Characters ARE Your Story
Writers spend a lot of time developing plot, and that’s great. But the plot is just a vehicle for character transformation, and that’s why readers are reading. They want to see this person go through this plot, and change. Transform. So you need to start developing them on Page One. Not set them up on page one—reveal them. Via conflict.
Set-Up Vs. Story
Set-up is “how we got here” and “why they’re like this.” Those things matter, but not as much as we think. Readers will go along for the ride if we have a remarkable enough character.
Chapter One is story launch.
It’s got to start being Story on page one, and that means change.
Story is change.
Change of circumstance (plot) & change of character (arc.) But that’s a Catch-22, right? To show change, we need to establish what is, so we can show it’s changing. This is often where we go off the rails in our openings.
Going Off The Rails
We want to establish the story world & character so deeply and powerfully, the reader will be stricken dumb by the impact of what’s coming next. In our effort to reveal that story world or our protagonist(s) and all their unique, interesting, charming angles, we reveal too much about how they got here, or we reveal irrelevant information. We have our character doing/thinking/saying/engaged in random things that don’t connect to the larger story or arc. The scenes are there to show who the character is, in their Ordinary World.
- They drive a car somewhere and think about Things.
- They have a meeting where they’re über-whatever they are.
- They sit at the kitchen table and reflect on why they’re still living with mom.
- They get coffee with a friend and talk about Stuff.
Their actions aren’t driven or important—i.e. they don’t change anything in the upcoming scenes. That’s not Story. And it doesn’t craft a character the reader is going to want to spend 50 or 100K words with. So, what to do about it? How do you establish what needs to be established, but still start the story right away, and make your character someone worth reading about? Start throwing some boulders in their path.
Pebbles Vs. Boulders
You walk into work and your desk is covered with small pebbles. Maybe some dust. You furrow your brow, look around, think, “Jeez, what’s this, is the roof collapsing?” But no, it’s not, and in the end, you might call Maintenance or your supervisor, maybe ask around, see what’s up. But then you brush it off and get to work.
Now…what if you if you walk in and there’s BOULDER on your desk? How long would it take you to get back to work? A loooong time. For lots of reasons.
First, you can’t actually get to your work, as it’s sitting under a boulder. 🙂 You have a lot more problem-solving to do. What you choose to do might be different than what someone else would choose to do. It reveals you. The conflict of it forces you to have stronger emotions. And when you have stronger emotions, you have more dramatic actions.
That’s what you want for your characters.
Then there’s the mystery of it, and the amazement. Depending on story tone & genre, it will also infuse the scene with humor or eeriness or tension, whatever you need to start telling the story. And revealing your character. So…go drop a boulder on their desk. Disrupt their story world in Chapter One. Throw conflict at them and show how they respond.
But I Can’t Yet
Maybe you’re thinking, “But I can’t!” You need more set-up time. Your Inciting Incident doesn’t come until a couple chapters later. Yes, you can do it. Drop a smaller boulder. If you’re not ready for Big Story conflict, use Little Story conflict. Scene-level conflict. Donald Maass calls this bridging conflict, and it works wonderfully, especially early on.
Here’s how you do it:
- Give them a goal/want—something they’re trying to achieve or avoid in the scene (but ensure they’re being active in their avoidance, i.e. doing something to avoid something else). It can be super small. Getting a much-needed cup of coffee works;
- Drop a boulder in their path. Make something go wrong, something they have to face & problem-solve around. They don’t have to do it well—in fact, that’s the point;
- Have them respond to it in a remarkable, startling, or unexpected way, in act, thought, or word. Some way that’s uniquely them;
- Have that response show how they’re ill-equipped to handle the story problem to come. Some emotional way. Some belief or approach to life that’s really not going to serve them well in the pages to come (but also might save them in the end). Readers might not know it yet, but as soon as the story problem comes to the fore, they’ll get it.
Look at your opening scene.
- What’s your protagonist doing?
- What’s happening in the world around them?
Does everything go pretty much okay? Does their car ride get them where they’re going on time without a smashed bumper? Does the talk with a buddy in a coffee shop reveal a good friend with no ulterior or conflicting motives? Stop that. Start throwing conflict at them in every scene, especially your opening one(s). Mess things up. Back them into a corner and show us how they come out. This will reveal them far more powerfully than any narrative passage that tells us who they are.
Show us who they are.
Often, all this means is revising an existing scene to add a boulder. Conflict. A problem. An obstacle to getting what they want. As they respond, they reveal.
There’s A Million Characters In Fiction…And Then There’s Yours
Doing this will allow you to show your character’s unique angles. It will make them more vivid, infused with personality and color. If you don’t have any drama (aka: conflict) in your opening chapter, your character is going to be a lot less vivid. Their colors will be washed out on the page. You’ll explain them but we won’t feel them. They’ll remind us of a hundred other characters in fiction. Everything’s a microcosm in story (and life). Everything your character does reveals who they are. Use this. Don’t tell us about your character: Reveal them, by putting boulders in their path and showing us how they respond. This is an incredibly powerful way to launch your character and make them stand out.
Kris is teaching starting Monday: