So we know how to plot wrong.
Now this week let’s talk about how to handle character wrong. Because this one is trickier—character is a trickier element of fiction while, at the same time, an even more essential one than plot. It’s possible to get by on pretty darn thin plot, providing your characters are fascinating. But any kind of plot with boring characters is shlock.
Don’t write that stuff.
Give your protagonist only one need
This one happens a lot. I’ve done it a lot. Everyone’s always telling you, “Your protagonist needs a goal, your protagonist needs to be fighting for something.”
- They need their beloved to fall in love with them
- They need to survive a deadly plague from outer space
- They need to not get killed by the bad guys
Which is all well and good. . .but why can’t they get it?
So you add a lot of complications—interfering ex’s, domineering relatives, cruel bosses, nosy neighbors, malicious space aliens, fickle and faint-hearted gods of doom who victimize your characters until you find yourself weeping into your keyboard. All very poignant and meaningful to you.
But when you show it to readers, they say, “You’re a perfectly good writer. But why do I care?” And when you show it to agents, they don’t even respond.
We don’t care about victims. We care about strong people fighting against themselves. This requires more than one overwhelming need: internal conflict.
Make your protagonist’s needs weak or trivial
And this leads to the the next issue, which is giving your protagonist two conflicting needs but making them so minor the reader can’t work up any interest.
- They need to clean the house and they need to get Jeb back from the barn
- They need to watch the game with their pals and they need to prove they know the most about it
- They need to win the popularity contest and they need not to chip their nails
Once again, it all seems terribly powerful and gripping to you, your readers like it, and when you show it to agents they say, “You’re a good enough writer, but somehow I couldn’t get into this particular story. It just didn’t speak to me.”
You know tension is important, and you’re wondering how to increase the tension on basically boring stuff. So you add complexities, other people’s agendas.
And once again, you get the shake of the head, more final this time, and the slightly-crisp suggestion, “Maybe you should try another story.”
We don’t care about trivial conflicts. We have plenty of those of our own, which bore even us. We want stories about scary crap that affects lives.
Never force your protagonist to choose between their conflicting needs
So you think, ‘Aha! I know what’s wrong. Those two needs don’t matter enough.’ And you’re intensely pleased with yourself, because—you know what?
So you give your protagonist two big, overwhelming, dastardly, fabulous needs, and you make them in stark opposition to each other.
- They need to save the home they inherited from their tragically-dead parents that’s all they own and they need to survive a tornado/avalanche/desert island/inner-city gang war
- They need to save their boss’s reputation for the sake of their own career and they need to get their ex back from that boss
- They need to disable a covert operation aimed at world domination before all they hold dear is violated and they need to survive the bad guys’ ruthless efforts to thwart them
Wonderful stuff! Gripping, intriguing, conflicting. Such an exciting story to write! Even your readers are cheering you on every step of the way. “I can’t put it down! Write faster.”
But in the end it’s still. Just A. Flop.
And the agent who loved the premise, loved the story, loved you for coming up with the whole thing—stops taking your calls.
Because although your protagonist has those powerful conflicting internal needs (pride and survival, career and love, integrity and life) and even though those needs are huge and easy for even the most simple-minded reader to identify with, and even though you’re a perfectly good writer. . .your protagonist never has to choose.
They get out of it the easy way: by you letting them.
Make your characters fight themselves, make it important and painful, make ’em choose. There is no other formula.
Next week we learn how to write wrong.
And the week after that we talk about how to revise wrong.
Of course, none of this is any use without 9 Ways to Find the Time to Write.