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:
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?
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.
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
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?
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 anyone… or 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?
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:
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?