I’ve been on quite a few planes lately as I travel to conferences, and one of the blessings is meeting new people. And every once in a while, I get lucky and sit next to something not only unusual and fun, but who is a hero.
Such was the case last week when, travelling from Minneapolis to Dallas, I sat next to a guy named AJ. Who was a. . .firefighter! Not a volunteer, but a professional, full-time firefighter for a town in New Jersey. And, he was willing to talk about his profession and give me a plethora of great story ideas.
It wasn’t just his profession, however, that made him heroic. . .that was just the foundation. It was his quest. AJ was flying down to Dallas to pick up a DOG of a friend who had passed away and driving that dog to a new home back in Jersey.
Sweet, I know.
We’ve been studying the Character Change journey over the past few weeks (http://learnhowtowriteanovel.com/blog/category/search-by-series/extreme-book-makeover/extreme-character-makeover/). We started with understanding the steps, and building the Story Equation, staring with the Dark Moment Story. Then, we added a Goal, fueled by the Why and the What.
But it all starts with the WHO. Who are you and why should we like you?
When your character walks onto the page, this is the first obstacle an author must address. . .making a reader LIKE your character. Often, a reader resists going on a journey because they simply don’t like the character.
It’s a delicate balance because the flip side is that your character must have a FLAW.
The Flaw is key because it is through the flaw that we understand your character’s change. A flaw is the outward, behavioral expression of a character’s fear. We avoid relationships because we are afraid of getting hurt. We are overprotective because we don’t want our children to be killed. We make rash decisions because we fear losing opportunities.
(I’ll bet if you look at your flaws, you can trace them to either a past fear or a future fear).
Because a great story confronts a hero’s greatest fear, and offers an epiphany, which then heals his flaw. It’s a visible character change.
But if we don’t like the character enough in the beginning, if his flaw is too great, we’ll never stick around to see the change.
Which brings us back to likeability. Often authors start too strong with the flaw. They know their character has issues, and they start with him in that dark place. Danger! If he’s too much of a jerk, the reader immediately thinks: why should I hang around with this oaf of a guy (or gal.) They’re suddenly looking through the free books on their Kindle.
Let’s fix that.
Enter, AJ. I am sure the guy has flaws – I didn’t hang around with him enough to know, however. But he made a great profile for a character. Someone who, at the core, was heroic. And that core propelled him to a heroic purpose.
When you’re creating a character, you must start at the core of your character – WHO he is, drilling all the way down to the Dark Moment Story. But don’t stop there. Ask your character his Happiest Moment Story as well. This is the opposite of the Dark Moment Story, but it functions on the same way. It is something in his past that produces a greatest dream and helps cement his WANT. (You can also use this to determine his happily ever after ending.)
AJ’s father was a firefighter. There’s a story there, I know it. (I didn’t want to make the guy ask for a seat change, so I didn’t pry that deep.) But something in his past – probably good – propelled him to be a firefighter.
The Dark Moment and Happiest Moment stories comprise his core.
Now, everything he does emerges from that core. Like saving people (as AJ mentioned, he’s not there to save a house, but to save the lives in that house). And, saving a dog.
So, how does this translate onto the page?
- Start with the core of your character. (Dark Moment Story/Happiest Moment Story). Who are they at the core? Teacher? Healer? Rescuer?
- How does that translate into a Noble Quest? (saving the dog!)
- How can he SHOW that core element at the beginning of the book, just a little (for example, as I was putting up my bag, I saw AJ glance my direction, as if willing to help. . .in a book, the hero might take that step, even if it might be reluctantly.) I call it the Boy Scout moment. (James Scott Bell calls it Pet the Dog, or Save the Cat (Blake Snyder)).
Now you’re free to add in the FLAW. Show him helping the gal with her bag, (maybe it’s about to fall on him) and when she turns to thank him, he shrugs it off . . .not willing to engage in conversation.
Characters should be complicated – because people are complicated. But they also need to be likeable. Start your journey with a hero (even just a hint of one) and your readers will sit down with him and hang out all the way to Dallas.
Go! Write something brilliant!