Monday, April 22, 2013

How do you know if you're starting in the right place for your character?

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com. Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the soon-to-be-released The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet (Playlist). You can connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and check out samples of her work on her author website.

Advice I've often heard, and that I've probably handed out a time or two, is that you should figure out who you want your main character to be at the end of the book (or series) and begin when they are the opposite.

But what does that really look like?

Because I have two-year-old boy living under my roof, I have seen/read/listened to the story of Cars quite a bit in recent months.

Connor on Christmas morning with his new "zoom" pillow.
Cars is a brilliant example of the "start in the opposite place" technique. (Warning: I'm going to talk about the ending of Cars in the post, so if you haven't seen it yet and you don't want it being spoiled for you, don't read this!)

In the beginning of the movie, all Lightning McQueen cares about is winning the Piston cup. He cares about it so much that he's willing to risk it all. He doesn't make pit stops. He doesn't have friends, and no one can handle working on his team because he wants to be a one car show. He'll do anything to get ahead and be sponsored by Dinoco.

In the end, Lightning McQueen is so distracted by the way he left things with Sally, he can't focus on the  biggest race of his career. And when he has a chance to win it fair and square, he instead chooses to put on his brakes and go back to help a legendary race car that just crashed. He pushes the car across the finish line, causing Lightning to place last. I get goose bumps every time Lightning says to the King, "I think the King should finish his last race."

The bookends in this movie - the original Piston cup race and the rematch at the end - are a brilliant way to showcase the change that takes place in Lightning over the course of the movie. 

Here are several things to keep in mind as you try to apply this to your stories:

The reader still has to like your main character.

The trickiest thing with the whole, "start in the opposite place" technique is that your reader still has to want to go along for the ride. How did the team at Pixar take care of this in Cars? This is just my opinion, but I think a few traits endear us to Lightning McQueen:
  • He's a winner. We like winners.
  • He's an unexpected winner, this is his rookie season. The only thing we like more than regular winners are dark horse winners.
  • He's funny. Humor makes up for a lot.
It can be external circumstances too.

What about a story like Cinderella, where the main character doesn't change much? Sometimes those "opposite endings" can work in the form of external circumstances too. The story of Cinderella begins with Cinderella as a cheerful, song-singing girl who has been reduced to a servant in her own home. The story ends with her as a cheerful, song-signing princess riding away in a carriage.

Take a look at your work-in-progress and ask yourself:

Who do I want my main character to be at the end?
In light of that, who should he/she be at the beginning?

If you want, share your answers with us in the comments section!



41 comments:

  1. Great post (just as usual;-))I actually was waiting for the new post. You know, pressing F5 every ten seconds;-

    In the beginning of my current WIP, the MC lives with her father in one and the same house. She trusts him. At the end, she'll be a real enemy of him (that's at least what I've planned xP).
    Is this something that can work?

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    1. So was I! xD Generally they are posted at 6:30 Central time, which is 7:30 here and 1:30 there! Although Ms. Jill's posts are usually earlier...

      As for the story, I'm not sure. Probably. I mean, I see no reason it wouldn't. :)

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    2. I thought it could be too..normal. Predictable, you know. But maybe that's the opinion of the writer;-)

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    3. I think it could work :) As a writer I know I'm ALWAYS critiquing my writing and thinking it's off and everything :P

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    4. I think it would work especially well if she's close to her father in the beginning, or at least if she has deep respect for him or something.

      And I'm totally blown away by the thought of someone actually WAITING for a post to go live. Totally made my morning to read that!

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    5. Ok, I'll remember that. Thanks!

      LOL. Funny idea: I couldn't change anything to my morning when I wrote that. Just as Amanda said: it was 1:30 PM here already. (Hi there. What's life like in the past?;-))

      Excuse me. That was a bit off-topic. But GTW is really helpful. Can that make your afternoon?

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  2. Oh, this is perfect for now. (Side note: I LOVE Cars. My favorite Pixar movie, I think. We've seen that so many times in this house...)

    In the end, I want my character to know that she was prejudiced against others, not just them against her. I also want her to forgive those who hurt her and learn to trust them again. In the beginning, she doesn't know that and she hasn't forgiven them, so I think I'm doing a decent job of this. :)

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    1. Sounds great, Amanda! And yeah, it's a really great movie. It's nice to have an excuse to watch it a lot :)

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  3. Great post! I've actually been thinking about this a lot lately. I still haven't decided how my MC is going to change, but I think that I'm getting closer to making a decision!

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  4. This is what my current book lacks. Thanks so much! That so cute that your son calls him "zoom" my brothers call him "ca-chow" (I'm not sure how to spell that :)

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    1. Yeah, Connor has JUST started saying, "Lightning." So his new Cars stuff he refers to as Lightning or Mater. His old Cars stuff, he still calls his "zoom cup" or his "zoom pillow."

      And I only knew how to spell "ka-chow" because of how many times I've read the Cars book :)

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  5. My main character is a perfectionist and doesn't do anything that she can't do right. She hates the idea of failure. During the story she struggles to keep up the idea of perfection when her dad is dying because she thinks that makes her family seem less than perfect. At the end she learns to live a little more and accept failure as a part if life. Is that an okay change? She has a group of new friends who help her along the path.

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    1. Oh, that sounds like a really great story. I think it would be a stronger ending if maybe she even starts TRYING things that she knows she'll fail at, but that she enjoys. Like maybe she's a horrible dancer, but really loves dancing. You see what I mean?

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    2. Yes!! Thanks so much :)

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  6. My MC is very scared of being shown up as academically challenged, when he's fooled people into thinking he's smart. At the beginning he's a class clown, at the end...(haven't got there yet) I want him to be funny, but comfortable in his own abilities.

    Cars is wonderful. I've watched the previews on you-tube TOO many times on my computer with a gathering of small tots watching on. Fascinating.

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    1. Sounds like you're on a good path, Cait! And yes, Pixar landed on a gold mine with that one!

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  7. I've been thinking a lot about this in the past week! My heroine's change is a total 180 that happens pretty early and leaves her reeling...but I realized last week that I wasn't sure about how my hero actually changes. Oops. ;-) Okay, so the seeds were there, but I had to play them up.

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    1. That's an easy thing to overlook. I usually find a few characters like that who need some fleshing out in the second draft :) (And what are you doing reading blogs when you've got a draft to finish, girl?!)

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    2. I read blogs while eating. First comment was breakfast. Now I'm eating lunch, LOL.

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  8. Great post! Thanks, Stephanie.
    ~Sarah

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  9. Great points and analogies Ms.Stephanie! And I love that line about the King finishing his race :) I think that my character is, at the beginning, bitter because she is an outcast and no one really has ever cared for her. So you pity her and feel sorry for her. And maybe wish that she'd pull out of her slump. Then she meets people who don't let outward appearance define their judgement of a person and who really like her. And she slowly changes and is able to forgive those who treated her so badly at the end of the book. And work at getting them to understand her and she wants them to be happy and all. Sorta :P I'm still working on it in my head. Just a quick thank you, you recommended Anna & The French Kiss to me a while back and I just (finally) finished it and oh my wordy I loved it! The ending was harsh though. I was dying for them to figure it out. I'm so jealous...how did she get her characters to come alive so well??? :(

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    1. I'm so glad you liked it! I think Stephanie Perkins writes really strong characters. Lola and the Boy Next Door has really vibrant characters too. Plus you get more Anna and Etienne :)

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    2. I just got Lola And The Boy Next Door today...and I AM DYING to read it now that you've told me that!!! Etienne is my favorite book guy now. Because of the accent and everything!!! *bites nails* How important IS that book that's due in two days...

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  10. My next book, Point of No Return, ends with the main character Eric finally understanding salvation through sharing the gospel with and showing love to a person who has ruined a lot of people's lives. So to counter that I began the story with him struggling with assurance and the ethics of war.

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  11. Thanks so much for this post! I always look forward to the new GTW post. It's the first thing I check online each morning in the hopes it will be up before I leave for work. :)
    Ka-chow! Gotta love Cars. I hadn't thought about why I like Lightning or applying that to unlikeable novel characters. Food for thought! Another thing that made me want to like Lightning was the phone call with his agent. He may act like he doesn't care about others but he has no friends and in that phone call you get to see just jow lonely he is. Sympathy goes a long way, doesn't it?
    This is the very issue I'm trying to figure out with my current WIP so this was really timely and helpful. I have two protagonists with very different character arcs. Do you think it's alright that one of the characters has a more complete arc than the other? The first character has a pretty radical change but the second character does most of their growth in the next book. Does it work to just have one of the protags do a 180 or do they need to be balanced?
    Thanks again for another really helpful (not to mention totally adorable) post!

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  12. OH YAY! Finally, something I've already done and am pretty good at as regards my MC....... I'm so happy I'm doing at least something right :)

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  13. SO timely--I'm in the midst of sorting out my main characters' arcs and conflicts, and sometimes they really make me just want to pull my hair out. And light it on fire. And throw it at them. But that's besides the point.

    Let's see...MC3 needs to be in a position of confidence and leaderliness (so not a word) by the end of her story... She's like that at the beginning, but she hides it, because she's too afraid to show her emotions to anyone. (Which totally doesn't make sense out of the context of the story, but whatever.) And MC2 really needs to become comfortable in her own skin, and she's far from that at the beginning of the story. So A-plus on that one. And then there's MC1. Who is so complicated and so utterly imperfect... Luckily for me, I know exactly where she'll be at the end of the story!

    Yay. This is feeling more approachable every moment I think through it. It was starting to feel too big to tame, but I think this helped calm me down. (And a side note: am I the only one who thinks Cars was actually a step _down_ for Pixar? I mean it was Good, but compared to--say--Finding Nemo, it wasn't all that Awesome. But maybe I'm biased.)

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  14. Great post. :) In one of my books, my two main characters start out with opposite views and completely don't like each other. At the end, they learn to be compatible and see that maybe the other isn't who they first though they were.

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  15. Great post. I think I've got this. So in my current novel, The Tinkers, my MC (Dem) basically wants to be safe. He kinda cares about other people, but not so much, because if he shows empathy, he's going to die. Throughout the novel, he realizes that he affects others more than he thought and he tries to help them. Then at the end he shows empathy so that someone who was supposed to die, and who felt that Dem should be killed, doesn't die. At the beginning Dem comes off as rather unfeeling, but not as rigid as I thought, so I'm pretty happy about that.
    Thanks for the post! It's nice to know of another novel-aspect I'm good at.
    -Katia
    Also, I like your new author photo.

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  16. I love Conner's hair...

    Um, anyways. Yeah, my MC for my WIP is horribly developed, actually. I'm currently 1/2 - 2/3 though the first draft and I've really put all of the emphasis on my MCs best friend, who is uh.mazing. He's the one that's most developed by a couple miles, and that's bad.

    But yeah, I'll definitely be tuning up all of the characters in my WIP when those blasted rewrites come along.

    Peaces (great post, too!)

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    1. Did I just misspell Connor's name? Shame on me... *shuns myself*

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    2. No big deal :) Happens all the time.

      How funny that the best friend is the one leaping off the page! Characters are so unpredictable like that.

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  17. Great post! And perfect timing. I'm about a fourth of the way through mine right now, and I still don't really know how I want my characters to change. My heroine will probably realize that she's stronger than she thought and she can survive without the hero (her best friend and foil), and she'll be a little less cautious and calculating of everything. The hero's very reckless, so he needs to be a bit more careful. There will have to be more than just that, because I like that he's reckless. It will give me something to think about tomorrow in math. Thanks for the post!

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  18. We were talking about Cars yesterday. And I had to admit that I hadn't seen even seen it. On the bucket list!;) Hmmm shall think about this...and yes, Connor is soo cute.

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  19. Thanks for this post, Stephanie!

    Question: what is a dark horse winner?

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    1. It refers to an unexpected winner. I thought the phrase came from the Kentucky Derby, but online it says it dates back to Victorian times.

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