I have a simple way with story, it’s a formula, I’ve realized over time. It has everything to do with my characters, and very little to do with writing to a formula, so let me give you a brief history to go with it.
I found this way early, writing my second book in 1987, and didn’t recognize it for what it was. That book gathered dust for years. For a long time, I couldn’t have told you I have a blueprint of any kind, however general, or however specific. I wrote a good many manuscripts while that second book lay in the drawer, some were good, some got lost wandering around in the woods. Sometimes I knew what the problem with a story was, sometimes not.
It was only as my work was accepted for publication that a pattern began to emerge: two characters found in each other a quality that irritated or frustrated them, and together they faced a bigger problem. (See, it is simple. You recognize that pattern from any number of your favorite stories.)That was true for Willa Jo and Aunt Patty in Getting Near to Baby. True for Maude and Sallie in The Misadventures of Maude March. True for Jake and Lexie.
And certainly for Vinnie Gold and his problematic females (Not Exactly a Love Story), who are no longer gathering dust.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this subject lately, partly because a character gave me a hard time, and I finally narrowed down the problem to this element that is often referred to as the antagonist.
Story is about the person who has the biggest problem, not necessarily the biggest mouth. It’s someone who has a universal problem, one that we all relate to in some way. That person has the most to lose if things get worse than they already are. They’re the main character (MC).
Occasionally, there’s another key figure who doesn’t make much noise, but I need him for a scene that is essential to the MC. Yet he lacks the right kind of motivation to help move a story along. Like the MC, he has a self-imposed limitation, something the rest of us might perceive, during the course of the story, to be a fault or a flaw (a positive thing in terms of story), but so far, I hadn’t thought of it except as something missing in this character.
Those three elements, the flaw, the motivation, and the problem, are what help a successful MC get a story rolling. It’s during the exploratory period of writing the first few pages that I find out what those are, and in reading what I’m starting with, determine whether I want to find my way to the end. But when the motivation is weak, the antagonist comes to the (writer’s) rescue.
So while I muddled around thinking about this last month, a little confused to find weak motivation in a key character, this month I can tell you how I fixed the character with weak motivation.
I had the MC ask the weakly motivated to do something for him—something that was simply more than he wanted to do, yes, but more than that, something he felt was an unreasonable request from the MC.
Here’s how to use this method:
Think of your flimsy wobbling character as someone who has something useful, something that may not be in great supply, or perhaps something the MC simply doesn’t have. The wobbler may not have had a big role in the story so far, he’s just the person with a useful thing. He didn’t even realize he’d been waiting for his big moment.
And remember, although we’re reinforcing the paper doll, we’re looking at the situation from the MC’s point of view—he’s got his own problem and he’s seriously trying to fix it.
For example, let’s say he’s someone who wants to send a message over land and sea, but no flashlight, no lantern. Guess who has exactly what he needs.
Or, his grandmother’s cat is up a tree, and is he ever in trouble if she finds out he let the cat out. He just needs to get that cat back in the house and he’s home free. Guess who has a ladder.
Or, his bike has a flat and he’ll never be able to get to the baseball game in time to play the first inning if he has to walk it. Guess who doesn’t want to loan their bike?
So, paint him disgruntled, and send him over there to ask.
And the paper doll says no.
So the MC explains his situation, it’s desperate, you’ve got to help; I am, after all, the MC.
And the paper doll finds a little spine, says “no, and here’s why.”
Give him a line, give him a whole paragraph, if he has that much to say.
And the MC, who nearly always has plenty to say, states his case in greater detail, or maybe he just gets louder. Essentially, he becomes an antagonist.
And the paper doll, who is now developing the less flexible strength of corrugated cardboard, and remembers he has his reasons, comes back with a little history of their relationship so far, how the MC has abused a privilege in the past, or failed to say thanks for some other favor, or failed to return something else borrowed. He’s actually got a fair head of steam built up under that bland exterior. And so, no, he’s not helping this time, and that’s that.
The MC takes another tack: becomes persuasive, makes new promises, or tries to barter, or bully, or buy. The MC shows us stuff we didn’t know was in there, is my experience of this stage of the interaction.
And the paper doll isn’t so papery anymore as he responds to this, continuing to tell us why he’s adamant. He’s got a history, he’s got boundaries, and a set of values we hadn’t noticed till we let him take center stage for a while.
From this point, I go back and read through the draft, paying special attention to adding subtle color to that character, giving the reader an awareness that there’s more to him than we might yet guess.
Often this requires building a little more story as I go, and that’s fine. Layers are what I’m adding by then, and that’s a good thing.
The other thing I’m listening for: the point where these two characters’ needs intersect. The bigger problem they both face. It’s there, it’s always there, and usually it’s the same central problem I’ve been focused on. I may have been dimly aware of the connection all along, but now I’m underlining it with this new information, and it’s clearer to the reader (and to me) how essential a solution to the MC’s story is to both these characters. The whole story becomes stronger.
By the time I get to the point where I was about to give up on this secondary character, I find that character has already changed in my mind, and on the previous pages, and he carries on from there without causing me any distress at all.
Now, it’s true that I’ve used this the-character-says-no technique pretty often to get to know my MC, and it was useful when I wrote Summer’s End, because I used it to get to know all three kids points of view.
Until now, I’ve never used it to come in the side door to strengthen a character that was essentially a bit player, waiting to cross the stage with his single important line.
But it won’t be the last time.
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