Have you ever had a character take over? I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s a commonly reported phenomenon: My protagonist wouldn’t listen! She did what she wanted to do, not what I wanted her to do! That can be a good quality. Acting in ways honest and human is what psychologists—and literary critics—call being authentic.
Realism is necessary in order for readers to participate in a character’s story, experiencing it “as if” it is their own experience. By contrast, poor motivation and forced actions create stories that aren’t believable. We groan and roll our eyes. Inauthentic characters—what WU contributor David Corbett calls Plot Puppets—may obey their authors and fulfill the requirements of plot but do not connect with readers.
On the other hand, plot is important. For story to be satisfying, things must necessarily go a certain way. Stories impose on characters’ problems beyond the ordinary and complications more plentiful than we readers endure even on our worst days. Protagonists must make mistakes, do wrong, be shadowed by past shames, and have flaws to overcome. Where we may avoid our own ugliness, protagonists must face it. Where we may dawdle, delay and avoid what is difficult or unpleasant, protagonists must act.
Plot is the author’s design. It not only enacts the author’s intention but illustrates the author’s point. Without it characters can chase their own shadows. Stories without a strong design can feel realistic yet without force. Without an author’s strong hand on the wheel characters can race around in circles, their stories becoming self-indulgent, stuck in low gear.
How, then, does authorial design dovetail with characters’ free will? Who really is, and should be, in charge? Is there a balance of power? Are the realms of authority, perhaps, in which the author imposes conditions and throws events at protagonists while protagonists for their part respond naturally and humanly? Authors are in charge of what’s big; character are in charge of what’s small?
Is an author God? Do characters exist mainly to be tested? Or, is it the reverse? Should authors think of stories arising mainly from frail characters’ hidden needs? Is outward plot most effective when it’s a reflection of an inner journey? What comes first, the arc or the covenant?
Does it depend on the type of story you’re telling? Are thrillers licensed to plot, while women’s fiction flows with the human heart? Are the plot patterns of timeless storytelling in conflict with our modern yearning for connection? Are outline and authenticity in permanent opposition, the yin and yang of storytelling?
I believe it’s unhelpful to think of it that way. Storytellers don’t have to choose. Authenticity and outline may not only co-exist, they can be polymer-bonded and become a material stronger then either one is alone. The bonding happens inside the storyteller. When story intention and compassion for characters are fused a story can have both a steel skeleton and a heart that we feel hammering as hard as our own.
How is that effect achieved? The solution involves transforming yourself into both Story God and the Story God’s subject. The Story God is wrathful and compassionate; by turns gracious or harsh. The Story’s God’s subject—your protagonist—is flawed but defiant, sunk by human need but lifted by divine-given strength. Let’s practice.
First, become your protagonist and write your response to these prompts:
- What past hurt drives you? Why do you do this over that? Choose this person over that one? How do you avoid pain? How do you act out, cycling through past trauma?
- In the story span becoming available to you, what do you most want to do? What are you good at? What tempts you too easily? What line will you never cross? What do hope you will never be called upon to do? At what are you certain you would fail?
- In this story world, whom do you want to punch? Whom do you want to kiss? What makes you want to stand up, speak out, protest or crusade? When and how would you lie, cheat, steal or sleep around? Whose opinion of you means a lot? Who doesn’t matter?
- If you could write this story, what would happen? How would you resolve the conflict? How would the problem be solved? The most heroic thing you’d do is what–? The most cowardly thing you’d never do is what–? The disaster you’d prevent is what–? The extra-good bonus outcome you’d create is what–?
Next, become the Story God and write your response to these prompts:
- Regard the protagonist. What is his or her flaw? How will you force him or her to face it? What way would be most cruel?
- What would be this protagonist’s worst mistake? What’s the test that he or she could not pass? What frustration would cause him or her to break? What would cause him or her to explode? What’s the worst damage that could result? What strength would he or she discover?
- In what way will you force this protagonist into what he or she most wants to avoid? How will you force this protagonist to learn what he or she most needs to know? In what way will make an example of this protagonist?
- In what way will you show this protagonist mercy? When and how will you relieve suffering? How will show this protagonist forgiveness for his or her transgressions? How will you reward this protagonist for his or her goodness?
I’m sure you can see what to do with the results of your role playing. That which your protagonist would avoid, make unavoidable. That which your protagonist fears, bring about. The basis for action is that at which your protagonist excels. The basis of failure is that which tempts your protagonist and to which he or she succumbs.
Meanwhile, your story design is directed not at humanity in general but at your protagonist in particular. The events you create are intended to hit your protagonist’s weaknesses and push him or her toward his or her strengths. A lesson will be learned. This protagonist will see or discover something for himself or herself. (And everyone else will get the point.)
When author’s intention is fused with characters’ human needs, readers do not notice the author’s hands on the levers of destiny. The story can happen only to this character, and only in this way. At the same time, while these story events are all set to transform this unique protagonist they are also a lesson for us all.
Protagonist’s have free will. Story Gods—that’s you—have a grand design. Protagonists exist to serve that design. Plot enacts it. Even so Story Gods have compassion for protagonists’ suffering. They guide protagonists yet allow them to discover for themselves the means of their salvation. They play…but in the Story God’s sandbox.
How will your protagonist use his or her freedom? How will your plot nevertheless enact your purpose?
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