Whenever I’m developing a plot for a story, I feel a little like a seamstress trying to make a whole quilt out of a few scattered, seemingly mismatched patches. I have a sense of an ending, a few random visuals or snippets of dialogue, and, if I’m lucky, the mental images of three or four characters I want to go on this journey with. The act of writing then becomes finding more patches and an overall working pattern to connect all this disparate pieces into something warm and snuggable, that you want to wrap up with in front of a cozy fire.
What I’ve found is that, when you’re still in the process of brainstorming ideas of your story, it can help to take a good long look at your characters. Ask yourself, what are their strengths? What are their weaknesses? And how can I use those strengths and weaknesses to create the successes and triumphs of that character’s story arc?
Turning Strengths Into Successes
As Kurt Vonnegut once said, the good writer is a sadistic writer. Throughout the course of your novel or series, your character is going to be put through the emotional and physical wringer. But unless you’re a staffwriter for The Walking Dead and specialize in Grief!Porn, you’ll want SOME happy things to happen to your character. To translate this for all you sadistic writers out there, consider: your character’s failures and fumblings will sting all the worse if we’ve seen them in moments of levity and triumph.
Is that mean? That’s probably mean.
Anyway, it’s helpful practice to consider your character’s greatest strengths and personal attributes when planning the moments in your story where everything goes right.
For example, in the (amazing) horror video game Until Dawn, a character named Mike has the option early on of proving himself to be a friend to animals. He can comfort a dying deer and make its final moments easier. Later in the story, he then has the option of either attacking a wolf, or trying to pet and tame it. If he befriends the wolf, the wolf then serves as a protector and a guide to get Mike through a monster-infested building. Mike’s positive attribute–his love of animals–serves him in a dire moment.
If your character is a track and field runner, let them excel during a chase on foot. If your character loves to read, give them a moment of triumph by remembering something vital from a book they’ve perused. Let your character’s kindness, or work ethic, or selflessness, or encyclopedic memory, be the thing that saves them in times of trouble; let their strengths inform your development of their successes.
Giving your characters triumphs with emotional, personal roots will make those successes mean so much more.
Turn Those Weaknesses into Failures
In the same vein, giving emotional, personal connections between your character and their failures will hurt your character (and reader) all the more. Use their weaknesses, their biggest fears, against them.
Is your character notoriously messy or careless? Have that be their undoing, when they fail to check a vital detail and everything goes up in smoke. Is your character terrified of dogs? Obviously they need to be chased by a dog. Maybe they aren’t a track and field star, and actually can’t run very fast at all–have them be caught or injured during their attempted escape in that foot chase.
In the Until Dawn example, had Mike been cruel to the animals, the wolf wouldn’t have helped him, and he’d have been stuck navigating a scary, monster-infested landscape all by himself.
Give the stakes emotional context, and your readers will connect all the more to your fumbling, stumbling, striving, thriving character.
And then, Turn Both On Their Heads
After you’ve had your character’s strengths inform their finest moments, and exploited their weaknesses in their darkest hours, consider a finale in which you turn these expectations on their heads — as in, have your character succeed despite their weakness, or let your character fail despite assuming their strength would carry them through the trial.
Flipping these two expectations can make for a satisfying finale for your story–and for your reader!
How do you come up with the triumphs and failures your characters will endure during your
sadistic attempt to ruin their lives brilliantly plotted novel? Leave a comment below, tell me all about it!
Happy writing! : )