Monday, 17 February 2014

A Protagonist’s Moment of Realisation

At some point in a story a character will realise that he’s got to do what he’s got to do. There’s no turning back.

This can happen at any time. On the first page, just before the climax, or anywhere in between—it doesn’t really matter as long as it makes sense within the story. The important thing is for the reader to see this moment so they understand how the character feels and why.

It isn’t enough to just assume the character’s reasons will be taken for granted or accepted without question.

A cop doing his job, a girl wanting to get married, a soldier following orders—these things may seem self-explanatory but when motivations are too broad they apply to such a large number of people that they become effectively meaningless.

So here are three approaches to separating a character from the crowd, and pitfalls to avoid.

Emotional attachment

If you can demonstrate that a character is emotionally invested in achieving their goal then readers will accept even the unlikeliest of events.

If a doctor is searching for a cure to a disease that’s killing babies, then it’s not hard to understand the motivation. If she’s searching for a cure to a disease killing her own baby, then it shifts to a whole other level.

If the Secret Service agent called in to find the President’s kidnapped daughter also happens to be her ex-husband, you may roll your eyes and consider it highly unlikely, but you won’t question why he disobeys orders and takes on the terrorists single-handed.

The cheese factor is something you will have to gauge for yourself. It’s possible to create subtle or realistic emotional attachments for your characters, of course, but my point is any level of personal involvement is better than none.

Bait and switch

A more complex strategy is to give the character a perfectly reasonable motivation for what they’re doing and then reveal the actual reason as the story develops.

The character thinks he’s going to assassinate Hitler to help the war effort, but it turns out he wants revenge for his brother’s death in a POW camp.

This reveal can be as much of a surprise to the character as to the reader, in fact it often works best that way, but it’s also important to put some doubt into the narrative.

If the reader buys the original reason wholesale they might easily assume the story is going to be simplistic and obvious. They don’t know what you have planned. You can get round this by planting seeds of doubt either through the character questioning his own motivations or getting a secondary question to raise those questions.

The key part of this approach is to make sure the reader is present for the switch. The process of change is what readers want to see.

Reverse Psychology

This one’s a bit of a trick. If you establish a character as definitely not being the type to give a damn or who wants no part in any adventure, then readers will automatically assume they’re going to see a reversal.

A girl with no interest in love, a lawyer who doesn’t care about his clients, an ex-con determined to go straight—you just know they’re going to get dragged into something that will force them to re-evaluate their goals.

It’s very easy to resort to clichés (as you can see from the examples I just used) but any kind of determination to not get involved is fun to see get turned around. And it has a built in narrative device: when you convince the character they can’t carry on the way they would like you automatically convince the reader of the same thing.

In all three of the above methods the impact is greatest when you show realisation emerge. In that instant when the character grasps why they have to do it the reader will find it much easier to get on board, and at the same time form empathy for the character.

That said, it’s perfectly possible to establish the character’s motivations without showing how they arrived there. You could have your jaded female lead tell her best friend she’s decided to catch herself a millionaire husband and list the reasons why. Not very elegant but there are many bestsellers that start out that blunt and direct.

The thing about emotional connections are that they don’t have to be subtle or original. That’s why corny adverts can still bring a tear to your eye.

A cop who’s on his last day before retirement and doesn’t want any problems gets handed the murder of a young girl who turns out to be the daughter of an old army buddy. He hunts down the killer but slowly realises it’s his fractured relationship with his own wayward teenage daughter that he’s really concerned about.

In the above example I used all three of my suggested approaches and in the most clichéd ways possible. If you haven’t seen that story before then quite frankly you aren’t watching enough direct to DVD movies. And yet it makes no difference. You may not be interested in his story, but you will not question his motives.

I can’t tell you why your character does what he does, but my point is that as long as you’re aware that certain elements have a significant effect on the reader you can make the most of them. 

Once you identify the moment of realisation for your character, making it happen in the story, showing its trigger and the changes it affects in the main character will all greatly enhance the reader’s understanding of the character.

If you found this post useful please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I like the bait and switch. Like people in real life, sometimes you think you know someone after s short encounter based on their personality, likes, where they work - stuff like that. But what drives them isn't what's always obvious.

Anonymous said...

Great post! I really enjoy reading your advice.

nutschell said...

These are great techniques. Reverse Psychology is certainly the hardest to pull off. I think authors have to leave hints for readers to look back on,if they're to pull this technique off successfully. I personally dislike books which use reverse psychology without any sort of preamble or realistic character motivation.


Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

This fits right into where I'm at in my WIP. I feel a little more confident now.
I love the TV show Once Upon a Time because all their characters seem to be straight forward good or evil, but it's slowly revealed that their characters are more complex than that.

dolorah said...

Hmm, this may help me with some motivation I'm having for my MC in chapt 1.

Thanks Moody.


Jennifer Shirk said...

Great points!!!

Rusty Carl said...

Thanks for that. I have the thought that it's all pretty much one cliche after another. The trick is selling it as authentic. Well, that's the trick for me as a reader and writer. I guess having a unique twist on one or more of those cliches does elevate a story somewhat, but I'm not sure I have the ability to rise above them, so I'm focusing instead on just doing the cliches as well as I can.

I guess, hell, I don't know.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I kind of get annoyed with the whole cliche statement that pops up in stories that goes something like this: "This is your chance to stand up for something if you truly believe it." Blah blah blah. It's all about that choice you just blogged about, but seriously, does anyone actually ever say this in real life?

Anonymous said...

When a character emerges from a state of denial is a good point of realization. At the moment when everything has turned ugly and the character can no longer deny their actions or the actions of another need to be modified.

mooderino said...

@Alex - I think readers appreciate a little complexity.

@celia - thank you.

@nutschell - poor characterisation always feels annoying, I think.

@susan - I also like shows where the bad guy slowly becomes empathetic once you know his reasons.

@Donna - you're welcome.

@Jennifer - cheers!

@Rusty - when it comes down to basic human behaviour it's hard to avoid the overly familiar. People have been doing stuff for the same old reasons for pretty much forever.

@Mike - that sort of motivation is easy to create and still works, so very popular on TV.

@Missy - yes, highly charged moments are good for seeing the truth.

Unknown said...

Very interesting. I don't think I hide motivations like that. I use inner thoughts a lot, and the characters don't lie to themselves, thus the reader's privy to everything. However, I know psychological reasons why they do things that I don't lay out, I just hope the reader is deep enough to understand. (I'm usually disappointed though.)

Unknown said...

That is so true. Thanks for sharing your tips.

Samantha May said...

I probably use emotional investment the most, but I really like bait and switch and may have to incorporate it more.

Excellent post!

Writing Through College

Misha Gerrick said...

OOOOOH! Sorry. Ahem. You just led me to get an awesome idea for my Fantasy series. No worries. It's not cliche, I don't think. ;-)

mooderino said...

@Misha - Good luck (with whatever it was).

cleemckenzie said...

I love the bait and switch. Those surprises always excite me and deepen the story.

LD Masterson said...

I always enjoy the moment in a story when a character digs down and finds the courage to do something he/she's been afraid of. Maybe it's a cliche but if done well, it's usually my favorite part.

Theonlynigeriangirl said...

Kul post

mooderino said...

@lee - I like it when the switch is better than the bait.

@LD - if it's convincingly done i think it rises above cliche.

@Onyeka - fank yu.

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