Making Characters interesting — Before they do anything.

image courtesy of Sias van Schalkwyk via stock.xchng

Lindorm, Part One, is essentially a Beauty-and-the-Beast story, where the beauty is teenage single mom, and the beast is a dragon.

Short story writer Kurt Vonnegut says that every character needs to want something, “Even if it is only a glass of water.”

In a novel, that wanting, the characters’ goals, usually corresponds to the plot of the book, and those goals are what make the action happen, but in this series of lectures (sorry, I don’t remember which one) the teacher urged pre-existing goals for your characters.

This concept brought a much-needed life into my main characters.

For one thing, pre-existing goals let them be proactive, interesting, believably awesome people before they get yanked into Story-Action. They act instead of (just) reacting.

If the original goals conflict with the (newer, more-compelling/unavoidable) Story-Goals, there’s bonus points in terms of conflict.

My main characters are Linnea (the beauty) and the Lindorm (the beast).

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I found this one step– giving them preexisting goals– was huge for giving them depth and dimension.

All of my novels (so far) have been seeded by folk tales, which means I’m starting from archetypes, stereotypes and puppets.  People do things because they DO things. It’s not like they have a motivation all the time.

Now, I am particularly gifted in mind-reading, and I’ve said more than once that my super-power is Instant Extrapolation.

So this starting place really works for me.

I’m not so great at the what-if game out of reality (what if you were investigating a crime and found evidence your daughter might be guilty?), or out of the news (one of James Scott Bell’s suggestions for story mining is taking a headline/newspaper article and milking it 10 different ways). My main problem with this is that they’re all too close to home.

I could really imagine this stuff happening, completely wig myself out, and be useless the next few days till I got over it.

I’m still very tender in the depression department.

I have to be nice to myself, and recognize when to stop pushing or just take another road.

This is where having the solidity of old stories really anchors me.

This is a pattern. This isn’t anything that I could’ve foreseen and prevented, or anything that I made happen with my freakish brain-power.

It’s got magic and crazies and just enough underhanded predictability (GA! I should have known!) that I can just play and enjoy some blatant non-reality.

So here are my main characters, Linnea and Lindorm.

For the longest time (remember, I started this story in ’06) I didn’t even think in terms of motivation. Stuff just happened because it was supposed to happen.

When I started to be aware, I could find motivation for everyone but my main character. Or rather, her motivation was unbelievably mushy and non-specific:

I want to be safe! I want to be loved!

Which are completely legitimate feels and motivations (and God knows I was dripping with them at the time) but they weren’t really useful for getting specific actions out of my character. I hear you can write a story with an inactive main character, but it makes everything harder– like trying to dig a basement with a spork.

Turns out I don’t have enough energy for that sort of work, so I decided I needed a more-useful main character.

What I didn’t know at the time is that every first novel has the author in it. Usually the main character.

It’s not an exact representation (I was never abused, and Linnea pretty much lives in the wringer), but there is a tight parallel that made me look both at her and me differently as I learned new things about one of us.

When I woke last summer from my depression, and had all this amazing insight into Linnea, it didn’t take long for me to realize I found her because I’d started to find me.

I’d been fighting with myself over who ought to be the main character because I’d been fighting with the question of my own value (classic depression symptom, but that’s another post).

I’d assumed Linnea was dull, because I felt uninteresting.

Everyone else was better, more vibrant, more interesting by default, and I felt sure that if I didn’t make (say) Runa the real main character, everybody who read the story would say, “Hey, how come you focused so much on the weird cripple? I wanted to know more about the beautiful-funny-girl.”

Eventually I saw how I was in all my characters, and accepted that this was right and natural as a writing process, nothing to be ashamed of or to run from.

But Linnea was the main character, doggone it! She was the one who made things happen. She was sharp, brave, adaptable and had this conquering spirit that made me fall in love with her when her story was only 10 pages long and she didn’t even have a name.

If she could show that much character in a two-dimensional cardboard puppet, I sure wanted to keep her at least that awesome in my story.

Which meant, in turn, that Lindorm, since we all know they’ll end up together, has to be worthy of her.  They have to be equals.

So (to circle back to the title) before they do anything in the Story– before they even meet each other (in this Part One currently circulating)– they have things they want.

Linnea wants to rescue the youngest daughter of a local innkeeper.

This isn’t a spoiler, you learn it in the first chapter.

This is the point of pre-existing goals: you learn them right away so you know something about what makes this person tick.

Linnea is abused. She hides it well, in a socially acceptable way, but it makes her see what someone else is hiding, and drives her to action.

Lindorm wants to connect with the little boy whose life he saved.

This, by the way, is going to be “bonus material” here on the blog. I have whole chapters describing this rescue-backstory, but they really don’t fit in the story told by the novel, so I expect it will end up like those novellas/short-stories I’ve seen between books in a variety of fantasy series.

Both Linnea and Lindorm are interrupted and diverted from their driving goals by the arrival of The Story.

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Both kind of miss (or ignore) The Story at first, because they are so focused on their original goals.

Really, the path of this first novel is to engage their attention so that they can be fully engaged in Story Goals by the time Book Two opens.

Lets just say there’s not a lot of breathing room once that ball gets rolling.

It was digging back to find their driving force that gave this first story its backbone.

Yes, they’re going to grow and change, but they need a true starting place for that growth to have meaning.

2 thoughts on “Making Characters interesting — Before they do anything.

  1. Ahh, excellent! I just learned this nugget of wisdom myself, thanks to Anne Stengl’s blog. I love how figuring it out tightened up your story. I’m rewriting a story right now that had the same kind of focus problems. This time the story’s reading like a thriller. Revi just wants to be off the drugs and away from the assassins who dominated her life, and be normal. But they want her back desperately–in fact, several factions want her desperately–and the whole book becomes one long game of hide and seek. Especially once she meets the bounty hunter, who is just doing his job and finds out that keeping her alive is a lot harder than he’d anticipated.

    Yikes. That got kind of long. Anyway, goals are great, especially when they’re at cross purposes. :-)

  2. Pingback: Pick a Problem (NaNo Prep 8)

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