Character Problems: Not Making things Personal from Day 1

Have you ever read a story where the main character goes on a long and arduous journey to defeat the villain, but by the end, you find you have a complaint:

“But why?”

Why does the main character even have to fight the villain? Because they’re bad? Why do they care?

The problem with those stories is that the problem is not personal enough. And in this post, we’re going to discuss how to find a problem that is personal from day 1.

I actually began working on a new book recently, which I haven’t done in a long time. As always, I whip out some of the writing books that I like to mention on my Resources page (which you can get the password for if you’re signed up to my email list! It changes every month, and once and a while, I’ll add something new to it 😉)

For the sake of giving credit where credit is due, I’m going to be talking specifically about this one: Creating Character Arcs by K.M. Weiland. I like to use both the workbook and the book, since the book explains everything and the workbook has all the questions. (For those of you who have read the book: yes, there are questions at the end of each chapter. But there are more questions in the workbook, which I believe were added based on what her readers thought was missing from the book itself.)

As I read it (shoutout to my sister Mary for letting me borrow her copies!) something stood out to me. K.M. Weiland points out that the problem in the story should be personal to the character. It’s pretty easy to just say that, but how exactly do you do that?

Character Arcs

To be fair, it’s a lot easier to tell a writer that it must be personal if they are already there to work on a character arc. If you have never heard of a character arc, it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: the arc of change that a character goes through during a story. Some characters can have a flat arc where they never change (think of Captain America) or negative arcs where they sink into a dark and negative place (think of Star Wars, episodes 1-3) or positive arcs (think of Scrooge from The Christmas Carol).

In general, I like to write about main characters who undergo a positive arc. At the beginning of the story, they believe something that is wrong – their Lie. By the end of the story, they must know and be acting up the Truth – the opposite of their Lie.

Character arcs is a very extensive subject, so I could go on for some time about them. However, I will just scratch the surface with this instead:

Story is not not about “what happens”, it’s about how what happens affects and transforms the character.

-Abbie Emmons

The external conflict is really what happens during the story, but the internal conflict makes it matter. Maybe the external conflict could be bad for anyone… but why is this bad for the character?

If you are writing a character arc, it’s a lot easier to see how the plot problem will be personal to a character, since your goal of the story is to make your character undergo that transformation.

If you go through all the work to make a character that the readers care about, why would you not make the problem matter to the character? If it matters to the character, it will therefore matter to the reader. That in and of itself raises the stakes of the story.

Source

Personal Problems

The main character of a story is the role model to the reader. They shouldn’t be a bad one; yes, they’ll probably make some bad choices, but they’ll learn and grow from them. It’s a lot more interesting to read a book where the character learns something and changes for the better because of it.

If you start by creating a character arc, then you’ll instantly make things more personal to the character. They have something wrong with them, and they notice that something is a bit off. They spend the rest of the book trying to find the Truth, and then, when they do, to act upon it despite troubles getting in their way.

Now, I’m probably going to talk about the Inciting Incident in my next post (make sure you’re subscribed here so you don’t miss that! *wink wink*) so I won’t go into too much detail about that today. But when the Inciting Incident shows up and shoves the character into the Adventure World, it’s going to force them to choose whether or not they want to

a) have everything stay the same

or

b) go after what they’ve always wanted

Again, that’s not all there is to it, so make sure you stick around for the next post!

But my point here is that the character won’t even enter the adventure of the plot if it’s not personal.

My number one recommendation would be to make a character arc (they are especially good for sharing themes or lessons with people that you want to share)

But if you’re newer to writing and are a bit unsure about going all out and making a character arc, I have a couple questions that you could ask instead:

Who is the character?

You must know who your character is before you can do anything to help them grow and change. (Even if you aren’t doing an arc, please, at least let them learn some stuff 😂) So, figure it out: what is their name? What is their current situation? You don’t have to go all out and be like, “Gwen likes to wear her favourite pink shirt on Wednesdays” because that’s a little ridiculous. Just get your basics down. The important stuff is still coming.

What does the character want more than anything?

This is their goal and dream. Again, it’s something personal that they’ll be attracted to in the Inciting Incident. This is the thing that they’ll want to get, but are afraid to.

And, finally: what can I do to prevent them from getting it?

Boom. Conflict.

Source

Now, there’s something I would warn against: don’t throw just anything at the character. Be very specific with how you’ll get in their way. It has to be personal or it will mean nothing to the readers. Sure, it could be bad for anyoneor it could be bad specifically for your character, which will make it doubly painful for them. It raises the stakes more.

Do you see how personal problems can instantly make a story more interesting?

Don’t forget to save this post for later!

So many stories are missing that element of making things personal for the character. They just do it because they’re really good people. But it’s way more interesting to see them do it for personal reasons and learn and grow on their journey. (One last time: I recommend doing a full character arc! Maybe someday, I’ll do an extensive series on them 😉 Comment below if you’d like to see that!)


If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:

Is Bigger REALLY Better?

The Importance of Plot Line {How to Keep Readers Interested}

The Domino Effect (And What It Has to do with Your Writing)

Do you make things personal for your characters?

Have you ever tried writing a character arc?

Have you read any of K.M. Weiland’s books?

-Julia

Photo by Carli Jeen on Unsplash

9 thoughts on “Character Problems: Not Making things Personal from Day 1

  1. I love that quote from Abbie! Characters are definitely my favorite part of writing, they’re SO important and whether they’re done well or not can make or break your story. Which is one of the reasons why I love Brandon Sanderson’s books SO MUCH, he puts a ton of work into his characters, and they’re really beautifully done! ❤
    The tips on this post are definitely a must have! The story has to matter PERSONALLY to the character and it doesn't even have to be a big picture personal thing, for example, in the Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson one of the main characters, Kaladin, drives a large part of the plot–not by wanting to save the world, etc–but by his need to PROTECT the few people around him, which in part stems from him failing to protect his little brother from dying on the battle field when they were drafted into the army too young. He doesn't have grand plans to drive the plot, or want to get revenge on some tyrannical king, etc etc. He just wants to protect the people in his little squad, to make up for failing his brother, and unfortunately the more he does to protect his people the worse things seem to backfire on him 😥 and this in turn drives the plot forward. (which is a really poor way of describing it because its so much more awesome in the book, so basically just read it XD)
    (poor Kaladin….I just finished the last book that's currently available for the series and I'm having a serious problem with not being able to read MORE *cries*)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Abbie definitely knows what’s up. 😆 So true! Characters really can determine whether a story is good or not. Brandon Sanderson is good with his characters 😃
      I’m so glad that you liked it!! 😄 Oooh, interesting. That sounds like a problem that is personal 😉 *slow clap for Brandon Sanderson* I’ll have to read that sometime soon.

      Like

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