Some helpful advice from author and editor Jeff Gerke, from his book Plot Versus Character (http://www.amazon.com/Plot-Versus-Ch.../dp/1582979928).
Your character needs a problem.
Maybe it’s adultery, like our Mistress Prynne (from The Scarlet Letter). Maybe it’s unresolved anger. Maybe it’s selfishness (this is a favorite in Disney movies of late, as in Cars and The Game Plan). Maybe it’s a classic tragic flaw like hubris or narcissism or ambition or unwise trusting. Maybe it’s a more “modern” sin like drug addiction or pornography or child predation. Perhaps it could be something mundane like discontentment or jealousy or a weakness for chocolate.
It’s okay if you haven’t thought of one yet. I didn’t ask you to. The problem you choose for your character is something anyone could have, so it was important first to establish who this person is, independent of what may afflict her as the story begins. When you have the character’s personality firmly set in your mind, it’s time to add a problem.
TYING THE KNOT
I refer to your character’s problem as his knot. If you’ve worked with ropes much, especially in a nautical setting, you know they have to run smoothly through eyelets and pulleys and across capstans. A knot in the wrong rope at the wrong place can result in irritation, delay, or even disaster.
So it is with your character. There he is, going along fine, minding his business, when something causes a knot to form in the rope of his life. Maybe he sees it and begins working on untying it. Maybe he sees it and doesn’t work on it. Maybe he doesn’t see it at all and the problems it’s causing are happening in his blind spot.
Whether he knows about it or is working to correct it or not, the knot is messing up his life.
In Mark Spragg’s novel An Unfinished Life, protagonist Einar is living a solitary life on a ranch. His unresolved grief over the death of his beloved son — and the fuming anger at his daughter-in-law, who was driving the car at the time of the accident — has left him poisoned, bitter, and stunted. Einar doesn’t know it. He can’t see it. He’s stuck in the delicious sadness, if he thinks about it at all. It isn’t until he meets a granddaughter he never knew he had that his uneasy truce with life is broken. Old wounds are opened and he is forced to face his crippling anger.
What knot could you give your character? With the clear sense of who she is as a person (and you might read over your notes to make sure you have that firmly in mind), you can begin thinking about what problem you might want to give her.
HOW TO FIND YOUR KNOT
It’s time to have some fun with your character. It’s time to put on your Hawaiian shirt and a silly hat and get a little crazy. When it comes to picking a problem for your hero, the sky’s the limit. It’s really up to you.
Be wacky. Brainstorm. Don’t shoot down any idea; just toss ’em all out there.
Do you want her to be afraid of commitment? Addicted to gambling? An out-of-control spender? Go for it. Do you want him to beat his wife? Do you want him to cheat on his taxes? Do you want him to be obsessed with a movie star?
Here’s one guideline: Go deep. Play junior psychologist again.
Maybe you think it would be fun to have a main character who is scared to go outside. Alex Rover is a character you can appreciate — she’s a novelist in Wendy Orr’s Nim’s Island. Alex writes about an Indiana Jones-style adventure hero, but she herself is scared of the mailman, spiders, disease, and just about everything else. Cool. Good idea. But here’s the go-deep question: Why? Why is she scared to go outside?
It’s not enough to show a symptom like that. You need to know what has caused it. If you think you’d like to give your character a fixation with ducks, that’s okay, but it’s not a knot. That’s a quirk. You could dig a little deeper and decide that he’s obsessed with ducks because his dad was a duck hunter and his one great memory of his dad is a duck-hunting trip. But now his dad has abandoned the family and the character thinks that if he collects the right duck-hunting gear, his dad will come back.
Now we’re getting into knot territory.
He’s feeling sad and angry and adrift and thinking his father left because he wasn’t a good enough boy.
Aha! When you feel yourself treading into that Freudian, tell-me-about-your-mother land, you know you’re getting close to a knot.
Most important: You need to find something that can carry a full novel.
If your character’s knot is that his shirt is untucked and everyone’s laughing at him, the solution to which is simply to tuck in his shirt, that’s not going to propel a whole story.
That doesn’t mean it has to be something earth-shattering, though. The knot doesn’t have to be that your hero has a fear of saving the earth but the earth needs saving and somehow he must overcome his fear or the earth is doomed. The fate of the universe doesn’t have to hang in the balance. Your knot just has to be significant to the character.
Note that the knot doesn’t have to be a fear, though I seem to keep going back to fears because they make for good knots.
Other great — and deep-enough — knots are extreme hurt, a lack of forgiveness of someone else, or a lack of forgiveness of self (which we call guilt). It can be a deep wound, as when a parent has lost a child to death or abduction. It could be unresolved anguish or a horrible secret. It could be a heavy sense of regret over having done something unwise. It could be awful shame over something done or suffered.
The beauty of it is that it’s wide open. So long as it’s deep and large enough, it can be anything you wish. Want to explore loyalty between siblings? Give your character the knot of feeling that she’s never been loved by her family. Want to investigate the nature of courage — or what it will take to turn a coward into a hero? Then make your character a quailing heart (just be sure you know why she prefers flight over fight).
If you’re feeling a little nervous now, go back to your party hat and crazy shirt: Relax and have fun with it.
Dream. Is there a theme you’ve always wanted to explore? Look in your own life: Is there a loss or fear you’d like to finally grapple with, or an ideal or extreme you’d like to imagine? How about a time when you’ve failed someone or someone has failed you — want to explore what that must’ve been like for the other person? Here’s your chance to write the ultimate book — the story that finally gives you freedom to tell the tale of your heart.
So the last guideline is dream big. SAMPLE KNOTS Here are some knots drawn from an array of novels, movies, and real-life experiences:
• The belief that life has dealt him an unfair hand
• A fear of being alone (caused by abandonment as a child)
• A willingness to break any rule to achieve the ultimate approval of her mother
• An overpowering desire to exact revenge
• A fear of commitment (caused by parents’ divorce)
• A hoarding of clothes and food (caused by living through the Great Depression)
• An unwillingness to let a child have fun (because she lost another child through indulgence)
• A willingness to endure continued abuse (because his parents were abusive and that’s the only way he Understands love)
• A loner mentality (caused by being hurt by someone she relied upon)
• A belief that he is worthless and a resulting self-sabotage to make his reality line up with his belief
Get the idea? You want to wound your character in some way or give her a tragic flaw or “besetting sin” that causes her life to be less than it should be. It might even help to think of it in medical terms. The patient has a tumor. She doesn’t know it yet — or maybe she does but doesn’t want to deal with it — but it’s killing her all the same.
You as her surgeon want to get it out quick, but she keeps missing her appointments with you. You can see how it’s hurting her and how it will hurt her if left untreated. What kind of wringer do you want to put your poor character through? What kind of tumor do you want to give him?
CONSIDER THE ALTERNATIVE
As you’re thinking about the particular kind of misery you’re going to sic on your main character, also be thinking about what Door #2 should look like.
Let’s say you’re thinking you’d like to make your protagonist scared to be around children because when she was young she dropped her baby brother and he’s been a vegetable ever since. She is beset with guilt, though she goes to see him every weekend. She won’t hold anyone’s baby, ever. But the guilt has exceeded normal bounds. She intentionally has deprived herself of any good thing in her life. She didn’t go to veterinary school, as she’d always dreamed, because that would’ve meant moving away from her brother. She hasn’t dated, much less married, because she feels she doesn’t deserve such joys in her life if her brother will never get to have them.
Pretty interesting character, actually. You can just see her wearing ratty clothes and frumpy hair and maybe she’s even intentionally unhygenic so as to dissuade any would-be suitors. It’s definitely a knot that is big enough to propel an entire novel.
Now it’s time to imagine what the alternative could be. If you are Fate in this story and you’re not going to let her remain in her miserable stew, what are you going to try to get her to change to? What is the happy other possibility you’d like her to see and possibly seize?
Maybe you’d like to see her forgive herself and finally give herself permission to have a life. That’s a radically different existence than what she’s currently embracing. It would take a lot of convincing for her to let go of the self-loathing she has such a death grip on. But it would make for an interesting novel! Already you can begin thinking of ways you might bring that optimistic possibility into her life.
That’s what you’re looking for. In An Unfinished Life, Einar begrudgingly allows his daughter-in-law and granddaughter into his world. The more they hang around, the more he glimpses what it would feel like to love again, to care again, to invest again into a young person’s life. The crypt of his soul is pierced by a shaft of light, and for a moment it feels good. For a moment he is almost tempted to let go of all this cancerous anger and become the kind of man he was before he lost his son.
As you’re looking for a good alternative to your hero’s problem, make sure it’s the opposite of her knot. It’s great that you present a happy option of your hero getting promoted to organizer of the homecoming parade, but if that promotion isn’t the antithesis of her knot, it will have no impact. It would work great if she sees herself as a nobody who is capable of nothing good. But if her knot is that she feels abandoned, the parade job won’t be therapeutic to her in any way. It will just feel like more work.
So what will it be for your main character? Given the following knot, what would be the most attractive substitute out-come?
If he’s addicted to online role-playing games (and you’d of course want to delve into the why behind his addiction), what would be the best alternative in his eyes? Maybe it’s the ability to go through a day free of the tyranny of those games; the ability to make his own choices and spend his days — and his money — as he pleases.
Getting to that happy destination will not be easy. One doesn’t lightly walk away from addictions or negative strongholds.
Your character has become comfortable in her dysfunction. Forget our crowbar — it will take something akin to a nuclear blast to get her to leave it.
Ah, fiction. It’s good to be a god.
Find a great knot for your main character. Then find an equally powerful promised land to offer in exchange. The bulk of his inner journey — and of your book itself — is going to be the interplay (more like battle) between these two options — all leading up to that breathless moment when he decides once and for all which door he’s going to step through.