It is tempting, especially at the beginning of a story, to have things happen in a way that is convenient, just to get the ball rolling. A new guy starts at work and our heroine likes the look of him. Later that evening she’s in the supermarket doing a little shopping and who should be buying olives at the deli counter but that guy from work...
Obviously that scenario is perfectly plausible. We run into friends or work colleagues all the time. You can be visiting a foreign city, walk round a corner and bump into someone you went to school with and haven’t seen in years.
But the temptation for a writer to lend a hand, to put their character in the right place at the right time, makes it harder to get to know the character. You are in fact delaying the start of the story.
You might think, well, the character still has to deal with the scene. Just because she happens to meets him in the supermarket doesn’t mean a sparkling encounter can’t ensue. And this is perfectly true. But story isn’t there to tell us what people do, it’s to tell us who they are. It just so happens that the only way to find out who they are is through what they do.
My point being every time your character goes somewhere or does something, that’s a reflection of their personality. It’s not about what happens when a girl meets a boy, it’s about what happens when this girl meets this boy.
If they do things for no particular reason or on a whim, that’s okay, life is certainly full of those moments, but you need to be aware that in fiction those are dead moments. There’s no tension, just slack. It isn’t until the character takes control of their own actions that the reader will become properly engaged with the character and the story.
There are going to be times when those slack moments are unavoidable, and that’s okay, they won’t ruin an otherwise great story, but they’re never going to be the good part of the story so it’s best to keep them to a minimum.
In the case of our girl in the supermarket, let’s say she likes the look of the new guy in the office so she goes to her friend in Human Resources, gets his address, finds the nearest supermarket, waits in her car until she sees him go in and then pretends she shops there too.
Now, you may say, but that’s not the type of character I want to write about, my heroine isn’t a crazy stalker, which is fine. The aim is for her behaviour to reflect her personality. If she isn’t acting in a way that does that, change her behaviour until it does reflect who she is.
So, better to have the MC drive the story rather than the story drive the MC. But, what if you can’t think of a better way to get the characters together? Or what if you don’t want to? There are plenty of good stories where events are kicked off by a coincidence, perhaps your story is of that kind.
In that case there is a simple technique to keep the focus on your MC, and that’s to give them something else to do that is driven by them. Even if you can’t think of something better than the coincidental meeting at the grocery store, why is she at the store? How can that reflect her character? Yes, she could have run out of eggs and milk and is just doing a quick shop, but maybe her ex-boyfriend is in town and has convinced her to make him dinner. Again, if your character isn’t a doormat this scenario may not suit your story, but then you need to come up with a scenario that does.
By giving her something to do that does show us who she is you get the story up and running even if it isn’t part of the main plot. The meeting with the new guy still happens but the throughline is centred on our girl and her reasons for being in the store, not the coincidence.
One other thing to remember is that a coincidence that makes life more difficult for the MC is far more useful than one that makes life easier. If she bumps into the guy and flirts and has a lovely time, it’s going to feel contrived and Mary Sue-ish. If she gets into a fight over the last jar of olives, you’ll be giving yourself much more material to play with.
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