Make it Personal
by Jason Black
Think about the great novels, the breakout novels, the ones that not only force readers to consume pages like potato chips but also leave readers thinking and talking about the book later. Those books have something in common besides the envy of many writers: their authors are masters of working with their characters’ goals.
It may seem mysterious how these authors work so many great twists and turns into the story, so many complications and subplots, without having any of it feel extraneous. But there’s no deep mystery about it. Here are three steps you can use to choose great goals for your characters, ones that will in turn help you elevate your novels towards breakout status.
1. Matching goals and protagonists
Goals matter. But in choosing a story goal, you have a bit of a Goldilocks problem in finding one that’s “just right.” You need a significant enough goal to motivate your protagonist, but one that isn’t so high-stakes as to be implausible. A babysitter finding herself in a plot where she has to save the President’s life would challenge all but the most credulous readers. Conversely, no one will care about your book if the babysitter’s goal is simply to choose what color nail polish goes best with her prom dress.
Where things go wrong: Most writers don’t err by setting the stakes too low. “When in doubt, raise the stakes,” right? We’ve all heard that advice. The problem often comes in picking a goal that is only high-stakes externally to the character. You end up with an asymmetric situation. The stakes matter to the world at large, but the protagonist doesn’t matter to the stakes. In this example, it matters to the world if someone is gunning for the President, but how does a babysitter plausibly matter to the outcome?
The key pitfall is failing to answer the question “why this protagonist?” You’re welcome to have a babysitter save the President’s life if you want to. But if you do, you owe the reader an awfully good answer to the question of why it’s her job to do it.
2. Supporting the goal
It isn’t enough for the protagonist to be the only one who can achieve the goal. You may have convinced your reader (and the babysitter, too) that she’s the only one who can save the President, but you still need to prove to the reader that this goal is worth an entire novel. You can’t take that for granted.
Where things go wrong: Even the most compelling of external goals won’t matter to the reader if the writer doesn’t prove it also matters to the character. Why does the babysitter actually care if the President gets assassinated? Maybe it seems obvious to you—murder is wrong, the babysitter is a good person who doesn’t want anybody to die, etc.—but readers still need to see evidence that it does matter to her and why. Give us the specific factors that support the babysitter's choice to pursue the goal. A good way to do this is to portray and contrast two possible views of the world: one in which the goal is accomplished, and one in which it is not. The babysitter has to see, and we have to see her seeing, how her life would be affected differently if the President lives or dies.
3. Making it personal
Steps 1 and 2 are critical because they put your protagonist in position to pursue the story goal, and it is in this pursuit that your plot lives. Here, you will use every piece of advice you’ve ever read about keeping conflict in every scene, using every scene to advance the story, all that stuff. That’s enough if all you want is to write a plot-monster novel. But if your goal is to write novel as good as the ones you love, you need to do more.
To knock your readers’ socks off, create that awesome plot while keeping everything focused on the protagonist. Your plot will necessarily involve a sequence of challenges to the character. What does the babysitter have to do first, then second, then third, to save the President? These will be external challenges, because she must act in the world in order to get anything done. Perhaps she must gain some key information, some additional tools or resources. Babysitter with a sniper rifle, maybe? You’ll give her one challenge, then another and another.
Where things go wrong: If the challenges are merely external, even the most carefully crafted plot sequence can end up feeling as boring and downright formulaic as National Treasure. To elevate the novel, make every external challenge into an internal challenge as well.
Something about each step along the way to saving the President has to be personally difficult for the babysitter. Each challenge must push at her weaknesses, her fears, her shortcomings. In short, you need to give the babysitter a character arc. You need to show us how she grows as a person by overcoming her internal, personal challenges in order to achieve the external story goals.
The smart writer also arranges that growth in such a way as to enable the character to achieve the story’s ultimate goal because of the character’s internal growth. That is, the babysitter is only able to save the President because she isn’t the same person at the end of the story as she was at the beginning.
When it comes to writing a novel readers will adore, you can conquer that personal goal for yourself by helping your protagonists conquer theirs.
Jason Black is a Seattle area book doctor who helps novelists sort out the thorny issues in their novels. He is a regular presenter at the PNWA Summer Writers Conference, and is writing a handbook on character development techniques. To learn more about Jason or read his blog, visit his website at www.plottopunctuation.com.