Creating a core story problem is essential for any kind of fiction. Dimensional characters should have an inner want, a desire. The story problem is what shoves them out of that comfort zone and dares the character to try and maybe even fail.
There is a great quote in David Corbett’s The Art of Character:
One of Constantin Stanislavski’s key innovations was recognizing the central role of desire in our depiction of the human condition. The fundamental truth to characterization, he asserted, is that characters want something, and the deeper the want, the more compelling the drama. Desire is the crucible that forges character because it intrinsically creates conflict.
It is not enough for a protagonist to sit and think about how she really needs to be a better team player, to have a home, to find love, to overcome addiction, to fit in.
This can be easier when the plot problem is clearer. In murder mysteries, the goal is to find the killer. In thrillers? Locate the terrorists and stop the bomb. But what about the more existential stuff? This is where a lot of writers can get lost and end up navel-gazing instead of writing great fiction.
Man Against Himself
Your antagonist will often represent the shadow side of the nature your protagonist wants to overcome. If she is an alcoholic, then her old boozing best friend, her alcoholic family, or her heavy drinking coworkers are all antagonists (either scene antagonists or the core antagonist—Big Boss Troublemaker—responsible for the core story problem in need of resolution by Act III).
The BBT creates the story problem. In 28 Days, the BBT is alcoholism, but a PROXY—a judge who’s job is to punish drunk drivers—sentences the protagonist Gwen Cummings to rehab (creating story problem). If Gwen doesn’t complete rehab (ticking clock), she goes to jail (stakes). Yet, though the judge creates the problem and the stakes, he’s not seen more than a couple times.
The real force of tension her being placed in a position where she must choose between the hard-partying boyfriend, Jasper (who represents ALCOHOLISM), who wants his girlfriend to go back to being fun (drinking) versus counselor Eddie Boone (represents SOBRIETY) who offers her the path to a sober life and authentic love. Drinking and Jasper allow her to numb the demons, whereas Boone forces her to face the real reason she drinks and challenges her to a sober life.
BUT…if Gwen hadn’t gotten busted for DUI (story problem), her demons could have remained happily trapped inside her as she partied with Jasper. The STORY PROBLEM forces the internal demons to the surface and grants Gwen opportunity to succeed or fail.
In your current WIP? Is there a CORE STORY PROBLEM in need of resolution? Can your protagonist fail? What are the stakes? What are the consequences?
Man Against Nature
No, we are not interested in a 70,000 word book about bad weather. Nature is often the backdrop, the catalyst that drives the interior flaws to the surface for the character(s) to succeed or fail. Often Man Against Nature will also be a Man Against Man (The Perfect Storm) often coupled with Man Against Himself (Left for Dead–My Journey Home from Everest).
Man Against Society
Again, what issue are you (the writer) wanting to tackle? If it’s how blacks are treated in Southern white society of the 1960s? Create a protagonist caught in the middle of this dilemma (The Help), and an antagonist who represents all this protagonist is fighting against.
An aspiring (female) author, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, decides to write a book about the struggles of the African American women who rear and care for so many of the wealthy white children. This story forces the protagonist onto a battlefield where she will be forced to choose sides and answer these tough questions as stakes grow steadily higher.
In Footloose, the BBT was religious fundamentalism that forbade dancing, represented by the town preacher (and father of the love interest).
Writers can tackle major societal issues. It’s what we do and how we’ve been changing the world for centuries. Yet, to really connect with a reader, it’s a good idea to focus that issue in the manifestation of something tangible. Fascism is evil, yet hard to wrap our heads around. Ah, but fascism represented by Adolf Hitler? THAT places fascism in context and focuses our emotions and repulsion.
What are your thoughts? Questions? Did this clear up some of your struggles? Or are you more confused than ever? What are some of your favorite books or movies that addressed deep human issues, and how did they do it?
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To prove it and show my love, for the month of May, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).
And also, winners have a limited time to claim the prize, because what’s happening is there are actually quite a few people who never claim the critique, so I never know if the spam folder ate it or to look for it and then people miss out. I will also give my corporate e-mail to insure we connect and I will only have a week to return the 20 page edit.
At the end of May I will pick a winner for the monthly prize. Good luck!