The Heart of Great Stories—How to Create Clear, Interesting Character OBJECTIVES
Friday, we talked about how to create protagonists readers will love. James Scott Bell in his book Plot & Structure introduces what he calls the LOCK system (which he has generously given me permission to discuss). LEAD, OBJECTIVE, CONFLICT and KNOCKOUT.
As storytellers, we must create a sympathetic, compelling lead if we want readers to engage. This is especially critical for longer works like novels or series. The longer the work, the more readers must love the protagonist, because they’ll be spending a lot of time together ;).
Yet, an interesting protagonist is not enough. We have to have an actual story, which demands an interesting objective.
Your protagonist MUST have a clear objective. There are many times I go to conferences and I see all these excited writers who are all dying to talk to an agent. When I ask, “So what’s your book about?” I often get something akin to, “Well, there is this girl and she has powers, but she didn’t know she had powers, because, see. Hold on. Okay, her mother was a fairy queen and she fell in love with a werewolf, but werewolves in my book are different. Anyway she has a boyfriend in high school, but he is actually the leader of a group of wizards from another dimension and he is pitted against his inner demons because he lost his father in a battle against shape-shifters….”
Huh? *looks to wine bar in the corner of the room*
Your protagonist must have ONE BIG ACTIVE GOAL.
This past weekend, we watched an AWESOME movie, Haunter. From the movie log-line, I knew I was probably in for a really good story, and BOY I was right.
The ghost of a teenager who died years ago reaches out to the land of the living in order to save someone from suffering her same fate.
This was a really engaging story, and I’m being super careful not to ruin anything, but early on, we realize something is amiss our teenage protagonist’s household. The same day keeps repeating over and over and over and only she’s aware they’re trapped. But why? How? Very early her objective becomes clear. Save her family by saving another family and break their curse.
Very simple objective, but loads of twists and turns. Really fab ghost story even for those a tad timid about horror, but it IS Halloween :D. This movie wasn’t gory, just a wonderful spooky mystery.
Another interesting movie I watched recently is The Purge. This isn’t per se horror, rather a speculative thriller, but it does a great job of probing at our darker natures and asking What if? The objective is clear.
In the future, a wealthy family is held hostage for harboring the target of a murderous syndicate during the Purge, a 12-hour period in which any and all crime is legalized.
This movie questions the nature of morality and what it means to be human. Sure, this is supposedly a utopian future. Crime is almost non-existent, Unemployment is at 1%, and the economy is flourishing, but at what price? The protagonist makes a fortune selling security systems for people to survive The Purge—one night a year when all crime is legal.
Hate your boss? Have a grudge against that guy who borrowed your weed-eater and never returned it? Well, apparently in the future, on my birthday, all murder is legal (yes, Hubby had great fun tormenting me about that). So feel free to hunt down your deadbeat ex with a machete.
One night a year everyone has a Get Out of Jail FREE Card.
Yet, funny how the protagonist’s tune changes (Yay, Purge!) when he and his family become the hunted (Hey, wait, The Purge might be morally wrong! GASP!). The protagonist’s objective is clear.
When a wealthy many who supports The Purge (and makes boatloads of money off it) offers sanctuary to a homeless vet who’s been targeted for extermination, he’s forced to choose between his family’s safety or protecting a man he doesn’t even know against homicidal sociopaths.
This is a super interesting movie, but if you’re a Texan, I warn you’ll spend most of your time critiquing poor tactics.
Yet, as much as this family was apparently unaware of proper use of The Funnel of Death I still enjoyed it because it generated great discussion. It did what good stories should do. Make us THINK because it offered a warped yet interesting objective.
All great stories have clear objectives. Yes, even literary pieces.
Don’t believe me? Okay. Here’s a good example. I was going to go with The Road but after Haunter and The Purge I chose a lighter example and one that was both a movie AND a novel, because I can already hear….
Oh, but Kristen, those are movies. Novels are different.
Um…yeah, but not really. I use movies as examples of storytelling because it saves time. But, here’s an example in the world of literary fiction that was made into a movie (that actually stuck very close to the book) to make you feel better that I am steering you down the correct path.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan could have been just a collection of tales about three generations of Chinese women, but they weren’t. There was an active goal to all of these stories. The mothers left China in hopes they could change the future for their daughters, and yet the old cycles, despite all their good intentions, repeat themselves and echo the same pain in the lives of their daughters. Actually the protagonist in the book is the collective—The Joy Luck Club.
The stories propel the living members of the Joy Luck Club toward the active goal of finding courage to change the patterns of the past. The mothers seek forgiveness and the daughters struggle for freedom, but each is actively searching and eventually finds something tangible. In every story, each girl has a clear goal whether that is standing up to an abusive spouse and moving on or boarding a boat to China to meet missing sisters.
Keep in mind that running away from something or avoiding something is a passive goal. Not good material for novels. Novels require active goals…even the literary folk ;).
What are your thoughts? What movies or books REALLY made you think? I love stories that twist up my brain and beg for debate. What about you?
I LOVE hearing from you!
To prove it and show my love, for the month of October, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
Also, for all your author brand and social media needs, I hope you will check out my new best-selling book Rise of the Machines—Human Authors in a Digital World.