Monday, February 20, 2012

Forked Roads and Man-eating Bears: Character Decisions

Decisions, decisions…
Characters have to make decisions—ones that set them on a journey at the start of the novel—otherwise there would be no story to tell. It’s usually a minor goal, something the character wants to do at first, before something—like an event or person—forces them on the overall focus, the overall goal for the novel itself.
For example, if a man—a reformed ex-con—decides to work as a janitor at a high school, he might come to work one day and find a body in one of the stalls. This spurs a whole new complication for your character: Is he guilty or innocent? Who really did it and why?
Connected to—or caused by—this minor goal, might be what’s called the inciting incident. The inciting incident is defined as the event that sends your protagonist out into the world, ruins or changes his current situation, and forces him to find answers—to answer the questions that this incident brought on, or to change things for the better. In our example with the ex-con janitor, finding the body in the stall is the inciting incident.
Likewise, character decisions must cause jeopardy and sacrifice or set in motion the inciting incident. For example, in Suzanne Collins’s dystopian fantasy trilogy The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s decision to go hunt illegally, to provide for her family, puts her at risk with the law. This decision (minor goal) helps when she is later put into the arena for the Hunger Games, to survive and fight others to the death—thus helping to save her family and world from poverty and oppression from the Capitol (overall goal).
In Christopher Paolini’s first high fantasy novel—book one of The Inheritance CycleEragon, the elf Arya sends the dragon egg away via magic, from the main villain of the book (minor goal), but this event gets herself captured. The main hero, Eragon, finds the egg which begins his journey as a Dragonrider, to help bring down the tyrannical king, Galbatorix (overall goal).
Using yet another fantasy novel, in Tamora Pierce’s romantic fantasy series Song of the Lioness, the main heroine, Alanna of Trebond, decides to switch places with her twin brother, to dress as a boy, in order to allow him to go to the City of the Gods to train as a mage, and for her to travel to the castle to become a knight (minor goal). This decision puts her at risk, because she could be killed if her gender and disguise was ever found out. In the other novels of this series, Alanna’s knighthood allows her to protect the king and restore order to the world around her (overall goal).
Please note that this character decision-making can be applied to any genre—I was just using the ones off the top of my head—many of them being fantasy.
Most novels nowadays—regardless of genre—should have the character’s decision appear at the start or within the first chapter. Set your character on a journey and make them fight or suffer to reach their goal. Force them to change it, making a minor goal into something much larger, on a much larger scale—or force them to abandon that original goal entirely in order to fulfill this bigger, overall goal that should become the bulk of your novel’s focus.
Think of your character’s decision as a forked road metaphor. On one path, it’s rainy and cold but empty. On the other…maybe a huge man-eating bear lies somewhere on that path? Which path will he choose to reach his goal—to get home? The easy, raining one? Or the man-eating bear path?
Let’s say he decided to take the easy route—he’d get a little wet and cold, sure, but his path is clear, right?
Now, what if, on that easy path, you—the author—decided he needed a challenge to overcome? You don’t want your novel to be a simple, boring read do you? Let’s put the man-eating bear in his way—what is he going to do next? Run or fight?
Either way, this “easy” decision just shook this character’s world, changed his current situation, and forces him to face something much bigger them him—just as the inciting incident in your own novel must do.
When trying to decide your character’s decision that drives the novel’s plot, think of this metaphor. The minor goal in your novel—in this case, trying to get home—must be connected to, or cause, the inciting incident to appear. Pretty soon, that rainy route home should leave your protagonist confronting a giant, man-eating bear.
What happens to your hero next is up to you.

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