Characters Are Your Story
We writers spend a lot of time working on plot, and that’s great. Plots are fun. I mean, who doesn’t like a murdered coworker or a cupcake bakery in trouble or a zombie invasion??
But in a lot of genre fiction–and especially romance–characters are the lifeblood of your story. Plot is really just a vehicle for character transformation. That’s why readers are reading.
They’re not just reading for plot. They’re reading for change.
They want to see THIS person go through THIS plot, and as a result, change. Transform. In the romance genre, the outcome of this transformation is them choosing love.
So you need to get your readers connected to your characters, fast, so they start feeling all the feels.
But you can’t spend a lot of time explaining your amazing characters, can you? Of course not! Readers aren’t here for explanations. They’re here for Story. That means dramatic events unfolding on the page, in the here-and-now story world.
Your story starts, as you might expect, on Page One.
There are a host of fabulous storytelling techniques for grabbing the reader in those early pages, but today, we’re going to talk about one of the very best, A+ ways to reveal (not explain!) character.
Starting in Chapter One.
As we go, we’re going to talk about a whole lot of interrelated things. Set-up vs. Story, showing vs. telling, and the importance of your story’s opening, all while we do a deep-dive into the role of adversity in crafting powerful characters.
Set-Up Vs. Story
Set-up is “how they got here” and “why they’re like this.”
Those things matter, but not as much as you might think.
Readers will go along for the ride even if they don’t understand all the whys and hows…as long as we have a character who’s worth reading about.
Chapter One is story launch.
Your story has to start being Story on page one. That means change.
Story is change. Change of circumstance (plot) & change of character (arc.)
But that’s a bit of a Catch-22, isn’t it? To show change, we need to establish what already is, so we can show it’s changing.
Didn’t know I was going to go all meta on you, did you??
But regardless of any Catch-22 for the storyteller…Chapter One is still story launch.
This is where a lot of us go off the rails. Right here in Chapter One.
Going Off The Story Rails
(Important caveat to everything that follows: These are not rules and there are no ‘shoulds’–it’s all in the execution. Anything can work. That said, there is, “Um, if you miss this thing, you’re likely to lose readers’ interest.”)
As writers, we want to establish the story world & character so deeply and powerfully that readers will be stricken dumb not only by our towering genius, but by our character’s utter awesomeness.
It’s a laudable goal. But sometimes we go about it in a way that delivers the exact opposite.
Generally, our intent with these early scenes is to ‘establish’ something: world, plot, character.
That’s going to kill your opening.
Let me repeat: Story launch is page one.
You can ‘establish’ all you want, but you must also tell a story.
Anytime you find yourself saying, “But I need to establish…” or “I need to set up….” you’re in the danger zone.
You’re not necessarily shortcuting Story, but be careful.
One way we go off the rails in our openings is we spend too much time explaining. We simply TELL the reader too much…stuff.
Stuff they don’t care about…not yet.
What don’t they care about early on?
They don’t care how the character got to this moment in time (backstory).
They don’t care what about details that won’t connect to the larger story.
And they definitely don’t care to be TOLD how Great or Interesting or Broken or Alpha or Beloved-By-All your character is.
They want to see it in action.
Low Conflict-Low Motivation Scenes
Another thing writers do is to set the character in a series of uneventful, low-conflict, and more importantly, low-motivation scenes.
Basically…stuff happens. But it’s not Story stuff. It’s life stuff.
Story isn’t real life.
Story is hyper-reality.
Be very, very, VERY careful if your character is doing/thinking/saying/engaging in actions or involved in situations that a) don’t connect to the larger story, and/or b) don’t put them in difficult situations.
Putting your character in conflict-laden situations is one of the most powerful tools the storyteller has.
Simply put, with conflict, you can establish & reveal everything you need to establish and reveal–character, plot, and story world.
The Dangers of The Ordinary World
We often write early scenes that show the character in their Ordinary World.
Ordinary worlds are great and often necessary for film. But for fiction, I’m a bit of a heretic on Ordinary Worlds, because they can be more difficult to do, dramatically.
It’s hard to keep a reader engaged if there’s no real change or tension or conflict. Scenes that TELL the reader about our character, rather than SHOWING them in action.
They drive a car somewhere and think about Things.
They have a meeting.
They sit at the kitchen table and reflect on why they’re still living with mom.
They get coffee with a good and uncomplicated friend and talk about Stuff.
These kind of Ordinary World scenes, in fiction, too often revert to the author EXPLAINING a character(s) to the reader.
The problem is that their actions in the scene aren’t driven or important, and generally, there are no obstacles to achieving their goal. In fact, they might not even have a goal.
And then, the scene doesn’t actually change anything in the story.
That’s not Story.
Story is about change and transformation–of a world &/or a character.
So whatcha gonna do about it?
How do you establish what needs to be established, but still start the story in Chapter One?
How do you make your characters worth reading about…starting on Page One?
More specifically: start throwing some boulders in their path.
Pebbles Vs. Boulders
Picture this: You walk into work and your desk is covered with small pebbles. Maybe some dust. A dessicated leaf or two.
You furrow your brow, look around, think, “Jeez, what’s this, is the roof collapsing?”
But no, it’s not. You might call Maintenance or your supervisor, ask around to see if anyone else had pebbles on their desk. Post a picture of it to IG. But in the end, you brush the pebbles off and get to work.
That’s what pebbles do. They let people get on with things.
That’s bad for drama.
Now, picture this…what if you walk into your office and there’s a BOULDER on your desk?
How long would it take you to get back to work? A long time. For lots of reasons.
First, you can’t actually get to your work, as it’s sitting under a boulder.
You have some problem-solving to do. Pebbles can be brushed off, literally and figuratively. Boulders take a lot more work. And from this, a whole cascade of character-building events emerge from the fog of your story.
First, the conflict of the boulder itself forces you to action. You have to do something.
Second, the boulder creates far stronger emotions. When you have stronger emotions, you take more dramatic actions.
Third, what you choose to do will be different than what someone else would do. Your choices reveal you.
That’s exactly what you want for your story.
And then there’s the mystery of it all. Boulders on desks create worlds. You can use boulders to start establishing the story world and tone. You can infuse the scene with humor or eeriness or tension. You can establish story rules. Using a boulder, you can deliver all sorts of information & cues to the reader, and still start telling the story.
And crafting a powerful character.
So…go drop a boulder on their desk. Disrupt their story world in Chapter One.
Throw conflict at them and show how they respond.
But I Can't Yet!
Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s all real cute, Kris, but I can’t do it in my opening chapters because XYZ and ABC.”
You need more set-up time for the world or plot.
Your Inciting Incident doesn’t come until a couple chapters later.
You need to show your character has a bestie so you can tear them apart later in the story.
I’m saying, yes you can do it. You need to do it.
Just drop a smaller boulder.
i.e. If you’re not ready for Big Story conflict, use Little Story conflict. Scene-level conflict.
Donald Maass calls this bridging conflict, and it works wonderfully.
How To Do It
Take a look at the scene you’re writing. Does the character explode off the page?
If not, drop a boulder in their path and force them to respond.
Try these steps:
- Give your character a goal/want—something they’re trying to achieve or avoid in the scene.
The goal itself doesn’t have to be huge: getting a cup of coffee can work.
- Make them want that thing a lot in the moment.
This is their motivation, and THIS is where to focus if you have a less-than-powerful scene goal.
The cup of coffee isn’t just a cup of coffee; it’s sustenance and battle armor. Maybe they’ve been up all night and can’t think straight and REALLY need that cup of java before a meeting with their boss.
- Drop a boulder in their path so they can’t easily achieve that thing.
Put something between them & the thing they want, something they have to face & problem-solve around.
Pro Tip: The ONLY reason someone problem-solves their way around a boulder is because they want what’s on the other side.
You have to make them want the thing on the other side of the boulder. The thing itself doesn’t have to be big. Focus on how much they want it, and why.
Pro Tip: Motivation is another key to crafting remarkable characters!
What is your character doing in the scene? Is there something you’re barely mentioning, some throwaway event (“He drove to work”), something you can dig into a little more, and use it to throw a boulder in their way (traffic)?
- Have them respond in unique, noteworthy, surprising ways. And/or have them fail to get around the boulder, or in their attempts, they create more problems for themselves.
Your characters don’t have to react well to boulders. They don’t have to be successful in climbing over them.
Often, that’s precisely the point.
When you have your character face a boulder and mess up or handle it poorly, you can show the reader so much about them.
In fact, the fact that they’re so highly motivated to get the cup of coffee in the first place is revealing!
Boulders let you reveal distinctive traits, unique angles, and underlying personality truths.
Pro Tip: This is the essence of ‘show vs. tell.’
Have your character respond to the boulder in remarkable, startling, or unexpected ways, ways that are unique to them.
The character who, when stuck in traffic, puts on some classical music and tries to practice their deep breathing exercises is a different person than the one who throws the car into Park, gets out, and starts walking.
Boulders let you reveal character, and they let you establish the world.
But you can do even more with boulders.
Boulders Can Reveal Fatal Flaws
You can use boulders to reveal how your character is uniquely ill-equipped to handle the story problems to come. Some emotional way they’re going to get tripped up. Some belief or approach to life that’s really not going to serve them well in the pages to come (…but also might save them in the end).
Readers might not see the significance of their actions yet, they may not understand it’s a fatal flaw, but as soon as the story problem shows up, as soon as the other romantic lead shows up, they’ll get it.
The character who turns on classical music and tries breathing exercises in a traffic jam might be someone who’s trying to tamp down on her impulsive, nay, reckless approach to life. Or maybe someone who’s too complacent and needs their hair mussed a little.
The character who throws the car into park and walks off might be someone who needs to learn to let others take the lead…or rein in their ruthless ambition…or be less reckless…or slow down and tolerate discomfort.
Pro Tip: This, my friends, is foreshadowing. Readers love it!
Their boulder-response can mean anything you need it to.
But make it mean something and readers will love you.
Don't Let Things Go Fine
‘Fine’ is death to drama.
That’s really the essence of what I’m saying with all my wordy-words here.
I want you to mess your character UP.
In every scene.
Including your opening scene.
Take a look at your opening scene.
What’s your protagonist doing? What’s happening in the world around them?
Does everything go pretty much okay? Does their car ride get them where they’re going on time without a smashed bumper? Does the talk with a buddy in a coffee shop reveal a good friend who has no ulterior or conflicting motives?
Start throwing conflict at them in every scene, including your opening one. Mess things up. Back them into a corner and show us how they come out: fighting, crying, carrying a puppy…or a thermonuclear device.
This will reveal them far more powerfully than any narrative passage that tells the reader who they’re supposed to be.
SHOW us who they are.
Often, all this requires is revising an existing scene to add a boulder. A problem. An obstacle to getting what they want.
As they respond, they reveal.
There Are A Million Characters In Fiction...And Then There's Yours
Dropping boulders in your characters’ paths will allow you to show their unique angles.
It will make them more vivid.
It will infuse them with personality and color, and suck the reader in as they wait, no doubt breathlessly, to see what your heroes & heroines are going to do next.
If you don’t have your character grappling with any drama (aka: conflict) in your opening chapter, they’re going to be washed out on the page. You’ll explain them but we won’t feel them.
The plot might be all sorts of fun, but the character…? They’ll remind us of a hundred other characters in fiction.
Everything’s a microcosm in story.
Everything a person does (or doesn’t do) reveals who they are.
Use this truth.
Don’t tell us about your character.
Show us who they are, by putting boulders in their path and letting them respond in unique, no-one-else-is-like-this ways.
It’s an incredibly powerful strategy to launch your story and your character.
It makes readers turn the page.
And buy your next book.