Tag Archives: obstacles

Characters And Their Struggles

Cinderella-Offterdinger_Aschenbrodel_(1)A story needs characters, and generally one stands out as the central figure, the person about whom the events will revolve.

I suggest the above description of a main character is a recipe for an unpublished novel. While it may be true, it misses key points regarding characters who appear in well-read fiction.

First, the definition implies a disconnect between the events and the character. In page-turning stories, things ought not happen to a character. Rather, the character ought to go out and make things happen. The events aren’t centered on the character as much as the character is causing the events.

Secondly, the character as agent develops because of his wants and needs. These twin motivating passions have to do with both external and internal desires.

The external refers to something a character perceives will solve a problem, fulfill a longing, advance a goal. Harry Potter needs to attend Hogwarts, Cinderella longs to go to the ball, Dorothy must return home.

The internal has to do with an inner desires fueling a character and may be things she doesn’t realize at first. In fact these passions may be so ingrained in a character, she doesn’t understand these are motivating her. Harry Potter wants revenge, Cinderella longs to be loved, Dorothy wants to be loving.

Often a character reaches a point of revelation and comes to a place of clarity. She might then embrace what she finds or she may determine to change. Scarlet O’Hara determines she will never go hungry again, Bilbo Baggins embraces his role as “burglar,” Lucy Pevensie realizes she should do what Aslan tells her even if no one else believes her.

Internal and external wants and needs motivate the main character to action. He makes a plan and determines how he should go about acquiring what he perceives to be his greatest need. His plan may be involved, it may lead to a second plan or a revised plan, it may unfold in stages. The point is, the character is not passively waiting for things to happen to him. He is an instigator.

He is not the only instigator, however. The story also has antagonists who act. They are bent on foiling the main character’s plan or changing his intentions. They create obstacles that delay or derail his plans, causing him to revisit his goals and readjust what he’d hoped to accomplish.

Dorothy wants to go home but learns only the Wizard of Oz can help her. Her plan, then, is to go to Oz and put her petition before the Wizard. When she at last gains an audience with him, he promises to help her only if she kills the Wicked Witch of the West, giving her a new goal. Throughout the story Dorothy alters her plan and aims for something different as a stepping stone to her ultimate goal–returning home.

In essence, that desire drives the story, and the events that make up the story stem from Dorothy’s efforts to accomplish her goal. Put another way, Dorothy’s efforts are the story. The key is, whether succeeding or failing, Dorothy is striving to achieve what she wants.

She may succeed or fail in her efforts, but readers are firmly behind her, hoping the best for her because she’s active. She struggles to accomplish what she believes the circumstances require.

Dorothy doesn’t act alone. None of the characters do. Cinderella attended the ball only because of her fairy godmother’s gifts, Gandalf provided Bilbo with the help he needed to unite the Five Armies, and the Weasleys showed Harry Potter how to reach Platform 9 3/4 where he would catch the train to Hogwarts.

But the help these characters received in no way canceled out their need to struggle against the obstacles and work toward their goal. After all, that’s what a story is about.

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Filed under Action, Antagonists, Characters, Inner Conflict, Motive

Characters Need To Act–Even In Pitches

I’ve read too many novels in which the main character has no plan of action. Things happen, and he responds when necessary. In other words, he is reactive, which means outside forces are largely responsible for any character development that might occur.

Recently agent Rachelle Gardner allowed writers to post in the comments section of her blog one-sentence story pitches which whittle a novel to its bare bones–the premise.

According to former agent Nathan Bransford, there are three necessary elements in a twenty-five word pitch:

– The opening conflict (called the Inciting Incident by Robert McKee)
– The obstacle
– The quest

Racheller expands on this to include the following:

→ A character or two
→ Their choice, conflict, or goal
→ What’s at stake (may be implied)
→ Action that will get them to the goal
→ Setting (if important) [emphasis mine]

In the template she borrowed from Mr. Bransford, the character is to “overcome the conflict.” She then gives an example pitch she borrowed from Randy Ingermanson of a well-known story in which the character “battles for his life.”

In response to Rachelle’s invitation, many writers bravely put their pitches out for critique. However, I noticed one commonality–not universal, but frequent: the recurring actions in these pitches were “revealing” or “discovering” or “finding.”

Yes, those are verbs and therefore actions, but they are not graphic or explicit. They aren’t necessarily reactive, but they don’t show what the character is doing.

I’ll be the first to admit–writing an active pitch is not easy.

For one thing, not every story has a character hunt down the killer or free the princess. Some stories key in on the protagonist’s inner struggle, but the key word there is “struggle.” The hard work of facing life as a victim of rape or of recovering from a divorce or any of the other cataclysmic events that can change a person, must still come through as active in a pitch.

A character can defeat her doubts or conquer her fears, but she can also do something more particular to your novel. The more unique or original, and active, the verb in your pitch, the more likely it will catch a reader’s (or agent’s or editor’s) attention.

Here’s my pitch of a few familiar stories (fictitious or true). Do they sound intriguing? Do you recognize them or are they too general?

  • When a rebellious prophet sails away from God, he must survive the stormy consequences and repent in order to escape a watery grave.
  • When a family leaves their secluded home for a day, they must solve the mystery of the disturbing break-in that decimated their child’s belongings.
  • A loyal lieutenant must escape through a window and live like a fugitive in order to avoid the undeserved murderous rage of his father-in-law, the king.
  • When a trusting king expects instant riches from the miller’s daughter, she must outsmart a magical imp to save her life and that of her firstborn son.

No doubt you can improve on these, but each contains action. And action is what you want to show those reading your pitch.

Now it’s your turn. If you’d like to try your hand at writing a twenty-five word, single sentence pitch of your novel, feel free to post it here to receive some feedback.

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Filed under Concept And Development, Pitch, Tools to Sell Your Story