Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Wrong Seat

I have been sitting in the backyard today. Everytime someone walks past - or horror of horrors - another dog walks down the alley, Pen races to the fence and barks until the danger is past. All animals defend their territory in defense of the shelter, food and safety that territory gives them.

Last summer, I took a friend who was visiting us, to Waneskewin. I have seen it plu-plenty times, so I sat on the low stone wall in the front and waited for her. There was a man sitting on the wall too and we started to talk. He is from Norway where only four percent of the land is arable and we were comparing agriculture between our countries. When his wife and children appeared, we were trying to figure out the percentage difference between hectares and acres. She walked right up to me and stopped six inches away - too close for me to be able to see her face. I was very uncomfortable because she was so close. Instinctively, I felt danger. Her husband is a very handsome man and I suppose she was jealously protecting her own by being aggressive and standing within my safety zone - my territory. (What she thought I would do with a man half my age, with a wife and six children in tow, beats me).

On another occasion, when I first attended a service in my current church, I sat where I always sit in a church - fourth row from the front, right side, at the wall end. An elderly woman appeared and announced that she had sat in that exact place for 69 years. I quickly stood up and declared I would move but she said, "Oh no. Stay were you are," and sat on the aisle side of the same pew. She made me feel terrible. I had invaded her territory and she laid on the guilt with a trowel. But, she had the choice of fight or flight and she chose flight.

How did you feel when you re-entered a lecture hall, where you had left your jacket and books on a certain seat, to find someone else in your seat? First reactions are always anger. That person is occupying your territory! You can tell them so or you can get your stuff and move to a different seat, but you will still be angry. Your territory has been invaded and held at the time. It is the instinct of all animals to fear this. Safety is threatened invariably. You can move (flight) or get them to move (fight), but however you handle it, it will be awhile before you feel calmed again. When, depends on your self-concept.

I will be 69 next week, but my own self-concept is not burdened with 69-year-old internal stuff-and-junk. Despite gray hair totally taking over from dark brown, losing almost an inch of height, developing wrinkling skin and arthritis, I still see myself as, and feel, 27. Intellectually I know I am not 27 and my lovely 36 -24 - 36 is gone forever, but the current (never-you-mind) proportions are not something I think about, unless I look in a mirror. I feel 27 and I don't think about the mirror image unless it is drawn to my attention. I recently tried on a dress and immediately put it away, thinking that was something my mother would wear. Unhappily, it dawned on me that I am older now than Mom was when she died. I AM an older matron. Technically, I am not 27.

Must you read anymore about me? No.

Where this is going is this: your characters have self-concepts, territories and feelings of safety, or a lack of feelings of safety, within their territories. You have to know what they are.

Well, maybe you have to read about me and mine a little bit more. The ms I am struggling with (to the death) has a heroine who is determined, at all costs, to return to her family's horse farm. Her parents are dead but she intends to bring the farm back to the excellence it had in her father's time. Meanwhile, the hero is establishing his own clan territory (demesne) and he wants her there. The conflict is on!

Her self-concept is that of a capable, independent owner and operator of her own territory. She sees it as a duty. She believes she can do it. He sees the flaws in her and knows she can't just step back onto her estate and start raising horses. He promises that if she stays at his home (territory) until she learns how to handle an estate and its people, he will help her establish herself. But, at the end of the year and a day (they are handfast by ancient Scottish law), she must decided between what is essentially her territory and his. He wants her to return and become the full partner in his new life.

He is tried and true and therefore is confident he can handle his future and its requirements. He isn't a bit confident she will return. She has plenty of fears that he will stop her or not help her. Inside, she has doubts about her ability and possible success, but she covers those safety issues with false bravado (flight). He also has fears. He doesn't know for certain that he can attract her back into his life. He is jealous (fight) of the men who will help her, including his own brother whom he sends with her for her protection. There is now a major conflict between his beliefs and hers. There is a strong internal conflict in each of them which translates into external conflict as well.

Do your characters all have a self concept? If they don't, you need to learn more about them until you know everything about them. What are the boundaries of their territory? What happens when their territories overlap with other's? How do they react to invasion of their personal space or territory?

Whether they flee or fight will depend on their past experience as well as their make-up. What happened in the past and how does it affect the present situation?

Is the conflict between hero and heroine real enough to carry the plot? I had to 'do in' my previous heroine and bring in a new one, to have a genuine conflict between hero and heroine in this ms.

Do your characters allow someone else to take their seat or do they move to another chair? Is flight going to work or are they going to stay and fight until they have worked out their territorial differences successfully?


Jana Richards said...

Hi Connie,
Your post reminded me of the time I took an intensive week long class with a group of about 10 people. One woman decided she would sit in a different spot every day. I thought a couple of people would beat her up at one point. People don't like their space invaded.

Your blog reminded us that territories are important to characters. And I too still feel 27 inside!


Karyn Good said...

It's interesting how we gravitate to the same spot in certain places. I would never be like the person in Jana's example. I like the comfort of a familiar spot. Wow, that sounds boring!

Shall think about my characters today and their terrorities. Thanks, Connie.

Janet said...

Great way to get us to think outside the box (outside our territory) when it comes to our characters. We all work to make them unique, yet believable - and personal space/territory is something everyone has to deal with (be they real or fictional). Well done, Connie!

Joanne Brothwell said...

Hey Connie,
I recently did a little experiment like this at work - where I sat at the back of a meeting where the "cool kids" sit - and I was amused to see the looks on their faces as they had to sit closer to the boss! Ha!

I haven't given this sort of thing much thought when it comes to my characters. But now I will!


Helena said...

Hey, Connie, you have given me some additional dimensions to think about with respect to my characters. It is interesting to speculate which direction each would take when presented with a fight or flight scenario.

Laura has spent her entire adult life keeping her emotions bottled up, so I guess she would be more likely to take flight than stay and fight. But when presented with an outcome that affects her daughter, and not just herself, she finds the fortitude to fight, thus exposing her emotions. I think characters have to show the capacity to change and grow.

BTW, sometimes when I look in the mirror I am surprised to see one of my grandmothers looking back at me! Funny, I thought I'm the same age as some of those romantic comedy characters I enjoy watching.

connie said...

Hey Jana

I got to be 27 first!
(so get outta my territory)
People really can get violent when it comes to territory. Indeed, the cl;ass was intense in more ways than one

connie said...

Hi Karyn

I think the lady in Jana's example was suicidal myself.

No, liking a particular comfortable spot is not boring - just comfortable - until some turkey decides to sit there.

connie said...

Thanks Janet,

I wonder how personal territories change - if at all - when you move to a new place. What do you think?
Any special places where you always put your chair in relation to someone or something else? Same side of the bed?

I wonder if anyone is ever comfortable sitting with their back to the door?

connie said...

Hi Joanne,

Isn't it lovely being able to make the cool kids squirm a little?

They must be Anglicans! We always sit at the back.


connie said...

Hey Helena

My mother, aunt and grandmother all were very different in appearance until their late 60s when Mom and Aunt Jenny resembled each other and Grandma so much it was amazing!

Interesting point you make about change and growth - I'm tinking about territories still - I wonder if we ever change from flight to fight or is it only when a daughter or someone else close if threatened?

connie said...

Mea Culpa Everybody!

Sorry I was so late answering tonight. Keith came home late and we watched Anderson Cooper and criticized his professionalism. That got us started on a zillion other things and whoops! It was after 11.

I think Anderson Cooper, Wolf Blitzer and Larry King are terrible journalists! How CNN thinks it is a world leader in news is a wonder and also scary!

night all


Anita Mae Draper said...

Exellent post, Connie. And so true.

I have my fav chair at home, church and at friend's and relative's houses.

I can't say I snarl when someone invades my territory but my family says I give them one of those 'if looks could kill' looks. :)


Hayley E. Lavik said...

Belatedly coming by, I love this post Connie! You've actually tackled two really neat topics here, both in territory and in terms of self-concept, and how that can potentially hinder or help us in things we want to accomplish. I work with territory on a few levels in my WIP, and also with self-concept, although I think it's an issue that will come out a lot more in revisions. I'm not accustomed selling my abilities short, so I'm sure I have plenty of moments that don't gel with my protag's poor self-concept.