It doesn’t matter what kind of character is at the centre of a story, they will all face the same fundamental issue. Something needs to be done and they have to be the one to do it.
The world needs saving, a toy needs buying, or a heart needs winning, but before you get to that, first the character has to make the determination that they are going to act rather than give up and go home.
Whether they succeed or fail depends on the story you want to tell, but whether they try is not up for debate, because otherwise you wouldn’t have a story. So you have to have a character that decides to act and keep going no matter what. But what is that makes them unable to walk away? Understanding what drives them will provide you with a core element of the character, and the driving force behind your narrative.
In some cases the premise of the story will take care of that for you. If the main character is top cop in the precinct and a series of terrible murders have been committed then it’s no surprise that he gets the job and that he’ll do what it takes to catch the killer.
But not all stories will present themselves so neatly. The desire to not accept defeat holds true for every character, it’s what makes them worth reading about. The geeky computer programmer who refuses to leave the house, the sweet talking mother who guilt trips everyone into doing what she wants, the nosy neighbour who has to know what everyone else is up to, they all have goals they consider worth pursuing, even if they have wildly different easy of going about it.
Realistically, though, characters have the option to not pursue the goal you’ve set for them. No matter how dogged your cop, when the investigation reaches a dead end, well, some cases don’t get solved, that’s the way it goes sometimes. Obviously that’s not how the character will see it, and since you won’t be taking this easy way out you could just ignore this option, but understanding why he wouldn’t quit will not only keep him in the story, it will give you a much stronger idea of who he really is and what he’s willing to do to get the job done.
Even if you just make it so the character was born that way, it can give you an insight into their psychological make-up. If Sylvia wanted to be a ballerina since she was a little girl then the lengths she will go to in order to fulfil this dream don’t need explaining. We may not be able to explain where this desire came from but we recognise that it exists and is powerful.
On the other hand, if Sadie had no idea of what she wanted to be and then suddenly decided to become a ballerina at 18, then while the task ahead of her will certainly provide plenty of struggle and conflict, it will seem somewhat arbitrary and unconvincing.
Not only does it help to make it a deep-rooted desire, it also helps to be consistent. If it’s a big deal to them and a motivating force behind their actions then you can’t just drop it halfway through the story when other events take over. Of course, in real life obsessions fade and plans get derailed, but those instances tend not to make for very good stories.
It is also possible to put the character in a position where they are forced into action. A mother protecting her child, a betrayed spy turning on his employers, a wrongly accused man fighting to prove his innocence. These are extreme examples but you can see how establishing cause and effect will give the character a reason to act.
The issue here becomes one of maintaining those reasons across 300+ pages. How often have you been outraged by something and yet the morning after you’re like, Oh well, life goes on...? The character may be motivated be his initial treatment, but what keeps him at boiling point? It helps to turn up the heat regularly to makes sure he doesn’t cool off.
This isn’t particularly hard to do, the important thing is to remember to do it.
In some cases the character might start off not at all interested in going out on a limb. This type of story requires circumstances to push them and push them until they crack. We have all been in the kind of situation where we have no intention of getting involved but eventually one thing proves to be too much and we find ourselves jumping into the fray (and, if you’re anything like me, instantly regretting it).
Unlike the character who has always had a particular predilection that just is, here it’s important to show the forces that affect a change, and not just the final straw. If a character who was happy to take a back seat finds himself unable to do nothing then that transition is as important to the story as what he ends up doing.
This change in the character may take some time, but it’s important to not let the story tread water while you wait for the character to get to their breaking point. The determination they have yet to show in this particular context is still present within them and just because they aren’t ready to go fight the dragon in his cave quite yet doesn’t mean they’ll be sat on the sofa eating Cheetos.
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