How do we create and develop entertaining stories? At the end of the day, we ALL love a good story, but what makes a story truly engaging? A LOT of things! There are so many components that make up the “whole” that it’s a waste of time to argue over which is more important. Virtually any story, however, is at least more entertaining if you have well-crafted, interesting, layered and emotionally-connecting characters.
Basic Character Tip #1: The audience should root for or against him or her, and yet always find some way to relate.
Examples: Hiccup (How to Train Your Dragon) and Walter White (Breaking Bad). Two VERY different heroes and yet the audience is able to relate on an emotional level AND root for them despite their actions.
Basic Character Tip #2: The MC (main character) is the driving force behind a story’s emotion. If your story is not creating some form of an emotional reaction in your audience (or readers), your MC is probably not strong enough (well-developed).
Basic Character Tip #3: Your Main Character should have an internal goal AND an external goal.
**Below, George Bailey from It’s A Wonderful Life. Simple: an external goal of needing to get his hands on $8,000, and an internal goal of accepting his sense of self-importance and value. “Ya know, George? You really had a wonderful life.” —from his dynamic character, literally a guardian angel, Clarence Oddbotty
Whether a Character Knows It or Not, He Has a Contract With Himself – A Contract That Must Be Successfully Fulfilled
What this means is that whether or not the hero knows of his internal goal, he must go on an adventure in order to achieve this goal. This is often the difference between a “reluctant hero” and a “willing hero”. It is in the overcoming of emotional barriers and obstacles that provides entertaining setpieces and moments throughout the middle of the story.
Without a fully developed main character with thoroughly detrimental emotional issues, the adventure and overall story will very simply fall flat. Does this mean that every character needs to be some form a mental patient? Of course not. But I do mean that every character’s emotional obstacle needs to be important to THEM (him or her).
Let’s use The 40 Year-Old Virgin as an example…
He’s 40 years old and terrible with women. So terrible, he’s never had sex. On the surface and a materialistic level, this is not front page news nor is it a socio-political problem, etc. But to the main character, this problem is so detrimental it is ruining his life. That’s how big the internal goal for any hero needs to be and no matter the genre – the goal needs to be life changing in SOME way to him or her. And it is our job as a writer to convince the audience how important this issue really is.
It is also possible to say, a “life-altering” goal. Not all emotional issues will necessarily change a person’s life entirely, but we as writers need to present to the audience such an emotional issue as if it is that important. How different will her life be after she achieves this goal? The reader/audience needs to be “all in” or why are they even bothering? The audience is watching this particular moment or series of moments of the MC’s life because it is the most important series of moments of the character’s life thus far.
Allow Your Hero to Have One Main, External Goal – Something He or She Needs To “Do” In order to “Win”.
This is a basic, object-based goal, i.e. “bring the ring to Mordor and destroy it” (an have no fear, Frodo Kitty will take the ring).
But a more important goal is an internal one, i.e. “learn how to let go and not control others”. Finding Nemo is a perfect example.
The external goal is in the title! Find Nemo! The thematic reason Marlin (Nemo’s father) is going on the adventure is not just because he needs to find and rescue his son, it’s because he needs to learn how to let go and let his son grow up. In a sense, the thematic title of the movie could be Finding Marlin.
This ties into the hero’s emotional obstacle; what the character needs to overcome personally. So, in order for Marlin to learn how to let go (internal goal), he needs to lose his son and try to rescue him (external goal). In the image above and being pure Disney, Dory literally yells at Marlin, “YOU NEED TO LET GO!”
Now…we’re not all writing Disney movies, but it is at least a quite obvious example of stating theme (which is naturally connected to the main character’s internal goal).
He didn’t know that he had the internal goal at the outset of the story. It’s like an emotional “switch-eroo” for the character. He starts out on an adventure for one very specific reason and realizes, through facing and overcoming obstacles, the true reason for the adventure by the end. Ahh, morals of stories and thematic resolutions.
Most of the Time the Hero Doesn’t Know He Has an Internal Goal
Almost always does a hero first have an external goal – something of which he or she needs to achieve. As the adventure continues, he realizes what emotional issues need to be fixed (and rarely are they fixed easily).
Most often, the realizations of an internal goal are hit head on with stubbornness. This creates obstacles and they are therefore denied by the MC (denying that he or she actually needs to change). The MC notices how difficult it will be to overcome and achieve the internal issues and goal because he is so used to being this way (Yes Man, above, is an all-too perfect example). This is incredibly common in “real” life, much to our own dismay. We know we have to change certain habits, but change is never easy – especially when it is on a personal or spiritual level.
In order for a movie or book to be entertaining, the obstacle course the MC endures should reflect the hero’s personal issues in some way – whether obvious and deliberate, or subtle and simple.
(And here’s another image from Yes Man because it makes me giggle.)
Layered Emotional Obstacles
A lot of writers and story creators consider giving a hero multiple emotional issues in order for him or her to better relate to an audience, or to strike additional emotional chords with the audience throughout the adventure.
It would be ideal to focus on one major issue like “so risk averse, he never leaves his house”. You will notice, however, that additional layers naturally present themselves when creating and brainstorming one an emotional obstacle, because questions arise as if you’re sitting your character down in front of a psychiatrist.
Here is an example of holding a little psych session with your main character…
“What caused you to be so risk averse? What happened – specifically, what event – to make you so terrified of life?”
Maybe an answer during the brainstorming/psych session is, “My father was a risk management advisor for the government. He died in an explosion that I caused.”
So, sure, we can see why he might be terrified of life, but is his true emotional obstacle just simply “risk averse”? I would argue there is more to it then that. I would say this character has major trust issues, and possibly not just of others. Maybe he doesn’t trust himself. What does that mean, really?
It could mean he doesn’t have any self-confidence. It could also mean that he has major parenting issues and refuses to ever be a father, and so therefore he ignores women and is horrified of being affectionate since it might cause someone to fall in love with him and he doesn’t want to hurt anyone, etc etc etc.
You can see where I’m going with this, but as you start listing the issues this character may or may not have, you immediately start picturing – naturally, because you’re a hell of a storyteller – moments and obstacles throughout the adventure that will force the hero to face up to his emotional issues. In other words, the characters he meets and obstacles he overcomes represent in the very emotional issue he is trying to suppress and ignore.
Example: scenes that show him parachuting from a plane, or even as simple as shaking the mail man’s hand – maybe that mail man has a daughter he would like to introduce to the hero…
First considering your main character’s internal goal – whether he knows what it is or not – will allow for the external goal to become that much more important and, therefore, more of a challenge.
Writers Tend to First Consider an External Goal or “Plot Hook” for a Story or Project (in other words, Concept)
There is of course nothing wrong with this, but it only becomes a problem when the writer forgets to connect how the hero is affected by the external goal…or more importantly, why the external goal (overall adventure) is so important for him to experience.
Do not become bogged down with plot, hook and concept for too long. Throw the plot down on paper, and then move on to how the hero is affected by it. I promise that the plot and external goal will change because of your brainstorms and inspired ideas regarding your main character’s internal and emotional issues.
Put the main character in the driver’s seat – whether he is willing to sit there or not.
Max Timm is a 10-year veteran of the writing and screenwriting industry having been the Director of Development at a school for screenwriters, a screenwriting instructor, private consultant for A-List clients, as well as a novelist. His first book, a young adult novel titled, The WishKeeper was released in November 2013. You can follow Max on Twitter @iMaxTimm or on Instagram @TheWishKeeper