Have you ever started packing your bags while sitting comfortably on the flight? How about after you arrive? Perhaps when you come home from your vacation?
Of course not! We pack before we leave.
Yet how many of us “pack our characters’ bags” post-hoc? Or after we’re 40K words in? Did you take half the book to decide your character mumbled to himself? Or that she has a deathly fear of pink orangutangs? Or maybe after we finish, someone says, “Halt, ye prolific penman! I’ve finished your novel and still couldn’t identify your MC out of an occupied phone booth!”
No matter how carefully the plot is woven, the characters need to hold their own. So, here’s four questions to ask of your MC to determine whether they have the necessary travel-gear to carry the plot to its destination:
1. What is my MC’s dominating characteristic? Is she shy? Is he extroverted? Is he insanely curious or a bumbling dolt? All MCs must have a defining characteristic and the more unique, the better!
2. What is the MC good at? (i.e., what are the MC’s resources?) Again, the more unique, the better. Is she strong? Is he good at reading emotions? Is he a talented Bassist? Can she break glass with her voice? Does he (as in Ready Player One) have an uncanny ability to remember obscure 80s references?
3. What is the MC’s weakness? Does she lose her temper? Does he have depression? Is she incapacitated by her fear of cold weather?
4. What does the character want? This, my friends, it what propels the plot forward. It is the character’s driving desire that alters the course of events. In The Maze Runner, it is Thomas’s yearning to figure out what is going on that leads to the trail of breadcrumbs that solves the mystery of the maze.
Let’s do an example. I like to start with #4 because it tends to make it easier to answer the first three. Suppose our MC is John and he really wants (#4) to build a Kite that will fly in the Kite Olympics (though explaining why he wants this always helps deepen character motivation). Alas, John cannot read so well (#3)–he tends to forget the beginning of a sentence by the time he gets to the end, which means he can’t scour the internet for tips and suggestions like his competitors can. But, John can think in multiple dimensions better than anyone else (#2). He can even think in five or six dimensions! Also he’s got the persistence of a toad crossing the Sahara (#1)–not only does he not get discouraged about obstacles, but they actually make him laugh. Now the plot can move forward with the MC at the focus. In the end, John overcomes his inability to read by coming up with a three-dimensional design that revolutionizing kite flying.
Notice how we’ve also made these traits unique. Lots of people can’t read, but John’s reading problem is unique (he forgets the beginning of the sentence before he gets to the end). Also, his strength is very unique (Ronald Fisher aside, can you think of anyone else who can think in 5+ dimensions?). And his persistence too is unique.
Hope this helps!