What I’m looking for as I outline the next draft of Southern Discomforts is what mystery author Barb Ross calls the Very Good Reason. This is the motive that drives the protagonist to keep going even after she has every reason not to.
This is particularly pertinent to Ross’s field — cozy mysteries — where by definition the protagonist is an amateur, not a PI or a cop. So why does she (or he) insist on investigating? There has to be some reason that drives her: a friend has been killed, a friend is suspected, the protagonist is a suspect or a target, the police are morons who can’t solve it (that is a very old gimmick and not much used these days). But it’s also relevant to my book. Maria is an outsider in Pharisee, Ga. She has no dog in the hunt when it comes to finding Aubric McAlister’s murder. Maria has a good reason to stay in Pharisee — she’s wanted on a felony charge back in NYC — but that’s not the same as having a good reason to solve the mystery or protect Olwen. So why doesn’t she let Olwen, with her considerable magic, fight her own battles? Or the town police? Or the FBI?
I’m still working on that. I’m going to figure it out before I start the next draft or it’ll run out of steam when the time comes for Maria to really grit her teeth and keep going.
I don’t think every character needs a VGR, or at least not one that applies to an individual case. Harry Dresden, for example, gets involved partly because that’s his job — wizard PI/troubleshooter — but more because he cares: innocent people getting hurt is not something he tolerates. Every innocent person getting hurt by magic is his VGR. Likewise Timothy Hutton’s Nate on Leverage cares about writing wrongs in general: he lost his son because an insurance company denied coverage for medical treatment (after the kid was dead, the insurer was all Oops, Sorry, We Should Have Approved That). Now he and his team go after other companies who can’t be nailed legally for their misdeeds (“The rich and powerful take what they want. We provide—leverage.”).
I can use that. Maria’s a Vietnam nurse and anti-war protester, who cares intensely about people dying. But patching up someone after they’ve been shot or stepped on a mine is different from going out and confronting the bad guy, which is what she’s called on to do, so she still needs more. It’s further omplicated because she doesn’t know what’s really going on so by the time she realizes Olwen isn’t imagining the threat, a lot of pages have gone by.
Other characters, such as Doc and his team, are in it for excitement as much as the desire to help people (cover by James Bama, all rights to current holder). Maria enjoys saving lives, but that’s definitely not her motive here.
Friendship is another motive — it’s what drives Philip Marlowe to drastic lengths in The Long Goodbye for instance, and what keeps Sam Spade going in The Maltese Falcon (hunting for his partner’s killer). That was my first approach, but I think it works better if Maria’s a total stranger who doesn’t know anyone. If I decide she has ties in town, they’ll have to be substantial, and I’ll probably need to completely overhaul the character (I’ve considered letting some other character take the lead role, but I haven’t found one who works better).
I have some ideas to work into the next draft of the outline. I’ll let you know how they work out.