Some people think a story is nothing more than plot: one thing happens, then another, and another. Others believe a story centers around character and that the plot is insignificant. This plot-versus-character debate is nothing new, and both sides are both right…and wrong. A man sitting alone with nothing but his thoughts is not a story; it’s a character study. Similarly, a series of events with no character to anchor them is nothing more than a newsreel. Story is the intersection between character and plot, and it takes a delicate alchemy to hook readers and keep their attention from page one to The End. This process boils down to seven steps.
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Step 1: Start with a character
Your book’s premise might be the thing that first piques a reader’s interest, and the plot twists might keep that reader turning pages, but that is not enough. You need a character to anchor the plot and be a window for your reader into the story. Readers might pick up a book because of the premise, but they remember a book because of the characters.
Most protagonists fall on a spectrum between two poles: the ordinary Joe/Jane and the larger-than-life hero. While many characters may pull traits from both ends of this spectrum, it’s likely that your protagonist aligns more with one type than the other. Keep in mind also that some characters may not fit either the ordinary Joe/Jane or larger-than-life hero types, but these cases are very rare and usually happen when your protagonist is an antihero.
Your protagonist’s type sets the tone both for the conflict in your story and for the way your character develops and changes. The ordinary Joe/Jane is an everyman character caught in extraordinary circumstances, which means he will need to rise to the occasion and do something heroic despite his seemingly ordinary status. Conversely, the heroic protagonist might appear infallible and all-powerful, but she is not as perfect as she seems, and you will need to show her vulnerability.
While these two types might seem like polar opposites, they are in fact on a similar journey: Both must somehow become the opposite of what they first appear to be. This means the ordinary Joe/Jane must do something extraordinary while the heroic character must show her humanness. I call this the “Opposite Is Possible” theory of character development, because while you don’t need to make characters become the opposite of who they are, you need to show that this transformation is possible.
Step 2: That character wants something
It’s not enough to have a character at the center of your story; you need to make that character want something, and not just any frivolous want, but a deep desire that feels unattainable. This want must also have high stakes for the character, as though not getting it would be a fate worse than death.
As with the character types, the want also falls into two categories: change or preservation. Whatever that character’s goal – whether it is to find true love, save the world, or obtain a lost treasure – what she really wants is to change or preserve something in herself, her circumstances, or the world around her.