I may have gone a bit C Crazy but once I started, I just couldn’t stop.
As we all know the very best stories spring from the motivations, needs, strengths and weaknesses of the Central Character. The most important part of the word Character is the ACT in the middle. Action reveals the truth of who this person is. Not what they look like, though this gives us clues. Not what they say, though this can be great and very useful if juxtaposed with what they do.
The Character must ACT, not react. They must Choose an action at some point, and they must Change or refuse to Change. This is what makes a protagonist the main character really.
So, the C WORD METHOD.
A Character needs to have a CURSE, a CAUSE, CRAVING or a CALLING. They can have all four if you like but they must have at least one. This Curse, Cause, Craving or Calling – which in not C word terms would be your story goal or the character’s “desire” – usually springs from a CRISIS in their past. A wound or scar in their backstory that has shaped who they have become.
For example, Madonna the pop star may have been a neglected middle child, always searching for her father’s approval so she CRAVED attention and sought it from the applause of strangers.
Harry Potter has a CURSE – the lightning bolt on his forehead is proof of this imbuing him with a piece of Voldemort. He also has a CAUSE – to save the world from the curse of Voldemort’s darkness and a CALLING – to lead the forces of good and defeat Voldemort.
A story I recently wrote set during the reforming of the Catholic church through Vatican 11 in the 1960s was about a nun who CRAVED divine connection, was CURSED by her childhood in an orphanage and had once felt a CALLING but now found it lacking.
Figuring out your character’s C words will help form the plot of your story. Whether it’s flash fiction or a full-length novel.
The C WORD METHOD continues as follows:
Start with your CHARACTER with a Cause, Curse, Calling or Craving
Then throw them a CALL TO ACTION – otherwise known as the inciting incident (also nice use of Cs) or CRISIS that spurs them to pursue their C word.
Then all you have to do is pile up COMPLICATIONS, CONFLICTS OR CHALLENGES into a CRESCENDO until you reach the
CLIMAX and then show us the CHANGE in the CHARACTER in the
A cacophony of crazy Cs to create a cool, character-driven, competition-catapulting (fingers crossed) story!
Wendall’s main message was this – Structure your plot through character decisions.
As we know the very best plots spring from the intrinsic motivations and flaws of our characters. Their goals, hopes and weaknesses create meaningful plotlines that are compelling because we are invested in the characters. Alternatively, plots that are imposed on characters can feel contrived and don’t have the same emotional drive that keeps us reading.
According to Wendall, each decision has three elements.
MOTIVATION – what situation/idea/goal/event forces a decision upon this character?
DECISION – what choice do they make in response to that motivating factor?
CONSEQUENCES – what events does the characters decision set in motion?
These elements remind me of my days teaching kids with behaviour disorders in juvenile justice centres. On every wall were posters proclaiming a very similar process to get them to reflect before they took rash actions that could potentially land them in even deeper trouble. STOP. THINK. OPTIONS. CONSEQUENCES. ACTION.
A character has to act not just react. This process of shaping the plot through their decisions forces them to take active responsibility and turns a sappy passive protagonist into a vital force in your story, novel or screenplay.
In all forms it’s important to transform these internal decisions into external actions. To not just say, Bobby realised that killing the cat would get him in trouble, but to show Bobby, swinging the cat by the tail until it shrieked, but then stopping, holding the cat to his chest, wrenching its face up to look in its eyes, then setting it free.
Each decision has its consequences. Some good, some bad. As Wendall kept saying – every decision takes your character one step forward and then two steps back.
Let’s just say Bobby made that decision to set the cat free, but it was wounded and someone had already seen him with it. When it limped home, the owners called the police and Bobby was arrested. As the police approach him Bobby starts throwing punches, swearing and reacting as he’s always done, but one of the officers speaks kindly to him and Bobby thinks better of it and calms down. Goes with them peacefully.
After the inciting incident that sets up our story, the protagonist must decide whether or not to take up the challenge it presents. Once they do, they are propelled into the second act and continue to make decisions that move them one step forward and two steps back all the way through to the climax. Some decisions seem sensible, but others, motivated perhaps by their fatal flaw or a deep-seated weakness, we know from the start are only going to make things worse, much worse.
At the watchhouse, Bobby is taken aside by a corrupt officer who tells him he’ll let him go if he becomes an informer and feeds him information about the drug running bikie gang Bobby’s violent uncle heads. Bobby shakes the corrupt officer’s hand, puts the cash in his pocket and we know things are only going to get a whole lot worse from here.
So remember, MOTIVATION, DECISION, CONSEQUENCES and show us those decisions in ACTIONS that manifest the characters feelings and realisations.
As we hurtle towards the climax of our stories, propelled by decisions that really aren’t going so well, the decisions become increasingly reckless as the character is put under more and more pressure. Consequences get more and more dangerous.
Let’s say after informing a couple of times, Bobby sees Uncle Roger stash a couple of gym bags full of cash under the house before he heads out on his Harley. Bobby gets his phone and clicks on the police officer’s number. But then, just as the officer answers, Bobby shoves the phone back in his pocket, and scrambles under the house, emerging with a bag full of cash.
Then he turns up at his young girlfriend’s place and tells her to pack a bag. They’re both heading off down the street when the cat he hurt crosses their path. His girlfriend stops to pat it and they waste precious time. The bikie gang roars around the corner.
Decisions that your character makes early on in the story manifest themselves in consequences in the final act. Bobby’s decision to become an informer brings him into all sorts of dangerous circumstances he could have avoided. Even the cat plays a role in delaying his escape.
In every book you read and every film or TV show you watch, keep an eye out for how those character decisions are shaping the story.
And if in your own story your character isn’t making any decisions of their own, but is only reacting to external forces, give them some backbone and get them making decisions to give your plot a whole lot more OOMPH!
Hope that helps you whip your stories into shape.
Keep smiling and keep writing through all the madness now surrounding us.