I have a note card posted by my desk listing the problem/need of each of my three major viewpoint characters. The problem and the need each character has are unique to him or her, but they play off one another. I have this card in a prominent place so that I see it every day. I (literally and figuratively) don’t want to lose sight of my characters’ greatest desires and motivations.
These are the main desires, and knowing them is crucial to the story I’m writing. I realize they aren’t the only desires that need to be acknowledged and addressed. Recently I purchased Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig, and in reading it, saw that my characters need depth and breadth in their desires and motivations. Which I already knew. Still, it’s helpful to have it spelled out via examples, and by a professional author. And with Damn Fine Story, the focus is on story and not mechanics or plot or beat sheets. I’ve read a fair few books on writing and the writing life. This one is–so far–unique, helpful, and fun. It has a monocle-wearing elk on the cover! This post is not intended as a book plug, however, it did prompt a critical thinking process for me so I thought it worth mentioning.
So here I am, looking into the deepest parts of my characters’ souls and asking, “What would you do for a Klondike bar?”
Wait, hold on…
Here we go: “What would you do with all that power?” And to follow up, “Why?”
Some of my characters have standard issue fantasy trope magical abilities. [I discussed my struggle to hit on some credible yet original magic system in a previous post.] Some have political power, wealth, or armies backing them up. A few have the strength of personality. Several have nothing but friendships propping them up.
All of them want things. Peace, security, personal gain, political power. One wants to be rid of his power for personal peace. Others will use their power for personal and political gain, no matter the cost. My job as the author is to tease out the nuances based on the interactions and conflicts that shape them.
Now I want to focus on a specific example of how I’m incorporating this idea into my rewrites.
There’s some popular writing advice that says something like, “Start as late in the story as possible,” and I agree. In trying to follow that advice, I started too late. I left out the entire status quo period for my protagonist, which left out an important episode in his life. That episode turned him onto the path he follows in my story. I stuck it in later as a flashback. Now, I’m not leaning heavily on flashbacks in my story, but this one comes at a pivotal moment for the protagonist–a confession (as recalled by flashback) leads to a change in his attitude toward the events around him– and I’d like to keep it where it is.
How do I reconcile two scenes related to the same event–the opening chapter and a later flashback–without being repetitive? Point-of-view! and a little narrative sleight of hand. I can show him approaching that moment then cut to his reaction after the moment has passed. Later, the moment itself will be revealed during a vulnerable moment for the protagonist.
This is only one small tweak with big impact that I’m making as I go through revisions. Rearranging is easy work, the hard part is building or restructuring scenes to bridge the gaps and accommodate changes. My characters are necessitating a lot of changes. It seems that once I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with my characters, they become alive, almost. They push on the narrative. The weaknesses in the plot are obvious as places where the characters are acting, well, out of character.
I never had a good handle on my plot. Now that I know my characters better, I have a clear grasp of the story I can tell through them. The plot will grow alongside that.