Here I'm going to give examples from WEETZIE BAT to help illustrate my 12 Question Structure
1 and 2: What is the main character’s gift? What is the character’s flaw?
The first question to ask yourself is: What is the main character’s gift? Often my students have written whole first drafts and don't know the answer to this question.Sometimes this is because many first novels are autobiographical and most of us don't really value our own special gifts. Our friends do. It helps to ask them. Whether your character is based on you or not, usually they do have a special gift, even in a rough first draft, but it may not be developed or externalized enough. Meaning, if your character is intelligent, can you make them even more so? Can you show this intelligence through actions they take rather than just by telling us about it? For example, can they solve a mystery that pertains to the novel? In fantasy, paranormal, magical realism and science-fiction these traits can be externalized in dramatic ways. For example, a character can have visions, telepathy, telekinetic abilities or other "superpowers". In realistic fiction we have to find ways to show a special gift in terms of every day life, and through action! Make sure to make the gift something that can be demonstrated through action, not just through how the character perceives the world but how s/he interacts in the world.
This is important according to the 'survivalist theory" of storytelling because a reader needs to identify with a main character on an emotional level in order to go on the journey and identify the meaning of the story, at least in a subconscious way. Otherwise we won’t care, we won’t learn, we won’t “survive.”
Also, gifts can be the thing that allow the characters to survive. As readers, our interest is piqued and we begin to wonder how the gift will be employed to help the character survive. The character may not know or recognize the gift but the writer should know it.
An example: In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Scout is strong and loyal. She is also innocent, which allows her to keep her faith in humanity in spite of everything that happens. Her innocence also helps save Atticus when the mob threatens him. She is many other positive things (smart, spunky, funny) but for the purposes of this exercise let's focus on the first three traits. Next week we will look at the character "flaw". Hint: It works well if it is the negative extreme of the gift.
I’ll give you an example from the book
WEETZIE: HER GIFT IS TO SEE THE MAGIC AND BEAUTY AND LOVE IN THE WORLD
What is the character’s flaw? The best character gifts are those that can be flaws when they are taken to the extreme. For example, the extreme negative of being strong can be shut down, the extreme negative of loving can be smothering, the extreme negative of being giving can be co-depenedence etc. Think about your character’s flaw as an extreme negative of their gift.
This is important because we need the character to get into trouble so we can see the worst case scenario of the story, and what to avoid. Flawed characters are interesting because they cause things to happen around them, which satisfies the reader’s need for story. Scout’s flaw is her stubbornness/wilfullness/pride. Also her naivete (flip side of innocence). What is your character’s flaw? How does it get them into trouble?
WEETZIE: HER FLAW IS THE EXTREME NEGATIVE OF HER GIFT. SHE ONLY ALLOWS HERSELF TO SEE THE MAGIC AND BEAUTY. SHE DOESN’T LET HERSELF SEE THE DARKNESS, FACE REALITY.
What does the character want? Characters need goals. These goals are usually something concrete that we can witness them actively pursuing. The goals will change as the book progresses and usually become weightier. For example, in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Scout’s goal is to be able to go to school. A little later in the book it is to defend her family.
A character goal is important because it gives us something to care about and vicariously fight for through the protagonist (but only if we identify with them—see the first question, What is the gift?).
WEETZIE WANTS LOVE AND FAMILY (A BABY) AND HAPPILY EVER AFTER
What does the character need? A want is something that is often concrete and that can be obtained but a need is usually something deeper and internal that will benefit the character, though they may not know how important it is for them until the end of the book.
This is important because it teaches the reader about the qualities needed to survive in the world. (but only if the character almost doesn’t survive—more on this later).Survival may not be literal—it can translate to: the things one needs in order to be happy or to succeed at a certain quest. In MOCKINGBIRD Scout’s need is to develop compassion as a way to address the inequities in the world.
THE WANT IS THE INITIAL PROBLEM THE CHARACTER FACES. THE NEED IS THE DEEPER STORY PROBLEM.
WEETZIE NEEDS TO FACE REALITY. SHE NEEDS TO SEE HER LOVED ONES FOR WHO THEY REALLY ARE.
5. When planning your story, ask yourself, What is the character arc?
To define the arc, think of the state of mind that the character is in at the beginning of the book and their state of mind at the end. Often it is from a "negative" state to a "positive" state (i.e. fearful to brave, isolated to connected, selfish to loving) unless you are writing a tragedy. Think of your book as a series of scenes of escalating conflict between the main character and the antagonists that push the main character toward the culmination of their arc.
To tie the arc to previous questions ask yourself, How does the central gift help the character reach the culmination of their arc?
Often the "flaw" shows up at the opening of the book and in the beginning of the arc. How does overcoming the flaw help the character reach the culmination of the arc?
How does the “want” push the character out into the world so that they will eventually be able to fulfill their arc?
Is the “need” the same thing as the final stage of the arc? It often is.
For example, if a character in a hero’s journey type of story is fearful at the beginning and becomes brave at the end they need bravery, though they may want to avoid conflict and stay at home. Their gift/ flaw can be that they are a pacifist/too passive. By being thrust into the world on a quest they become brave and active in spite of themselves.( The trick with a want of this nature is that it is passive rather than active).
Following a character's arc is important because it provides a reader with a template for what to do or not do in dangerous situations.
For Scout, the arc can be defined as going from a somewhat prejudiced child to becoming a wiser, compassionate young woman (a classic coming of age arc.) Her strength (demonstrated at first by her wants—to go to school, to defend her family at all costs) serves her well here. But her stubbornness also gets in the way of her growth at first, and creates the needed tension. Ultimately, however, her love and loyalty to her family (as well as Atticus’ teachings and the circumstances she faces) help her fully open her heart to others and see the truth about Boo Radley. Her need (to grow up and become more open minded) is the same as the culmination of her arc.
IN WEETZIE, THE ARC IS FROM ROSE COLORED GLASSES TO DARKNESS TO THE FULL SPECTRUM OF COLOR. WEETZIE GOES FROM ILLUSION TO REALITY. SHE FINDS REAL MAGIC, WHEN SHE FACES THE TRUTH ABOUT LIFE
6: Who is the antagonist?
How do they interfere with what the character wants?
How do they force the character to achieve what they need?
This is important because it provides obstacles to the character goal, raises the stakes and gives the reader the dopamine rush as they wonder, what will happen next? In TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Mr. Ewell is the obvious antagonist whom Scout must overcome in the climax. Boo Radley is the false antagonist at the beginning, and even Atticus can be seen as an antagonist in that he forces her to change.
Who is your “bad guy” overt antagonist? Often the reader will see the thing that the main character needs to learn expressed through the negative actions of this antagonist. For example, Bob Ewell is a closed-minded racist.
Who is your “false antagonist” if you have one? The character who adds tension when the real antagonist isn’t present. In a mystery, a “false antagonist” can also distract the reader, and the main character, from the overt antagonist by serving as a red herring. This can also work in novels which are not traditional mysteries but have that page turning element. For example, Boo Radley is scary at first but turns out to be the hero.
Who is your “loving antagonist”? The character who is close to the main character and causes conflict that will help lead them toward a positive change. Often the reader will see the thing that the main character needs to learn expressed through the positive actions of this antagonist. For example, Atticus is a humanist and teaches tolerance and kindness through his actions.
THE ANTAGONIST IS A SIGNIFICANT PART OF THE STORY PROBLEM
WEETZIE’S BIG BAD AND FALSE ANTAGONIST IS VIXANNE WHO ONLY SEES THE DARKNESS AND HELPS WEETZIE ACKNOWLEDGE DARKNESS
WEETZIE’S LOVING ANTAGONIST IS CHARLIE WHO FORCES HER TO CHANGE, ALSO MAX
7 SETTING Setting can reflect character. Each character will notice different details of setting. One way to choose what to describe is to think about how the POV character is seeing the world.But descriptions of setting should not be simply there for their own sake. Descriptions should move the story forward. The best way to use setting in this capacity is to have it provide conflict in your story. Obviously, the more threatening the setting, the more conflict it will provide. However, even a peaceful, bucolic setting can provide a kind of tension if the protagonist is struggling with an internal conflict that won’t allow him/her to experience the positive aspects of the setting.
Setting can BE character. You should know your setting as well as you know your “other” characters. The setting can have a gift/flaw and even a want/need. The setting of your novel can have an arc.
Setting can establish theme. In MOCKINGBIRD, small town prejudice is the backdrop against which the story about the dangers of prejudice comes to life. Scout’s initial flaw of being closed minded is expressed through the small town setting.
Setting is important in the “survival theory” of storytelling because it gives a specific context to your story. The reader can then apply the story to their own world more easily if the world of the story feels real, plausible and specific. A clear setting helps the reader navigate their own world more clearly. Even if a story is set in the past, its story problem can be relatable to today’s audience if enough parallels can be drawn. For the same reasons, a futuristic or sci fi story must have valid, accessible principles.
What is your setting? How do the details of setting that you describe convey your main character’s point of view? How does your setting provide conflict? Is your setting like a character? If so, what is its gift/flaw, want/need and arc? Is your setting related to your theme?
WEETZIE: LOS ANGELES IN ALL HER DARK/LIGHT GLORY
8 What style of writing will you use to tell the story? How is the character reflected in the style and through the POV? How is the story problem reflected? Style is important because it will help us invest more deeply in the substance of the story so that we will be seduced into learning the things we need in order to “survive.” .” Narrative or colloquial voice – Scout’s spunky voice -- can engage readers, drawing them into story and characters without being hit over head with theme or message.
WEETZIE: LYRICAL PLAYFUL POV IS REFLECTED IN THE CLOSE THIRD PERSON VOICE OF THE BOOK
9 The crisis of the book comes toward the middle. It is also known as the dark night of the soul and compels the character to move toward the climax and resolution. Perhaps the shooting of Tom Robinson, when Scout realizes the corruption of the world. This serves to open her mind and heart.
WEETZIE: DARK NIGHT OF SOUL WHEN CHARLIE DIES AND THEN WHEN MAX LEAVES HER
10 The climax is the most dramatic scene in your book that comes near the end and pits the protagonist against the antagonist. Usually it has more action than any other scene.
How does the climax demonstrate a push toward the resolution of the character arc? When Scout is saved from Ewell by Boo Radley she realizes the true nature of good vs. evil. This also reflects back to racial prejudice theme – not to fear what you don’t know, not to judge something/someone who is different from you
WEETZIE: WHERE SHE CONFRONTS VIXANNE
11 What is the theme? Can you state it as a cause/effect sentence? If…then… Can you state theme in terms of character arc (and survival?)? If we open our hearts and treat others with kindness and morality and as our equals, if we protect the innocent, we will mature into wise, content adults in spite of the evil in the world.
WEETZIE THEME: IF YOU FACE REALITY AND HAVE FAITH IN THE MAGIC IN SPITE OF IT YOU WILL BE ABLE TO EXPERIENCE REAL LOVE
12 How do you want your book to end? How does the resolution of the book reflect the theme? How does the character’s arc demonstrate the theme? Scout is safe and loved with her family and she has a friend—Boo Radley—and an open heart, all of which will help her “survive.”
EXERCISE Brainstorm a brief resolution scene for your novel.Try to include a reference to the theme.
WEETZIE ACCEPTS THAT LIFE ISN'T ABOUT HAPPILY EVER AFTER, AND THAT IT CAN BE PAINFUL BUT ALSO HAPPY