How do you know that you have the right protagonist for your story?
If you’ve spent any amount of time in the writing world, you’ve certainly ran into the concept of plot-driven vs. character-driven stories. To simplify, plot-driven stories are stories where (you guessed it) exciting plots drive the story, whereas character development takes the center stage in character-driven stories.
In short, plot-driven stories focus on external conflict, while character-driven stories focus on overcoming internal conflict.
While you can certainly find extreme examples on the far ends of this spectrum, the truth is that stories–good stories, anyway–weave plot and character together so closely that you really can’t separate them. And if you want your book to become somebody’s favorite novel someday, you need to master the art of weaving together internal and external conflict.
To start, consider your protagonist and why they matter so much. Your protagonist is not just a set of eyes through which to see your world.
Your protagonist’s internal journey is part of the story.
Drives the story.
Is the story.
And this is why stories have similarities to one another and yet are totally unique–even given a common premise or story arc, your protagonist’s specific set of strengths, struggles, goals, and past traumas completely change the narrative and make your novel the story that it is.
Sometimes new writers get so caught up in crafting an exciting plot or creating an “original” premise that they begin to mistake excitement for substance, and then wonder why their book still feels flat when it’s packed with so many thrilling scenes.
But good books are not merely strings of exciting scenes. Good books consist of good external conflict and internal conflict working together.
If you want to write someone’s favorite novel, then even your most gripping scenes need to serve a purpose beyond just that scene. Without emotional stakes and internal conflict your book will either be a) totally unrelatable and boring, or b) full of cool, epic scenes that don’t really advance the plot–bascially fluff.
Now, I know that we’ve all been exposed to plenty of books and movies that thrive on the “string of exciting scenes” formula. I’m not saying these kinds of stories can’t work. (We’ve all had stressful days that leave us not minding a bit of fluff.)
But what I am saying is that these stories don’t really stick with you.
Excitement-oriented stories with little character development are those stories you consume and then, several months later, you find yourself saying, “I know I watched/read that a while ago and that it was pretty fun, but I can’t really remember what happens.”
Of course you can’t remember what happens–the human brain thrives on emotional context.
We all like to fancy ourselves as logical, rational beings, but it’s estimated that 80-95% of human decision-making is based on emotions (though we use logic to back ourselves up after the fact.) We’re far better at noticing and remembering events, including fictional events, with an emotional context behind them.
Not only that, but we’re social by nature, and events that involve ourselves or people we love (including fictional people) get marked as “important” by our brains, especially when there’s an emotional current behind it.
What all of this means is that when a story has little emotional context, a plot is merely a string of events, and trying to recall those events is like trying to memorize a list–you can do it for a while, but over time your frugal brain will chuck it in the “delete” bin.
(If you’ve ever wondered why you retain more from historical fiction than you do from a dry history book, this is why. Context = long-term retention.)
Now, contrast your experience with exciting-but-forgettable stories to your all-time favorite movie or novel–one that really gave you a “wow, that changed my life,” kind of reaction. I guarantee you that whatever story you’re thinking of neatly wove together external and internal conflict. It had an emotional context that resonated with you, so you remembered it. And now it’s your all-time favorite.
What gives a story emotional context is characterization and the internal conflict that your protagonist works through during the course of the story.
What does this mean for your writing? How can you write somebody’s all-time favorite story?
- Make sure that your protagonist is the right one to tell your story. They should have an internal journey that both influences and is influenced by the external conflict in your novel.
- Don’t mistake excitement for development. If a scene doesn’t advance the plot or character development, then cut it.
- If you’re writing a high-stakes story, make sure we care about your characters first. For example, if your story has a survival element to it, make it clear to the reader why they should be rooting for your character to survive. (I’ll be writing another post soon on character relatability and how to make your characters likeably flawed.)
- As a thought experiment, try swapping out your protagonist for another character and imagining how your story would progress. If your story basically continues as-is, that may be a sign you’re relying too much on plot points and haven’t developed your internal conflict enough.
- If your story is feeling flat, consider first how you can raise the emotional stakes before raising the external stakes. Sometimes you need more of both, but often it’s a better-developed internal journey that’s needed.
Now to quote one of my favorite movies, remember that plot and character work like this: together, as a duo, that will never be separated.
What’s your favorite book or movie? Why did it resonate with you so much?
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