Target character and conflict with a handy checklist

To write a compelling story, you must thwart your character's desire. These questions will keep you on the right track.

Your character wants something badly. Your reader wants your character to get what he wants. Your job is to disappoint both of them.

Ironic? Sure. Narratives are driven by desire: 1) the character’s desire, 2) the reader’s desire that the character succeeds, or at least, the reader’s desire to see what happens to all this yearning, and 3) the author’s desire to thwart both the character and the reader.

It’s this thwarting of desire that beginning writers need to cultivate. It doesn’t come naturally. Far too often, writers are unwilling to let their characters make mistakes and get themselves into trouble that has both cost and consequence for which the story holds them accountable. In stories with this kind of trouble, the protagonists are too passive, too coddled by their author, to make the kind of graceless mistakes born of the yearning and desperation that create good fiction.

You, the writer, can be as poised as you want, act with aplomb, reserve, tact, polish. But your characters can’t. Your task is to put your characters in true dilemmas, where they make hard choices and don’t always make good decisions. These situations, and these choices, ought to be open to the reader’s moral imagination, allowing the reader to participate in the life of the story—so that the reader has to ask: What would I do?

The following checklist is a craft guide to characterization and conflict. It’s not a crutch or simple remedy. It’s asking a lot of you and your story. It should make you feel slightly despairing. It’s designed to help your draft become more of a story, less a rough assemblage of unsuspenseful, incoherent narrative-ish moments.

The checklist is also a form of triage. It helps you to focus on necessary elements, without which your draft is not a story. The movement from an early draft to a middle draft is predicated entirely on focusing on major flaws. Your job is to stop the bleeding where the bleeding is most profuse. Don’t worry about hangnails. Too many beginning writers think that tinkering around with syntax and punctuation constitutes revision. Not at the early stages it doesn’t. Steven Koch, in his great book The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, says, “Don’t polish a mess.”

Some students find applying a rubric like this “constraining”; they feel less intuitive and spontaneous. It’s supposed to feel constraining. Form is a container, a constrainer; it gives shape to what was amorphous and lacking. You need it because your intuition and spontaneity are not enough to render meaning to readers.

1. What is your character’s ground situation? The ground situation, according to John Barth, is the unstable but static (tense but unchanging) situation prior to whatever comes along and kicks the story into gear.

2. What does your character want?

3. Why? What are your characters’ motivations? Why do they want what they want? Often this is related in some meaningful way to the answer to question No. 4.

4. What is your character’s problem—rooted not in the situation but in the character? Put another way: What is your character’s existential dilemma? Dumbo’s problem is not his big ears. His problem is how he feels about his ears.

5. What’s in the way of your character getting what he or she wants?

6. What happens to make this static situation dynamic? I sometimes call this the story’s trigger. Things were like this and this, and then one day … a wig turned up in the garbage … a blind man came to spend the night.

7. How does this trigger change the nature of the ground situation? How does this trigger present new obstacles that weren’t there before?

8. Are these obstacles formidable? How? (Each one needs to be formidable.)

9. Is there complication or rising action? Are these obstacles of a different kind? (They can’t just be, in essence, the same obstacle but in a sequence.)

10. How is the story a record of choices? Are these choices true dilemmas, open to the reader’s moral imagination?

11. Describe your character’s reversal. In order for your story to be a story, your character must, in some way, change. No one grabs your collar and says, “You’ve got to listen to what happened to me. After this happened, I was the same as I was before.” That’s not a story.

12. How is this reversal both related to a) action—to something that happens in the story —and b) a choice the character made, and how is it related to some kind of c) recognition on her part?

13. Do your characters get what they want? They shouldn’t, at least not in some meaningful way.

Are these questions hard to answer without first having a draft finished—without a beginning, middle and ending? Yes, so write your draft first. How do you write something that has a beginning, middle and end, without first knowing all the subtle, profound complexities? Here’s how. Write down the basic sequence of events. This happened. And then this happened. And then this happened. And then this happened. Until you’re done.

Then, apply the checklist. Revise accordingly. Then, go back and make it subtle and profound.

Gregory Martin is the author of the memoir Mountain City, which was named a New York Times Notable Book. He teaches at the University of New Mexico. This article first appeared in The New Writer’s Handbook 2007: A Practical Anthology of Best Advice for Your Craft and Career, edited by Philip Martin, from Scarletta Press.