What's Her Problem?
Your character wouldn’t have a problem if she wasn’t who she was. And without that, you wouldn’t have a story. Use your character to make the story and its problem bigger, more dramatic—and better. Easier said than done? Here’s what you need to know to do just that.
First, set up your character so the reader roots for her. Or worries for her. A lot. Start with a Save the Cat moment, one that leads directly to the Big Problem. Your character doesn’t have to actually save a cat. She just needs to do something to get the reader to feel for her. To identify with her. In the beginning of the movie The Breakfast Club, all Judd Nelson and then rest of the students wanted to do was shut the door to the library so the teacher couldn’t watch them the whole time. The teacher’s realization of what they’d done sets the stage for the conflict for the rest of the movie.
Once we get the reader to connect with the character, then we’re ready to send that character up a tree. And then throw rocks at them. Make it hard—really hard—for the character to do what she needs to do. What if your character will have to fight to the death? How can you make that even harder? What if she wants to win that fight without hurting anyone? If that’s the case, it would make sense to bring out her maternal instincts. Maybe make that be what sends her into the fight in the first place. There, that’s the set up for the Hunger Games.
Note that it’s not a bunch of different traits that characterizes Katniss. Her one trait, to protect Prim, drives the whole trilogy. And that directly contrasts to what she needs to do for the story. That draws out the tension. That’s where it’s fun to come up with how that plays out in the story––through the details.
And Suzanne Collins does it so well, too, ratcheting up the tension through this identifying trait of her main character. What triggers Katniss to volunteer for her sister is seeing Prim’s untucked shirt as she is called to the stage. A mother––or someone as protective as one––would notice that and have to do something about it. Every characteristic in the story ties back to this maternal, protective characteristic. Of course Katniss will later become close to young Rue. Of course Rue’s death will be what moves Katniss to make her first direct kill. (Until then she is merely evading the rest. The hurt she does inflict is indirect: dropping a tracker jacker nest on those advancing against her.) So it just takes one thing, one strong identifying trait to make your story bigger, since it’s through that you can establish convincing and conforming details.
From there all you have to do is make your story balanced. It’s not enough to have your character caught up in one chase scene after another. Your character’s character has to affect the action. Who they are will be the lens through which the reader sees the action. Jason Bourne is just trying to figure out who he is. MacGyver will figure out a way to fight off thugs with a toothpick and a rubber band. Does your character react to a challenge with a battle cry or is she someone who needs to learn how to stand up for herself? Is she optimistic or pessimistic? Loose or uptight? Your action needs to be a way for the character to show what tack she’ll take in approaching her problem. As with Katniss and Jason and MacGyver, the approach your character takes in that first scene will be what challenges your character throughout the story––and that’s what will bring change for her.
Conversely, your character can’t just sit there, either. All characterization and no place to go won’t get you anywhere. In editing your story, look for scenes where all the character is doing is sitting on his bed thinking about what’s in his closet and what’s going to happen. Those are the scenes to cut, since there’s no real obstacle in that scene that your character is overcoming. (Unless, of course, you can make it an obstacle, say, if you are writing about a boy just off suicide watch, where just getting up out of bed in the morning is a huge accomplishment. Then by the end of the book show us what we could never imagine that teen doing in the beginning, managing to find his way out of living under the shadow of his recently deceased brother––and then you’ve got an extraordinary story like Ordinary People.)
So now you know your character defines her problem, but how can you really put characterization into action? Here’s one way to work through that. Start with a clichéd action or gesture for emotions like anger, happiness, nervousness, boredom. Now you're ready to think about what unique way your character might convey these same emotions. Give at least a sentence. Consider what triggers these reactions for this particular character. What does your character do about it? What will that push her to do next? Don’t go with the first thing that comes to mind. Your reader can come up with that. Instead, play off of those expectations to push the emotions and possibilities within your story as far as they can go. And enjoy the ride!
Kate St. Vincent Vogl teaches students from nine to ninety at The Loft Literary Center and at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center. On April 20 from 9 a.m.–1 p.m., she will teach the Loft's single-session class "Cornerstones of Character: A Theory of Relativity." She is the author of Lost & Found: A Memoir of Mothers and has recently completed a young adult novel. Vogl has been honored as an Outstanding Girl Scout Leader for Minnesota’s largest scout region. She has shared her stories to audiences around the world, and her fiction and nonfiction have been honored in international competitions. Three of her short stories from her Infidels collection have garnered honors in international competitions, and she was named a finalist for the New Letters Prize in essay. She graduated from Cornell University cum laude and from the University of Michigan Law School.