Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Why You Need To Find Your Character's Tipping Point

by Stephanie Morrill

Stephanie writes young adult contemporary novels and is the creator of Her novels include The Reinvention of Skylar Hoyt series (Revell) and the newly 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.

Trying to build contradictions into your characters can feel like an awkward exercise. Especially because we've likely all had the experience of enjoying a story, only to be ripped out of it by a character saying or doing something that seems completely off the wall for them, that seems "out of character."

We experience this in real life too ("Stephanie is just not acting like herself today") but the difference between real life and fiction, as I've heard many say, is that fiction has to make sense. 

So while contradictions breathe life into a character . . . how do you create them in a way that makes sense? You figure out their motivations and their tipping point.

What do I mean by tipping point?

I mean this: I'm a person who runs from conflict, and who feels uncomfortable being anything other than friendly with a store clerk. But when Piercing Pagoda and their careless employee botched my 4-year-olds ear piercing, and then when their customer service refused to deal with the situation, I discovered I can get rather nasty on the phone. When it comes to the defense of my daughter - she is my tipping point.

Even as I type this, the anger bubbles up in my chest. I remember being in the doctor's office holding down my screaming child while they tried to remove the earring. I think of all the times Kathleen in customer service made promises to me that never materialized. And how finally she just stopped answering the phone when I called.

Y'all can't see me in my office right now, but within minutes, I've become more like a vicious, snarling mother bear than my normal let's-all-get-along self.

Do you see what I mean? I'm a nice person. Except when I'm not.

Let's talk about your characters now. What about that warrior in your story? He's always brave in the face of danger. But something could make him tuck tail and run. And it's your job to figure out what and make it happen, to push him into a corner where running seems logical to him.

Or what about the girl in your book who doesn't believe in dating? What would change her mind?

In his book Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Donald Maass poses the question, "What's something your character would never do?" And after you answer, you're supposed to brainstorm ways to back them into a corner and make them do it.

What's something Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice would never do? Marry beneath his rank.

And then he meets Elizabeth Bennett and everything changes. Right?

What about Tally from The Uglies? She would never turn away the chance to be a Pretty.

Until she does.

And doesn't it make the character's store so much more interesting, so much more real?

So what about your character? What's something they would never do?


  1. Oooooooh. This is a great exercise. Hmmmmsies, what's one thing my main character would never do...the book I'm writing? Let her family be hurt. But...but...xD Okay, so I'm making excuses. BUT! *cowers* I don't wanna let her family be hurt! D:

    Sigh. Writing. So painful.

  2. This actually happens in my novel! I don't know what it was called, but subconsciously I had the concept, lol. My character is openly insulting of any kid of non-scientific paranormal investigation, including and especially ouija boards. But then she finds something which makes her give in, if only she can talk to her dead father again...

  3. I'm my current WiP, my main character, Kyro, would never disobey regulations. He would also never be satisfied with a maverick, play it by ear, female trainer. But during the course of the novel, he comes to realize that regulations and well laid plans can only get you so far.

    I'm curious, Stephanie. What's something you think Ellie would never do?

    Thanks for the great post, as usual, Stephanie!

    ~Sarah Faulkner

    1. I didn't do this exercise for Ellie, Sarah, but I gave it some thought. It's harder to do it going backward :)

      At the start of writing her story, I think my answer would have been, "Ellie would never step into the spotlight." She views herself as a sidelines, backstage, in the audience kind of girl. And in the first draft, she was actually just on the crew of Anne and Green Gables, so that was something I pushed her to do.

      Thanks for asking me :)

  4. Eric would never kill anyone. Ever. And I'm not going to have him do it. Because it wouldn't help the story arc at all. Sometimes there are exceptions to the rule. I think that sometimes you have to steer away from the rules a little if it means keeping your story good.

    1. First, I wouldn't call this a rule but rather an experiment to see if you can unlock something in your character.

      And second, yes, this is an exercise that has to be held in check. Because there are a lot of things my character would never do (kill someone, shave her head, etc.) that don't matter because it doesn't serve the story.

      Let's use the example Amanda gave in her comment. She said she would never let her family get hurt. For something like that, I think it (can) work to back the character into a corner where she has to choose between her family and something else that's very important. Does she save her family, or does she let harm come to them so that she can rescue these other 100 people? (Or whatever actually makes sense to the story.)

      So it's not that you need to find a way to make Eric want to kill somebody, but you might back it down a notch and ask how he could be tempted to do so. Does that make sense? Or maybe try the exercise with something a little less intense.

  5. My character would never associate with someone who was not of the utmost integrity, but he does when he must work alongside a woman with a sketchy past to aide his friend. :)

  6. Taylor- would never let anything get in the way her being the best mom, until her daughter falls into a coma.
    Jessica-would never share her story, until her cousins soul is on the line.
    Jake-would never let anything hurt his sister, until that is the only way to get her to listen.
    Elena-would do anything to make her happy, until happy isn't what she wants anymore.

  7. Emmanuel would never let emotions get in the way of his con, until he finds that he loves the people he's supposed to be tricking.

    I really love this exercise. Makes you realize you've gotta push your characters. Would be fun to try and see how books/movies do this.

  8. Heather would never take unnecessary risks, until her father's life hangs in the balance. And Bryce would never let his parents discover he's become a Christian, until Heather starts taking risks and needs help he can only give her by leaving home to do so.

    Fun exercise. Something I think I've seen hinted at before, but it never clicked until now. Thanks!

  9. My MC would never serve any power higher than himself. That's a tipping point I have had in him all throughout the novel, but I'm seeing from this post that maybe I need to get another tipping point...:) Great post, Stephanie! Pinning for future use.

  10. Avery would do anything for Oliver, and she would risk everything to get food. I've gotten her close to one of these tipping points, where she's about ready to give up the only food she has to save her own life (and Oliver's). I have a twist now where she's tempted to just give up and leave Oliver, but she isn't going to. Hopefully as the book gets more intense I'll have her pass these.

  11. Your a great Mom Stephanie!! =P
    I guess for mine it's when my character sees her parents when she thought they were dead. it sort of takes away the whole tough-girl act and she sort of breaks down or in this case, it's her tipping point. Something to think about!
    Thanks Stephanie!!!

  12. First, very helpful post. Next, damn! Way to go mama bear! I am sufficiently impressed!

  13. That's terrible! Your poor daughter! Has she gotten her ears pierced again?

    And I think I did this for my character. She did the same thing as you, actually - she's usually really anti-conflict but then her best friend said some really mean things about her and my character overheard. She's upset about it for about a week and then she unexpectecly meets her friend and brings it up and they end up yelling at each other.

    But there can be multiple tipping points for different things, right? I should think about other ones, cause this happens not super super far into the book.

  14. I always shove my characters to tipping point. We both get exhausted after a while. This is a good post! I want my "tipping points" to be realistic and, of course, advance the lots to think about here.

  15. In my current WIP, my FMC would never give up her future going to college and fighting for her country. Until someone walks into her life and shows her a whole other side of the world that she's never seen before (or even thought existed).

  16. I think Finley's would be that she would never sacrifice one of her friends, or even throw them under the bus for anything. Loathe as I am to sacrifice someone, now it suddenly seems like something for the Maybe Plot Pile.

    Tallon's is much easier and I've already pretty planned his out. He would never succumb to darkness and chaos....until Finley starts to be taken over by it and he takes it all for himself to keep her safe.

    Cool post! I have to think of some other tipping points....hmm...

  17. Dem would never disobey society enough to not Pare, but once he realizes just how much "being a part of their games" affects people, after his good friend dies, he doesn't Pare, even though he gets really tempted.

    Thanks for the post, Stephanie!

  18. Ooh, this is a good thing to think about. Love posts like this!

  19. In my current fantasy project, my MC's adopted brother is a pain in the neck and would rather that he wasn't there at all. He's demeaning and belligerent ... and I was starting to think that the only hope I had for him was to wipe his memories at the end and let the two of them begin anew.

    But then he saw the monster she had to fight ... and discovered that he did care. Enough to refuse to let her go fight it if she didn't take him with her.

  20. Sixpence would never compromise his own safety for someone else... until he does ^_^

  21. Ah, love the blog posts that make me sit up and ponder. I'm going to be thinking about this one for a long while...

  22. My MMC Spencer would never intentionally hurt himself...until the death of a close friend leads him down a self-destructive path. This is a very helpful article! Thank you! I'll definitely be doing this for other characters.

  23. In my story Bumped, my character July would never get adopted, she would push everyone away until they sent her to another foster family. Then she finds a family she likes, and then she needs to make a choice about whether to stay and behave of not.