Welcome to the GWN blog! Today we have Jim Cort talking about getting your characters to do what you want them to do.
How can you get your characters to do what you want them to do? How can we get Dorothy in the farmhouse all alone, ready for the Cyclone Limited to whisk her away to Munchkin land?
This is an important question for any writer of fiction, and not always an easy one to answer. A common problem in novice’s stories is that characters behave in response to the needs of the story, instead of their own needs. This rings false. It hurts the story. The characters seem less three-dimensional, and less deserving of our sympathy.
In the best fiction, motivation arises organically from the desires of the characters and the situations they find themselves in. Character and plot unite seamlessly, and it never occurs to the reader to question why so-and-so did such-and-such.
How do you achieve this?
One way is to view your plot as a series of problems and solutions that form a chain of events. Each of the characters has an overriding problem to solve or goal to accomplish, and the working out of these problems forms the structure of the story. There are certain key scenes or events that figure prominently in this structure. But there are also countless smaller events that lead up to and away from these key scenes. As in real life, working out the big problems is a succession of smaller steps: small problems and small solutions.
But here’s the trick: In fiction (and in real life, too) the solutions are not perfect. Inside each of the solutions lurks another problem that needs solving. Your characters are propelled through the plot by this rhythm of problem/solution/problem/solution. Their actions grow from their responses to the constant stream of problems. Their motivations spring naturally from these cascading events in the story.
This idea is similar to the concept in law called the chain of causation. Simply put, it says, “Event C would not have happened if Event B had not happened, and Event B would not have happened unless it was caused by Event A”. It’s a clever method lawyers have devised to sue people for things they didn’t do. This chaining of cause and effect can provide a sturdy and dynamic framework for your story or novel.
The best way to explore this technique is to apply it to a book you’ve already read or a movie you’ve already seen. Let’s get back to The Wizard of Oz. We’ll use the movie instead of the book because it’s more widely known.
Let’s consider the first key event in the story: Dorothy’s house gets picked up by the cyclone with her inside, and dropped in the land of Oz on top of the Witch of the East. But the story doesn’t start there. We first find out who Dorothy is, and where she lives, and what her situation is at home. Ultimately, however, we have to get Dorothy in the house by herself so the cyclone can carry her off. Here are the first few minutes of the movie, laid out in problem/solution format:
Problem: Toto bites Miss Gulch
Solution: Miss Gulch takes Toto away
Problem: Toto escapes from Miss Gulch
Solution: Dorothy runs away with Toto; meets Professor Marvel
Problem: Professor Marvel tells Dorothy that Auntie Em is sick
Solution: Dorothy heads back home
Problem: There’s a cyclone
Solution: Dorothy’s family goes in the storm cellar
Problem: Dorothy arrives home; can’t find her family; can’t get in the storm cellar
Solution: Dorothy seeks shelter in the house
Problem: House flies away with Dorothy in it
Solution: House lands in Oz on the witch
Granted, we can detect the heavy hand of coincidence in that cyclone that pops up just when it’s needed, but coincidence has its place, and a cyclone in Kansas is not all that unheard-of. With that exception, the problem/solution structure works quite well. Five links in the chain, and Dorothy is back in the house where we want her. We’re ready to set the stage for her main underlying motivation: her need to get home again. The characters react to the things and events around them, and not to the off-screen commands of some author-puppeteer.
It’s helpful to examine these events backwards, to better see the chain of causation:
7. Dorothy gets herself in a load of trouble by squishing the witch with her house, but she wouldn’t have been in the house when it flew away if she hadn’t sought shelter there.
6. She wouldn’t have gone in the house if she could have gotten into the storm cellar with the rest of her family, but she didn’t get back in time.
5. Dorothy was coming back because Professor Marvel told her Auntie Em was sick.
4. She would never have met Professor Marvel at all if she hadn’t run away.
3. Dorothy ran away to save Toto from Miss Gulch.
2. Toto needed saving because he had escaped from Miss Gulch.
1. Miss Gulch wouldn’t have taken Toto into custody if Toto hadn’t bit her.
And that’s where we came in.
Try this with a book or movie you know. Try it with a story of your own. Why does Blanche go back to the apartment, even though she knows Artie might be there? Why does Inspector Wainscoting ignore the obvious clue of the opera glasses in the punchbowl? Why would Marvin leave behind the golf clubs, but not the cribbage board? Let your characters find their own reasons for behaving as they do in what goes on around them. Place them in a situation that will cause them to do what you want them to do. All it takes is a few problems and solutions.
And maybe a cyclone once in a while.
Jim Cort has been writing since God wore short pants. His novel The Lonely Impulse is available from Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/337106
Cindy here again!
Thanks for a great post, Jim. I’m going to try this with my current WIP.