A quick guide to story plotting, part one: the main character

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A year or so ago, I put together a short guide about story plotting. It only takes up six pages in a notebook, but it collects the most useful advice I’ve come across in various books and blogs on writing, plus a few of my own insights. It was originally meant just for myself, something I could use when I had only a rough idea for a story and wanted to flesh it out. (If you’re a writer, you’ll know this happens frequently.) Even though it’s been less than two years since I put the guide together, I keep coming back to it whenever I have just an inkling of an idea, and most of the time it helps my idea grow in one way or another.

The guide mostly consists of a list of questions meant to get me thinking about what elements my idea will need to work as a story. The guide doesn’t provide answers, so plotting can still sometimes be difficult, but the guide at least points me in directions to explore.

The question guide consists of six parts: the main character, the conflict, the theme, the supporting cast, the structure, and other considerations.

Of course, I don’t necessary answer the questions in any specific order; if I’m having trouble coming up with interesting answers, I skip around as I please. Nor do I feel the need to answer every question for every story I plot; if I feel confident that my story is working, I trust that some questions will answer themselves as I write the first draft.

Finally, I don’t consider the guide complete. I’m sure I’ll add to it as I gain experience and find more nuggets of wisdom. For example, I do not yet have a section on settings or magic system considerations, which would probably be useful. I’m sure I’ll add them at some point.

For now, here’s part one:

Questions to ask yourself about the story’s hero:

Who is the hero?

A simple enough question. Name? Age? Male or female?

What is your hero?

What is the hero’s role in the world? Is he a street rat? A prince? A thief? A genius? What’s his occupation? His social standing? Does he have family? Does he live with anyone?

What makes the hero interesting? What “power” does he have?

Every hero has a “power” of some sort. It might be something he can do especially well, even if it seems frivolous and doesn’t call attention to itself. (For example, Bilbo Baggins is great with riddles.) It might be physical strength. It might be authority. It might be an actual magical power. The point is that it’s something that makes the character special.

Note that this “power” does not necessarily have to make the hero sympathetic or likeable. On some level, it does so innately, but his likability will be more determined by the decisions he makes during his story, not his power. The idea with the power is simply to make the character intriguing.

Will he be called to change or persevere?

All characters change in some way; the question points more at what shape the character’s overarching story will take.

In some stories, the main character ends up changing through a story, fundementally shifting the way he thinks about and reacts to the world. If the change is good, such as Scrooge’s transformation in A Christmas Carol, he triumphs in the end. If the change is bad and the story is about the hero’s fall, such as Barry Lyndon’s descent in Barry Lyndon, his story leads to tragedy. Perhaps King Arthur in Camelot may be another example. (I can’t find many examples of a tragic-change story; they don’t seem to be very popular. Good-change stories seem to take the cake.)

In some stories, the main character is determined to do what he sets out to do at the beginning of the story, and never changes his mind. His perseverance is tested and perhaps reshaped, but he doesn’t change fundamentally. Think James Bond or Indiana Jones or Sweeney Todd or Salieri. Whether or not the hero’s stories leads to tragedy depends on the nature of his goal. Is he a hero or an anti-hero?

If he changes, what is his flaw?

Characters who are called to persevere might have flaws that they work through, like Dr. Grant in Jurassic Park and his opinions of children.

But in the context of characters who change, this question asks: what exactly changes? What does the character need to learn? An easy example: Scrooge has to become more kind-hearted and giving and less selfish. Woody in Toy Story has to learn to not be jealous of Buzz Lightyear. Shrek in Shrek has to learn to accept his ogreness and to not get so offended by those who naturally fear his ogreness.

What does he desire? What does he fear?

What is the hero’s greatest desire? What’s his dream come true? You may notice in a lot of musicals, especially Disney’s animated musicals, the main character almost always has a song about what he or she wants. “Part of Your World”, “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King”, “I Can Go the Distance”, “Reflection”, “Santa Fe”, “The Wizard and I” (I think Aladdin and Belle just get reprises of their opening numbers.)

This desire doesn’t necessarily have to be something tangible, though it could be. (The hero will need a tangible goal, but that will come up in the next part, about the story’s conflict.) The desire could simply be to sit at home in peace and have a simple life. It could be to get free of a boring stuffy house and see the world. His desire helps shape how he responds to what happens during the story.

The main character may also carry a fear, something that goes beyond merely never getting his desire, and something that is a real and present threat in the story. In the book Ender’s World: Fresh Perspectives on the SF Classic Ender’s Game, writer Eric James Stone offers this nugget of wisdom:

One of the best pieces of advice I have received about writing characters is that you should figure out what a character desires most–and what the character fears most. With that knowledge, you can craft a climax to the story that puts the desire and fear into conflict. By making the stakes as high as possible on a personal level, the climax of the story is more powerful.

In this way, the character must face his deepest fear in order to achieve his greatest desire.

By the way, I think this is hard. Because when you think about it consciously, the first sort of fear you come up with is merely the inverse of the desire, or fear of death. And certainly these are valid fears, but we get these fears for free. The sort of deep fear we’re looking for must be something that adds depth to the character, that gives him another dimension, while at the same time not feeling outlandish, or like a mere quirk (like Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes–that’s not a depth-adding fear; that’s only a “character quirk” fear).

Perhaps think of the fear as the horrible potential cost to achieving the desire. The character will be forced to ask: “Do I really want [my desire] if the cost is [my fear]?” If the answer is easy, then either the desire or the fear is not strong enough. The answer should be impossible, because that’s the sort of question that will truly test the character (and captivate the audience).

In what way is the hero an orphan? In what way is he disrespected?

This sort of question will come up again in the structure section, but I think it helps to think about this question in this section too.

The idea of the hero starting his story as an “orphan” comes from a book called My Story Can Beat Up Your Story, a screenwriting book by Jeffrey Alan Schechter. In this book, he describes how a hero goes through four phases in a story’s four acts that help define the hero’s process of individuation (how the character relates to the world and to himself). The four phases are: orphan, wanderer, warrior, martyr.

For the sake of this question, we only have to worry about the “orphan” phase. The idea is simply that the hero feels cut off from others in some way; he is alone in some way. Perhaps he is an actual orphan, like Harry Potter or Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins. Or perhaps he is simply emotionally distant from his loved ones. He’s isolated in some way. (The story may not start out with him an orphan, but he needs to become an orphan soon; sometimes becoming an orphan is part of the catalyst that sets the hero’s story in motion, such as Bruce Wayne’s parents’ death, or Luke Skywalker’s aunt and uncle’s death.)

The notion that the hero is disrespected in some way is related to this; it’s his orphan-hood made manifest through the actions of others, and it calls attention to the fact that something in the hero’s life is not right and needs to be fixed. (Again, sometimes this doesn’t happen until after the catalyst.)

I would also say that this “disrespect” can be a subtle thing. It doesn’t have to be some other characters bullying the hero for no reason, and the hero doesn’t have to get all pouty about it. This isn’t to make the audience say, “Aw, poor guy!” In fact, the disrespect may even be deserved. Again, the point is only to establish that something isn’t working right in the character’s life. Things are not as they should be. Something needs to be fixed by the story’s end.

And thus ends part one! Again, these are just guiding questions meant to get myself thinking about plot ideas. I don’t feel like I have to answer all of them before I start a first draft; they merely help steer me in the right direction as I brainstorm and begin outlining my plot. I’ll post the second part soon!

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