Building Characters – Escalation

Jeff Gerke’s book Plot vs. Character teaches how to build a believable character. So far, I’ve discussed how to create a core personality with a believable background, love language, and the generalities (appearance, station in life, occupation, etc). Then I dove into the inner flaw, or character arc. It contains five steps: Initial Condition (including the Knot, or problem), the Inciting Event, Escalation, the Moment of Truth, and the Final State. Today, I’m covering the exciting events of the Escalation. If you need more review, check out previous posts.

Escalation raises the stakes, intensifies the problems, and creates greater stress for the protagonist. The purpose of this escalation is to drive the protagonist toward the Moment of Truth, where he makes her decision to either stay with the status quo or make that major change in his life that he needs.

Your hero has a problem. It’s poisoning him, even if he isn’t aware of it. He’s come up with a way of coping that makes life pretty comfortable, but if he doesn’t fix it, it will lead to disaster. His knot can’t be remedied easily. It’s deeply ingrained in his psyche, a deep-seated fear or anger that will eventually destroy him. Then comes the first attack: the inciting incident. It points out that there is, indeed, a doozy of a problem, it’s hurting him, and it won’t go away. 

The duel begins: he wants to stay the way he is, but this outside force is pushing him to change. He tries to get past this pesky inciting incident, but he’s thwarted. He tries again, and again fails. The problem keeps getting bigger, can’t be ignored. There’s no dodging it now. 

Puerto Ricans keep arriving in Jets’ territory (West Side Story). More and more boys leave Ralph’s group to join Jack’s (Lord of the Flies). Though Frodo doesn’t want to leave the Shire, evil spreads (Lord of the Rings).

Radical measures are necessary. The key is to start this duel with a small attack and work toward bigger attacks, ending at the Moment of Truth, his opportunity for change. “The escalating duel is the vehicle that drives him from his dysfunction to his opportunity to change,” Jeff says. He’s got some great examples in the book, if you need more explanation.

Bottom line: know what the hero’s old way of life will do to him if left unchecked and what a wonder future lies in store if he changes his ways. Once you know that end point, you can create plausible escalation attacks that will lead him to it.

I’ll continue this discussion in the next post.


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