Your main character needs a problem.
Maybe it’s adultery. Maybe it’s unresolved anger. Maybe it’s selfishness. Maybe it’s a classic tragic flaw like hubris or narcissism or ambition or unwise trusting. Maybe it’s a more “modern” sin like drug addiction or pornography. Perhaps it could be something mundane like discontentment or jealousy or a weakness for chocolate.
The problem you choose for your character is something anyone could have.
TYING THE KNOT
I refer to your character’s problem as his knot. If you’ve worked with ropes much, especially in a nautical setting, you know they have to run smoothly through eyelets and pulleys and across capstans. A knot in the wrong rope at the wrong place can result in irritation, delay, or even disaster.
So it is with your character. There he is, going along fine, minding his business, when something causes a knot to form in the rope of his life. Maybe he sees it and begins working on untying it. Maybe he sees it and doesn’t work on it. Maybe he doesn’t see it at all and the problems it’s causing are happening in his blind spot.
Whether he knows about it or is working to correct it or not, the knot is messing up his life.
In Mark Spragg’s novel An Unfinished Life, protagonist Einar is living a solitary life on a ranch. His unresolved grief over the death of his beloved son—and the fuming anger at his daughter-in-law, who was driving the car at the time of the accident—has left him poisoned, bitter, and stunted. Einar doesn’t know it. He can’t see it. He’s stuck in the delicious sadness, if he thinks about it at all. It isn’t until he meets a granddaughter he never knew he had that his uneasy truce with life is broken. Old wounds are opened and he is forced to face his crippling anger.
What knot could you give your character? With the clear sense of who she is as a person (and you might read over your notes to make sure you have that firmly in mind), you can begin thinking about what problem you might want to give her.
HOW TO FIND YOUR KNOT
It’s time to have some fun with your character. When it comes to picking a problem for your hero, the sky’s the limit. It’s really up to you. Be wacky. Brainstorm. Don’t shoot down any idea; just toss ’em all out there.
Do you want her to be afraid of commitment? Addicted to gambling? An out-of-control spender? Go for it.
Do you want him to beat his wife? Do you want him to cheat on his taxes? Do you want him to be obsessed with a movie star? Do it.
Here’s one guideline: Go deep. Play junior psychologist. Maybe you think it would be fun to have a main character who is scared to go outside. Alex Rover is a character you can appreciate—she’s a novelist in Wendy Orr’s Nim’s Island. Alex writes about an Indiana Jones-style adventure hero, but she herself is scared of the mailman, spiders, disease, and just about everything else.
Cool. Good idea. But here’s the go-deep question: Why? Why is she scared to go outside? It’s not enough to show a symptom like that. You need to know what has caused it.
If you think you’d like to give your character a fixation with ducks, that’s okay, but it’s not a knot. That’s a quirk. You could dig a little deeper and decide that he’s obsessed with ducks because his dad was a duck hunter and his one great memory of his dad is a duck-hunting trip. But now his dad has abandoned the family and the character thinks that if he collects the right duck-hunting gear, his dad will come back.
Now we’re getting into knot territory. He’s feeling sad and angry and adrift and thinking his father left because he wasn’t a good enough boy. Aha! When you feel yourself treading into that Freudian, tell-me-about-your-mother land, you know you’re getting close to a knot.
Most important: You need to find something that can carry a full novel. If your character’s knot is that his shirt is untucked and everyone’s laughing at him, the solution to which is simply to tuck in his shirt, that’s not going to propel a whole story.
That doesn’t mean it has to be something earth-shattering, though. The knot doesn’t have to be that your hero has a fear of saving the earth but the earth needs saving and somehow he must overcome his fear or the earth is doomed. The fate of the universe doesn’t have to hang in the balance. Your knot just has to be significant to the character.
Note that the knot doesn’t have to be a fear, though I seem to keep going back to fears because they make for good knots. Other great—and deep-enough—knots are extreme hurt, a lack of forgiveness of someone else, or a lack of forgiveness of self (which we call guilt). It can be a deep wound, as when a parent has lost a child to death or abduction. It could be unresolved anguish or a horrible secret. It could be a heavy sense of regret over having done something unwise. It could be awful shame over something done or suffered.
The beauty of it is that it’s wide open. So long as it’s deep and large enough, it can be anything you wish. Want to explore loyalty between siblings? Give your character the knot of feeling that she’s never been loved by her family. Want to investigate the nature of courage—or what it will take to turn a coward into a hero? Then make your character a quailing heart (just be sure you know why she prefers flight over fight).
This is really the first time we’ve begun thinking about story elements. If you’re a plot-first novelist you may be feeling pretty good right now. Finally, your comfort zone! If you’re a character-first novelist, you might be equally as comfortable because you love thinking about what makes people tick, or change.
If you’re feeling a little nervous now, go back to your party hat and crazy shirt: Relax and have fun with it. Dream. Is there a theme you’ve always wanted to explore? Look in your own life: Is there a loss or fear you’d like to finally grapple with, or an ideal or extreme you’d like to imagine? How about a time when you’ve failed someone or someone has failed you—want to explore what that must’ve been like for the other person? Here’s your chance to write the ultimate book—the story that finally gives you freedom to tell the tale of your heart.