As a reader, what makes you love a book? Is it the characters? The plot? The setting? The theme or big idea? They all work together to make up the premise, but let's face it, not all things in a book are equal. And even a great premise can fall short of love.
Aristotle believed plot was the most important element in drama, but mainly insofar as it could generate emotion in the audience. What generates emotion? In my opinion, you have to care about the characters before you can feel for them. And that brings us back to what makes an audience care.
Passion. Driving desire. Action.
Passion, desire, and action are some of the most important engines that fuel our love of character. Or rather, they fuel the characters we love and make them do things we find fascinating to read about.
My brilliant critique partner, editor Susan Sipal (who also wrote The Writer's Guide to Harry Potter), brought up passion in the Hunger Games while we were chatting the other day. What she said echoed something else I had recently heard.
A couple of months ago at the Your Best Book Conference, literary agent Tracey Adams had the attendees name the defining characteristics of the characters we loved most as children, the characters who have stayed with us. The most common characteristic cited was that the characters we loved "made things happen."
So here's the key thing I took away: Great characters make things happen because they are passionate about something they then pursue.
The Right Kind of Inciting Incident
Many different people have written about how to craft a compelling pitch, but my favorite always contained four components:
- The inciting incident
- The character
- The obstacle
- The quest
In that structure, the inciting incident (and I love whoever it is that first called it an "exciting incident") is the point in the story where the imperfection and backstory of the main character has been exposed, the story problem is revealed, and the character has to make a choice about restoring order. The inciting incident has to:
- Create a tipping point between the status quo and change
- Force the character to make a significant choice
- Launch the character into a into a series of events and learning opportunities
- Have stakes and real consequences for success AND failure
- Hint at the climax of the story
The events into which the inciting incident launch the main character must prove the premise of the book—the combination of the book's inner and outer story—through emotional value, action, and outcome.
The Passive Inciting Incident
Now that we've considered the role of the inciting incident, let's think about its nature. Look closer at that formula for a pitch:
When INCITING INCIDENT, CHARACTER must overcome the OBSTACLE to achieve THE QUEST.
Notice the problem? What that sentence actually implies is the following:
When INCITING INCIDENT (happens to CHARACTER), he/she must overcome the OBSTACLE to achieve THE QUEST.
The pitch is passive voice. Passive. Not active. And if the writers in the room with me at Tracy Adams' workshop were any indication, we love active characters. That means we have to create an active response in the character to counteract the passive nature of the inciting incident. To do that, it has always been tempting for me to create a deeper hole that my main character has to dig herself out of. But after thinking this through, I'm starting to think that maybe that maybe what I really need is to give my character a bigger reason for taking action.
In other words, I can take create a neat little formula (because I do love formulas) for compelling action:
Character's Passion + Driving Desire + Goal + Obstacle = Compelling Action
Let's take Susan Sipal's HUNGER GAMES example. Suzanne Collins could have made Effie pick Katniss as Tribute. That would have launched the story, right? But it wouldn't have been the same story. It would have been a story of survival, without as much heart. In some ways, Katniss was a hard character to fall in love with, in part because she was such a hardened character. Her passion to save Prim softened her, made us relate to her, root for her.
And one more thing. If Katniss had been selected as Tribute, she wouldn't have had a choice. The characters I love best not only have passion, they also actively choose to embark on the story's journey.
Igniting and Applying the Passion
Having thought through the above, I am spending my time this week reexamining the book map for my WIP for opportunities to make my character more active and proactive instead of reactive. I want my protag to make things happen instead of being buffeted around by bad things. I want her to shake things up, because the characters I love usually rock their worlds.
Examples of Driving Passion
- The Hunger Games. Katniss will do anything to protect her. When Prim is selected to be a Tribute, Katniss volunteers to go instead, knowing she will likely die but determined to survive for Prim's sake.
- Marchelo in the Real World. Hampered by elements of Autism, Marchelo loves training the Halflinger Ponies at the Patterson school where he feels safe. When his father tells him he must successfully work in a "real world" job all summer or go to the public high school in the fall, Marcelo sets off to succeed but must weighthat goal and the security of his family against the risk of doing what he believes is right for two women he realizes are in danger of being wronged.
- The Raven Boys. Gansey is driven to find the final resting place of the historical and legendary Welsh hero Owen Glendower. When he sucks his prep-school friends and Blue, the daughter of a local psychic, into his quest, he involves them all in an adventure that stumbles across boundaries of life and death, including murder.
- Days of Blood and Starlight. Karou is determined to save the few remnants of the chimaera who have survived what she sees as her betrayal of her own kind. When she creates bigger, badder monsters, she inadvertently fuels the war that leads to the destruction of even more innocent chimaera.
Passion Leads to Making Mistakes and Complications
The characters in the above books all make mistakes. Maybe that's part of what I find endearing about them. They aren’t perfect. They make assumptions out of love and passion, and in acting on those assumptions, they fail. Still they rise and try again. And that's compelling fiction.
There is one more thing most of those books have in common. In each of them, the subsidiary characters also have a driving passion.
- The Hunger Games. Peeta secretly loves Katniss. When he and Katniss are chosen as Tributes, he sets out to save her knowing that will cost him his own life.
- Marchelo in the Real World. Jasmine is passionate about jazz music and driven to make enough money working at Marchelo's father's law firm to build a music studio on the family farm so she can take care of her father who has Alzheimers. When Marchelo asks her to risk her job by stealing information that will help a traffic accident victim who is suing the law firm's client, he asks her to endanger her job and his father's law practice.
- Days of Blood and Starlight. Guilty over his own role in the slaughter of the chimaera and (he believes) in the death of Karou, Akiva is determined not to dishonor her memory by engaging in more senseless slaughter. When presented with the opportunity to end the war, he kills his own father without realizing he is only a pawn in a larger game.
I've read a lot of great books recently, books I've thoroughly enjoyed, books I can't fault at all while I'm reading them. But there's a difference between a book I enjoy and a book that digs in and becomes a part of me. After writing this, I suspect that a big part of the difference for me is how viscerally I react when passion fuels the action.
Passion in the Writer
Which brings me to an important point. The passion isn't only in the characters. I love formulas because they are guideposts. I'm always analyzing, trying to learn from other writers, trying to figure things out, and I learn best when I write things down. Things gel for me when they pour out of my fingers. But formulas are simplistic tools. I can follow the formulas exactly and end up with exactly crap. Writing is alchemy as much as craft, passion as much as technique. (Arguably more.) I can do everything right and still not get the story "right." So please, take my formulas as what they are.
What about you? What books do you love and why? Who's the most passionate character you've met between the covers this past twelve months or so? What made you fall in love? How do you get passion on the page?
- Developing Story Premise
- Building a Better Story Premise
- Plot Points and the Inciting Incident
- The Inciting Incident: Definition and Examples
- Six Tests of a Solid Story Premise
- How to Strengthen a Story Idea
- Gluing Plot to Theme and Character to Fuel Your Story
- Character Brainstorming Worksheet and Notes on Characters We Love
- Is Your Character Novel Worthy?
- Series of Events or Plot?