Story Development

How to Write a Multi-Dimensional Lead Character

Characters, like flesh-and-blood people, should be made of more than a single dimension. Lead characters, in particular, need a personal life, a family life, a professional life, and a spiritual life. Not all of these levels should be given the same level of attention, but they should all be present.

The lead character should change in some way during the course of the story in at least one of those areas. He should become a better father, for example. Or make wiser career choices or make changes in his personal life. Whatever the change, it should be something that makes the journey worthwhile for the character. Unless you’re writing a tragedy, the change should always be for the better overall, even if parts of it are bittersweet.

In many cases, a character will experience changes on more than one level. Changes in one level often lead inevitably to changes on another level. One of those levels will always be primary to the story, but that doesn’t mean it must be the only change.

Take, for example, what Dr. Stanley Williams refers to as the Moment of Grace in his book, The Moral Premise. The moment of grace, according to Dr. Williams, is that moment when the character learns that the way he’s been doing things isn’t working and he needs to change his methods.

In his book, Write Your Novel From the Middle, James Scott Bell refers to this as a Mirror Moment—that point in the story at which the character takes a long hard look at the person he is or has become.

In both instances, the character learns something that requires a decision. They don’t have to make the decision right then, but they should become aware of the decision. In many cases, what they decide and how they come to the decision is what propels the rest of the story.

How to Write a Multi-Dimensional Lead Character

The First Moment of Realization

This decision is likely to happen primarily at one level first, but it has the potential to affect all four areas to some degree.

Lets say the moment happens in the lead character’s personal life, first. He or she suddenly becomes aware of the type of person they’ve become. He or she sees two clear choices before them. Change with the hope that things will improve, or remain the same and continue down the current path, for better or worse.

That moment of awareness—the moment of grace or mirror moment—leads to the realization that change needs to happen on a professional level as well.

Those two changes are likely to affect the character’s family life.

Or maybe the moment happens first on the spiritual level. A change at this level is very likely to affect changes at all the other levels, depending on the type of life the character has been living up to that point.

Change on All Levels

Wherever the first realization occurs—family, personal, professional or spiritual—it should produce changes at other levels, as mentioned above.

If it doesn’t, you run the risk of writing a one-dimensional character; a character who confronts himself on one level but compartmentalizes that confrontation so it doesn’t affect any other part of life.

Yes, there are people who do that.

And, yes, you can write a good book about such a character if the confrontation is significant enough to carry the full weight of the book.

But fiction is a lot like real life in that no part of life is completely isolated from the other parts. The various levels of our lives are interdependent. The various levels of your character’s life should also be interdependent.

It doesn’t matter where the initial realization happens first. That will vary from story to story and character to character.

But if you want to write a multi-dimensional character who is involved in a story that keeps readers turning pages to the end, the first change the character makes—or refuses to make—should lead to further changes and further challenges.

Take a look at your work in progress.

Does your lead character have a clear character arc? Can you identify the part of his or her life in which the change happens first? Can the character and/or story line be improved by reflecting that change in the other parts of the character’s life?

Take Away Value

The most memorable and compelling stories are stories of change. If you want to write powerful stories, a strong character arc is a must.

The best path to a strong character arc includes strong moments of internal confrontations and changes on multiple levels.

2 Tips For Finding Story Question

In the previous post, Can You Write a Novel Without Knowing the Story Question, we talked about what the story question is and why it’s important. You’ll recall that I said it is possible to write a story without knowing the story question at first and that I knew that from personal experience.

But I also said it’s better to have a clear idea of what the story question is before you start writing or shortly into the writing process. For one thing, you’ll know your story is finished when the question has been answered.

So how do you find the story question?

2 Tips for Finding Story Question

1. What does your character want more than anything?

Remember Joe and his weekly hamburger fetish from a previous post (read about Joe here)? The story question for that little yarn was does Joe get his weekly hamburger? It doesn’t sound like much, but eating a big, juicy hamburger once a week is such a staple of Joe’s life that he’s willing to endure all manner of hardship to get it (which raises the question of characterization, but that’s a discussion for another day).

If your lead character doesn’t want anything that badly, stop writing right now and take time to figure this out. This is important because if all your character is doing is going through life one day at a time, with no special quest, you do not have a story. I repeat:

You.

Do not.

Have.

A story.

At least you don’t have one anyone will stick with for very long.

To find the story question, ask yourself these questions.

  1. What does my lead character want badly enough to go to the ends of the earth for?
  2. What is keeping my lead from getting or having that thing?
  3. What happens if my lead succeeds? (How will it change his or her life?)
  4. What happens if my lead fails? (What will be the cost?)

Remember, the desire for that thing or accomplishment must be strong enough to keep the character going forward against all odds. The time you spend figuring that out now will be time well spent.

But what if this tip leads you nowhere? Here’s another way to look at your character and your story that might help get you headed in the right direction.

2. What unforeseen situation turns your character’s world upside down?

Let’s say your lead character is living life one day at a time. Going through the motions, maybe. Disinterested and disengaged. That’s an okay place to start, but don’t leave him or her there.

A few ideas to get the thought train started are a natural disaster, getting fired, being relocated, a new relationship, the dissolution of a relationship, a death, or an injury. Start with that list and add to it.

When looking for the unforeseen, it’s helpful to have a good working understanding of your character. Not every event will upend every character’s life. While being fired might be catastrophic for some, it might be a blessing to others.

Now ask yourself how your lead character is going to react to this upheaval.

  1. Does he or she want to get back to normal (whatever that is)?
  2. Does he or she find ways to make the most of the upheaval?

Those two questions will define the story question. Your story will either be about how Joe gets back to the way things were or how Josephine finds a way to make her new reality work. Either one is a great story question.

The story question will (or should be) as unique as the lead character. Take time to consider as many possibilities as you can think of. When coming up with ideas, don’t discard anything out of hand. I like to make lists and have often spent a couple of days thinking of possible story questions. Only when I get to the end of that list do I begin discarding the lame, ridiculous, or silly.

So what does your lead character want or what upheaval is about to turn everything upside down?

What To Do When Your Manuscript Hits a Road Block

It happens to everybody. Even bestselling authors.

road-closedYou’re writing along, stringing words into sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters when it happens. Like a deer bounding across the road in front of your car. Some problem arises that threatens forward progress. Even if you don’t hit the deer—or the problem—it slows everything down.

But it may bring you to a rubber-squealing halt, black tire marks and all.

That happened to me in February, pretty much right in the middle of my personal writing challenge.

I slammed headlong in the all important need for a story question. I reached a point beyond which I couldn’t go without knowing what my lead character’s quest was.

I did not want to give up on the challenge. That was important in my writing rehabilitation.

Nor did I want to give up on the story. Though I’d left the open the option of working on more than one story as part of the challenge, that just wasn’t the right decision.

I couldn’t continue writing the story.

I couldn’t give up on the story.

What was the solution?

What To Do When Your Manuscript Hits a Road Block

First, let me assure you that the activities I’m about to describe are by no means the only way to get over, under, around, or through a road block.

But they were helpful to me and may also be helpful for you.

4 Tips for Dealing with Writer’s Road Block

1. Examine the Road Block

The first thing I did was write a narrative summary of the section of the story where I encountered the road block. In this case, the first act. In fifteen minutes, I summarized the first act to best of my ability. It wasn’t a comprehensive summary and it wasn’t even complete. Basically it only hit the highlights, but it was a step in the right direction.

Then I expanded the summary into a chapter outline with free writing. Most of it was narrative summary, but I wrote dialogue and other scenes as they came to mind.

I also wanted to explore possible alternate plots. But it’s a known fact that such explorations often lead to total derailment. So rather than go into great detail about possible alternatives, I wrote opening lines for fifteen minutes. I ended up with 49 opening lines and was satisfied I already had the best plot for this particular story.

Reviewing chapter arrangement was also important. Although not many chapters are written, I have a general idea how the first act should unfold.

Persistent difficulties writing it led me to wonder if there was a better way.

How many of the chapters I think I need to write are actually necessary?

How much of the information I planned for the first act could be sprinkled throughout the rest of the story instead of being presented in real-time?

It was easy to see that the problem with the first act might be that most of what I’d planned was either not necessary or not in the right part of the story. Most of it was both.

A stunning thought, but one that opened the door to other possibilities.

Most of the work on the first act involved nothing more complicated than pondering. Simply letting it percolate through my subconscious long enough for the solution to arrive.

But I wanted to keep writing and I didn’t want to work on another story while this one percolated.

So I found other things to do.

2. Work On Another Part of the Story

I’d already written a scene sequence that I think could be the moment of grace for the lead character. But after spending a few days on it, I’d set it aside to get back to work on the beginning of the story.

Now, with the beginning causing problems, I went back to this sequence. I spent a couple of days reviewing what had already been written, revising it, expanding it, editing, and generally doing whatever came to mind.

I wrote the next chapter and introduced a new problem. I began to explore how the lead character reacted to his moment of grace and how he resisted it.

Then I asked myself what happened immediately before the moment of grace. What led up to the sequence I’d written? Who was involved? How did they respond?

I continued pushing the sequence in both directions for a few days, through several chapters in the heart of the story.

I did the same thing with a sequence that comes later in the book; possibly the third major turning point or the lead character’s dark moment.

I also worked on a possible denouement.

The beauty of working these sequences in tandem is that discoveries in one sequence often leads to discoveries in the others. It’s true. Figuring out how the story ends often leads to knowing how the story begins.

3. Brainstorm Missions and Quests

I spent a couple of days listing possible missions for the lead character. Or quests if you like that word better. Beginning with “Simon must take the One Ring to Mount Doom and destroy it”—Hey! I needed a place to start—I listed everything I could think of. The list contained silly things. It contained trivial things. It contained very serious, global-consequences things. It may even contain the Right Thing.

The primary interest was in getting as many ideas on paper as possible. The time will come to analyze and sort them later.

4. Review Other Stories to See What Quests I’d Given Other Characters

This activity didn’t advance word count since it was all reading, but it did help me see how I’d assigned missions or quests to other characters. Some of them almost accidentally.

Seeing how that had happened pointed me in the right direction with Simon.

Conclusion

These are just four of the tools and techniques I use to navigate road blocks when I encounter them. They don’t all work all the time or for every situation, but they work often enough to be the go-to tools for breaking through a road block.

They might be just what you’re looking for right now.

What do you do when you encounter a road block with your work in progress?

Can You Write a Novel Without Knowing the Story Question?

Can you write a novel without knowing the story question?

The short answer is, “yes”. I’ve done it.

The interesting fact is that it’s not as difficult to do as you might guess. Point of fact, it’s almost too easy. Anyone who has done NaNoWriMo without a plan knows it first hand!

Decide on your characters.

Decide where they are and what they’re doing.

Decide what happens to them.

Write about it.

Decide what happens next and to whom.

Write about it.

Repeat until you have the right number of words and a reasonable conclusion.

But it’s just like going on a road trip and making a course decision every time you come to an intersection. You may end up someplace nice. You may end up in a swamp!

Can You Write a Novel Without Knowing the Story Question

What Is Story Question?

When most of us travel, we don’t set out just to see where we end up. Even when my husband and I go on day trips in which we decide on the route as we go, we have a general idea of direction and destination. Sometimes it’s very general, but there is one.

The same is true for writing. It’s easier to write a novel if you have a destination in mind when you begin. The destination for a story is the story question.

Shiny Gold Question MarkThe reason story question is so important is that it’s the thing that motivates your lead character to engage in the story. It jars him out of his daily routine and into the action.

Without it, he’s just a normal guy.

With it, he’s a hero.

Finding Story Question

So how do you figure out what the basic story question is? Ask yourself one ultra simple question:

What does your lead character want badly enough to leave his or her normal life for?

It doesn’t need to be a big thing. In fact, it could seem quite mundane to a lot of other people. All that’s important is that it’s important to your lead character.

A Few Personal Examples

I always have plenty of story ideas milling around in the back of my mind. It’s my biggest blessing as a writer. I don’t know a lot about most of the lead characters in that crowd, but I do know what some of them want.

A middle-aged widow wants to paint the picture her late husband always encouraged her to paint.

One smart aleck twenty-something wants to leave behind the mess he’s made of his life and start over.

One thirty-something once-redeemed ne’er-do-well is looking for purpose after life as he’s known it crashes and burns.

One late-middle-age guy is trying to forget the betrayal of a best friend and the loss of the company he built from the ground up.

I could go on, but I think that’s enough to show you what a character’s story question might be. Each one of those could be rephrased into a story question.

How can a middle-aged widow overcome personal and emotional challenges to create the painting her late husband always encouraged her to paint?

Can a man who has spent all his life taking advantage of others rehabilitate his life?

A successful professional loses everything and is left homeless and penniless. How does he recover?

When a corporate titan is betrayed by a friend and loses his company, can he start over again?

These are not the same thing as a single-sentence summary. A single-sentence summary is a more concise and complete description of the story. It contains a unique character, an interesting goal, and an obstacle.

These sentences could be revised into single-sentence summaries, but that’s not what they are.

Nor do they serve the same purpose.

But they spring from a common source. The one thing your character wants badly enough to risk everything for.

The story question is what drives the lead character to do things that set him up for the story.

What does your lead character wants badly enough to go to all lengths to get?