This week, we’ve been discussing character motivation. We’ve covered general motivation and the three questions that you need to ask. We’ve talked about villains, and now I want to talk about heroes.
With heroes, we have something that’s slightly different than all of the other characters. We need more than a single motivation. We need not only a motivation, the thing they need to do, and the reason they need to do it, and what they are trying to prove or disprove, but we also need a fourth piece. We need the reason that they can’t.
Every time you set out to tell a story, it’s about a CAN’T. It’s about what the character can’t do.
I write OP main characters, overpowered main characters, and this is a trope where the main character really has the strength to do almost anything that they want to do, almost. The reason I love the trope, however, is because it provides an opportunity to find the can’t. It provides an opportunity to really hone in on the thing that the character can’t do.
Why do we need a can’t? Because by the end of the story, it’s going to be a can. This is called character growth, and all good main characters have to go through growth. People read stories to see the transformation that happens along the way. THey read to understand how someone goes from one position to another, whether that’s one position in society to a different position, whether that’s one position in a relationship to a different position, or whether that’s internally, a certain mindset changing to become something new.
Once you’ve established the main character’s CAN’T, I find it very helpful to create a simple arc for them. What are the steps that they’re going to go through to go from CAN’T to CAN? How are they going to, first of all, come to recognize the weakness in them, struggle against the weakness, fail to correct the weakness, have a breakthrough, and then walk forward victorious? If you can outline that in a simple arc, it becomes pretty simple to slot it into your story. In each scene, you can ask the question, how does this contribute to the overall growth of the main character? How does this contribute to transforming their can’t into a can?
Every main character growth arc is really about the characters finding themselves, understanding something about themselves that they didn’t like, and then either transforming it into a strength or eliminating a weakness so that they can accept themselves. And this is important. We don’t need a character to transform completely. We don’t even need them to necessarily get rid of their weakness. We don’t even technically need the can’t to go away. Instead, what we need is to understand what is transforming in the main character so that it’s not a problem anymore.
Let’s take an example. In Battlemage Farmer, one of my series, the main character’s name is Jon, and he is a powerful mage. There is a lot that he can do. In fact, it’s fair to say that very few people in the entire world can stand up against him. And he’s proven this through decades of brutal war, but there is something that he can’t do. There is a can’t in his motivation.
In the beginning of the book, he comes and settles on this farm that he’s got a deed for, but there are some other people squatting there, and they refuse to leave. And so he is trying to engage with them in a healthy and constructive way, but he finds that he can’t. He can’t open his heart up to these people. And throughout the story, we watch as that CAN’T slowly transforms into a CAN. He can open his heart up to these people. He can’t change anything about his past. He can’t change who he is, but he can learn to accept it.
And it’s that thread of transformation that makes a hero a hero. Remember, heroes and villains come from the same place, a place of pain. But where the villain decides to make everyone else suffer for the pain that they have felt, the hero decides to do something positive with it. In this case, John’s mindset changes. He does not allow his past and the terrible things he’s done to stop him from opening his heart. He learns to forgive himself to some degree.
So when you are examining your hero and you are starting to set their motivation, I want you to focus on this. After you’ve asked those first three questions, what is the reason that your hero cannot do the thing they need to do? And then plot out your arc of character growth. How are you going to transform that can’t into a can?
YouTube Video Link: https://youtu.be/e_WtcK0_yR4
Thanks for reading and watching.
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