One common definition of the novel is that the main character (aka MC) goes on a journey that's both internal and potentially external. Today’s Top Five deals with that internal journey. If you and your character can answer all five of these questions as you write, we guarantee your main conflict will start out in good shape!
1. Hey, MC, what is your greatest fear?
Every main character needs to be afraid of something. If she’s too bulletproof, we won't empathize with her! Furthermore, whatever that greatest fear is, it's got to happen at some point in the book. So what’s yours?
2. What caused that character's greatest fear?
If you can't answer this question, then you can't use your MC’s fear to your advantage.
Say your character is afraid of the water. Ask her how that fear developed. The “how” is what informs the character's motivations via her backstory.
If your character fears she's unattractive, ask her why she fears that, and who taught her that fear? Oh, mom said she was ugly? Okay, good, but now ask why again. And keep going. It might not all end up in the book, but you’ll have far less trouble getting to know your MC, and getting on with your work.
3. What does your character most want?
Kurt Vonnegut said, “Make your characters want something right away even if it's only a glass of water.” That’s impeccable advice, because it establishes empathy immediately. And it directs the reader’s gaze.
For bonus points, make sure you understand that in the best novels, the MC starts the book wanting the wrong thing. Which is why our next question is…
4. But what does your character need?
The tension between what your character wants and what your character actually needs is where all the fun comes in. Maybe she wants a promotion at work, but she really needs to be seen and feel validated. That's a great conflict ready to happen.
And by the end of your book, your character will either get that thing that she wants, or she won't. But if it’s a happy ending she’ll probably get what she actually needs.
Some of the best endings are what I call “Yes, but,” endings. Can the character have that thing she wants? Yes, but there are unanticipated costs and complications.
5. What misconceptions about reality is the MC carrying in Chapter One?
This is just a handy way of restating some of the questions above. Sometimes we need to trick ourselves into thinking about these things multi dimensionally. Every main character needs to grow by the end of the book. She's going to figure out what her misconceptions are, and fix them.
For example, Hans Solo starts Star Wars as a true mercenary. He doesn’t care about about the rebel cause or anything more than his own profits. His misconception is that he's a loner who doesn't need anything from anyone else.
It's a good thing for the franchise that he figures this out in time to fall in love with Princess Leia, and to utter some of the snarkiest dialogue in the movies.
Go forth and make your characters answer these questions. They owe it to you!
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