Nudging that magic along

Hi Gang, Craig with you again. You’ll hear authors talk pretty frequently about how their characters take over and improve the story beyond what they had outlined. When this happens its magical, and one of the best parts of being a writer.

In a classroom explanation, your character has to change over the course of the story. They evolve in some small way. This is called the character arc. Some plan it, others write by the seat of their pants, but to have a successful story it has to happen.

This is my attempt to help you bottle some of that magic. We’re going to try fishing in those waters.

Ask yourself, who is my character? Then find their happy place. We’re talking about their primary motivation in life. Are they family oriented, workaholics, campaigning for an issue or position. This should be deeper than simply what they want.

Once we find this place, we’re going to break it. We’re going to amp up that electrode to the character’s brain and watch them dance. Here are some examples:

Homebody = eviction, refugee, or divorce.

Family oriented = someone gets drafted, a death in the family, divorce.

Work oriented = hostile takeover, competition perhaps from Amazon, those old college pictures from Spring Break. Think Papa John here.

Your goal is to put the character under pressure and see how they react. They’ll probably take it poorly at first. Maybe they drink, do drugs, pray, deny, etc. What they do next is where the magic can show up. How are they going to react to change whatever has happened in their comfortable life? Let them show you.

I’m a story-boarder, which is a form of plotting. Everything can be mapped out, but this is where the character should take the wheel. What are they going to do next? You were there at the anniversary party, the work triumph, or the children’s music recital. You sat on the barstool next to them, maybe helped pull someone from the wreck. You have some familiarity with your character now. What are they going to do next?

Sometimes the best way to relay this is from personal experience. In my story, The Hat, Lizzie St. Laurent has one primary motivation, and a happy place. She’s motivated by stability, her ability to pay the rent, stock the refrigerator, and pay the bills. She loves her family, and the family dynamic means a lot to her.

She moved across country to live with her grandmother and attend college. When grandma died, she lost her stability, and part of her family. This all happened before the first word in the story.

Lizzie took on an apartment and got a roommate, who bailed on her. The rent still needs paid. She dropped out, took on two jobs, plus a side deal that helped with utilities. Her uncle turned out to be a jerk, and all of grandma’s things got sold to line his pockets.

At this point, Lizzie was pretty broken. I took away her stability and her family to see what would happen. She did something stress related. She grabbed a box from the moving van and took it home. This was her attempt to treasure something of her grandmother’s.

Turns out it was something of her grandfather’s, who she never knew growing up. During this adventure, Lizzie gets to learn a bit more about her family. She gets to set things right for some friends who are losing part of their family. And ultimately, she finds a way to make a living that is the exact opposite of stability. She becomes a musician in a cover band. In other words, her character changed and evolved.

As the all knowing author, you can set some of this up. You likely know how the story will end. What kind of character might have the hardest time pulling this off? We’ve all read stories where the ex-military guy rescues the hostages. What if the video game nerd had to do it instead? It might make a lot more interesting story.

Obviously, this is fiction. We expect some form of success. There might not be anything Papa John can do, but in a fictional world readers expect this. Keep in mind, it can be a twisted form of success. Corruption and violence might still restore that stability or family dynamic.

Let me hear from you in the comments. Have you ever looked at your characters quite this way? Are you more likely to after reading today’s post? Which side of the mirror do your stories fall on? Are they more Captain America, or Michael Corleone?

45 thoughts on “Nudging that magic along

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  3. A most interesting look at how the magic can happen, Craig. I always have an idea where a story needs to go, but rarely map it out in any detail. You gave me a lot to think about here! Thanks!

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  4. Your way of doing things always make me think. I start with the story problem and the character has to deal with it. I liked your story boarding process so much, I tried to find the site you use but didn’t have any luck. It still intrigues me, though.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. When I develop characters it’s usually that inner conflict that comes to me first. I have the problem, then arrange a set-up and finally the solution. I suppose that’s working from the middle. Or maybe it’s rearranging the puzzle pieces in my head. Of course, the characters then alter the course of the arc in their own way. I never thought about Captain America or Corleone. I don’t think my characters fit with either of those, but honestly, I’m having a hard time deciding where they do fall. You’ve given me something to think about.

    Nice post, Craig!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Mae. We all do things differently, even our followers. Sometimes a nugget will turn up in posts like this, and someone can improve their game. It’s also nice to get it from a different presenter occasionally. One will ring true, where another comes across flat.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post, Craig. I don’t story board, but my I have character arcs. As so many have said, they need to evolve in order to make the story interesting. Like others, my characters sometimes take over and go where I had no idea they would go. It makes for some interesting reading.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I think my short stories are more Corleone and my novels Captain. Each has merit, provided their arcs are handled correctly. And I do love a character arc. Stories like James Bond don’t appeal to me as much as stories like The Godfather because Bond is always Bond. Michael goes from hero to heartless. The arc is much more interesting than the flat line.

    Your storyboard planning still fascinates me. I’d like to play with that someday. It’s a matter of finding the time, I guess. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Craig, I’m a firm believer that the characters need a character arc. There’s an external struggle, but also an internal one. Allowing the character to overcome his/her internal struggle helps to make a good story and we see the character grow. Lizzie did just that. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post, Craig. Sometimes, I plan how to hurt my characters, but at other times, that magic happens and the conflict/problem and the character’s reaction(s) write themselves. Your method of finding their happy place and breaking it is a good one. For a story I have in mind after I’ve finished my WIP, as well as the global issues, my MC has a big personal problem. I also looked at what folks around her don’t want her to get what she wants and what they’ll do to stop her (he he he) as well as what she would do. I love to make my characters suffer. If they ever do show up at my doorstep (thanks for that nightmare, Charles!), I’d have to hide. I definitely wouldn’t want a taste of my own medicine, lol … but what a great story idea 🙂 Reblogged this on https://harmonykent.co.uk/nudging-that-magic-along/

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  10. I’m always trying to do something with at least my main characters. Finding it hard to do when you have a large cast, but you can get your kicks in. Many times I’ve pictured one of my characters showing up on my doorstep with a lot of complaints. They really shouldn’t be happy with some of the changes. Otherwise they come off leading a rather blessed and easy life.

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    • They tend to show up and talk to Lisa instead. Ha ha! Larger casts are tougher in many ways. More than just the character arc. I don’t think you can have an arc for secondary characters, or if you do it should be minimal.

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      • I’ve been facing challenges in ensemble casts for the past year. Mostly in group action and tags to describe who is doing what. I have that paranormal thing going on now, and my pirates were like that too.

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      • What I do is choose two focal characters for dialogues and try to have the others do at least one thing. Maybe they add some insight or cause a disturbance since they have to be in the scene for a reason. Action is easier since you want to show at least a little of what each character is doing. I just did a scene that’s all action with a 3 on 3 fight. I wrote one paragraph for each pairing to show what was going on before ‘things’ happened.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. So true Craig! My characters always have a personal battle going on along with the problems thrown at them im the story. Good example with Lizzie. In fact this post got to thinking why I’m struggling with my current story that inner struggle, thanks!

    Liked by 3 people

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