Friday, November 20, 2015

Moving up the Hierarchy

Last night I was watching Cupcake Wars. The four bakers were competing for $10,000. The winner would also have her fabulous cupcake creations served at the star-studded celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the iconic TV sitcom, I Love Lucy. I was watching this show because I love shows about food. But I was thinking now and then that I should be writing my post for today. But it has been a labor-intensive week, so I stayed there on the sofa with Harry, my cat, sleeping, belly up and paws in the air, beside me.

This week I finally finished the synopsis of a proposed book and sent it off to my editor. Actually, I sent a short version and a very long (34 pages) version. I had spent so much time on that 34 page version that I couldn't not send it along. When I was plotting this book, I used script-writing techniques to craft my scenes. Unlike when I simply outline, my characters had a great deal to say. They started talking to each other. Knowing I should type instead of telling them to shut up, I included those snatches of conversation in my synopsis. My characters were talking about what they needed. They were explaining how what they had done was related to what they wanted. In those snatches of conversations --either stated or implied -- they were telling me about the internal needs that motivated them.

My cat, Harry, had his bedtime snack early last night and at 7:47 am, he meowed politely outside my door. Harry has been incredibly considerate these past few weeks. A friend says Harry has "mellowed out" now that he knows he is really home and it's okay when I put him in his carrier and in the car (that I do intend to bring him home from the vet's or come back after my vacation to retrieve him from his sitter's house). Harry no longer meows and knocks on my door with his big paws (Maine Coon mix) because now he is not worried that I have disappeared and he is not going to be fed. He now sits on top of the radiator waiting for me to come out and raise the blinds so he can bird watch. Or he sits outside my door waiting for me to wake up and come out -- so quiet that I've almost stumbled over him a few times. But this morning, he was hungry, and he thought a polite meow would let me know that his stomach was rumbling.

Harry has reminded me of something I learned in Psychology 101 (or, whatever that long-ago Intro Psych course at Virginia Tech was numbered). It was in that course that I first heard about Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Offering a theory of human motivation, Abraham Maslow argued that humans are motivated by needs that range from basic physiological needs to self-actualization. Humans . . .

I had to take a break between paragraphs because Harry was standing beside my chair meowing insistently.
(Photo taken by his sitter, Russ, on another morning).

This morning, having had his breakfast (wet prescription cat food mixed with pumpkin) and spent some time looking out the window at the birds sitting in the leafless small trees, he felt compelled to remind me that I had neglected to carry out our morning ritual. Each morning, using a pet grooming tool that has a metal rake on one side and a bristled brush on the other, I attend to Harry's fur. When I adopted him in October of last year, Harry's back had been partially shaved because his fur was matted when he came into the shelter. Now, his fur has grown back and is luxurious and thick, and it tends to tangle on his stomach. I suspect that he knows he will be swallowing a lot of hair when he grooms himself if I don't brush him first.

But having me brush him each morning is also Harry's way of maintaining our connection. He is moving up his cat hierarchy. As he is being brushed, Harry is ensuring his continued security and maintaining bonds of affections. I'm pretty sure he's also nurturing his self-esteem ("I'm a handsome cat. I cannot be seen with my coat looking scruffy").

Observing Harry has reminded me about my character's pyramid of needs. My characters -- whether in my 1939 historical or the whodunit with the very long synopsis -- are not going to zip through my books without stopping for meals or bathroom breaks. Yes, the public stakes may be high in my thriller, but along the way my protagonist and his valiant team are going to have those moments I've always loved in books and movies -- the outlaws are lurking outside, but inside the safety of the jail Dean Martin is stretched out on a bunk and he begins to sing about his pony and Rick Nelson joins in and then Walter Brennan pulls out his harmonica. . . yes, I watch too many old movies.

But my point is that I have now found another way to think of that dictum that in every scene in a book or story, each character should want something. Harry -- meowing again, paws on my knees, before he jumps, all 16.5 lbs of him (he's a pound from his goal weight), onto my lap -- is working on his hierarchy. He wants to sit in my lap because he's ready for a nap. He could be much more comfortable on the sofa or curled up on the radiator or an area rug. But he wants to sleep in the crook of my arm as I type. His need to bond and feel secure makes him want to sleep in my lap even though he has better options when it comes to physical comfort. A cat's reminder that meeting ones needs sometimes requires trade-offs. I must keep this in mind about my characters.


Charlotte Hinger said...

I loved this post Frankie. Keeping in mind what a character really wants can straightened out a lot of plot blocks.

Eileen Goudge said...

Sound like you have a cat for a muse, Frankie. I'll take a cat or a dog over a mythical creature any day. I've been inspired by both throughout my writing career.
BTW, If you like Cupcake Wars, you would also like The Great British Baking Show. I got into it recently and became hooked. It's more slower-paced than American cooking shows but quirky and fun. It's all about the characters. Perfect for us novelists.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Definitely, Charlotte. I'm trying to do more thinking about that upfront since I do end up spending so much time editing my first draft as I go along.

Thanks, I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

Muse? I hadn't thought about that, Eileen. But I suppose Harry has become that. I've never had a cat before (always a dog person), and I find him fascinating. Trying to learn what lessons I can from him -- like it's okay to take a nap. The birds -- or your to-do-list -- will still be there when you wake up.

Frankie Y. Bailey said...

And, Eileen, thanks for the tip about the British cooking show. I'll see if I can find it. I did happen on the Canadian show with "home cooks" competing.