What comes first, character or story? Does story lay the character, or character lay the story? This perennial chicken-or-the-egg question has many supporters on either side of the fence, or, road, if you prefer. Despite the levity implicit in the metaphor, however, the topic has serious implications for the way we approach writing a novel or screenplay.
A Character’s Story
One of the dangers facing an inexperienced writer writing what he considers to be a thrilling action-packed story is that he may loose sight of character motivation. One big event slams into another, and before he knows it, he’s written a story which uses characters like puppets in the hands of a novice puppeteer – their movement is trite, abrupt, and artificial.
So how do we avoid this without sacrificing pace and excitement in the stories we tell, or, without weighing down our thinking with reams of character traits and back-story? The simplest and most unobtrusive way to do so, I’ve found, is to take the central thought/philosophy/emotion of a character and keep it foremost in mind when writing her scenes.
In my forthcoming science-fiction novel, Scarab II, the protagonist, Jack Wheeler is drawn into a rerun of the cataclysmic events that unfolded in the North West Province of South Africa some five years previously. In Scarab I, Jack is swept along by events, forced to react to rather than to initiate action. But in the follow-up novel, Jack has a better understanding of what lies in store. He is also haunted by what occurred in the past and driven by one overpowering question: can he do anything to prevent the suffering and mayhem that is standard fare in the world today?
This question, born out of a troubled conscience and the knowledge that he may indeed have the power to intervene, motivates most of his underlying thoughts and actions. Understanding this essential aspect of Jack’s character has allowed me to write scenes that are powerfully motivated – an important part of fleshing out an inner journey that explains and fuels the outer one.
Identifying the essential preoccupation of each character, and keeping this foremost in mind as you chart the outer journey, allows you to write scenes that are inwardly motivated and stay on track.
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