Hi Gang, Craig with you again. You’ll hear authors talk pretty frequently about how their characters take over and improve the story beyond what they had outlined. When this happens its magical, and one of the best parts of being a writer.
In a classroom explanation, your character has to change over the course of the story. They evolve in some small way. This is called the character arc. Some plan it, others write by the seat of their pants, but to have a successful story it has to happen.
This is my attempt to help you bottle some of that magic. We’re going to try fishing in those waters.
Ask yourself, who is my character? Then find their happy place. We’re talking about their primary motivation in life. Are they family oriented, workaholics, campaigning for an issue or position. This should be deeper than simply what they want.
Once we find this place, we’re going to break it. We’re going to amp up that electrode to the character’s brain and watch them dance. Here are some examples:
Homebody = eviction, refugee, or divorce.
Family oriented = someone gets drafted, a death in the family, divorce.
Work oriented = hostile takeover, competition perhaps from Amazon, those old college pictures from Spring Break. Think Papa John here.
Your goal is to put the character under pressure and see how they react. They’ll probably take it poorly at first. Maybe they drink, do drugs, pray, deny, etc. What they do next is where the magic can show up. How are they going to react to change whatever has happened in their comfortable life? Let them show you.
I’m a story-boarder, which is a form of plotting. Everything can be mapped out, but this is where the character should take the wheel. What are they going to do next? You were there at the anniversary party, the work triumph, or the children’s music recital. You sat on the barstool next to them, maybe helped pull someone from the wreck. You have some familiarity with your character now. What are they going to do next?
Sometimes the best way to relay this is from personal experience. In my story, The Hat, Lizzie St. Laurent has one primary motivation, and a happy place. She’s motivated by stability, her ability to pay the rent, stock the refrigerator, and pay the bills. She loves her family, and the family dynamic means a lot to her.
She moved across country to live with her grandmother and attend college. When grandma died, she lost her stability, and part of her family. This all happened before the first word in the story.
Lizzie took on an apartment and got a roommate, who bailed on her. The rent still needs paid. She dropped out, took on two jobs, plus a side deal that helped with utilities. Her uncle turned out to be a jerk, and all of grandma’s things got sold to line his pockets.
At this point, Lizzie was pretty broken. I took away her stability and her family to see what would happen. She did something stress related. She grabbed a box from the moving van and took it home. This was her attempt to treasure something of her grandmother’s.
Turns out it was something of her grandfather’s, who she never knew growing up. During this adventure, Lizzie gets to learn a bit more about her family. She gets to set things right for some friends who are losing part of their family. And ultimately, she finds a way to make a living that is the exact opposite of stability. She becomes a musician in a cover band. In other words, her character changed and evolved.
As the all knowing author, you can set some of this up. You likely know how the story will end. What kind of character might have the hardest time pulling this off? We’ve all read stories where the ex-military guy rescues the hostages. What if the video game nerd had to do it instead? It might make a lot more interesting story.
Obviously, this is fiction. We expect some form of success. There might not be anything Papa John can do, but in a fictional world readers expect this. Keep in mind, it can be a twisted form of success. Corruption and violence might still restore that stability or family dynamic.
Let me hear from you in the comments. Have you ever looked at your characters quite this way? Are you more likely to after reading today’s post? Which side of the mirror do your stories fall on? Are they more Captain America, or Michael Corleone?