Getting Your Characters Out the Door and into Harm’s Way
Continuing on our character creation journey, today I’m talking Goal, Motivation and Conflict. You’re probably familiar with GMC. If not, I highly recommend it, because the concept is pretty awesome and I found the book very helpful in my writing (and you can buy the GMC book here). But to boil it down, the idea is that your character should have a goal that they want to achieve, a reason for wanting to achieve it, and something preventing them from getting it. Gamers are very familiar with this concept, except in a RPG your character is given a quest, offered a reward for achieving it, and then ninjas pop out and beat the snot out of him to stop him. I’m going to break it down step by step.
Quest: Your hero starts out in his ordinary world. It’s familiar, comfortable and probably a bit boring. Maybe he wants to go to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters, and his uncle won’t let him. Something needs to happen to get his butt off of Tatooine, because if he stays there it’s not a very interesting story. Thus along comes the call to adventure! In a RPG, your adventure is usually a specific quest or campaign. A quest giver tells you "hey, bring me this sword" and you agree to do so. Slay the dragon, bring down the evil empire, save the princess, yadda yadda yadda. Though obstacles may occur along their way—as in a chain of quests, where each step builds on the last—there is always one overarching goal. In a story the quest isn’t always as obvious as it is in a RPG. In romance, the quest is to fall in love and live happily ever after, but the hero and heroine probably aren’t aware of it in the same way as a knight setting out to slay a dragon would be. In a way, your quest as the romance writer is to get them to their HEA.
Reward: As a gamer, it’s easy for me to shove my warlock out of her pixilated front door and send her off to slay dragons and fight the Lich King, because I want phat loot and awesome gear and she needs to quest to acquire those. As a writer, if I’m going to shove my warlock out the door to adventure, I need to know why she wants to do it. Before any character can embark on any quest, they need a reason for doing it. In a RPG everyone knows what’s in it for them, whether it’s coin, equipment, experience, faction or all of the above. There’s always a tangible reward for completing your quest. In a story, rewards often intangible. Heroes save the kingdom because it’s the right thing to do, not for gold and xp. But if your heroine starts out as a common scullery maid, why would she suddenly decide to save the kingdom from the evil menacing it? She needs a personal reason to get involved. Again, think of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker, simple farm boy, is presented with a quest: rescue the princess and become a Jedi. But does he take it at first? Nope. He offers to help old Ben Kenobi get to Anchorhead, but that’s it. Luke isn’t motivated to get involved until his family is murdered. Once the Empire’s evil becomes personal, he’s ready to go to war. Now think of Han Solo. He’s also presented with the quest of saving the princess, and he also refuses, until he’s offered a financial reward. But it’s not just about the credits, because we also know that he has a price on his head and desperately needs that money to call off Jabba’s bounty hunters. Speaking of bounty hunters...
Ninjas!: In LARP we used to refer to this as "and then the Assamites jumped out: (Assamites being assassin vampires whose mission in unlife was to kill other vampires, usually by jumping out of hiding and wtfpwning your character)(which is how I met my husband, but that’s another story)(he got schooled). It’s the empty room you walk into in a game where suddenly there’s a zombie OMG RIGHT BEHIND YOU! (Bioshock, anyone? Gah!) It’s the moment of "That’s not a moon, it’s a space station!" There is always something standing between the hero and the end of the quest line. It’s the thing standing between your characters and their Happily Ever After. Ninjas. Damn those ninjas, always causing shenanigans with their throwing stars! Anyway...your story needs drama. I’m a fan of fight scenes—not of actually writing them, but I like having them in the story. I like action. I like movies with explosions, so I’m likely to take the easy route for conflict and have ninjas jump out (or vampires, or magma elementals, or some more vampires).
If you’re not writing an action story though, you have metaphorical ninjas instead of physical ones. In Romancelandia, this can often be the Big Misunderstanding (as discussed in the Smart Bitches’ Beyond Heaving Bosoms, also an awesome book)(Sarah Wendell signed my Heaving Bosoms, squee!). Cheesy example: The heroine’s a virgin, but the hero thinks she’s a dirty whore because she was out after dark in a dress that showed off her shapely ankles. Better example: Though I mainly read paranormal and fantasy, I’ll read anything by Nora Roberts, even if no vampires are involved. Nora’s Bride Quartet series is straight contemporary, and it’s fascinating to me to read it because there are no zombies, no explosions, no murder mystery to push the story along. Just the conflict between the hero and heroine—personality conflicts, emotional misunderstandings, problems from their pasts. Their own personal ninjas who leap out of the recesses of their minds and attack their better judgment, if you will.
Next week is the last of the character creation section, where I talk 20 questions. I love character questionnaires. Seriously. It’s an addiction. Until then, be on guard for ninja attacks. Constant vigilance, people!