Recently, I posted a blog on the Write Conversation about three questions to ask when we seem to be having plot problems: Plot Problems Solved in 3 Questions.
One of the commenters asked if I had a similar checklist for each of the three main questions. Jay, I’m so glad you asked.
This week, let’s focus on the first question: What would this character naturally do in this situation?
The point I stressed here was believability. If our character does something he would not naturally do, it strains our credibility as storytellers as well as the reader’s investment in our story. Which would be followed by the sound of the book closing. Maybe with a great deal of force followed by a flight across the room.
Build a Relationship with Your Character
One of the best ways to know what the character would naturally do is to know our character as intimately as possible. There are tons of resources for building characters and we all have our favorites.
Over the years, I have moved away from doing a detailed character analysis. I found myself wanting to force my characters into the box the analysis had created while my characters wanted to be free to grow and change. Just like real people do. So I let them and they unveiled new aspects of themselves, new revelations of their histories, which made them more complex and more intriguing.
Now, before I begin writing, I know who my main characters are. I have a basic physical description. Their age, gender, major elements of their history and their story goals are clear. And I remind myself these are subject to change as the character reveals more of himself to me.
Think of your spouse or your best friend. Or your relationship with God. Did you know everything about them before you took the relationship deeper? Of course not. It’s the same with our characters. The best time we spend with them is actually writing their story. Their true selves come out in the pressure cooker of the plot.
Don’t Put Them in a Box
And we have relationships with our characters. They are learning about us as we write the story. They develop trust in us to get them “right.” If we’re not, if we’re forcing them into some pre-conceived analysis or plot outline, they’ll become hard to work with.
When I write my character into a tight corner, we know each other so well that what he would naturally do in the situation flows, even when it’s a surprise.
In my fantasy series, the main character, Fallon, is a tough guy, a leader and fighter, compassionate and wise not only in the ways of war and politics but in the ways of life as well. He carries emotional and spiritual wounds along with his physical scars. He hates the god he blames for killing his family and distrusts all religions.
There is a scene where Fallon utters a brief plea to this god for the safety of the woman he loves. I wasn’t sure it worked and took it to my writing partners. They confirmed it did work because the story up to that point had prepared the reader that even though it was a surprise to hear Fallon pray, it seemed very natural because of who he is and how he had changed over the story. Plus the tone and the words he used revealed were consistent with his character arc to that point. Hint: he was a tad snarky and sarcastic when he talked to god.
First, find out what your hero wants, then just follow him!
~ Ray Bradbury
If we want to know what our character would naturally do, get to know him as a person and follow him. Whatever he does will be a natural outgrowth of who he has been throughout the story. If he surprises us, ask him why he did what he did. He will undoubtedly reveal that his actions are true to his essential nature, a nature we as writers planted, developed and nurtured over the course of the story.
What’s the biggest surprise a character had ever pulled on you?