Avoid at all costs.
Writing great characters is tough stuff. In my view, the most challenging part of great storytelling. You can get all the other complicated stuff exactly right – concept, structure, theme, scenes – and your story can still just sit there, a bowl of perfectly prepared oatmeal, without a lot going for it.
Nobody leaves the house in search of oatmeal.
This might be one of those new ways to look at it that unlocks your inner bestseller self.
Think of your characters – your major ones, at least – as vehicles.
For what? For a vicarious experience.
Your hero isn’t a tour guide as much as she/he is a surrogate with a mirror — when the reader looks in, they see themselves.
Through them your reader will be transported into the character’s story world, face their problems and chase their goals, elude their pursuers and demons, drink the wine of their victory or feel the sting of defeat.
It’s your job to make the experience memorable, visceral, and dripping with vivid emotional awareness.
This is as linear and inevitable as math… if the character isn’t feeling all that much, neither will the reader. That’s what those other things – concept, structure, theme and scenes – are there for. To optimize the vicarious reading experience.
That’s a 404 subtlety in a 101 writing workshop. Get there quickly. Cause your reader to disappear into the character, because what the character is going through is just so… deliciously… something.
It doesn’t have to be pretty. Sometimes the best vicarious experience is one you’d never want to actually live through.
Think of your character as occupying a spot on a continuum.
A continuum is a finite linear scale of opposite extremes at either end, gradually dissolving toward each other. One end is utterly dark, the other blindingly light. The middle… dawn or dusk. Shades of gray.
Or… one end believes passionately, the other is full of atheists The middle offers agnostics and those who are spiritual but not religious.
Here’s one we can all relate to: the continuum of happiness. At one end there is suicide, the other, pure bliss. The middle… probably a lot like reality. Be careful with that one, we get enough reality when we’re not reading.
Another: the continuum of wealth, however you wish to measure it. One end is dirt poor, the other, filthy stinking rich. Microsoft kind of rich.
Just examples. I’m confident you now fully understand, if you didn’t already (after my post on vision I take nothing for granted) the notion of a continuum.
So now let’s apply this tool to our story building.
In this context, we need to define the continuum of character experience in terms of emotion… and then be mindful of where your protagonist resides on that continuum at any given moment in the story.
The idea is to move them around.
Since you are the creator (your chance to play god) of this fictional being, you get to not only mold your hero and main players any way you want (including in your own image)… you can put them through anything you want.
You can send them to heaven, or you can put them through utter hell. In great stories, both are often in play at various stages.
At one end the character experiences darkness: fear, hopelessness, anxiety, threat, danger, regret… all the things we hope to avoid in life… and love to read about. Not because we’re sadistic, actually it’s quite the opposite: like the terror of a killer roller coaster, somehow we feel more alive for having lived through it.
At the other end of this continuum the character experiences bliss: ecstasy, hope, redemption, laughter, joy, love, peace, passion, fulfillment, fame, fortune… absolute and pure upside.
Here’s the ticket. The trick.
This is the guideline/mantra to paste onto your screen as you decide what your character will experience in the novel:
Avoid The Middle.
The middle of that continuum, that is.
In Part 1, place your hero toward one end of the continuum. Make us feel one of those two extremes.
And then, at the First Plot Point… change it. Either make it worse… or give us a glimmer of hope. Hope that must be pursued in the face of opposition. Hope that demands a stiff price, with stakes that demand and are worthy of heroism in the face of that risk.
Even in the most mundane and vanilla of existences (which, when you think about it, and are honest about it, leans into the dark side of this continuum), there awaits the possibility of darkness or bliss, often behind closed doors.
Take us behind those doors.
This, in a nutshell, is what your story is about: the hero’s pursuit of resolution. Your job is to make that ride as vicarious as possible… by being the pilot of the continuum itself.
Allow your reader to experience the continuum, a state of extreme being, through your hero.
In terms of the writing process… this becomes your target. The blinders come off and a world of storytelling possibilities will manifest before you.
Avoid the middle. Give your hero something extreme to live through and, thus, feel.
It’s known as the hero’s journey… and when you look at it closely, it aligns with this very principle: the hero’s journey is the movement from one end of the continuum to the other.
And you are the cruise director. Give them their money’s worth.
If you’re intrigued by this whole notion of story physics (vicarious experience being one of six primary categories of story physics), please consider my new book (out in June), “Story Physics” (Writers Digest Books).