If you’re writing a story, you need a premise.
In an earlier post, I discussed how to create and develop a premise for a good story. A premise is basically your story, beginning to end, condensed into one sentence. I used examples from Aquaman, Black Panther, and Star Wars. I also stressed the importance of knowing what your story is really about, which is a separate thing from the premise. The premise is for the reader – a very short synopsis of the tale being told. What it’s really about, the core of the story, is for you the writer. It’s a reminder of the message, the purpose of the story, that will shake your readers and change your life.
Now, we move on to character. Once you know what your story is about, you have to create a character to tell it. Really, you need a hero. Your hero is the most important character of the story, but he is not the only character that matters. All your characters – if they are great characters – help define your hero in some shape or form. They matter. They, through their interactions with the hero, give us a better picture of who the hero is and why he does what he does. This will be discussed more in later posts, so for now we’ll just focus on the hero and how the story is told through him.
There are a lot of facets to a hero that work to help him drive the story. First, he must be relatable and the audience must be able to identify with him. What does that mean? Most writers have a very, very shallow definition of these terms, and think it means that readers must be able to see themselves in the hero. Maybe he looks like they do, or maybe he’s put-upon or has a job or background they might be familiar with. That’s not what those terms mean at all. Art is universal, and those qualities are not. A hero is relatable or can be ‘identified with’ through his wants and needs. What does your hero want, and what does he need? These two things are different, and both work to drive the story.
Your hero begins the story wanting something. As the title of this post suggests, I’ll use the example of Dr. Strange. Our hero in this story, Dr. Stephen Strange, has been in an accident that permanently damages his hands and ends his career as a surgeon. His career was his life and the source of his sense of self, so he spends the first act spiraling into an existential crisis and wants his hands to be restored. That’s really where the story begins, when he sets off to find a way to repair his hands.
The audience, however, has seen who Dr. Strange is at the beginning of the story (through the way he interacts with the other characters), and knows that what Dr. Strange wants isn’t really what he needs. We know that healing his hands isn’t going to fulfill him or make him into the kind of person that the message of the story says he needs to be. The story requires that he become a superhero, a master of magic, a leader and protector of the innocent; healing his hands and resuming his life as a surgeon and egotistical pathological loner certainly isn’t going to accomplish that. So this is the point where the wants and needs of the hero diverge.
When a hero sets off on his journey, he doesn’t know the true reason for doing it. He has a goal that gets him started on his quest, but is generally ignorant of his true motive, the real thing that’s going to make his life better or shape him into the person he must become. A shallow character would be one that wants something, then goes out and gets it. A deep, powerful character with an impact on the story is one that has a need and experiences a character change because of it. The moment where your hero comes face-to-face with his need and abandons his want should result in him taking a new action. The path of the story has changed; now we’re on the real quest. Your character is on the way to becoming a new person.
The path of your hero’s character development reflects a shift from your character chasing his want to accepting his need, then becoming someone fundamentally different because of it. This is not a sudden thing; it’s been taking place throughout the whole story. Let’s look at Dr. Strange again: what was Stephen Strange’s need? Answer: to set aside his ego and learn that winning wasn’t everything. Yeah, really. He had an obsession with winning, remember that? And at the story’s climax he learned that to beat Dormammu he had to lose, again and again and again. He did realize in the end that he was hurting other people because of his ego and pushing away the ones that mattered most to him, and changed in order to be more selfless and help others instead.
Character needs can be moral or psychological. Maybe your hero is shy, cowardly, and finds comfort in mediocrity but they need to become a brave, daring leader. That would be psychological need. Maybe your hero starts off as aloof and miserly and needs to learn generosity and empathy; that could be a moral need. The very best needs are the ones that directly affect other characters; if your character is hurting the people around him because of his need then recognizes and changes it, your character development could be all the more powerful. Dr. Strange experienced both: his psychological need was to get over seeing his damaged hands as an impediment or excuse. His moral need was learning humility. That moment at the climax of the story was defined by Dr. Strange taking a new action; he took charge and became a leader, he shifted the tides of the battle and abandoned his desire for healing his hands altogether.
According to John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, character change occurs when the hero recognizes that their need and want were not the same thing, and this is called self-revelation. Your hero has gained a new understanding of himself. While the character development happens throughout the course of the story, the moment of self-revelation is sudden. It’s dramatic. It’s got maximum emotional impact. It’s new information – your hero is seeing himself in a new light, and maybe feels remorse for how he’s hurt others in the past. He’s seen the truth. And, to change the course of your story, he takes a new action.
To set this up, your hero must be ignorant of his need. He must believe a lie about himself or his world, and it must be hurting himself or others in some very real, tangible way. Dr. Strange believed that his career and winning were everything; this lie hurt him because it prevented him from being a kind and generous person and it hurt others because… well, for the same reason. When the moment of self-revelation happens, it should change the course of the story and cut the hero to his core, creating a burst of emotion as the hero and audience see the lie for what it is.
Your character is not a fixed, flat, complete person (or shouldn’t be), and the scope of change possible is up to you. It can be dramatic or small – you set it up to fit the story you want to tell. The possibilities are endless. But remember, true character change is what drives your story and is a process – not a switch to flip. Your character’s wants and needs work together to move your story to completion and toward a satisfying end.