Beginning Your Story: Concentrating the Heat
By now you should have a bunch of ideas calling out to you, demanding to be explored in your story. How do you make sure your reader feels the same way? By turning up the heat. The heart of your story is conflict and the key to good conflict is highly motivated characters pursuing conflicting goals.
- Write the names of all the important characters (who you believe will substantially influence the plot) arranged in a circle. You may also include names of organizations that are involved if you have not yet created a character to represent their interests.
- Draw a line connecting your protagonist and your antagonist.
- Above the line write the main issue they have in common.
- Below the line write the approach or value about this issue where they disagree.
- Repeat for all your listed characters.
For example, in Kingdom of the Stone, Karux (the protagonist) and Amantis (the antagonist) agree that the scattered human tribes need to work together to protect mankind from approaching inhuman threats. Where Karux and Amantis disagree is that Karux wants to recruit the surrounding villages into a cooperative effort to feed and protect themselves while Amantis feels the best approach is to control them through fear of the angorym, coercion through controlling food sources and the threat of violence from his growing army. During the course of the story, this conflict escalates into literal all-out war.
Karux’s allies, the elders of Har-Tor, agree with Karux that the refugees of the northern valley must be protected and provided for, but disagree on where their priorities should be and how to use their limited resources.
Every major character should have areas where their goals intersect (forcing them to interact and not just avoid each other) and areas where their goals diverge (creating tension or even open conflict between the two.) Even a loyal sidekick, who unquestioningly supports the protagonist, may start to question the protagonist’s actions if the cost of pursuing that goal becomes too high and the sidekick feels he needs to protect the protagonist from himself.
If two major characters agree on everything, you should consider combining them into a single character. Each character, like each word of the narrative, needs to pull its own weight. Excess characters, like excess words, will only bog the story down. It should be mentioned, however, that sometimes two or more characters may function as a single character, (e.g. the twins Fred and George in Harry Potter) but if any character does not add additional tension or conflict through a unique point of view, they don’t need to occupy your limited story space.
You may discover certain patterns emerging through this process. Alliances may form or shift adding extra complications/interest to your plot. Or you may find holes where a character needs to be added or an extra character that needs to be cut. You may even discover your protagonist through this process or discover your real protagonist is a different character than you thought. That’s all good. You’re getting to know your story better.
We’ll talk about protagonists soon, but first we’ll discuss how to refine your ideas through the Idea Filter with one last use of our already over-extended metaphor...
Next time – Beginning Your Story: Focusing the Fire