whole race is dead. What couldn’t you do then? If you were that old, and that kind, and the very last of your kind, you couldn’t just stand there and watch children cry.”

Secondary Characters, otherwise known as Companions

At its core, the Doctor's story is about these epic relationships. These secondary characters helped to reveal the best and worst characteristics of the Doctor. The First Doctor was a know-it-all, prickly codger, but his two hearts softened whenever his granddaughter, Susan Foreman, walked into the Tardis. When Adric died during the tenure of the Fifth Doctor, the first long-term companion to die on the Doctor’s watch, the Doctor was stunned and reflective about his mad man in a blue box ways. By the time the Ponds died (during the time of the Eleventh Doctor), he was overwhelmed by his grief and hid away in the clouds. Only the mystery of the Impossible Girl was strong enough to compel him to leave the Tardis.

And these secondary characters were often the vehicle used to escalate the stakes while adding layers to the character, asking the question, “what if?”

What if we went to a museum to see the works of Vincent Van Gogh, and saw a monster in his painting? What if we went back in time to visit the artist, and met the monster lurking in the church?

What if we decide one morning to turn left, instead of right? How would history change?

What if we met a friend in a creepy old building with a garden filled with stone statues? What if these statues were really predatory creatures, and every time you blinked, they moved in for the kill?

What if there were giant whales swimming through space?

What if a broken but brilliant man, during the final years of a 1000 year war, genetically modified survivors to ensure his people's survival? What if these modifications were integrated into tank-like robotic shells, with every emotion removed except hate? What if this new species thought themselves the superior race?

The Importance of Theme

What, then, is the Doctor’s story about? What is the big idea that propels his story, the theme that connects all the parts of his narrative?  Theme is connected to the protagonist’s journey, the lessons he learned along the way. The theme allows the readers to relate to the characters and feel invested in the outcome.

Supported by the sweeping themes of love and war and redemption, grief continues to be a powerful, emotional theme that prevails throughout the Doctor’s story. As the Doctor learns repeatedly, honor your dead, but keep on living. He learned this with the passing of Adric, and the passing of the Ponds, even at the passing of his wife, River Song. His best friends, and even his childhood best friend who grew up to be his favorite frenemy, the Master, eventually they all left him. Throughout the course of his long life, he became defined by his losses.

In one story, the Twelfth Doctor saves a Viking girl -- at his companion's urgent request -- through a technology that makes her immortal. Her tragic saga spans through eternity,  as she outlives everyone she loves, until at last she  also witnesses the end of the universe. And yet, her story doesn’t end. It continues unexpectedly after the Doctor endures torture for a billion years, forcing his way back to Gallifrey, in hopes of saving his companion, Clara. Eventually he pulls Clara out of her timeline, which traps her between two breathes. In their final goodbye, she wipes the Doctor’s memory of her before flying off into her own adventures with the Viking Girl. Clara chooses to let him go to save him. Yet, before the Twelfth Doctor regenerates, he remembers Clara.  The story comes full circle, a narrative device that frames the story to bring about resolution. At this point, the Doctor's inner and outer conflicts converge at the same time and place (all puns intended) for emotional impact. There remains intact certain kernels of emotional truth. An old Ibo (Africa) proverb states, “all stories are true.” And what we learn in this wibbly wobbly journey through time, as the Doctor has learned, is  what it means to be human.

So you see, there is much to learn from the Doctor about writing the epic adventure. As the Doctor tells his companion, and in so doing reminding everyone, through those Tardis doors, stepping into story,

 “… we might see anything. We could find new worlds, terrifying monsters, impossible things. And if you come with me... nothing will ever be the same again!”

Don’t forget, Teaching Author is hosting a giveaway! You can enter to win a copy of award-winning picture book author Laurie Wallmark. newest book, Hedy Lamarr's Double Life:Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor.

--Bobbi Miller


Rebecca C said...

Love how you've used Doctor Who as your mentor text!

Teresa Robeson said...

You, my dear, have spent tons of time ruminating on Doctor Who...and I heartily approve! :D Terrific analysis!

Carmela Martino said...

>>While mentor texts tend to be considered literature, I offer that it can be of anything that reflects “story.”<<
I wholeheartedly agree. Bobbi! And I love this idea, too:
"If we remember that fiction is primarily an emotional exchange, then plot can be understood as a sequence of emotional milestones." Thanks so much!

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you, Rebecca! ❤❤

Bobbi Miller said...

Well, dear Teresa, I am older than thirteen Doctors and have been around since the beginning. So plenty of time and space to ruminate! ❤❤

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you, Carmela! This was one of my favorite posts to write, for all sorts of reasons! ❤❤

Yvonne Ventresca said...

Fun post about a topic you obviously love!

Bobbi Miller said...

Comment sent from reader Marcia: Great and inspiring post, and that photograph is amazing!

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you, Yvonne!! ❤❤

April Halprin Wayland said...

54 TV years of backstory--wow! So much to learn here, Bobbi. Thank you!

Carla Killough McClafferty said...

Dear Bobbi, another excellent post. I must admit that I know nothing about Doctor Who--but I should!