I had to take a mental health break last week, and for those of you keeping track, I didn’t post anything. Now I’m back and eager to continue the topic of building believable characters. I’m stealing all this material from Jeff Gerke’s book Plot vs. Character. In the interest of fairness to Jeff, I’m not giving away ALL his secrets, so if you want it all, buy the book. It’s worth it. I’m currently dishing out info from chapter 8, which goes into more detail on Step One of the character’s inner journey. It’s called the Initial Condition. I covered The Knot several posts ago, which is part of the Initial Condition. Today I’ll dig deeper.
When your novel opens, your protagonist has an undiagnosed ailment. Maybe he’s in pain. Maybe he doesn’t know he has a problem. But it’s there, and if he’s aware of it, he thinks it’s no big deal. This problem is The Knot. The rest of the story is a vehicle to transport your character from his Knot to his Moment of Truth, when he has to make a choice: fix the problem, or live with it. This is all review, by the way.
The Initial Condition is the place your protagonist is in at the beginning of the story. You’ll show the reader what the character’s knot is and how it’s messing with her life. By now you know how this fear/knot arose in her life and how she compensates to numb the pain. Now use her temperament and all the other layers you’ve added to extrapolate: how would this character with this background try to avoid experiencing the pain of her knot?
Jeff gives several examples to cement all this in place, if you’re interested in reading more.
Basically, you want your character’s knot to hinder her but not paralyze her. She’s making it through life fairly well. She’s frustrated by some things, but for the most part, she’s functional and knows that, if she can just get X to happen, her frustrations will end. She’s likable and sympathetic.
I’ll use my character Cassandra for an example. Cassie is afraid of strangers and strange places. That’s her knot. She has a comfort zone in her home town of about nine square blocks. She never leaves that area. She avoids talking to strangers if she can, but she is capable of speaking to strangers when the need arises. She just doesn’t like to. She runs a bakery with her best friend, Talia. Cassie bakes the bread, Talia sells it to the public. Almost all of this information comes out in the first few chapters of the book so the reader knows all about Cassie’s fears (and her own awareness of them), her attempts to act more “normal,” and how this fear hinders her from living a fully engaged life.
Once you’ve set up this Initial Condition, it’s time to shake up your protagonist and introduce the Inciting Incident. That’s the topic of the next post.