Join Lisa Cron for an in-depth discussion in this video Explanation (Uncovering your protagonist's inner issue), part of Writing Fundamentals: The Craft of Story.
We've been talking about how important it is that the reader immediately gets a sense of your protagonist's agenda, what she wants, why she wants it, and a long-standing fear that she'll have to overcome to get it. Question is, how the heck do you know what those things actually are? The answer is by digging in your protagonist's backstory. After all, you can't filter everything that happens through your protagonist's worldview unless you know what her worldview is. While writers often balk at the idea of outlining or developing their characters before they begin writing, this is the key thing that can cut down on rewriting time.
But this kind of preparation doesn't have to put a crimp in your creativity, and it definitely doesn't have to include one of those long births to death character bios. Here's the secret: you're only looking for information that affects the story you're telling. If a story is about the protagonist facing a specific long-standing problem or fear in order to get what she wants, then what you're looking for is the root of that problem. You want to pin-point two things. First, what specific event caused her problem or fear in the first place? Second, what event triggered her desire for the goal itself? The trick is to then trace how these two competing forces shaped her life up to the moment that the story begins.
That's what makes digging into your character's past so essential. Truth is, everything a character does is based on their interpretation of the events. After all, we don't see the world as it is, we see the world as we are. For instance, Olive thinks that everyone is only in it for themselves, thus the nicer people are to her, the more she is sure they're only out to con her. So, knowing how your protagonist sees the world and where and why her interpretation is off is what allows you to create a compelling plot that will force her to come to grips with her mistaken end belief.
Remember, a story is about change, things start out one way and end up another. The information you'll unearth is the protagonist's before, which you can then weave into the story so the reader understands what she's changing from. The beauty of knowing these things is that it will also reveal something that writers often struggle to nail down: when exactly did your story start? The answer is it starts the moment life will no longer let the protagonist avoid her fear, not if she wants to achieve her goal, that is.
And this is the brilliant thing, unearthing the root of your protagonist's inner issue will tell you what she has to learn at the end of the story in order to succeed. Now let's go to the next movie to see how it's done.
- What is a story?
- Hooking your reader
- Feeling what the protagonist feels
- Being specific
- Creating suspense and conflict
- Writing flashbacks and subplots