Would the Wizard of Oz be the same if Dorothy was a shy people-pleaser unwilling to take chances? What if Harry Potter had a loving aunt and uncle who raised him as their son instead of the “boy beneath the stairs?” Is Starr Carter’s dual life necessary to endear her to readers who don’t look like her?
The next time you are faced with an avid reader, ask them about their current book-of-interest. See if they give you a plot summary or a character summary. My guess is it will be a bit of both.
“A girl desperate to save her beloved dog ends up in a fantastic world where she must battle an evil witch to find her way home.”
“A boy bridges the magical and non-magical worlds as he and two friends struggle to defeat a dark wizard before he destroys them all.”
“A girl devastated by the death of a friend faces peer pressure and criticism in a journey to do what’s right.”
However good the plot of a book, it’s the characters that drive it. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare has been remade over and over through the years, turning the characters into everything from NY gang members (West Side Story) to a zombie and a human survivor (Warm Bodies). The setting and execution of the plot are varied but the two protagonists remain driven by similar goals – people from different worlds fighting against family and societal pressure to be together. For the reader, it doesn’t matter where this happens – it matters to whom it happens.
Experts list anywhere from three to 36 unique plot lines. Here’s a link to an article on this. It’s worth the read and I have several of the books. This is not to say that every book that falls into the category of “the Quest” will be the same but in general a quest story has certain characteristics that are identifiable.
But the character bible for me is The Complete Writer’s Guide to Heroes and Heroines: Sixteen Master Archetypes coupled with Linda Goodman’s Love Signs, which I have mentioned in other blog posts. While it may seem limiting to narrow down all characters to 16 types, the nuances are as varied as fingerprints once you flesh out a character to fit your plot, setting, and conflict. Here’s a sample of my character chart for Chance Golden, hero in book 3 “Love and Miss Fortune.”
Chance is a Chief with a strong helping of Professor. He’s strong-willed but not as bossy as many chiefs. He leads and if you’re smart you’ll follow him. He’s logical and intuitive about his business but also frustrated because his current role (consultant) puts him at the mercy of others’ decisions. As a Leo, he’s very protective and won’t abandon someone who needs him. Sometimes he knows he’s right and will overrule the decisions of others, which can be aggravating to Pisces heroine, Harley.
This will be one source of conflict for Harley and Chance, of course, but it will also help them both broaden their perspectives and see what the other brings to the table.
Build your worlds. Bend and break and ignore the laws of physics, time, and space. Then fill them with people who will resonate with your reader and bring your story to life.