“If conflict drives drama, then what drives the character is inner conflict.” – Adam Lebor
In the first session of Adam Lebor’s storytelling course, we covered the the basic framework of a story, and how conflict is a key element to narrative drive.
Conflict, however, does not exist in isolation; it has an effect on and is affected by your characters. By understanding what drives your characters, you can bring the conflict — and therefore your story as a whole — to life.
In the second class we examined character development and the seven steps to creating a strong protagonist or antagonist. By exploring our characters’ backstories, we can understand their motivations and goals, and therefore make their actions more believable.
THE SEVEN STEPS OF CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT
What’s in a name, you ask? Only cultural associations, and indications of a person’s background, education and ethnicity. Where and when were they born, what was their family like? All of these details will influence your character.
I’ll be honest: I regret picking Lilith as a name for the protagonist of Above Ground. But it seemed fitting at the time since it conveyed a demonic aspect of herself related to leading men astray.
Certain moments in our lives shape the person we become. Maybe it was getting that lucky break and being forever grateful, or missing by a hair and becoming bitter and twisted. What moments define your character?
Silver, the male protagonist of Above Ground, was abandoned by his parents as a child and brought up by a monastic wolf pack. The one time he let his guard down to love someone, she left too. Needless to say, he has serious trust issues.
How have the key events in their life created inner conflict? Perhaps your character gets that lucky break, but thinks someone else deserved it more. They don’t want to give up what they have, but are insecure of being revealed as a fraud.
Because of Silver’s childhood, he struggles to trust people. However, his bond with Lilith forces him to feel something towards her, and the dependency frightens him.
What does the character want or need, and why? Character motivation is central to any story, and it is a good idea to ensure that your characters have a personal stake in what will unfold.
Lilith’s main motivation is survival, which is a strong, personal want. But Silver’s motivations run deeper: he is driven by the need to help his ailing alpha, because if she dies, the entire werewolf pack will fall apart. Family ties are excellent tools to up the stakes for your character.
Expert or everyman
How does the character fit into the story? Are they an expert at their job, like Sherlock Holmes, and therefore driving the story? Or are they an everyman like Frodo, reacting to what is happening?
I’d never seen this distinction spelled out before, but it offers food for thought. Lilith is an every(wo)man, Silver an expert. The type of character you choose will affect how they behave in the story.
Plan of action
How does the character plan to achieve his goals? Your character needs to make plans and take action to drive the story forward.
A problem I had with the first draft of Above Ground was that Lilith was little more than a pawn being tossed around. When revising, I made her make decisions and find her own path — even if it often led her astray.
What is blocking the character from getting what they want, and how will they (try) to overcome them?
While Lilith is battling werewolves and demons to stay alive, she also must overcome an second, inner obstacle: herself, and the realisation of who she really is. These external and internal obstacles make her life hell, but make the story that much more thrilling.
As someone who generally operates under the “make-it-up-as-I-go-along” technique, I found inventing character backstories surprisingly inspiring — particularly when exploring the key events and how they fuelled inner conflict.
Some authors write diaries for their characters, or letters between characters, to help further build their backstory. I found jotting down notes against each of the seven steps enough to get the ideas flowing.
What about you? What tricks do you use to get into your character’s head?