Building Characters – The Knot

I’m continuing the series on building believable characters, using Jeff Gerke’s book  Plot vs. Character. Today’s topic is The Knot, or What’s Wrong With the Protagonist.

Your protagonist has a problem. Adultery. Selfishness. Hubris. Narcissism. Ambition. Unwise Trusting. Drug addition. Discontentment. Jealousy. Weakness for chocolate. It’s a problem that anyone could have, but your protagonist struggles with it greatly. And just like the knot in a rope, the knot in her personality can result in irritation, delay, or even disaster. She’s living her life, everything’s going great, and suddenly there’s this knot in the works. She notices it and tries to work on it. Or she notices it and ignores it. Or maybe she doesn’t even know it’s there and the problems it causes take her by surprise. 

Choosing a problem for your protagonist can be tricky, so you’ll need to brainstorm. Maybe she’s afraid of commitment. Or addicted to gambling. Or an out-of-control spender. Maybe she’s afraid of strangers. Maybe her husband beats her. Maybe she cheats on her taxes, or is obsessed with a movie star, or stalks the neighbor. The only guideline Gerke gives here is “go deep.” Think of Alex Rover from Wendy Orr’s Nim’s Island: Alex is an author, writing about an adventure hero, but she’s afraid of the mailman, spiders, and just about everything else under the sun. That exaggerated fear makes the story worth reading, because she finds herself in the position of having to leave her house – something she never does.

It’s not enough to come up with the problem. You’ve got to now how it got there. WHY is your protagonist terrified of spiders? WHY is she obsessed with ducks? WHY does she purchase every purple purse she sees?

You need to find something that can carry the weight of the entire novel. If your character’s knot is that his shirt is untucked and everyone is laughing at him, that’s not enough of a problem for the entire novel. At the same time, the knot doesn’t have to be earth shattering. The fate of the universe doesn’t have to rest in your character’s lap. The knot just has to be significant to the protagonist.

Fear is always a great knot. Other great knots are extreme hurt, a lack of forgiveness of someone else, a lack of forgiveness for self (guilt), losing a child to death or abduction, unresolved anguish, shame, regret, or a horrible secret. Do you want ot explore the loyalty between siblings? Create a character who feels she’s never been loved by her family. Want to investigate courage and change a coward into a hero? Create a cowardly protagonist.

Jeff lists some sample knots from novels, movies, and real life. I’m going to copy most of the list for you here. If you want to see the entire list, buy the book.

– The belief that life has dealt him an unfair hand

– A fear of being alone (caused by abandonment as a child)

– An overpowering desire to exact revenge

– A fear of commitment (caused by parent’s divorce)

– A loner mentality (caused by being hurt by someone she relied upon)

You get the idea. You want to wound your character in some way that causes her life to be less than it should be. There’s a bit more to discuss on this topic, but I’m running out of room. I’ll continue in the next post.


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