A lot of writing concepts, I think, float around in the recesses of my mind, difficult to put into a blog post but easy to do by instinct. I can explain a few of those in conversation, but never get around to writing a blog post about them. Some of them are too simple to wrap an entire post around– others are too complex to explain. Others are concepts I feel I have already explained, and thus don’t need to blog about. Unfortunately, I only explained those concepts to one or two people.
I here endeavor to reiterate a concept I have known personally, explained partially in assorted blog posts, and used to help others brainstorm story ideas. I do so because I just used this concept last night, on my current WIP Desolation.
The process is this: boil down your character into a single word or idea, then decide what you can throw at them that challenges that idea or at least rubs them the wrong way.
This goes along with the idea of my post Motives on Steroids, wherein I postulated a character would act according to their principles, their inner character. If a character is independent (such as Adam Parrish, my example from the post), that character will make decisions based on that. Also, if you try to write a character contrary to their inner principle, they will rebel and won’t feel right– thus creating what many call the character fighting the writer, or writer’s block.
But forcing a character to choose something they wouldn’t choose is one thing. Throwing things at them that go against their principles– that’s completely different.
Emma Coats, in her sixth Pixar Rule for Storytelling, says, “What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?” This goes as much for the character’s abilities (one aspect of making a capable character work is throwing them into a situation where their capability doesn’t apply) as it does for their emotions. If they like to work alone, throw them into a situation where they have to depend on a team. (That’s the basis for Pixar’s The Incredibles.)
Where do these one-word attitudes come from? I touched on this recently in my post Backstory Without Bludgeoning: the principles of a character come from their backstory. A man who lived for years on a farm slaughtering animals for food decides to become a vegetarian, but when he’s locked inside a fast food restaurant with only a freezer full of hamburgers, he’s got a problem. That’s conflict– that’s a story. The backstory informs his principles, which inform the most powerful story that can be told around this character.
Backstory is one way to find out your character’s attitudes. Of course, it isn’t the only way. I wrote nearly eight thousand words of Desolation before I sat down to figure out what story would work best for the characters. Why? Because I’m a pantser, and it was easier for me to let the characters show themselves on the page than for me to create them out of thin air. I still don’t know the backstories of these characters– I had to come up with their motivations a different way.
Instead of looking at their histories and following them to a logical conclusion, I looked at how they acted within my story and traced that backwards. If backstory informs motivation, which then informs action, you can work backwards as well. When characters act a certain way, you can figure out why, and from there you can figure out what happened to make them that way. Right now, I don’t need to know their backstories, although they will be useful eventually– I just need to know their motivations.
Let’s say you have a character who impulsively turns ketchup bottles around so he can’t see the front labels. He does that in his first scene, he continues to do that even when he isn’t interested in looking at the nutrition facts. He does it almost without thinking. What makes him do that? Of course, you can trace this all the way back to a situation of childhood trauma having to do with ketchup labels, but we don’t need to know that to make a good story about him. We just need to know why.
Perhaps he doesn’t like to see the brand name. Perhaps he dislikes the sight of tomatoes. Perhaps the label brings back memories of his traumatic childhood experience. With the first, it could be any number of motivations– he once tried to start a ketchup company but was shut down quickly by the big brands, and he’s still bitter about it. His bitterness about this causes him to act this way. Or he feels that since he was taught as a child that I should precede E, Heinz ketchup should be spelled Hienz ketchup. He’s unwilling to accept the truth that some English rules make absolutely no sense.
Depending on which motivation you choose for this character, you could go in any number of directions. For a straight comedy, you might be able to run with the simple dislike of ketchup labels– when this character lands a job slapping labels on ketchup bottles, we’re in for a good laugh. However, if you want something more emotional (and I know I picked the wrong example if I wanted that), you might go for something deeper, like bitterness. What happens when this guy loses it all and has to get a job at Heinz, doing what he used to love for people who just want the profit? I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of interested now.
What’s actually happening here? Two or more emotions are conflicting at once, creating the friction we need for a good story. The character’s driving emotion is one thing, such as bitterness– it comes into conflict with the need for money that drives him to work for his archenemy. This creates the emotional complexity that a good character needs. A character who wants a puppy, a puppy, and only a puppy is not going to have an interesting story. However, when they also love their cat and can’t have both at once for external reasons, the emotions come into conflict and we have a story.
Now, a quick caveat: this technique requires a little bit of forcing. With a loyal character, the best story will be one that forces the character to be disloyal at some point. With a bitter character, he will be forced into the job he hates. Yes, forcing these characters into those bad situations is ultimately a result of their emotions, but if they had their way, they would have their cake and eat it too. External circumstances have to force them one way or another. Unfortunately, that seems to require passivity. Is that what I want? Of course not. The protagonist has to be proactive. The external circumstances are things they cannot change, forcing them into these positions, but that doesn’t mean they should just be beaten down, or else we have no story. They have to feel that their emotions are rubbing each other the wrong way.
This last bit is difficult to explain, but I hope you understand it. A lot of good stories result when a driven character is forced into a situation in which they can’t act the way they want to– that doesn’t mean they should just give up. They are still driven. Where they go from that bad situation depends on them. Find your character’s central principle and stick them into a situation that will test them and strengthen them. That will make the character seem perfect for his own story.